The Democrats & Iran

As the dust begins to settle from the mid-term elections, popular thinking is that, over the next two years, the Democrats will force the Bush administration to edge away from the unilateral militarism that has entrapped the nation in two open-ended wars.

Don’t bet the rent on it.

Indeed, if you are putting down a wager, the odds are better than even that the United States will attack Iran in the next two years, and the assault will have a great deal of support from both sides of the aisle.

The political decision to take on Iran depends on a number of factors. Washington continues to focus on extracting U.S. troops from Iraq. And a resolution of the Iraq debacle requires some regional approach that includes dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Dems, in other words, have a choice. They can get sucked into the war that the administration wants with Iran. Or they can put forward a bold alternative that can not only prepare for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq but restabilize the Middle East as well.

Iran in the Crosshairs

The Bush administration’s bombast on Iran is well known. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the United States “may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran,” and administration officials have called it everything from “the nexus of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism” to a “threat to world peace.”

Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force Colonel and strategy teacher at the National War College, the Naval War College, and the Air Force War College, says President Bush is determined to attack Iran. Gardiner says Bush compares himself to Winston Churchill and “talks about the Middle East in messianic terms, and is said to have told those close to him that he has got to attack Iran because even if a Republican succeeds him … he will not have the same freedom of action that Bush enjoys.”

According to Seymour Hersh, during a recent discussion on national security, Cheney said that the Nov. 7 election “would not stop the administration from pursuing a military option with Iran.”

Neocon supporters of the administration are already revving their engines. Joshua Muravchik, writing in a Foreign Policy memo, puts an attack on Tehran at the top of the neocon to-do list for the administration’s next two years.

Similar comments have come from leading Israeli officials. An Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson told the Jerusalem Post /a> that “only a military strike by the United States and its allies will stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons,” while Israeli Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh openly threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear sites. Danny Ayalon, outgoing Israeli ambassador to the United States, said that he is confident that Bush “will not hesitate to use force against Iran in order to halt its nuclear program.”

The Democrats’ Dilemma

Some of this U.S. and Israeli rhetoric has been echoed by Democrats, particularly incoming Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi. In 2005, she told a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that “the greatest threat to Israel’s right to exist … now comes from Iran.” AIPAC has long been associated with some of the more extreme sectors of the Israeli political spectrum. The organization has been particularly aggressive in lobbying for war with Iran, a war that polls show the U.S. public strongly opposes.

The Democrats’ close ties with AIPAC and the Israeli government are already causing problems. The Democrats won the election on a platform of getting the United States out of Iraq, but AIPAC and the current Kadima-Labor government strongly support that war.

Following an hour-long meeting with President Bush last week, Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert told the press, “We in the Middle East have been following the American policy in Iraq for a long time, and we are very much impressed and encouraged by the stability” that the war in Iraq has brought to the Middle East.

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), a reliable supporter of Israel, retorted that Olmert’s comment was “a very unrealistic observation. Most of us here understand that our policy has been a thorough and total disaster for the United States: we have blundered ineptly into an area that our administration does not understand, and for which it has no plan on how to extract us.”

Although several other Democrats were similarly angered by the comments, Pelosi so far has remained quiet.

For all their rhetoric, the vast majority of Democrats does not want war with Iran, but under our system of government, the president has enormous powers. According to Rice, the administration has already been authorized to attack Iran under powers given it by the congressional legislation on the war on terrorism.

Iraq and Palestine

The problem for the Democrats is how to extract the United States from Iraq, and few observers think that can be done without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian question. In a recent editorial, the Financial Times argued that Israeli expansion on the West Bank “is what constantly threatens to set the region alight.”

A recent survey by Israeli retired Brigadier General Baruch Spiegel, a former assistant to Israel’s Defense Ministry, found that the IDF and West Bank civil authorities are suppressing what the newspaper Haaretz calls “the systematic illegal expansion of existing settlements … in blatant violation of the law.” The newspaper called the survey—which is yet to be reported in the United States—“political and diplomatic dynamite.”

Yet Pelosi explicitly rejects the argument that the occupation has anything to do with the current crisis between Israelis and Palestinians. “There are those who contend that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza,” she told the AIPAC audience in 2005. “That is absolute nonsense. In truth, the history of the conflict is not over occupation, and never has been: it is over the fundamental right of Israel to exist.”

Aside from AIPAC, the Bush administration’s neocons, and the Israeli right wing, few would agree with that formulation. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently argued that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement was “the core” of a broader effort for peace in the region. Indeed, elevating the conflict to a matter of Israel’s survival plays into the hands of extremists on both sides.

Israel and Iran

AIPAC and Olmert also link Israel’s survival to defeating Iran. Yet, although Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s has threatened to wipe out Israel, his bluster is not backed up by any ability to do so. As Scott Ritter points out, Ahmadinejad has no authority over anything pertaining to national security, the armed forces, the police, or the Revolutionary Guard. He is, as one former Iranian president commented, “a knife without a blade.”

In any case, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Israel has between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons, while Iran is several years away from producing even one. An Iranian attack on Israel would be tantamount to national suicide. Plus, while the Israelis routinely describe Iran as a threat to peace in the Middle East, Iran has not invaded anyone in 250 years, though it has been the victim of several attacks.

The authority to go to war rests with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in May 2003 offered to open up Iran’s nuclear plants for inspection, rein in Hezbollah, accept a two-state solution, and cooperate against al-Qaida. He also issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons. The initiative was shot down by Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

In terms of Iran’s nuclear threat to Israel or the world more generally, Seymour Hersh says the CIA has “found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program.”

Linking a possible conflict with Iran to the survival of Israel or to broader nonproliferation goals is in the interests of neither Israel nor the United States. Such arguments from the Bush administration and the Israeli right wing will condemn the region to decades of endless war.

The Democrats are going to have to make some hard choices to keep the loyalty of those who voted for an end to the Iraq War and military adventurism. For starters they must call for an immediate end to Israeli’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank. To end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Dems should push hard for immediate negotiations with all Palestinian parties culminating in full Arab recognition of Israel and a full withdrawal from all occupied Arab land. The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should pledge to defend Israel within its 1967 borders. To guarantee regional peace, the United States should support a regional conference, including Iran, Syria, and all elements in Iraq, to reach a peace accord and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the region.

The Bush administration is mustering arguments and support for its solution to the Middle East crisis: an attack on Iran. Democrats and their dissenting colleagues across the aisle must offer a feasible alternative. It is time to go to work, Madame Speaker.

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) columnist.