It’s been clear for some time that there’s a real difference of opinion between Washington and the Israeli leadership about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. (We should all ask, actually: why does it need to be “dealt with” at all, since the IAEA , U.S. and Israeli intelligence agree that there’s no hard evidence for a military dimension to it? Why must Iran be treated differently than, say, Brazil?)
The U.S. position is that it will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, meaning that if there are ever any indications of the diversion of nuclear fuel towards bomb production (the “breakout” movements would be very detectable), the U.S. will act decisively. That’s what Obama means when he says “I have your back” to Israel (and pro-Israel voters including Christian Zionists who appreciate this kind of language). But while Obama says the U.S. in marching in “lock step” with Israel on the Iran issue, the differences have become clear.
Netanyahu wants the U.S. to promise to destroy Iran’s nuclear program (on Israel’s behalf, to mitigate Israeli anxiety) immediately, or at least within months. He argues that the “red line” for action should not be the point at which Iran appears about to develop nuclear weapons, but the moment at which it acquires the capability to do so. In other words, Iran must be denied the sort of nuclear programs that exist in normal countries like Japan, Brazil and the Netherlands. It must be denied the right to master the nuclear cycle guaranteed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty as an “inalienable right” to all signatory nations (which include the U.S. and Iran—but not Israel, which with India and Pakistan remains outside its scope). The U.S. must break international law to satisfy Netanyahu. Or if it doesn’t, Israel will pull another Osiraq (the 1981 attack on the Iraqi French-built reactor that was condemned by the whole world, including the U.S. which voted with the unanimous opinion of the Security Council). It will act unilaterally if the U.S. doesn’t act first.
Why? Because Iran, in the Israeli prime minister’s view, is not a normal nation. It constitutes an “existential threat” to Israel; its leaders have supposedly repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel; its leadership is Holocaust-denying anti-Semites; it supports Hizbollah and Hamas. Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, is a dictator, the new Hitler. Therefore, Iran’s nuclear program (begun with U.S. support during the Shah’s reign) can have one rational only: to produce a “nuclear holocaust.”
Netanyahu’s been predicting the imminent appearance of an Iranian Bomb since at least 1992, when he declared, “Iran will have the bomb by 1997.” He’s a Chicken Little. The sky has not fallen on Israel.
Netanyahu’s a Boy Who Cried Wolf. Year after year, the intelligence reports confirming a military program just don’t come in. Obama, who was caught on open mike agreeing with Sarkozy’s depiction of him as a liar, no doubt knows the Israeli prime minister is a master of sensationalistic distortion. It’s there in every piece of his argument.
Iranian leaders—like most Muslim leaders and perhaps most people on the planet—oppose the existence of a specifically Jewish state established at the expense of Palestinian Arabs. But they do not threaten an Iranian attack upon it. Indeed they have repeatedly expressed support for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative calling for a two-state solution, including in a letter to the U.S. State Department in 2003.
Ahmadinejad is no Hitler-style dictator but a lame-duck leader with very limited constitutional powers. He never said he wanted to “wipe Israel off the map;” he’s said, quoting the Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989) that just as the regime of the Shah had fallen, and the Berlin Wall fallen, so “the occupation of Quds [Jerusalem] will vanish from the page of time.” He has asked western journalists to explain how Iran is anti-Semitic when the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel, dating back over 2000 years, continues to run kosher shops, Hebrew schools and synagogues and has guaranteed representation in parliament?
Yes, Iran supports Hizbollah, which is a large, respected political party based among the Shiites of southern Lebanon. Their militia was born out of the Israeli invasion of 1982, directed at Palestinian refugee camps and resulting in the massacres of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut; it is widely credited in Lebanon with finally driving out the occupiers in 2000. It is no wonder Iran, as preeminent Shiite power, would support Hizbollah, which now has 11 seats in the 30-seat cabinet. But Hizbollah is not so much a threat to Israel as Israel is a threat to Lebanon, most recently invading again in 2006.
The religious (Sunni) based Hamas organization started with Israeli encouragement as a movement to challenge the secular PLO. But it became an alternative resistance movement, not saddled with the reputation for corruption Palestinian Authority officials had acquired. It won the 2006 election, the first freely held among Palestinians. It has cordial ties with Turkey, a NATO member, with Russia and many other governments. It receives some support from Iran, partly as a statement that Iran wants to lead not only Shiites but the entire Muslim world. Gulf states and private charities in them donate much more, but Netanyahu is not calling Saudi Arabia an “existential threat.”
The whole argument that Iranians speak badly of Israel, and provide modest aid to anti-Israel guerrilla movements, and therefore plan to nuke Israel at the earliest opportunity just doesn’t make sense. It has to be bolstered with the racist accusation that the Iranians care so little about human lives, including their own, that they would be willing to provoke a massive nucear counter-assault. This is precisely the argument Israeli leaders deploy.
Like the U.S. neocons, Netanyahu cherrypicks intel, chooses fear-mongering sound bites, and offers the most alarmist historical analogies (Hitler, Holocaust, “appeasement” etc.) in order to prod people to support military action. In 2007 neocon godfather Norman Podhoretz appealed to Bush to “Bomb Iran!” using all the same language, although while Podhoretz was shrilly pleading, Netanyahu has been glaringly, snarlingly demanding U.S. action to allay his concerns—which have been there in his head for at least twenty years—that Iran might be at the verge of getting a bomb. Smugly confidant of his influence over U.S. politics, the man should be utterly discredited, but the press accords him deference.
Obama replies to Netanyahu, directly or through State Department spokespersons—that he cannot attack Iran before the election. And he does not want Israel to take action that virtually all experts predict would lead to disastrous results, including for U.S. bases and “interests” in the region. Anyway, he surely adds, Iran—according to the best intelligence reports—shut down any military nuclear program nine years ago. (The Russians question whether there even ever was a significant one. And everyone should note the repeated statements by the highest religious leadership in Iran that they view nuclear weapons as anti-Islamic and have no intention of every building them.)
Obama joins with Netanyahu in demanding a total halt to nuclear enrichment in Iran and the turnover of all such fuel to other countries. This, as the Russians involved in the Bushehr plant protest, is a preposterous demand—“illogical” as an Iranian diplomat put it. It is hard to imagine the Iranians agreeing, and to apply harsh economic sanctions against a country for refusing what they are legally entitled to do is an act of war. Obama is provoking Iran, which so far has responded with restraint.
Still, neither Obama nor the Pentagon brass want another war in the Middle East, especially since it will impact the war in Afghanistan and the situations in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere. Thus Obama has this year dispatched National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Director of Intelligence Tom Clapper to Israel to discourage Israel itself from attacking Iran. He has publicly rebuked Netanyahu for calling ongoing negotiations with Iran (including the U.S.) a “freebie” to allow secret work on nuclear weapons.
Obama had Dempsey state in London last week that the U.S. would not be “complicit” in an Israeli strike. (That’s strong language, suggesting the strike would be wrong.) The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reports that the U.S. is in talks with Iran, asking that in response to U.S. abstention from involvement in any strikes Iran not respond with attacks on U.S. bases and interests in the region. This appears to be a last-ditch effort by an administration genuinely alarmed by Netanyahu’s rhetoric and war preparations to quash such plans.
It don’t know if a U.S. president has ever told an Israel prime minister, “We not only won’t back you when you do something we thing wrong, or at least harmful to our interests. We’ll also tell your adversary in advance that we won’t back you, and won’t want to be associated with what you do.”
Reuters reports that a “stunned” and “chastised” Israeli leadership is now “preparing a climbdown strategy in its war of words over Iran’s nuclear program.” Would that it were so! And would that, after the election, we learn that secret negotiations between Iran and the U.S. have resulted in a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear program, aid to different organizations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other issues (as raised in the—rejected—letter sent from Tehran in 2003) allowing Iran to safe face while Obama avoids World War III.
But for that to happen the U.S. would have to back down on its illogical, uncompromising stance on nuclear enrichment. One can only hope that that’s part of the plan.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org