Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thomas Friedman Misses the Elephant in the Room

Thomas Friedman's column "Hassan Does Manhattan" (catchy title, no?  Whoever created it seems intent on reminding us that Tommy has always been the brightest boy in the room) is all about Iran's politics, Tommy's chats with members of Mr. Rouhani's entourage, and what "we should do."  And what he suggests - in terms of what kind of deal Obama should offer Iran - is fine --- well within the mainstream of ideas that various onlookers have suggested.  But it what's Friedman leaves out that blows me away.

Not once - nowhere - in his essay does Friedman mention either of two words: "Israel" and "Netanyahu." Yet anybody who's been paying attention (and  I want to assume that Friedman numbers himself among that crowd) knows that Mr. Netanyahu is going to have a lot to say about all of this, and that what he's likely to say is not going to jive well with what Friedman thinks "we should do."  The last thing Netanyahu wants is a rapprochement between the US and Iran that leaves Iran with any semblance of political stature and respect on the world stage, and especially in the Middle East - which, in Bibi's mind and in the minds of Israel's hard-right establishment, is rightfully and properly Israel's stage, if not Israel's court.

Recently, Daniel Levy wrote a brilliant piece that Friedman really ought to read - or ought to have read before writing his latest.  I quote:

At the moment . . .  Netanyahu is signaling that there is no realistic deal that would be acceptable to Israel. For instance, a consensus exists among experts and Western officials that Iran's right to enrich uranium -- in a limited manner and under international supervision -- for its civilian nuclear energy program will be a necessary part of any agreement. Netanyahu rejects this.


If Iran is willing to cut a deal that effectively provides a guarantee against a weaponization of its nuclear program, and that deal is acceptable to the president of the United States of America, why would Netanyahu not take yes for an answer?


The reason lies in Netanyahu's broader view of Israel's place in the region: The Israeli premier simply does not want an Islamic Republic of Iran that is a relatively independent and powerful actor. Israel has gotten used to a degree of regional hegemony and freedom of action -- notably military action -- that is almost unparalleled globally, especially for what is, after all, a rather small power. Israelis are understandably reluctant to give up any of that.


Israel's leadership seeks to maintain the convenient reality of a neighboring region populated by only two types of regimes. The first type is regimes with a degree of dependence on the United States, which necessitates severe limitations on challenging Israel (including diplomatically). The second type is regimes that are considered beyond the pale by the United States and as many other global actors as possible, and therefore unable to do serious damage to Israeli interests.


Israel's leadership would consider the emergence of a third type of regional actor -- one that is not overly deferential to Washington but also is not boycotted, and that even boasts a degree of economic, political, and military weight -- a deeply undesirable development. What's more, this threatens to become a not-uncommon feature of the Middle East: Just look at Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or Egypt before the July 3 coup, or an Iran that gets beyond its nuclear dispute and starts to normalize its relations with the West.


There are other reasons for Netanyahu to oppose any developments that would allow Iran to break free of its isolation and win acceptance as an important regional actor with which the West engages. The current standoff is an extremely useful way of distracting attention from the Palestinian issue, and a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran would likely shine more of a spotlight on Israel's own nuclear weapons capacity. But the key point to understand in interpreting Netanyahu's policy is this: While Obama has put aside changing the nature of the Islamic Republic's political system, Israel's leader is all about a commitment to regime change -- or failing that, regime isolation -- in Tehran. And he will pursue that goal even at the expense of a workable deal on the nuclear file.


Netanyahu's maximalism does not represent a wall-to-wall consensus within the Israeli establishment. There is another Israeli strand of thinking -- notably among retired security elites like former Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Efraim Halevy and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin -- that holds that the challenges posed by Iran can be managed in different ways at different times. Others inside Israel's establishment acknowledge that the current period of unchallenged hegemony is unsustainable and that adjustments will have to be made. Some understand the efficacy of having an Iran more tied into the international system rather than isolated from it -- a deal on Iran's nuclear program, for instance, could also have its uses in limiting the maneuver room of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.


But Netanyahu has rejected these positions. The prime minister is nothing if not consistent: He was similarly intractable when the Palestinian leadership and the Arab League put forth pragmatic proposals. While the PLO's leadership accepts Israel's existence, the 1967 lines, and an accommodation on Israeli settlements (including in East Jerusalem) by way of land swaps, Netanyahu has shifted the goal posts -- rejecting the 1967 lines and refusing to take yes for an answer. With the Arab League's "Arab Peace Initiative" offering recognition of Israel and comprehensive peace in exchange for withdrawal from the occupied territories, Netanyahu is again following this pattern of rejectionism.


Netanyahu is a deeply ideological leader with an unshakeable belief in a Greater Israel and regional hegemony. If this reading of him is accurate, it bodes ill for Israel's reaction to the nascent diplomacy between the United States and Iran. In the coming weeks and months, Netanyahu will likely dedicate himself to derailing any prospect for a diplomatic breakthrough.


In that mission he is, of course, not alone. He will be joined by American hawks and neoconservatives, Republicans who will oppose Obama on anything, and some Democrats with a more Israel-centric bent. Their efforts will be concentrated on escalating threats against Iran, increasing sanctions, and raising the bar to an impossibly high place on the terms of a nuclear deal. All this will serve -- intentionally, one has to assume -- to strengthen hard-liners in Tehran who are equally opposed to a deal.



Of course, the Iranian forces ranged against Rouhani's pragmatism do not need encouragement from Washington. But absent encouragement, they are not in the ascendancy -- and crucially, Rouhani appears to have the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his diplomatic outreach. Currently, the difference among the three capitals -- Washington, Tehran, and Jerusalem -- is that only in Jerusalem does a representative of the hard-line faction, rather than the pragmatic camp, hold the most senior political office.


None of these considerations receive any mention in Friedman's wide-eyed prattling about democracy breaking out in Iran.  Yet it beggars belief to assume that none of them occurred to him.  The fact of the matter is that Netanyahu may indeed want to bully Obama into backing away from Iran - at least far enough, and for long enough, that Khamenei and Iran's still-powerful hard-liners get fed up and decide to rein in Rouhani.  

And Bibi has a bunch of bullies lined up alongside him.  I speak, of course - and Levy mentions them as well - of the Obama-baiting, Iran-hating GOP congressmen in his back-pocket.  They are already poised to bring the federal government to a shut-down and heap the blame on Barack Hussein Obama.

Bibi would be glad to give them a two-fer.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Stabilizing Syria Means Engaging Iran

Both al-Monitor and Barbara Slavin (at al-Jazeera America) have published analyses that make it clear: In the absence of any effective military option, the only possible path to calming the situation in Syria is negotiations.  And those negotiations must include Iran.  As al-Monitor notes, 
Unless the US commits all-out to regime change in Syria, which Obama said he has no intention of doing, a strategy to end the war necessarily involves diplomacy with adversaries as well as allies. The NATO air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, often and rightly considered successes for US policy, included intensive direct diplomacy with all parties, including Yugoslav dictator and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. You need a cease-fire by all sides to stop the killing. It was the Yugoslav government, after the Kosovo war, which arrested Milosevic and transferred him to the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia. There should be several lessons here for Syria.
Terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and maybe even Egypt would likely continue to surge even after a US strike absent a diplomatic strategy to end the war and address the now-rejuvenated terrorist threat in Syria.
It is the continuation of the war, the destruction of Syria, the rise of jihadists, the spread of terrorism to Syria’s neighbors and the waves of refugees that are the threats to US interests, and these are best handled by an immediate cease-fire and the start of negotiations — not by taking sides in the war. 
The administration could seize the opportunity of the congressional debate to lay out the endgame in Syria with some clear benchmarks, beyond missile strikes in response to chemical weapons use, including: a channel with Iran; calling out both the Assad regime and the opposition, and especially their respective regional patrons, to enact a cease-fire immediately; urgently convening the Geneva II conference to include both the Syrian government and non-jihadist opposition forces, no exceptions; and a crackdown and some accountability on those US allies which directly or indirectly support the flow of jihadists to Syria. . . .
Iran, more than any other power in the region, is the “dynamo” and broker of either war or peace.  It is time to put Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the test and bring the Syria war to a close.

But bringing Rouhani (and, by extension, of course, Khamenei) into a negotiation can happen only if Mr. Netanyahu is willing to give Mr. Obama the political space to reach out to Iran.  As the two reports note above make clear, some of that outreach has already begun.  But it can only go as far as Netanyahu and his confederates - both in Jerusalem and in D.C. - will let it.  Bibi has invested enormous energy and cubic-yards of hot air in demonizing Iran (even referring to Rouhani recently as a "wolf in sheep's clothing") and its "existential threat" to Israel.  Any attempt by Obama to bring Iran into putative cease-fire negotiations over Syria automatically lends respectability and legitimacy to the Iranian regime.  It also undercuts not only Bibi's demonizing of Iran, but also his insistence that the threat of a military strike against Iran needs to remain unholstered.

Yet, as is becoming clear, damping down Syria's violence and refugee flow - both of which have destabilized the countries bordering Israel and threaten thereby to impact Israel itself - is going to require Iran's acquiescence at the very least.  That means reaching out and offering Iran some kind of role partnering with other countries that are interested in restoring some modicum of stability within which Syria - or whatever "Syria" is to become - can be sorted out.

Is Bibi up to keeping his finger off the bash-Iran button?  Giving Iran a chance to help restore some peace to the heart of the Arab world just might win Israel a few friends therein.


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