Pivot Homeward, America

When a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza was reached a couple weeks ago, the great question on everyone’s mind was what Operation Pillar of Cloud was about. Fox News speculated if it was a dress rehearsal for Iran and Israeli writer Amir Oren argued in his article ‘For Netanyahu, Gaza escalation could pave the way for Iran strike’ that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have not given up the dream of carrying out a major operation in Iran.” It was nothing of the kind, for both Israel and the United States are loath to start a shooting war with Iran or engage in regime change there. Iran is far too valuable a villain, you see.

One time, I half-jokingly proposed that, because of the nature of Washington’s ‘voodoo sanctions’ which give several nations escape routes and profits the regime, the U.S. and Iran were covertly colluding. Pierce through all the public denunciations and you’d find the ‘foes’ giving each other a knowing wink and a nod from afar. Though made in jest, I unwittingly hit upon a truth. After the 2005 Iranian elections, Scott Petersen recorded this gem from Iranian political analyst, Saeed Laylaz: “There are three ideological capitals, in Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Washington. They are apparently against each other, but they love each other. They need each other. We need a foreign enemy to control the country.” Though the ‘we’ in that last sentence was referring to Iran, it’s no stretch to presume that Laylaz’s statement equally applies to the other “ideological capitals” and that all three regularly use a looming bugaboo to sidestep domestic economic issues.

It’s no conspiracy, just typical political theater where behind-the-scenes reality reveals a symbiotic back-scratching arrangement between superficially hostile governments. Accordingly, neither Washington nor Tel Aviv will touch their convenient nemesis in Tehran but the narrative of imminent military attack dies hard. I wasn’t surprised therefore to see the ‘dress rehearsal’ thesis reiterated by Israeli writer David Turner. He cites a report that claims ‘Pillar of Cloud’ was a coup engineered by Obama as part of a grand plan to confront Iran. Leaving the veracity of Debka’s assertions aside, the most intriguing part of Turner’s piece is his thoughts on the Pacific Pivot: “To abandon the [Middle East] region would be a signal to the world, including its “allies” and dependencies of the Far East of America the fading giant: of America the Unreliable… What message to future enemies and allies will the US send if it abandons the Middle East to Iran…?”

Turner sounds as if he doesn’t object to the Pivot if Iran is drubbed into submission before the U.S. departs but this is belied by a cursory look at his recent work on that topic. “Over the years I have written regarding America gradual withdrawal from the Middle East,” writes Turner, echoing both myself and Hannah Allam, who was told by unnamed analysts that “Even before the Arab Spring the U.S. government was subtly disengaging from the Middle East.” While not going years back into his archives, I soon enough found that Turner’s assessment of the Pivot mirrored my own with the exception that U.S. withdrawal horrifies him. He agrees with me that the U.S. (under both parties) would rather contain China than deal with Iran and proceeds to upbraid America with livid language for its dereliction, accusing the U.S. of “slinking away like a thief into the sunset.” To the trembling Turner the Middle East is “scary enough” without wondering “whether the promised US security blanket is real or just smoke and mirrors.”

From the tone of Turner’s language this “security blanket” doesn’t sound like it’s merely about Iran but a commitment in perpetuity. Indeed, attaining the pitch of his indignation, Turner throws up his hands and says, “If the US wants out of the responsibilities it agreed to when it replaced Britain and France, to protect the oil monarchies and regional allies, it should just come out and say so.” Let’s admit just that. We should step away from this potentially endless protection racket—America should be a republic, not an imperial power reigning over the Middle East propping up puppets. We should second John Quiggin’s recommendation: “it is time to reconsider whether the US really has significant national interests in the region—and if so, what those interests are. Assumptions inherited from the 1970s are no longer an adequate basis for policy.” What a help this would be since no one ever does explain in depth what these precious interests are.

Perhaps because a thorough re-examination would show that at bottom there are none–none that require pervasive American political and military intervention, at any rate. Securing oil supplies was never necessary and, assuming it was, a new-found windfall of U.S. fuel now renders the Carter Doctrine obsolete. An America that becomes the largest oil producer on the planet has no cause to worry about who the Gulf States sell their product to. So why not get out of the Gulf (that goes for the Pacific too) and sell all the military bases? It’s not as if there will be a Middle East apocalypse in our absence. Hard to imagine, to be sure, but without the U.S. as a ‘protector’ the quarreling nations there might elect diplomacy instead of reflexively resorting to the sword. In spite of the outrage of Turner et al, between the Arab Awakening and the changing energy situation the U.S. can finally afford to pivot homeward.

The Regime Change Red Herring

On the first of November there was somewhat of a dust-up in the Persian Gulf when Iranian jets fired at a U.S. drone that debatably encroached over Iranian airspace. Fortunately nothing ever came of the incident–the drone wasn’t damaged as the fighters were likely sending warning shots and Washington chose to cover-up the incident, disclosing it a week later. Both sides clearly are keen on de-escalation and preventing all-out war. But if war is something the U.S. is desperately seeking to avoid, why are there drones spying on Iranian oil tankers to begin with? Why is a burgeoning buildup of the U.S. navy occurring in the Gulf, increasing the chances of an untimely encounter triggering a casus belli? Well, it’s on account of all the tensions caused by crippling sanctions on Iran’s civilian nuclear program. Iran’s nuclear efforts, however, cannot be the reasons for the sanctions when their research and development isn’t in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’s enough to leave one wondering what insidious sort of game is being played here.

The name of the game is generally suspected to be regime change. Iraq was similarly hit with sanctions which were designed not to abate until Saddam Hussein stepped down and had he abdicated it still wouldn’t have sufficed since some sanctions remain to this day. But which nation is tenaciously pushing for the endless punishment of Iran? It’s not the United States that is this intent on waging economic warfare against Iran to the extent of changing that country’s government. When Washington babbles about regime change it’s to enrage the Iranians and give them bad press. What about the primary driving force of the sanctions campaign—the Israeli government? Do they seriously contemplate promoting that goal? Their rhetoric suggests it but, like Washington, Israel’s strategy follows a different trajectory.

Israel isn’t looking to do a thing to its most convenient bogy that distracts from difficult domestic issues. This was noticed earlier in the year by Israeli writer Akiva Eldar, who ruminated on the consequences of successfully precluding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. From the perspective of the current Israeli government, the results would be a veritable nightmare scenario. Calling the hypothetical elimination of this threat a “Pyrrhic victory” for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Eldar envisions in that event “world powers will turn toward other crises in the Middle East–including, of course, the Israeli occupation and its injustices. Without having to fear an Iranian nuclear bomb, Israelis are liable to get involved in the demographic and democratic issues in their own country.” Israel cannot afford to have Iran vanish from the international agenda and if that means, as Eldar implies, Netanyahu secretly fears a victory on the Iranian nuclear issue, then the prospect of Israel indirectly installing a docile, unmenacing regime in Iran is nil.

Lending more uncertainty to the purpose of these sanctions as an instrument of instigating economic misery and revolt was the high risk of the tactic backfiring. Indeed, the sanctions are patently failing, causing a rally around the flag effect which was predicted by analysts and therefore doubtless understood by Israeli officialdom to be the likeliest outcome. If they knew this, what are the sanctions really about? Israel’s actual aims were briefly betrayed by no less than its own President, Shimon Peres.

According to Gabe Fisher, Peres had “expressed fear that the Iranian situation would bring about some kind of renewed “Cold War”… but also spoke hopefully of a cold war that eventually “brings democracy to a new area.” Peres doesn’t fear this scenario; more like he would welcome it. Taking a leaf from Washington’s playbook, Israel is consciously fostering a Cold War against Iran as part of the Great Game of the Middle East and cloaking this in a regime change agenda to make the conflict easier for Israelis to swallow.

Besides assisting Israel in its contest with Iran for regional hegemony, this Cold War and its perennial tensions are calculated–as I have written–to prevent the Pacific Pivot. Since I made that estimation there have been some subtle signals to that effect. McClatchy’s Hannah Allam quotes in her piece about U.S. eagerness to extricate itself from the Middle East one Michael Signh who ominously warns policymakers that they “don’t have the choice of ignoring the Middle East.” Signh and others of his kidney in Washington think tanks devoted to the Middle East are petrified of the Pivot, scrambling haphazardly for any justification to evade a much-needed disengagement. “We have to recognize that we have enduring interests in this region,” Signh practically pleads to the State Department but concerning what those national interests are he has nothing to say. Such desperation among aficionados of America’s influence in the Mideast here means that alarms must be sounding even louder in Tel Aviv.

In the end, all the bawling over a nuclear Iran and talk of booting out the mullahs is a red herring. Israel (and the West too) does not seek war or a change of Iranian leadership lest a friendly Iran compel Israel to finally face down its thorniest dilemmas. Neither do they seek victory via a diplomatic resolution. No, the Iranian scapegoat must be left unscathed. The Israeli government is not alone in relying on this technique; in fact it is universally practiced by all governments, which are adept at inventing bêtes noires to draw attention away from domestic disputes that seem nearly insoluble.

Governments have traditionally depended upon a “splendid little war”–as John Hay affectionately christened the Spanish-American War—to pull the wool over the public’s eyes and a Cold War works just as well as a hot one. Hence whenever you read of one the latest laughable attempts to portray Iran as the Big Bad remember it can be reduced to politicians saying “What? Who cares if the country’s broke? Don’t you know Iran might decide to build some (useless) nukes (that would threaten nobody)!?”