Israelis, Saudis Just Getting Started in Opposing U.S.-Iran Detente

This article originally appeared at LobeLog.

Bibi and Kerry

Bibi and Kerry

The trick to finding an agreement between the P5+1 world powers and Iran has become clear: keep Israel and Saudi Arabia out of the room. (But don’t expect them to be happy about it.)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is touring the globe now with his message of doom about an impending Iranian nuclear weapon. “It will be tragic if (Iran) succeeds in avoiding the sanctions,” Netanyahu said in Rome on Tuesday.

That statement comes on the heels of his Meet the Press appearance where he said: “I think the pressure has to be maintained on Iran, even increased on Iran, until it actually stops the nuclear program, that is, dismantles it.” Continue reading

Netanyahu’s Threats Ring Hollow Amid Iranian Proposals

In most corners of the world, the news that a presentation by Iran at its meetings with the 6 world power P5+1 team in Geneva today was greeted warmly by their interlocutors aroused optimism and a hopeful feeling. Not so in Israel, where any hint of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic is viewed as an apocalyptic security threat.

“We heard a presentation this morning from Foreign Minister (Mohammed Javad) Zarif. It was very useful,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said. “For the first time, we had very detailed technical discussions, which carried on this afternoon. We will continue these discussions tomorrow.”

That is about as promising a beginning as one could hope for. Shortly after the presentation, though, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu evoked the threat of a pre-emptive strike on Iran. At an event marking forty years since the Yom Kippur War, Netanyahu the hawk was perhaps more radical than he has ever been.

The 1973 conflict between Israel, on one side, and Egypt and Syria on the other, taught Israel “not to underestimate the enemy, not to ignore the dangers and not to give up on preemptive strikes,” according to Netanyahu.

“Back than we paid the price of self-illusion,” he said. “We will not make this mistake again…There are cases when the thought about the international reaction to a preemptive strike is not equal to taking a strategic hit.”

According to Barak Ravid of Ha’aretz, “Netanyahu also pointed out that ‘peace is achieved through force,’ as exemplified by the fact that in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, Israel signed peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan.”

Netanyahu is willfully distorting history. In fact, the 1973 war demonstrates the foolishness of his current course of action. Israel had an opportunity, in 1971, to get the same deal with Egypt it would eventually strike at Camp David, but then-Prime Minister Golda Meir would not even consider it. Egypt decided to attack Israel as a result, intending not to destroy the Jewish state (in fact, their early and sustained military success in that war came as something of a surprise to the Egyptians) but to press the recalcitrant Israel into the very peace deal that came along a few years later. Jordan is completely irrelevant; that peace deal came over two decades later, and was the result of far different circumstances.

The saber-rattling plays well to Netanyahu’s right flank, which is wringing its hands right now less over the Iranian nuclear issue than over what they fear Netanyahu might be willing to bargain away to the Palestinians at the behest of the Americans. These fears are likely unfounded, but they are prominent in Netanyahu’s mind as he tries to cooperate with the United States without alienating the right wing that dominates his government.

But there is more to it than that. Netanyahu has made his name on anti-Iran ranting, and on raising the global alert level when it comes to Tehran. But he is aware that the status quo is not to the liking of Europe or the Obama administration. Obama wants to step back from the war posture his country has been in for the past years, and Iran has opened the door to a serious possibility of doing so.

But there is no reason to believe that the U.S. and E.U. are going to settle for anything less than clear verification of peaceful uses of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Netanyahu surely knows this as well. No, this is about maintaining sanctions on Iran to prevent it from regaining its economic stability and enabling it to pursue its ambitions of a stronger position in the region. More to the point, Netanyahu is very concerned that any deal with Iran could lead to a number of possibilities he will find unpalatable: far greater concessions to the Palestinians than he wants to make, compromise of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal, or an increased Iranian role in ongoing crises in the region.

None of those prospects warms Bibi’s heart. But the matter is, for the moment, largely outside of his control. The recent experience of the U.S. citizenry overwhelmingly following their British cousins’ lead and rejecting intervention in Syria is not entirely indicative of what might happen if talks with Iran fail and fears of an Iranian nuclear device escalate again. But it certainly illustarted the far higher bar for military action that has been set in the United States.

Still, if a deal is struck with Iran, it is very likely that Netanyahu will appeal to his many friends in Congress to obstruct it. He may find that to be a very difficult road. Unless the deal can be presented convincingly to the U.S. public as a foolhardy one that will allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon covertly, it will be a very tough sell indeed. Obama and the E.U. are not likely to produce such a deal. Netanyahu knows this, and so he is raising the specter of an Israeli pre-emptive strike once again.

The problem with that threat is that, at least for the moment, it doesn’t seem very credible. Netanyahu can talk all he likes about Israel’s independence and freedom to act on its own. But, as Johnny Depp memorably said in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” Yes, Israel has the ability to get planes to Iran and strike some of their nuclear sites. They do not have the ability, however, to do so as effectively as the United States, and such an Israeli strike could only damage Iran’s nuclear program, not destroy it. The cost of such a venture is likely to be very high, and it could well damage Israel’s standing in Europe as well as cost it in a big way with Russia and, most especially, Muslim states. [At a forum sponsored by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) here Tuesday, former Saudi Amb. to the U.S. Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud repeated his previous warnings that an Israeli strike  would be “catastrophic” for the region and “completely within the purview of the personality of Netanyahu.” – jl.]

The fact is, without the United States, an Israeli strike is much less effective and far more dangerous for Israel. It would more likely cause a massive backlash from the powerful Israeli military than deter Iran in any way.

What this really sounds like is less of a threat and more like the wailing of a desperate man who sees his ambition to crush Iran’s regional influence crumbling under the weight of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s dreaded “charm offensive.” With the United States Congress wrapped up in its self-inflicted shutdown and the Obama administration striking the right pose of welcoming Iranian initiatives while maintaining its stance that sanctions won’t be lifted until material and verifiable steps to comply with UN resolutions have been taken, Netanyahu has few options. Despite Netanyahu’s best efforts, a verifiable non-nuclear-armed Iran could well be the result of the current talks. His angry threats only prove that he fears that far more than he fears an Iranian nuke.

Iran Hawks Gear Up

Not everyone shares the optimism surrounding the recent communication between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani. From Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Monarchies and, of course, Washington, DC, voices of war are in a panic that tensions between the U.S. and Iran might be reduced by some means other than further devastation of the Islamic Republic.

The concern that Iran might emerge with a better relationship with the United States is quite vexing for the Gulf rulers and for Israel. For some years now, the drive to isolate Iran has focused almost entirely on the nuclear issue. In fact, regionally, much of the concern has been the ascendancy of Iran as a regional player more broadly, with revolutionary rhetoric that challenges the dominance of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Since the destruction, by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, of the dual containment policy, the issue for these parties has been how to contain Iran and its regional influence.

Iran has been cast as an “aggressor nation,” and this has been sold by illustrating Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other militant groups, its often bombastic rhetoric, and for the past decade, Iran’s ducking from some of its responsibilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). What gets left out is that Iran has never initiated an attack on another nation, its threats to “wipe Israel off the map” are factually known as (just not in mainstream discourse) to be a de-contextualized mistranslation of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s words, and even Iran’s failures with the IAEA have been part of a back and forth exchange, where they refuse or neglect to comply with some things in response to what they see as US-led unfair sanctions or restrictions. That doesn’t mean Iran has not caused some of these problems itself, it has. Lack of transparency on nuclear issues tends to raise the hackles of one’s enemies. But all this has hardly been the one-way street that’s been portrayed.

Too much scrutiny toward all of this sits poorly with Riyadh, Jerusalem, and in many circles in Washington. But because so much of the anti-Iran feeling has focused for so long on the nuclear issue, such scrutiny could come to bear at least a little more if Obama and Rouhani work things out. Labelling Iran an “aggressor nation” without the nuclear issue simply wouldn’t have the same impact anymore.

To combat this, Israel has been publicly playing down Rouhani’s overtures, sometimes calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and more generally, taking the “prove it” line. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s standard for proof is unrealistically high, and this is no accident. He has said that the conditions Iran must agree to are: halting all uranium enrichment, removing all enriched material, closing the reactor at Fordo and stopping plutonium production. This position is an obvious non-starter, but it reflects what has been the United States’ own position until now. Obama’s statements, while far from explicit, have given Iran reason to believe that this may have changed.

The reactions of Israel and the Gulf states would be puzzling if preventing a nuclear Iran was their main focus. But this has always been a means to an end: to isolate Iran and slow its rise as a regional power. The over-emphasis on the nuclear issue risks blunting other tools.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is already setting its sights on this issue. An AIPAC memo published on Sept. 20 urges the negotiations to be “backed by strength,” a vague enough statement, but one that shines light on its specific proposals.

One option AIPAC wishes to impede is the possibility of sanctions relief. “If Iran suspends its nuclear activity, the United States should be prepared to suspend any new sanctions” (emphasis added). This seems to make it clear that AIPAC wants to see the continued isolation of Iran no matter how the nuclear issue is resolved. UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions have repeatedly demanded that Iran suspend its enrichment programs and heavy water reactor programs, but the most recent resolutions, particularly UNSC 1835, also emphasize the UNSC’s commitment “to an early negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue” (emphasis mine). That is not something AIPAC wishes to see. An Iran that gets an agreement can be strengthened regionally. An Iran that either continues to labor under the status quo of sanctions and the looming threat of war or surrenders on the nuclear issue is seriously weakened. That is the game that’s being played here.

But this time, the playing field is much less certain. In the wake of the outcry against an attack on Syria, will AIPAC be able to push its measures through Congress without watering them down sufficiently to give Obama room to pursue substantive negotiations with Iran? Other than paranoia, there is scant evidence to support the position that Iran is merely putting on a show to stall for time while pursuing a nuclear weapon. But America’s own war footing keeps the risk of another Western misadventure in the Gulf region a real possibility. Obama seems bent on steering us away from that, and at least at first blush, seems to be acting on the will of his constituency in doing so.

Saudi Arabia will certainly add its voice to Israel’s on Capitol Hill. And Iran is not Syria. As appalled as many in the U.S. were over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, they were not convinced, for a variety of reasons, that this was cause for their country to take military action again in the Middle East. Syria may not be well-liked in the United States, but it is not a direct enemy. Iran is perceived as such, and has been ever since the fall of the Shah and the ensuing hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979-80. It may be that concern over Iran and the nuclear issue will provide fertile ground for AIPAC’s efforts to sabotage peace talks. It will also be a good deal easier to push their agenda in Congress because they won’t be advocating the immediate use of U.S. armed forces against Iran, as was the case with Syria.

While the congressional playing field is not entirely clear yet, one thing is obvious. Obama is going to need support in his peacemaking efforts. That support will need to come from the U.S. public and he will need to know that he has it in order to counter what is sure to be a furious onslaught from the most powerful forces that oppose any normalization with the Islamic Republic. That onslaught is coming and it is going to be furious. Obama will also need support from Iran, of all places. Rouhani will need to maintain the positive face he is portraying. And Rouhani should not be alone in this endeavour. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, apparently recognizing that Rouhani had not gone far enough in distancing himself from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial, has made sure to unequivocally acknowledge the Holocaust and its horrors. However prominent one thinks that issue should be, the clear statements were obviously intended to forestall the use of that issue against progress in upcoming nuclear talks.

More of that will be needed. Obama has restarted his Iran diplomacy on the right foot, being bold with his phone call to Rouhani and cautious in his public statements. He is proceeding deliberately but not giving his opponents big openings to attack his efforts at diplomacy. But the storm that is heading for Capitol Hill on this issue is going to be fierce. Obama will need all his skills and all the help he can get in weathering it.

The Tangled Web of a U.S.-Iran Thaw

The real Iranian nuclear threat has apparently already taken hold. New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” has sent the war hawks scurrying as if the bomb had really gone off.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been relentless in his increasingly desperate efforts to cast Rouhani in the same mould as his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Marsha Cohen points out, however, his tones are ringing hollow. Ahmadinejad provided Netanyahu with the almost cartoonish foil he needed, but Rouhani strikes a much more reasonable pose.

In the US, the counter to the charm offensive is kicking into high gear. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was thoroughly dismissive of Rouhani’s speech at the UN General Assembly, which most observers considered conciliatory and matching a similar tone by US President Barack Obama. Engel, by contrast, said: “Far from engaging in a ‘charm offensive,’ he repeated too many of the same old talking points blaming the United States and our allies for all of the world’s ills.”

Even before Rouhani’s speech, the neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel launched a web site attacking Rouhani. The site, dubbed “The Real Rouhani,” pieces together some legitimate and some questionable news reports on the Iranian president, most of which are quotes and citations taken out of context to sound more sinister than they are. They sum it all up by calling Rouhani a Holocaust denier, something Netanyahu has also done.

It’s fair to be dissatisfied with Rouhani’s evasion of questions on the Holocaust, which becomes an issue for outsiders largely because Ahmadinejad made such a spectacle of it during his time, a very real and despicable spectacle which was naturally magnified by the Western press. Rouhani initially ducked the question by saying he was not a historian. While in New York, and probably realizing that this response was not having the desired effect, Rouhani told CNN “…in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable…Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews we condemn.”

That’s better, but it probably leaves the Holocaust denial bullet in Netanyahu and the neocons’ gun. Doubtless, Rouhani is trying not to raise more hackles among the Iranian conservatives that Ahmadinejad represents than he has to, but this is probably one he can and should go farther with. Still, even before Rouhani’s clarification, the Holocaust denier trope didn’t seem to be getting much play, certainly nothing like it did with Ahmadinejad. But right now, people are looking with hope to Rouhani; if that should change, his weak response to this question will certainly come back to haunt him.

Some have expressed disappointment with Rouhani’s UN speech, having hoped for a bolder step forward toward the U.S. This is reinforced by the White House claim that they proposed a brief meeting on the margins of the UN but were rebuffed by the Iranians, who said it was too complicated at this time.

The naysayers are wrong. A meeting with Obama, however brief, would certainly have pleased Western peace supporters, but in Iran, where crippling sanctions are hammering people every day and where, despite Obama’s conciliatory words, people are understandably skeptical of U.S. intentions, such a meeting would have been premature. It could easily be used by conservatives to demonstrate weakness on Rouhani’s part, portraying it as a warm gesture to a government that is strangling Iranians with no promise, or even indication that an easing of the sanctions regime is on the horizon.

Even in the West, it is probably better that no chance encounter took place. Although the U.S. tactic of refusing to talk is a dead end that produces no tangible benefits for anyone (as Stephen Walt aptly points out), since we have pursued it, raising hopes for a quick breakthrough is probably unwise. Expectations need to be managed.

The U.S.-Iranian impasse is much deeper than the nuclear issue and the mutual antipathy between Israel and the Islamic Republic. Many more issues are involved, and they mount on top of a long history of problems between the U.S. and Iran, of which the 1953 CIA-backed coup and the 1979-80 hostage crisis are only the best known.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies offers a good rundown of the various issues and complications facing the two countries in any attempt to thaw relations. The major flaw, though, in Cordesman’s piece is that he frames the current issue within the notion of a relentless Iranian march toward a nuclear weapon. This doesn’t mesh with the facts, as intelligence estimates for the past six years, including those of the U.S. and Israel, agree that Iran has halted its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, while retaining the ability to start the process again. An Iranian weapons program only seems to have existed in the early years of the century, when U.S. ambitions for regime change were at their height.

Beyond that point, Cordesman gives a good description of the complexities inherent in trying to turn back years of U.S.-Iranian enmity. But he does an even better job of laying out the case for why the status quo serves neither country well and why a warming of relations can bring great benefits to both countries and the entire Middle East.

One major issue that divides the two countries is, indeed, Israel. If Iran and the U.S. wanted to try to patch things up, even if the nuclear issue was resolved to mutual satisfaction (something that is complicated but far from impossible in and of itself), the Israel-Palestine question moves to center stage. What becomes of Iranian support for the Palestinian cause, for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the more meager support it offers to Hamas?

More than likely, this is why Obama, in his speech, put the two issues so closely together. While he didn’t specifically link the two, their proximity in the text was suggestive, and explained a bit of why he and Secretary of State John Kerry have put so much effort into rekindling talks between the two peoples. Obama understands, and he’s subtly communicating to Israel, that he needs to see a Palestinian state created, one which Iran can support, if there is to be sufficient warming of U.S.-Iran relations to enable a reasonable chance of resolving the nuclear issue.

This is precisely why Netanyahu is so alarmed by the prospect of a negotiated deal, as opposed to an Iranian surrender, on the nuclear issue. The prospect of a viable deal on Iran’s nuclear program will allow and encourage domestic and international pressure on Israel to make a deal, and, even if it is a deal remarkably favorable to Israel, Netanyahu does not want to engage in that political fight with his own party and the rest of his right-wing coalition. Much better to see Iran be forced, whether by sanctions or firepower, to give in to international demands. Moreover, those demands will be very different in the context of negotiations.

Obama, in his speech, recognized Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power. That affirmation, though self-evident, indicates a willingness to allow enrichment on Iranian soil, something Netanyahu adamantly opposes, but which, with sufficient transparency, will satisfy every other country in the world if the United States gives the program its blessing. In the context of an Iranian surrender, it is much more likely that enrichment programs could be transferred to a third country, like Russia.

So, Netanyahu has gone on an anti-Rouhani crusade. With the most extreme of neocon groups joining him, it is likely — if Netanyahu persists and if Rouhani does not sufficiently influence Western hearts and minds fast enough (which he likely can’t do without agitating his own right flank) — that other right-wing groups, followed by more centrist hawks, will soon add their voices to the anti-Rouhani chorus.

Pro-dialogue forces will have a tough task. The process simply can’t move too fast or it will careen off the tracks. But a slow process gives more opportunity for the hawks. Persistence in support of a rational approach will not be easy, but standing fast to support dialogue and the gradual easing of sanctions in exchange for gradually increasing transparency in Iran is the best and wisest option.

All Eyes on Iran for AIPAC 2013 Conference

This piece was initially published at LobeLog. Please check it out, as it’s an indispensable source for foreign policy news and analysis. You won’t regret it! 

The annual Israel-Congress orgy dubbed as the AIPAC Policy Conference kicked off today. It might just as well be called the War on Iran conference — that’s sure to be the

President Obama speaking at a previous AIPAC conference, He won't be there this year.

President Obama speaking at a previous AIPAC conference, He won’t be there this year.

issue that dominates the proceedings. The US-Israel relationship is taking the second spot. And the Palestinians? More than ever before, they will be invisible.

There are a few sessions at the conference that deal with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in very general terms. But Iran will be the focus, as evidenced by related bills which AIPAC had some of its most loyal members of Congress introduce in advance of their lobbying day. Those bills work to give Israel a green light to attack Iran if it feels the need to and puts the “special relationship” between the US and Israel on paper.

Last week a Senate resolution was introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). The two senators are widely known as AIPAC favorites and have led bipartisan actions like this in the past, working with AIPAC quite closely to develop legislation favorable to the lobbying organization. The resolution states that if Israel decides to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, this would be considered an act of self-defense and that “…the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel…”

The bill is a “sense of Congress” resolution, so it is not binding; hence the word “should” rather than “will” is used. Still, it is a very clear expression that the Senate expects and desires that President Obama provide a full range of support to Israel in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran. It certainly sends a signal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he will have Congress behind him if Obama tries to restrain Israel from taking such a step. While the bill’s wording clarifies that it should not be understood as a declaration of war in the event of an Israeli attack, a commitment to military support of Israel in the event of a purely Israeli decision to attack Iran could well amount to the same thing. Continue reading