Staying on the Same Page

After the latest P5+1 talks it seems a spring-time in U.S.-Iran relations is beginning to crack the icy impasse. But, as eager as Washington is to close this chapter and embark on the Pacific Pivot, officialdom is not ready to strike a deal just yet. This has been signaled by Secretary of State John Kerry, who at the end of his first overseas trip declared ominously–in spite of the progress at Almaty–that “If they [Iran] keep pushing the limits and not coming with a serious set of proposals or prepared to actually resolve this, obviously the risks get higher and confrontation becomes more possible.” Vice President Biden chiming in at the AIPAC conference reiterated the military threat, telling the rapt crowd “The president of the United States cannot, and does not, bluff. President Barack Obama is not bluffing.” But, of course, in this kabuki dispute everyone is bluffing—the U.S. and Israel don’t really want a war and Iran doesn’t want nukes—because each nation stands to benefit from their bloviating.

So what’s the point of crying for a creditable military option? Why does it behoove Biden and the like to do so? Can it be that the U.S. is on a predetermined track towards war and is only going through the diplomatic motions because, as Biden said in his AIPAC address, “it is critically important for the whole world to know we did everything in our power, we did everything that reasonably could have been expected to avoid any confrontation”? Well, a war is indeed in their sights—a cold war, that is. Nobody—not even hawks advocating regime change in Tehran—want bombs to drop but a new cold war works out great for the U.S., its Gulf state allies, Israel, and AIPAC. But our Mideast allies, who are longing to set this sitzkrieg into motion, are apprehensive over Washington’s commitment to this regional confrontation given the primacy of the Pivot. All the aggressive rhetoric, therefore, is to reassure them that the U.S. is firmly committed and, moreover, will quickly appoint itself to take the reins of this enterprise.

For a while now, there have been calls for Washington to take charge of the showdown in commanding fashion so as to prevent the possibility, however remote, of Netanyahu launching a hot war on Iran and dragging the U.S. unwillingly into another military morass. R. Nicholas Burns, who led negotiations with Iran as under secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration, wrote back in August that “the US, not Israel, must lead on Iran during the next year. It is not in America’s interest to remain hostage to Netanyahu’s increasingly swift timetable.” Burns is being heeded as Obama is reportedly ready to announce during his trip to Israel that by summer a window of opportunity will open for a U.S. strike if diplomacy proves fruitless. This is Obama’s way of indicating to our allies that the U.S. is leading the charge and everyone else can take a backseat. That would be fine by Netanyahu since it enables him to save face and safely climb down from his constant stream of implied threats against Iran.

With the U.S. responsible for issuing the threats from here on out means that the campaign to keep Iran in check will undergo a shift in tone and subject. Netanyahu has never explicitly threatened Iran so the Obama administration won’t be required to. Further, because Washington seeks a deal, the implicit threats made by the U.S. won’t approach the shrillness of Netanyahu’s.  Once negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are successfully concluded, the cold war will then proceed according to a different dynamic, as I’ve written before:

“The nuclear issue will be resolved when time enough has passed and our allies become sturdy anti-Iran bulwarks. Iran will then be permitted their civilian nuclear program which will give them the latitude to export more oil, become an economic powerhouse thereby, and hence be reckoned as more of a threat in the upcoming semi-struggle. The justification for Cold War will be transferred to our more substantive gripe with Iran (as the sanctions’ language makes clear)-namely, the regime’s treatment of domestic dissidents and its support for Hamas and Hezbollah.”

So what will the cold war framework look like? Not much different than the present policies—just a continuation of our flooding the region with arms to prop up the Gulf monarchs and conducting more joint military exercises with them. When the Israeli government attemped to get the Obama administration to express and implement this reassurance last summer, that was exactly what they were aiming for. Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli general, recommended that, “in addition to declarations [of a definite military option], actions should be taken to show that you’re [U.S.] serious. More intensive missile defense in the Middle East, exercises with your allies in the Middle East—in order to demonstrate to the world more clearly that you’re really training for this and preparing for this.”

Now fast forward to the recent AIPAC conference where Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in his speech he counseled the creation of a “regional security framework” for the Middle East  to be “be built around the common challenges of radical Islamist terror, border security, missile defense… and of course, Iran.” But this framework can’t really be entirely regional since Israel carries on no formal diplomatic relations with the majority of its neighbors and in consequence Barak suggests the U.S. be brought in to lead it and “provide a variety of synergies for all its regional participants.” Although Barak stressed that this strategy was merely his personal position, it is likely to be adopted by the upcoming Israeli government as the preferred course to take as it is one that works best for the interests of both the U.S. and Israel and guarantees that everyone (Gulf allies too) is finally on the same page.