The Iranian Dilemma: Israel (Part 1)

The streets of Tehran.

The streets of Tehran.

1.

A bit odd.. a media leak reveals a conversation between Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in which the latter tells the former that he, Sarkozy is “fed up” with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and “considers him a liar.” This comes some six weeks after German Chancellor Angela Merkel “read Netanyahu the riot act” over the Israeli decision to build 1,000 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Gilo.

Netanyahu is not used to being kicked around that way, at least not by Israel’s European allies. Are Sarkozy and Merkel merely saying more or less out loud what Obama dares not say? Are they “giving Netanyahu a message” and if so, what? Merkel was annoyed (the word “infuriated” was circulated in the media) by Netanyahu’s settlement announcement, Sarkozy’s outburst most probably has to do with something else – French (and perhaps U.S.) frustration with the Israeli Prime Minister over a possible Israeli military strike against Iran. It could be that Sarkozy’s comment was a simple warning: Don’t Do It; Don’t Attack Iran.

What is clear is that Israel is in a pickle over Iran. It is considering its options, one of which, once again, is to attack the Islamic Republic to destroy its nuclear program. At least that is the commonly used pretext.

Israel Caught Off Guard

For decades before the advent of the Arab Spring, Israel has tried to capitalize on the lack of democracy (or its weakness) throughout the Middle East and Arab world. But when the democratic wave broke region-wide, Israel, like the United States, was caught off guard. Excepting a few isolated voices, there was no cheering on the Arab Spring in Tel Aviv.

To the contrary…

As the Arab Spring extended beyond Tunisia to the rest of the region, long-held alliances between Israel, Egypt and Turkey began to fray – if not unravel. Sympathy for the Palestinians surged and Israel’s status plummeted, not just in the Third World, but also in Europe to a great extent. If Israel could still count on the U.S. Congress to genuflect, it is no longer true of the American people, who have begun to have doubts, including in the American Jewish Community.

Along these lines, something else happened. The wind was taken out of the sales of the U.S.-Israeli anti-Iranian campaign. On the surface the anti-Iranian alliance is a curious hodgepodge uniting Israel and seeming allies like Saudi Arabia in a common effort to produce “regime change” in Iran. In less polite language, “regime change” refers to nothing less than combined effort to effort to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran by any means necessary.

Still, the anti-Iranian coalition lost considerable momentum over the past year, undermining Israel’s position in the region as the Arab partners have been pre-occupied. It turns out the argument Iran is a threat to the region – never convincing – is falling flat. The “threat” Tunisia, Egypt and the rest of the region faced had nothing to do with Iran. Instead it had its roots in the socio-economic policies and U.S.-backed authoritarian regions which had long stifled development and democracy.

It should come as no surprise that as the Arab Spring extended far beyond Tunisia, that accordingly, the potency of the “Iranian Threat” shrank and nearly collapsed, this despite attempts of the Israelis and certain figures in the Obama Administration – Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden – both with long histories of close cooperation with Israel in particular, to revive it.

A strengthened Iran – nuclear or non – represents for Israel a kind of geo-political adversary that hasn’t existed in the region since the punch was taken out of Egyptian nationalism in the 1967 Middle East war. It will force a revision of Israeli regional strategic thinking, undermine its regional hegemony some, and force Israel, sooner or later to make concessions – including on the Palestinian question – that the Zionist state has long resisted.1

Attempting to recover from the initial shock, in something approaching desperation, Israel has tried to shift the agenda and contain the Arab Spring. At the heart of Israel’s current strategy is:

  • reviving the anti-Iranian alliance
  • contain the Arab Spring
  • regain some of its eroding political status and initiative
  • at a time when there are growing questions in Washington concerning the U.S.-Israeli alliance, remind the United States that Israel can still be an important strategic ally, essential for the U.S. to accomplish its strategic goals

The streets of Tel Aviv.

The streets of Tel Aviv.

2.

Recovering from the blow to its influence, Israel concluded that the best way for it to help the United States contain the Arab Spring was to resurrect the anti-Iranian coalition either as it existed before, or, perhaps with new arrangement (that would involve France, Italy more directly).

In order to prepare for its new anti-Iran campaign, obviously supported by the Obama Administration and a significant chunk of the media in the U.S., Israel still had much work to do. First it had to “calm the waters” fouled in recent years and has worked to do so in a number of ways:

  • The Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange was meant to temporarily downplay the Palestinian issue at this time. While it is true that the members of the recent Gaza flotilla were treated roughly, this time no one was killed. Timing not right.
  • Likewise, when Israel soldiers killed Egyptian border guards in a recent skirmish, Israel moved quickly to keep the issue from escalating into a more serious confrontation.
  • Although Israeli-Turkish relations have greatly soured, Israel offered Ankara emergency aid for its earthquake victims in Eastern Turkey.
  • Netanyahu has even floated thoughts – not to be taken too seriously – of re-opening negotiations with the Palestinians.

The overall theme of all these gestures is clear – to reduce tensions enough so that hopefully, with Israel’s urging, the pre-Arab Spring political constellations can be rebuilt, the Arab Spring contained and the Islamic Republic of Iran overthrown. Nor is this anything new. Both the United States and Israel have repeatedly tried to resurrect the Iranian threat at different times over the past decade, recently less effectively.

Indeed it is a stale, well-worn strategy.

More and more Iran in 2011 is beginning to resemble the build-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, this despite the fact that an Iranian nuclear program for military purposes remains unproven. So here we go again – same old, same old with a few new twists. Goebbel’s famous statement about repeating a frequently repeated lie finally being accepted as truth comes to mind. And as the myth of the Iranian threat has been so often repeated, who knows, it might work.

To Get the Fear-Mongering Rolling

To get the fear mongering rolling, the Israelis got a little help in jump starting the hysteria from the Obama Administration, specifically CIA director David Petraeus, who helped poison the air by floating the unlikely accusation that the Iranians, through a Texas used car dealer in tandem with a Mexican drug gang, were keen on assassinating the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. in Washington D.C.

While this was even too much for the U.S. media, in retrospect an important point was missed – this was the opening round of a new offensive against Iran to be followed by others. That the incident was rather sloppily fabricated did not in the least bother Petraeus (or Obama) since U.S. administrations have been creating such scenarios for decades.

Round two opens with the latest IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear program. Even before the report was issued (November 8, 2011), the media has “somehow” grabbed hold of it. Frankly there is virtually nothing new in this report from previous ones. Everything concerning an Iranian nuclear weapons program is little more than innuendo. But now the IAEA is headed by Yukiya Amano, much more pliant to U.S. pressure than his predecessor, and the “suggestions” of the report more ominous.

As with the accusation of the alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador, the new IAEA report proves little to nothing other than adding to the drumbeat for war. It should come as no surprise that Iran’s nuclear program is the lever Israel hopes to pull to bring its old allies back together into one happy war-mongering family.

And Israel raises the decibel level in a dangerous game in a region so overloaded with weapons and countries that don’t trust each other. But in part it is necessary to exaggerate the Iranian threat, first of all because none exists. So some kind of contrived major crisis is needed – with a bit more voltage than in the past – to bring the dangling elements of the alliance back in line.

Israel is dragging the world to the edge of a precipice. Let us hope that the more rational voices there win the day. The alternative is unthinkable.

Footnotes:

1The United States has its own reasons for opposing Iran, including the humiliation it suffered during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, Iran’s historic role as a pioneer of nationalizing (or trying to) oil resources, and the very fact that the Islamic Republic largely outside of U.S. political and economic influence. At a time of tightening oil supplies and future intense competition over energy sources, “disciplining” Iran to play the energy role more conducive to U.S. interests has become something of an obsession in Washington. “Taking out” Iran weakens China and gives the United States greater strategic leverage over global economy in general.

    Reference:

    Once More The Specter of a US and/or Israeli Military Attack Against Iran Looms, August 10, 2010

    Ibrahim Kazerooni is finishing a joint PhD program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.