Ding Dong, Prevention is Dead?!

There has been quite the hiatus of late within the media regarding the constant reiteration of the military option against Iran but the silence has been broken by the Brookings Institute’s Marvin Kalb and Michael O’Hanlon who reassure us that we remain “on the road to war with Iran.” The case they make for this statement isn’t any more persuasive than what’s been already been said by the ‘all-options-are-on-the–table’ brigade because the authors don’t have anything new to say. Their piece is simply another instance of Washington punditry’s obligatory part in preserving the incredible, undying military option in the face of recent positive developments like the recent Iranian presidential vote. Those who have been tasked with keeping alive the possibility of bombing Iran will have a rough time of it with the diplomatically-savvy Hassan Rohani in office The lack of U.S. threats to attack in the month following his election is evidence enough of that.

But is Rohani’s victory responsible for the U.S. suddenly becoming mum on the military option and emphasizing sanctions as the tool of choice for pressuring Iran? Actually the shift away from striking Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities and quietly favoring containment came in March and has been proceeding steadily ever since. Indeed, that development began to take shape months before then. Last November Career Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering while visiting Israel made it known to The Jerusalem Post’s David Weinberg that the military option was all but rejected by the U.S.  Pickering told Weinberg and his associates that he “wanted our understanding for a “nuanced” and “sophisticated” view of Iran. Iran is emerging as a significant regional and global actor, he said, that must be engaged. Pickering was basically not prepared to countenance the use of American military force against Iran under any circumstances. Military force should be the very last resort, Pickering told us, “and probably not at all.”

Rohani wasn’t the game-changer when it came to shelving prevention but his elevation has accelerated the U.S.’s timetable for reaching a deal and pivoting to the Pacific all the faster. Rohani has provided the Obama administration with the opportunity it needs to stop putting off serious diplomacy since it will be so much easier to negotiate with a moderate president bent on healing the old wounds between the U.S. and Iran. There wasn’t going to be a war with Iran before Rohani but after his accession Washington politicos will have to alter their policies to reflect this reality and explicitly dump the counterproductive idea of bombing Iran. Why has it taken so long to discard the military option? I explained in my last piece that it’s designed to sustain U.S.-Iran tensions and in the process of raising tit for tat the latter ends up casting itself as an international blackguard fit only to be shunned. This benefits the many interests that support Iran’s pariah status.

Take the European nations, for example, that prefer to have an Iran that’s alienated from the U.S. because then the Islamic Republic becomes a playground for their investments as they don’t have to compete with American capital. Then there are the Gulf States that are wary of Iran’s waxing influence in the region amidst an increasingly contentious Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian rivalry and are availing themselves of U.S. sanctions which are handicapping Iran’s growth. But it’s Israel that has the greatest stake in isolating Iran. Should the U.S. and Iran ever mend fences and start working together as equal partners on all manner of regional issues, the mullahs would then undoubtedly draw attention to the festering boil that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and say to Washington “Hey, won’t you do something meaningful about this already?” Fear of such pressure is why Israel strives to forestall any chance of détente between the two.

The same applies for why Israel is averse to the U.S. getting too cozy with the Arab states as well. Robert Grenier has recalled how former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went berserk when the U.S. began to seek support from the Arab countries for the campaign against al-Qaeda. Sharon made a speech accusing the U.S. of appeasement and breached a ceasefire with the Palestinians. So what was it that made Sharon’s behavior, as Secretary of State Colin Powell then described it, border on the irrational? Sharon told Yedioth Ahronoth that “Israel will be asked to make excessive concessions to the Palestinians. Should it refuse, it will be accused of undermining the war. It was the last possible moment [to act].” In other words, unparalleled pressure was coming—Grenier notes “there was even talk of US support for a Palestinian state”—and it terrified Sharon to the point of hysteria.

Ultimately, the Israeli government’s dread of a genuine two state solution is why the military option against Iran is finally dead. The last thing Washington wants is another disastrous war and Israeli harping on Iran is all that stands between them and the Pacific Pivot. But since Washington knows that Israel will go to desperate measures to fend off the peace process it can cleverly lead Israel into a trap of their own making. It goes like this: we pretend to agree with the Israelis about the nature of the Iran threat and say to them “OK, if you really think they are such a big baddie then let’s link up with your regional neighbors to contain them.” Of course, getting this alliance to work together most effectively would entail resolving the Israeli-Palestine conflict so everyone can focus all their energies on Iran. Watch Iran become considerably less menacing to Israel overnight and marvel as all talk of prevention (or possibly even containment) is summarily scrapped.