There’s no question what the big foreign policy issue for the Obama administration is going to be in 2014: Iran. How the US navigates the small space between war and peace in the volatile Middle East is going to determine the fate of our overextended and nearly bankrupt empire, and Tehran – the epicenter of yet another ginned up "crisis" – is ground zero.
This drama has been playing out over the course of the past decade, starting with the Bush administration’s weird relations with the mullahs – a relationship that was openly hostile and covertly something else altogether.
Team Bush regularly denounced Tehran as the main generator of terrorism in the region, and routinely threatened them, but these were mere words. In practice, US foreign policy actually favored the Iranians: the invasion of Iraq, engineered with the help of Iranian agent Ahmed Chalabi, eliminated their old enemy Saddam and opened up a whole new sphere of influence. The anti-Saddam groups that took power after the invasion and the much vaunted elections had long been headquartered and succored in Tehran, and when they reentered Iraq in the wake of the Americans’ short-lived "victory" the long arm of the mullahs reached all the way to the southern border with Saudi Arabia. Iraq today is an Iranian ally, albeit one that is still asking the US government for aid to fight the Sunnis and keep Kurdistan from hiving off.
This covert US-Iranian collaboration ended, however, with Israeli demands that their American patrons "do something" about the alleged Iranian nuclear threat. No sooner had we declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq then Tehran became the next target in America’s ongoing Middle Eastern regime change operation. Sanctions, a propaganda war, a covert military campaign utilizing Sunni terrorist outfits like Jundullah in Iranian Baluchistan, and a sustained cyber-attack on Iran’s energy infrastructure soon followed.
The end of the Bush era did not signal any real change in US policy: the Obama administration not only continued and increased the economic sanctions, but there’s some question about whether the US is still supporting groups like Jundullah and the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), which have conducted attacks on Iranian soil. However, the election of Barack Obama signaled a sea change in the American polity: a war weariness engendered by a decade of constant military action, which was in large part responsible for propelling Obama into the White House.
Yet the American ship of state doesn’t turn so easily: once it is set on its course, it is very difficult to turn around. We had been headed for war with Iran since the early part of the decade, and the War Party did not relent in its well-funded efforts to drag us into yet another Middle Eastern quagmire. As the Syrian "crisis" reached a dramatic climax with the chemical attack allegedly carried out by the forces of Bashar al-Assad, the cry went up: Intervene! All was set in place and the day when the bombs would fall on Syria approached – but it was not to be.
Everyone has a tipping point, a moment when the anxieties, the frustrations, the craziness is just too much: Americans experienced just such a collective tipping point when their President told them he was about to bomb Syria. The congressional switchboards lit up: seemingly with one voice the American people said: "No!" The lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerhouse pro-Israel pressure group, were – for once – for naught. One by one members of Congress announced they would vote "No" on the authorization to use force. That authorization, by the way, was made possible by the President’s sudden – and surprising – decision that he would ask Congress for approval before the bombs began to fall. While denying he had a legal and constitutional obligation to go to Congress, the President is no fool: he understood he and his party would pay a political price for bowing to the Israeli lobby. It just wasn’t clear how high that price would be.
Once the price tag became apparent, and the number of defectors from his own party made the situation look all but hopeless, the administration was quick to fold. But the War Party had more cards up its sleeve – and they’ll be playing them in 2014.
Their biggest card is what has always been the War Party’s trump card: Israel, and its American amen corner. While AIPAC failed in its efforts to stem the rising tide of peace-mongering, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had several hands left to play.
Netanyahu has been openly threatening to attack Iran on his own, without an American green light, for years, and in the wake of the War Party’s defeat in the US he ratcheted up the bellicose rhetoric. After arming and subsidizing the Israeli war machine for decades, turning the Jewish state into the Sparta of the Middle East, the Americans suddenly have to deal with the possibility that their treasured "ally," with whom they enjoy a "special relationship," might go rogue.
With American troops spread out all across the region, from Iraq to the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf and the wilds of Afghanistan, an Israeli attack on Iran would put thousands of American lives at risk. Furthermore, it would wreck the American economy with a single blow, driving up oil prices beyond the ability of the world economy to absorb the sudden shock – and, perhaps, sparking a global economic meltdown.
With a trump card like that, Bibi doesn’t have much to worry about. The Frankenstein monster we created can – and perhaps will – turn on us the moment the Israelis realize their game is up. And the Israelis have yet more cards to play: the "peace process" is limping along, as Netanyahu builds "settlements" and seizes more Palestinian land, making a two-state solution next to impossible without significant Israeli concessions. Would Kerry agree to overlook Israeli aggression on the ground in Palestine to prevent Israeli aggression against Iran? I’d bet the farm on it.
All indications are that the bargaining has begun in earnest, with the Israelis pressing their case – and their threats – and Washington responding with its own concessions. The latest is the rumor that Secretary of State John Kerry has offered to free Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy convicted in 1985 of espionage against the US, in exchange for allowing some movement on the Palestinian question – and, no doubt, also the Iranian issue.
Can Kerry head off a projected Israeli assault on Iran by convincing the President to pardon Pollard and caving in to Netanyahu on the settlements, leaving the Palestinians dangling in the breeze?
The Israelis have made a national hero out of Pollard, whose treason reportedly cost American lives: the Soviets were so grateful for the intelligence – handed over to them by Tel Aviv – that they agreed to allow millions of Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel. Pollard’s hero status underscores the strong streak of anti-Americanism that pervades Israel, and has noticeably increased during Obama’s presidency.
In tweeting this interview in the Times of Israel with former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren, foreign policy maven Laura Rozen notes the "contempt expressed for [the] US in this interview by interviewer & interviewee [is] striking." The contempt comes through more on the part of the interviewer, although Oren joins in bashing the administration’s alleged lack of "competence" in negotiating with Tehran. More importantly, Oren seems to recognize that there are "structural" – as he puts it – differences between the US and Israel, i.e. a belated recognition of the fact that Israel and the US are two different countries with different interests after all. Says Oren:
"You have to acknowledge that there is an American public out there, whose opinion is not always heard here because all you see are American leaders. You don’t often see the American public. We learned from the Syrian episode last summer (when Obama pulled back from a threatened punitive strike after the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons) that that public can be pivotal in decision-making."
Aha! The public! The forgotten factor in American foreign policy decision-making is – finally! – making a comeback. That’s good news for those of us in the US who want a more peaceful, less confrontational US policy in the Middle East and around the world – and decidedly bad news for the Israeli far-right government that has as its Foreign Minister a man who once threatened to bomb the Aswan dam.
The Israelis have an extensive propaganda operation in the US, and a vocal fifth column in Washington: yet that hasn’t been quite enough to push us into war with Iran. What would do the trick? Aside from a terrorist attack on the US – like the alleged (and, in my view, completely bogus) Iranian plot to blow up a Washington restaurant and kill the Saudi ambassador – which would change the political dynamics by 180 degrees, the Israelis have some options.
An Israeli attack on Iran would not only end US-Iranian negotiations, it would inevitably drag us into the conflict. And while that might not be the best way to improve Israel’s fast-degenerating alliance with the US, it would certainly accomplish the goals the Israelis have set for themselves: the crushing of Iran and the shoring up of Netanyahu’s right-wing base in Israel, which is braying for war with the mullahs – and seething with resentment against the "incompetent" and untrustworthy Americans.
Israeli foreign policy, in a nutshell, aims at getting the Americans to pay the price for Tel Aviv’s aggression – against the Palestinians, against the Lebanese, against the Syrians, and most of all against the Iranians. The Israeli strategy has been to keep their own indigenous Arab population and neighboring Arab states in a state of pre-modernity so as to ensure the regional hegemony of the Jewish state.
Yet Iran is a modern industrial nation with a long history of preeminence that reaches back to the Roman era, and its peoples are not going to be kept out of the developed world. The Israeli drive to deny Iran nuclear power is as much symbolic as it is military-minded, which is precisely what drives Tehran’s defiance. Iranian society is moving in the direction of liberality and openness: Israeli society, on the other hand, is moving in the opposite direction – toward a frenzy of nationalistic militarism that can only culminate in disaster, for Israel and the world.
The key to stopping this rush to unreason is in Washington, where unconditional support for the Israelis – no matter what outrages they perpetrate, against the Palestinians or us – has enabled a real threat to grow until it overshadows whatever hope exists for peace in the Middle East. While Tel Aviv has gotten way out of hand, and the threat of an Israel-gone-rogue is very real, there is still time to rein them in. The stage has been set for jerking their chain by the paradigm shift in American public opinion, away from promiscuous interventionism and toward a more restrained exercise of American power. What’s needed now is American leadership with the will to put the Israelis in their place.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.