The New Linkage–Iran and Palestine

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani capped off his first address to the United Nations General Assembly on a note of guarded optimism. “Commensurate with the political will of the leadership in the United States and hoping that they will refrain from following the short-sighted interest of warmongering pressure groups, we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences.” Rouhani won’t have to hope too hard because there is political will aplenty within the White House. A breakthrough deal with Iran is the Obama administration’s ticket to the balmy Pacific—a geopolitical dream vacation for the United States from a Middle East that has burned us for far too long. To score that grand prize, President Obama will assuredly refrain from being led astray by hawks who know they can’t win against this warming of ties but who will nevertheless erect what roadblocks they can. Leading this countercharge to Rouhani’s “charm offensive” is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli premier’s rallying will make a garish display but it will come to nothing as Israel has no military option, the U.S. knows this, and hence Netanyahu has no way of spooking Washington with visions of errant Israeli jets and bombed-out nuclear facilities. Yet, in his capacity as standard-bearer for U.S. hawks, Netanyahu can help Congress to drag out the fragile diplomacy for as long as possible. That’s why Bibi is declaiming a set of impossible demands for Iran–like the complete dismantlement of their civilian nuclear program—so congressmen who thrive off of confrontation with Iran will adopt them as part of their own hardline stance and, if challenged for their obstructionism, justify it out of concern for Israel’s unease. Further, it’s a long shot but Bibi could be counting on delaying a resolution so long that Supreme Leader Khameini, seeing that the Americans just aren’t being sincere, terminates Rouhani’s negotiations.

At the end of the day, however, I’d say—as I’ve been saying—that Netanyahu is resigned to a deal but is issuing these ridiculous demands because he’s signaling that he doesn’t want the U.S. and Iran to get any closer afterwards. The administration may not be seeking a total rapprochement but even if the U.S. wanted to head in that direction, Israel would be helpless to stop it. Again, Israel won’t be attacking Iran. Before he retired in February 2011, Israeli General Gabi Ashkenazi admitted to U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that all talk otherwise was “empty words” because “Israel has no military option.” So the U.S. doesn’t have to sweat over ever having to strike Iran first to head off Israel going rogue and that means Iran will be spared since, according to former CIA director Michael Hayden, the U.S. had already sworn off striking anyway during the George W Bush administration.

“When we talked about this in the government,” Hayden said, “the consensus was that [attacking Iran] would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent–an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret.” Hayden added that the Bush administration determined that, unless the U.S. was contemplating the occupation of Iran, a limited bombing campaign was going to be counterproductive. And to drive home Gen. Ashkenazi’s point about Israel’s incapacity, here’s an edifying snippet from the same piece about Hayden’s revelation:

Hayden then said he didn’t believe the Israelis could or even would strike Iran–that only the United States has the capability to do it–but either way, it’s still a bad idea. “The Israelis aren’t going to [attack Iran] … they can’t do it, it’s beyond their capacity. They only have the ability to make this [problem of Iran’s nuclear program] worse. We can do a lot better,” he said. “Just look at the physics, the fact that this cannot be done in a raid, this has to be done in a campaign, the fact that neither we nor they know where this stuff is. [The Israelis] can’t do it, but we can.

So why is Netanyahu so desperate that he feels he needs to convince others that he might be crazy enough to launch an attack which can only make things worse and, as Israeli General Shlomo Gazit fears, could possibly “lead to the liquidation of Israel”? It’s not the first time an Israeli Prime Minister verged on going berserk. What Netanyahu is doing today is reminiscent of Ariel Sharon blowing a gasket over the U.S. reaching out to Arab states to combat al-Qaeda. Sharon reacted as he did because, as Robert Grenier explained, he “was seized of the guilty knowledge that it was his and Israel’s continuing repression and occupation of Palestinian lands which lay near the heart of Al Qaeda’s appeal for Muslims.” Likewise, a decade later, Netanyahu is also hip to the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generates raging anti-Americanism in the Arab/Muslim world–a correlation known as linkage.

Linkage has been recognized repeatedly by top ranking U.S. officials and most recently by General James Mattis, who told the Aspen Institute’s annual Security Forum that he “paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.” This was no epiphany for Mattis, who back in March 2011 testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “I believe the only reliable path to lasting peace in this region is a viable two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. This issue is one of many that is exploited by our adversaries in the region, and is used as a recruiting tool for extremist groups.” Lasting peace in the region is what the Obama administration sorely needs before it can catch rays in the Pacific and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the coveted silver bullet.

Netanyahu knows Washington wants to pack (most of) their bags and so he wants to charge as steep an exit fee as he can. The Prime Minister’s gibberings are his attempts at price gouging and turning linkage to Israel’s benefit. How much is this miracle elixir worth to you, Uncle Sam? Cripple Iran to our satisfaction first and we might have ourselves a deal. Obama would be a fool to accept and, unfortunately for Bibi, he won’t. The president will take any Iran in exchange for Palestine deal and reverse it.

Bomb Syria or Watch Iran Get Bombed–the Hawk’s False Choice

As I thought, President Obama wanted to use a limited military action against Syria to energize the efforts to ending the conflict there. In his speech last week where he laid out his case for scolding Assad’s regime with explosives, Obama said this telling sentence: “And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.” Obama admitted that he was hoping that once the U.S. had dumped its punishing payload and the dust settled, the Syria crisis would be easier to resolve because Russia would then scramble to avert further escalation and demand that a political transition begin. This way Obama could claim he salvaged U.S. credibility by retaliating against the Assad regime for stepping over our red lines while setting the stage to prevent the U.S. from having to get any more involved in the Syrian turmoil.

Nevertheless, the president, given his past reluctance to get sucked into Syria, did not relish having to carry out this threat but, fortunately for him, a whirlwind week of diplomatic developments provided an escape hatch. Obama must be privately delighted that the quickly improvised Russian deal that will destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal lets him delicately backpedal from the cliff’s edge. Not everyone shares in his gleeful relief. The Syrian rebels are disheartened as are those who are proponents of a strike in Congress and the media. These hawks insist that missiles have to fly or else Iran becomes emboldened and decides to build a nuke. Senator Lindsey Graham is so convinced of this that he told a crowd of his constituents “I believe that if we get Syria wrong, within six months–and you can quote me on this–there will be a war between Iran and Israel over their nuclear program.”

Never mind that Iran’s leadership views nukes as strategically worthless, the argument that Iran wouldn’t take Washington’s warnings seriously owing to damaged U.S. credibility doesn’t wash.  All the pro-war side really has going for it is Senator Graham’s prediction of an Israel-Iran war and even this is nothing but an overblown fear. Washington policymakers know for a fact that Israel will never bomb Iran but they act ignorant and play up this nightmarish possibility as a pretext for upholding their antagonistic approach to the ayatollahs. They are no doubt familiar with telegrams from years ago sent from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv disclosing that such an audacious attack isn’t in the cards. The telegrams were revealed by Wikileaks and shared with Haaretz, which reported this on their content:

In the first telegram, sent on December 2, 2005, American diplomats said their conversations with Israeli officials indicate that there is no chance of a military attack being carried out on Iran. A more detailed telegram was sent in January 2006, summing up a meeting between U.S. Congressman Gary Ackerman (a Democrat for New York) and Dr. Ariel Levite, then deputy chief of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission. “Levite said that most Israeli officials do not believe a military solution is possible,” the telegram ran.

Alright, that was a few years ago, one might object, but perhaps things from the Israeli perspective have changed in the meantime? No, as Christiane Amanpour found out when she asked former IDF chief General Gabi Ashkenazi if a plan was ever made to attack Iran. Ashkenazi conceded that, although a plan had been requested by Prime Minister Netanyahu, “Eventually we decided not to do it,” and justified his choice, saying “I think [the] military option is the last resort. Unless the sword is literally on your throat–you don’t use it if you still have time to exploit other options.” It’s not the right time, these Israeli opponents of a military strike must say to keep the bluff alive, but what they know is that, for Israel, it will never be the right time.

Here’s Israeli newspaper Ynet explaining: A senior IDF officer told cabinet last fall that the army does not have the ability to hit the Iranian nuclear program in a “meaningful way,” a security official told Time magazine.”I informed the cabinet we have no ability to hit the Iranian nuclear program in a meaningful way. If I get the order I will do it, but we don’t have the ability to hit in a meaningful way,” the official quoted the senior officer as saying… The senior security official told Time that the working assumption behind Israel’s military preparations has been that, to be worth mounting, a strike must be likely to delay Tehran’s nuclear capabilities by at least two years. But given the wide geographic dispersion of Iran’s atomic facilities–combined with the limits of Israel’s air armada–Israel can expect to push back the Iranian program only by a matter of months—a year at most, said the official, who attributed the estimate to the Atomic Energy Commission that Israel has charged with assessing the likely effect of a strike.

In brief, the Israelis can attack Iran—and not very effectively at that–but have no viable military option. They can start a war but would be in no position afterwards to finish it. If Israel’s unilateral bombing sparked a regional catastrophe, throwing global markets into an upheaval, and the U.S. chose not to bail Israel out, they can expect to pay a considerable diplomatic price to the international community—one concerning the occupation of the Palestinians. Indeed, retired Israeli Major General Shlomo Gazit foresees an outcome where the fallout “would increase international pressures for the abandonment of “the territories.” Gazit surely had this in mind when he said “An Israeli attack…will lead to the liquidation of Israel.” That being said, there’s definitely no need to strike Syria to restrain Israel from going it alone against Iran. It’s staggeringly clear that if Gazit’s ill omen has even the remotest chance of happening it would be an understatement to say the Israeli leadership will restrain itself.

The Road to Tehran Runs Through Damascus

After reviewing the tapes of the Syria hearing and studying the body language of General Martin Dempsey, retired army major general Robert Scales finds that “It’s pretty obvious” that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “doesn’t want this war.” And it isn’t just Dempsey who has reservations about sending Assad a “shot across the bow”, according to Scales, but the whole of the Pentagon. Having corresponded with “dozens of active and retired soldiers in recent days,” Scales gets the general sense that “Dempsey’s unspoken words reflect the opinions of most serving military leaders.” Not that this comes as a shock—Dempsey has warned against the U.S. intervening in Syria’s civil war for months and the Obama administration itself, despite an apparent turnabout within the last couple weeks, still isn’t keen on foundering in another Middle Eastern quagmire. The reluctance is expressed by the president opting only for a limited military strike designed carefully not to unwittingly tip the scales in favor of either side.

Indeed, all Obama’s plan amounts to is a slap on the wrist with Tomahawk missiles or, in the words of one U.S. official, a hit “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” Also the president’s decision to share the burden with Congress as to what should be the proper response for Assad supposedly transgressing Obama’s red line suggests that he secretly hopes his request to use force against Syria will be rejected and he can climb down from a hawkish position so at odds with his previous justifiable caution. Lastly, there is the nagging matter that the rest of the world is against military action of any sort and recognizes that the sole solution for Syria is diplomatic. So what explains the White House’s insistence on attacking in the face of this global opposition? If the strikes will not impact the ongoing conflict and won’t deter further use of chemical weapons according to Dempsey why does the U.S. bother responding at all? Yes, the international norms against deploying chemical weapons must be upheld but why not hale the perpetrators before the International Criminal Court as suggested by a group of Nobel Laureates?

The answer occurred to me while reading a piece by Anatol Lieven entitled “Attack Syria, Talk to Iran”. Lieven is all for Obama chastising Assad–knowing full well that otherwise there are no good military options—but he also stresses that what “the administration now needs to do is to start thinking seriously about the real contours of a peace settlement, and to turn the Syrian crisis into an opportunity to rethink its overall strategy in the Middle East.” That’s when the lightning struck and I thought of this: What if Obama wants to launch this pinprick attack in order to ultimately talk to Iran? Once the missiles have flown and the Middle East stands on the brink of a regional war, Russia will quickly step in to prevent any more escalation by urging that we jump-start Geneva II. Since the Russians will insist on a viable peace agreement, they’ll press for the inclusion of Iran in the conference—a development the administration will be counting on, for there is a new-found willingness within Washington for Iran’s participation.

It is on the sidelines of Geneva II that Washington will seize the opportunity that Lieven speaks of to revise U.S. grand strategy in the Middle East by preparing the way for a deal with Iran over their civilian nuclear program. As the Syrian conflict is resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, the U.S. could forge bonds of goodwill with Iran in the process and, as Lieven suggests, use Moscow as an intermediary “to develop new relations” and end thirty years of hostility. So by threatening intervention in Syria and creating this manageable crisis, the Obama administration can simultaneously settle two hot-button issues that are hindering the pivot to the Pacific. But why does Obama have to resort to this overly risky and indirect scheme when it would be much easier to simply start engaging with Iran? The usual obstructionist suspects in Congress demonstrate why ratcheting up tensions is necessary.

In his commentary on a Wall Street Journal editorial by Senator Mark Kirk and Rep. Elliot Engel which calls for yet more punitive measures against Iran, Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, described the Congressmen as “sanctions junkies” who are always one more round away from feeling that the U.S. has enough diplomatic leverage to apply to Iran in negotiations. That’s an apt appellation for the rest of the Congress, which reflexively recommends sanctions with bipartisan unanimity. Congress continually does this, in Abdi’s words, “as a tactical maneuver to delay” that fateful day when the U.S. and Iran will reach the aforementioned accord. It’s all about maintaining our pseudo-cold war with Iran and Abdi realizes this when he asserts that Congress is “desperate for a military standoff” (but not a hot war, which no one wants) and that for these sanctions junkies “a diplomatic resolution is a far bigger threat than an Iranian nuclear weapon.”

Now we can comprehend the daunting obstacle that the legislative branch poses to Obama as he seeks a bit of amity with Iran to quicken the pace of the Pacific Pivot. He has to outface a Congress that, as a rule, is unwilling to ever give diplomacy and better relations a fair shot. To circumvent such a monolithic opposition, Obama would be in need of some extraordinary event to justify to Congress the crucial importance of cooperating with Iran. In the current case, Obama can say ‘Look we have to learn to be on good terms with Iran because without them Syria will never be solved–same goes for regional stability too–and we’ll inevitably get sucked in’ and if Congress votes against the pinprick attacks as that would could make his point all the clearer. If war is a no-go then making nice with Iran is the lone way forward. Thus will Obama box in Congress and wean them off of their anti-Iran addiction so we can finally clean up the mess the region has become.