~ “A house divided against itself cannot stand” ~ Abraham Lincoln, 1858
~ “It is the lower region of intensity and escalation that has received little attention. But it is critical for a number of reasons. The path to nuclear war in the Middle East comes from mishandling these lower level conflicts and crises, much more so than it does from the mullahs deciding one day to press the button.” ~ Paul Bracken, 2013.
~ “Public knowledge is almost as dangerous as possession itself. This is what might spark a Soviet guarantee to the Arabs. tighten the Soviet hold in the Arabs, and increase the danger of our involvement. This means , while we might ideally like to halt Israeli possession, what we really want at a minimum may be just to keep Israeli possession from becoming an established international fact.” ~ Henry Kissinger, 1969.
~ “Despite years of covert operations inside Iran, extensive satellite imagery, and the recruitment of many Iranian intelligence assets, the United States and its allies, including Israel, have been unable to find irrefutable evidence of an ongoing hidden nuclear-weapons program in Iran, according to intelligence and diplomatic officials here and abroad.” ~ Seymour Hersh, 2011
~ “Ladies and gentlemen, would you let ISIS enrich uranium? Would you let ISIS build a heavy water reactor? Would you let ISIS develop intercontinental ballistic missiles? Of course you wouldn’t. Then you mustn’t let the Islamic state of Iran do those things either.” ~ Binyamin Netanyahu, Sept 29, 2014
~ “ Netanyahu is somebody who comes to U.S. Congress, tries to create this hysteria about something that doesn’t exist. We never had the bomb. We will never have a bomb. We do not believe a bomb is in our interest. Whereas he does have a bomb. He has 200 nuclear weapons. Israel is the single most important obstacle to the creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.” ~ Mohamad Javad Zarif, March 6 2015
~ “Netanyahu’s management of his relationship with Obama threatens the bipartisan nature of Israel’s American support. His Dermer-inspired, Boehner-enabled end-run has alienated three crucially important constituencies: Netanyahu’s estrangement from the Obama White House now appears to be permanent. Netanyahu has also alienated many elected Democrats, including Jewish Democrats on Capitol Hill. A larger group that Netanyahu risks alienating is American Jewry, or at least the strong majority of American Jews that has voted for Obama twice.” ~ Jeffrey Goldberg, Jan. 2015
I had watched with mounting dismay the rather unseemly spectacle leading up to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s much ballyhooed speech before the United States Congress early last week. Then yesterday (March 10) came the open letter sent directly to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran by 47 Republican United States Senators. For me – perhaps also for you ? – these raised deep concerns about the state of our politics and our nation’s foreign policy-making.
They come at a time when highly sensitive negotiations are now at an advanced stage between the USA and five other countries (Russia, China, UK, France plus Germany) – the so-called P5 +1 group – and Iran over curbing Iran’s nuclear program through stringent limitations on uranium enrichment – with the stated aim of preventing its developing bomb making capability. In return, Iran will obtain – apparently in stages – the relaxation of the very tough economic sanctions imposed since 2010 by the United Nations and by a coalition of nations led by the USA.
The USA has long had in place economic sanctions against Iran – with whom it has not had diplomatic relations since the U.S. embassy hostages were taken in 1979. But in a post-Cold War world, political dynamics in the Middle East are much changed – especially since the rapidly intensifying tensions and conflicts between Sunni Muslim and Shia Muslim powers following onset of the Iraq War. For this reason, President Obama and his administration have recognized the importance of building a closer relationship with Iran, provided the nuclear issue can be resolved.
Against this, the government of Israel led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – see above quote – has expressed strident opposition to any deal being made with Iran on the grounds that Iran can never be trusted to stick to such an agreement. A nuclear Iran is seen by many Israelis and Israel supporters to represent an existential threat to Israel. Alternatively, leading Israeli Jewish peace and human rights groups view a deal with Iran as the most effective way of countering such a threat through dialog and compromise leading to explicit conditions limiting Iran’s nuclear program.
As recently noted by foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – see above quote – Iran meanwhile maintains that its nuclear program – which is still at an early stage of development – is entirely for peaceful purposes and civilian uses – electric power, medical uses, scientific research.
Key Questions : What is the current status of Iran’s nuclear development program – how far along is it towards bomb-making capability and what is Iran’s strategy? What are Israel’s motivations for its implacable resistance to Iran’s nuclear program and how does that fit with its overall strategy in the Middle East? What are the options for the USA – as the world’s only super power today – for managing its long term interests in that region? How should American foreign policy be managed to maximize its leverage and effectiveness ?
Iran’s Nuclear Program and Strategy :Iran’s nuclear program – establishment of uranium enrichment capability – is still at an early stage of development, though it was expanded rapidly in 2006-12 under the Ahmadinejad government, when sanctions were in place. As noted by American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh – see above quote – no firm evidence has been found by any Western or Israeli intelligence sources of a nuclear weapons program in Iran. This despite lingering, unconfirmed concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over unmonitored activities that may be military in nature. Iran’s goverment has steadfastly claimed its nuclear program is entirely peaceful in nature.
As the leading Sh’ia Muslim power in the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear program cannot be separated potentially from its regional political ambitions. Hard-liners inside Iran – notably in the Revolutionary Guards – might well oppose a nuclear deal that would forgo future nuclear weapons options for a lifting of sanctions now. As an implacable foe of Israel – which it views as oppressing the Palestinians – Iran might someday harbor ambitions to develop its nuclear capabilities as a bargaining chip to try to turn the balance of power in its favor. Against this, Iran’s clerical leaders – notably Ayatollah Khomeini – in the past resisted nuclear development, maintained a firm non-alligned status, and have actively sought closer relations with the USA and the West.
Iran has a repressive authoritarian regime that nevertheless holds regular elections for president and national assembly, in which moderate reformers – like the current president Rouhani – have come to power. Iranian politics would seem to be a competition for dominant influence among competing factions within the ruling elite, while independent opposition is suppressed.
Despite its vast oil reserves, Iran has a large population and a relatively small and poor economy by global standards. With a fast growing young population it needs to achieve more rapid economic growth and modernization, which closer ties to the West could greatly facilitate.
Iran’s foreign policy has been driven mainly by its aim of supporting Sh’ia groups and communities in other Middle East countries. As the rapidly widening fault lines have emerged between Sunni Muslim and Sh’ia Muslim nations and groups cross the region, Iran has inevitably become involved in fast growing tensions and conflict with Saudi Arabia – the leading Sunni power – albeit mainly indirectly through proxies, as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. These tensions, together with more repressive autocratic rule restored after the brief “Arab Spring” opening to democracy, run the risk potentially of plunging the entire Middle East into deeper chaos in years to come. By further depressing already weak economic progress and education, and with a fast growing youth population, long term (within 10-20 years), these risks greatly expanding extremism and instability.
Israel’s Motivations and Strategy : With the acquiescence of the USA during the Cold War – as recently declassified US documents of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger show, see above quote – Israel secretly has developed a nuclear arsenal that by now is as large if not larger than that of several major European nuclear powers – the UK and France. Together with having the tenth largest armed forces worldwide – for a nation of only seven millions – this has given Israel what Yale political scientist Paul Bracken has called “escalation dominance” in the Middle East. This means it can militarily dominate its region by overpowering, or threatening to overpower, its neighbors. U.S. financial and military support is of course critical to Israel’s position. Since 2001, when the right-wing Likud party came to power, first under Ariel Sharon and now Netanyahu, Israel has turned its back on negotiating peace with the Palestinians through a two-state solution – which is the United States declared policy – in favor of aggressive, repressive, military supported expansion of Israeli Jewish settlements on the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) of the West Bank.
This has brought Israel repeatedly into major military conflicts with its neighbors – most notably in Lebanon, the OPT and in Gaza. Increasingly it has also led to tensions with and declining support for Israel in the European Union (EU) – where sanctions against settlement development have been increasing, threatening to close Israel off from major markets for its affluent high-tech economy. Meanwhile, ultra-nationalist right-wing politicians – notably Commerce Minister Naftali Bennet as well as Netanyahu – have spearheaded a divisive campaign to disenfranchise and later even expel non-Jews from Israel or leave them – notably Palestinians – with few civil rights or economic opportunity.
In this context, having rebuffed efforts at peace for a decade, Israel’s current government led by Netanyahu is vitally dependent upon support from the USA, its principal ally. As Paul Bracken notes, a key element of Israeli strategy is its ability to draw in the USA to support it in any conflict in the region. Meanwhile, Israel has also recently made overtures to Sunni Arab states – notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt – as a counter-weight to Iran. By comparing Iran to ISIS – as a fanatical extremist movement of radical Islam, even though ISIS is Sunni and follows the puritanical Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia! – Netanyahu (see above quote) is aiming to draw in US support for a potential military response and uncompromising opposition, so as to maintain Israeli military dominance. Ironically, many American Jewish observers as well as senior Israeli intelligence officials have noted Iran has shown itself a “rational actor” taking reasoned, self-interested positions.
America’s Options and Strategic Choices :Since the end of the Cold War – a quarter century ago now – the political context of the Middle East has been transformed. The vying for dominance of two super powers (USA, USSR) has been replaced by an emerging fundamentally regional system of power. In it there are two main fault lines arising : Sunni vs. Sh’ia, and Israel vs. its neighbors. As the world’s only super power now, the USA’s long term interests are best served through achieving a stable, orderly, more open, progressive balance of power that enables greater modernization, development, freedom and prosperity to meet the aspirations of the region’s burgeoning now under-employed, under-skilled youth. By 2050, after all, one in three humans will be Arab and Muslim.
In such a context, it is vital that America chart sagely and determinedly a new course for its relations with the region that recognises these new realities. Managing these will call for the USA having working relations with all the major regional powers – including Iran as well as Saudi Arabia and Israel. It will also call for the USA to press for a just peace now between Israel and the Palestinians, while the two-state solution still has some chance left of fruition.
Conclusions : By staging Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ostentatious display of opposition to the President of the United States last week in his incendiary speech before the U.S. Congress, both the Republicans as well as Netanyahu himself have shown just how dangerously they do not yet appreciate the new realities of Middle East politics but wish to cling to the past. By so publicly snubbing the President of the United States, as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg notes – see above quote – Netanyahu has risked alienating key American constituencies for Israel. By writing an open letter to the Iranian leaders this week, essentially undermining the negotiating credibility of their own President and Commander-in-Chief, forty-seven Republican Senators have also unwittingly potentially undermined the credibility of not only this but any future U.S. administration in any such negotiations. Despite Iran’s claims that its program is entirely peaceful, its nuclear program will bear close continuing scrutiny to ensure it remains so in future. As recent years’ experience shows, that is more likely to be achieved through engagement than isolation.
In these new and challenging times in the Middle East, our political leaders and representatives urgently need to come together to forge a united strategy in the overall best interests of America. As one legendary U.S. president knew, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. I, for one, hope they do so now before it is troo late!