Iran Showdown Tests Power of Israel Lobby

One month after the publication by two of the most influential international relations scholars in the United States of a highly controversial essay on the so-called "Israel Lobby," their thesis that the lobby exercises "unmatched power" in Washington is being tested by rapidly rising tensions with Iran.

Far more visibly than any other domestic constituency, the Israel Lobby, defined by Profs. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt, academic dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, as "the loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction," has pushed the government – both Congress and the George W. Bush administration – toward confrontation with Tehran.

Leading the charge has been a familiar group of neoconservatives, such as former Defense Policy Board (DPB) chairman Richard Perle and former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey, who championed the war in Iraq but who have increasingly focused their energies over the past year on building support for "regime change" and, if necessary, military action against Iran if it does not abandon its nuclear program.

(On Tuesday, Iran announced that it had successfully enriched uranium, which can be used for both nuclear weapons and nuclear power reactors, in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution ordering an end to all enrichment activities by April 28).

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the premier Israel lobby group whose annual convention last year featured a giant, multimedia exhibit on how Iran is "pursuing nuclear weapons and how it can be stopped," has also been pushing hard on Capitol Hill for legislation to promote regime change. Despite White House objections, the group has sought tough sanctions against foreign companies with investments in Iran.

"This bill has been pushed almost entirely by AIPAC," noted Trita Parsi, a Middle East expert at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) here. "I don’t see any other major groups behind this legislation that have had any impact on it."

Similarly, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), whose leadership is considered slightly less hawkish than AIPAC, has taken out full-page ads in influential U.S. newspapers since last week entitled "A Nuclear Iran Threatens All" depicting radiating circles on an Iran-centered map to show where its missiles could strike.

"Suppose Iran one day gives nuclear devices to terrorists," the ad reads. "Could anyone anywhere feel safe?"

In their 81-page essay, entitled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" and condensed in a shorter essay published last month in the London Review of Books, Mearsheimer and Walt, pillars of the "realist" school of international relations, argue that Washington’s Middle East policy is too closely tied to Israel to serve its own national interests in the region, particularly in the so-called "war on terror."

They believe that the power of the Israel Lobby – derived, among other things, from its ability to marshal financial support for Democratic as well as Republican politicians, its grassroots organizational prowess, and its ability to stigmatize critics as "anti-Semitic" (a tactic already deployed against the authors) – is largely responsible.

"No lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially the same," the authors argued, noting that the lobby, while predominantly Jewish, also includes prominent Christian evangelicals and non-Jewish neoconservatives, such as Woolsey and former Education Secretary William Bennett.

In the administration’s decision to invade Iraq, pressure from Israel and the lobby played a "critical" – although not exclusive – role, according to the paper, which cited prewar public prodding by Israeli leaders and by leaders of many major Jewish organizations as evidence, although it notes that most U.S. Jews were skeptical and have since turned strongly against the war.

Neoconservatives closely associated with the right-wing views of Israel’s Likud party – both in and outside the administration – played a particularly important role in gaining support for "regime change" in Iraq stretching back to the mid-1990s, according to the paper.

But even during the run-up to the Iraq war, Israeli leaders, notably then-Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, depicted Iran as the greater threat, a theme that was picked up by the Lobby, led by the neoconservatives, immediately after Baghdad’s fall.

"The liberation of Iraq was the first great battle for the future of the Middle East. … But the next great battle – not, we hope a military one – will be for Iran," wrote the Weekly Standard‘s neoconservative editor, William Kristol, in early May 2003.

Shortly thereafter, neoconservatives and other hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney succeeded in cutting off ongoing U.S.-Iranian talks on Afghanistan and Iran and killing an offer by Tehran to engage in a broader negotiation on all outstanding differences.

What makes the growing confrontation with Iran so remarkable is that the Israel Lobby appears to be the only major organized force here that is actively pushing it toward crisis.

Mainstream analysts, including arms control hawks who favor strong pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, have spoken out against military action as far too risky and almost certainly counterproductive. Even analysts at the right-wing Heritage Foundation have voiced doubts. "It just doesn’t make any sense from a geopolitical standpoint," said Heritage’s James Carifano, noting Iran’s capacity to retaliate against the U.S. in Iraq.

The Iranian exile community, which has generally favored more pressure on Tehran, similarly appears divided about the consequences of a military attack, with some leaders fearing that it would strengthen the regime, Walt told IPS. He added that "it’s hard for me to believe that [U.S.] oil companies would be in favor of a military option [because they] don’t like violence or events that create political risk or uncertainty."

While insisting that military action against Iran’s nuclear program should only be a last resort, the Israel Lobby, on the other hand, appears united in the conviction that an attack will indeed be necessary if diplomatic efforts, economic pressure, and covert action fail.

"[Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] sees the West as wimps and thinks we will eventually cave in," Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank established by AIPAC, told New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. "We have to be ready to deal with Iran if the crisis escalates."

Hersh summarized Clawson’s bottom line as "Iran had no choice other than to accede to America’s demands or face a military attack."

That was much the same message delivered by Perle himself and rapturously received by the attendees at AIPAC’s 2006 convention here last month. The convention, at which the keynoter, none other than the administration’s ultimate hawk, Vice President Cheney, vowed "meaningful consequences" if Iran did not freeze its nuclear program, drew several hundred Democratic and Republican lawmakers in what could only be described as a show of raw political power.

"I don’t think there’s another group in the country that has two successive conferences in which the centerpiece was beating the drums for war in Iran," noted one senior official with another major pro-Israel organization, who asked not to be identified. "They are the main force behind this."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.