Thinking through the Iranian nuclear crisis

Photo : on Flickr. One of our Israeli Observers, Joel Schalit, sent us his analysis of the recent developments of the tough Iran-Israel negotiations.


Photo:"azrainman" on Flickr.

One of our Israeli Observers, Joel Schalit, sent us his analysis of the recent developments of the tough Iran-Israel negotiations.

React to this view — in a constructive, argumentative way.

Confronted by renewed talk of weapons of mass destruction, of aggressive United Nations inspections and the threat of crippling sanctions, even the most casual of observers of Mideast politics began to feel a sense of déjà vu.

The rhetoric sounded eerily reminiscent of that which led to 2003 invasion of Iraq, and over a dozen years’ worth of violence prior to it, when the Persian Gulf state was forced to trade oil for food, American fighters patrolled its skies, UN investigators turned the country upside down looking for chemical weaponry, and more than 1.5 million Iraqis are reported to have died.

History repeating itself?

Yet, on September 25, two weeks after the eighth anniversary of the beginning of the “war on terror”, US President Barack Obama, flanked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Premier Gordon Brown, delivered a severe warning to Tehran that just as well could have been given to Iran's next door neighbour a decade before: Desist from producing nuclear weapons and allow UN officials to inspect your nuclear facilities or face the consequences. Though the American leader failed to mention Iraq, of course, the parallel was obvious. History, it seemed, was repeating itself. Again.

Delivered a week before a hotly anticipated meeting between Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – to discuss the Islamic state's nuclear program, President Obama's speech was clearly strategic.

Reassuring the Jews

Following the disclosure of the existence of a second Iranian nuclear plant, purportedly designed for military purposes, two days before Iran demonstrated new ballistic missiles on Yom Kippur, the US leader's uncharacteristically threatening language was meant to be as comforting as it was intended to sow fear. If Jews wanted reassurance that Barack “Hussein” Obama was indeed pro-Israeli, they need look no further.

So prominent in the headlines has been Israel's concerns about Iran's nuclear program that it is impossible to mistake to whom the American president is signalling.

No US leader has been subject to such intense and prolonged attempts to discredit his standing amongst world Jewry than Barack Obama. Reviled by the Israeli right for demanding a freeze to Jewish settlement building in the Occupied Territories, incited against by their Republican counterparts in the United States, derided for being a secret Muslim, Obama has been the target of fervent efforts to turn him into public enemy number one of the Jews.

Obama’s taking such a strong stand, his sounding exactly like Bush at his “pro-Israel” best, make it impossible to imagine that the American leader won't repair some of the damage he has sustained at the hands of critics who charge that he favours Arabs.

Unintended consequences

The problem, unfortunately, with emphasizing positions such as this is that they have the ironic consequence of reinforcing the false notion that it is US Jews and Israelis who drive American foreign policy, not the interests of the American people as a whole, when in fact US posturing towards Iran (and Iraq before that) has always been an expression of a plurality of domestic and foreign influences, of which Israel is only a part.

Unfortunately for those who fear the worst, who expect a repetition of the Iraqi tragedy in Iran under liberal auspices, the linkage between Jewish concerns and the direction of American policy are their own eternal indictment.

As long as the so-called Israel lobby is in charge, the results will be the same. Never mind the fact that Israeli interests might correspond with those of other US allies. Ignore the possibility that, for example, even though Saudi Arabia and Israel are technically at war, the two countries feel equally threatened by Iran and are equally proactive in trying to contain it. The only difference is that Israel's efforts have a much larger and more dramatic media footprint, whereas Saudi Arabia's are more subtle, attempting to buy out, for example, Iran's Russian arms suppliers, as well as quietly working with the US on its diplomatic and military initiatives.

As has been repeatedly disclosed in recent years, the entire Middle East is anxious about Iran. Whether that fear is explained in terms of Tehran's growing military clout or its supposed ambition to become the leader of the Islamic world, nearly all of Iran's neighbours have chosen to align themselves with Europe and the United States.

The United States, in turn, has attempted to return the favour, offering its own defence guarantees in tandem with those offered to Israel. While one may question the staying power of whatever alliances emerge from this, not to mention America's own motivations in cultivating them, we are left with a far more complex portrait of the forces helping determine Washington's Middle East policy than we are normally accustomed to hearing.

Is Iran reasonable?

Would it be any wonder, then, that the Iranians would choose to arm themselves so heavily and consider adopting nuclear weaponry? Would it seem unreasonable to assume that Iran would then single Israel as its primary foe (at least rhetorically) rather than the United States? If you want to point out the alien character of America's presence in the Mideast, the best way is by scapegoating the Jewish state.

Indeed, Israel has always been the best road to Washington. All Tehran has to do is push the right button: Deny the validity of the Holocaust, show off new missiles on important Jewish holidays, transfer increasingly sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah and Hamas. Like the threat of sanctions, Iran's theatrics are familiar and well rehearsed.

This is why the breakthroughs announced this morning in Geneva are well worth paying attention to: sitting down for in-depth talks with the United States for the first time since 1979, agreeing to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect Iran's newly disclosed nuclear facility in Qom and to have a substantial percentage of its uranium enriched by Russia and France. America and Iran broke enormous new ground.

Even if all of the relevant parties fail to deliver, the precedent is still truly surprising, especially considering how routine and moribund their relations have become. As much as we legitimately fear a return to the past, it indicates that it still might be possible to escape it.