Nuclear Tug o' War A Convenient Enemy in Iran

Iran is a favorite enemy of Israel and some American politicians. With its nuclear program, Tehran provides a reason for saber rattling. So is it still possible to prevent a confrontation? Only if Europe helps Obama to shift America's course.

An Essay by Norman Birnbaum


What distinguishes a lemming from a head of government in Western Europe? The lemming has its own habits and habitat, and is not inclined to follow the makers of American foreign policy over the cliff of confrontation with Iran.

Students celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran.
DPA

Students celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran.

The new US president has announced that he is ready to negotiate with Tehran. In light of our economic situation and our overburdened troops, that's certainly smart. Nevertheless, strategists at the State Department still cling to the imaginary idea that Iran presents an extraordinary threat. This idea is at least as absurd as Iran's image of America as the "great Satan".

The makers of American policy can be sharply differentiated from the American public. The citizenry is concerned with unemployment, diminished personal savings and general economic anxiety. At the same time, you could also describe the American obsession with Iran as a job-creation mechanism -- for diplomats, intelligence agents, military officers, commentators, politicians and experts. All can find commissions, contracts, jobs, promotion and publicity in one of Washington's basic industries -- the production of enemies and the construction of threats.

The current situation is clear: China is too big and economically important to be challenged; Russia is determined not be pushed around; and the "terrorists" seem satisfied for the moment to present insoluble problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to make the countries ungovernable. Iran, however, might be weak enough to intimidate, and its nuclear project offers a satifyingly simple narrative. True or false, it lends itself very well to stern editorials and reporting, especially the sort unburdened by a sense of complexity or knowledge of recent history.

Iran, of course, is a singularly credible adversary. Its fundamentalist leaders shine in ignorance of the rest of the world and moral fanaticism. Its president continually astonishes, and he actually believes what he says. Iran's geographic position and its oil resources, combined with its unique theological position within Islam, disturbs America's clients in the region -- those in power in Egypt, in the Gulf, in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Their regimes are restive under American protection, but they also fear any increase in Iranian power almost as much as they fear their own people.

Closely allied to Israel under the Shah, Iran by virtue of its influence (on Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria, to begin with) objectively threatens the Jewish state. That state, however, is mainly threatened from within. Israel's leaders and much of its public are marching toward another Masada. The capability to reflect once associated with Jewry is increasingly rare in the Holy Land.

In this vacuum of political ideas, nothing suits the Israelis better than a hostile Iran as its enemy.

Nevertheless, the US antagonism to the Iranian regime would still be very strong even if there wasn't a large pro-Israel current in America.

  • The US organized the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government (under Mossadegh) in 1953 -- a time when Eisenhower and his secretary of state weren't especially friendly toward Israel.

  • Or Saddam Hussein: Last known as the No. 1 enemy of the state. But when he waged war against Iran, the US supported him by supplying weapons.

The World Is Being Pushed into Confronation with Iran

A good deal of the energy and resources devoted to arguing the necessity of confrontational approaches to the Islamic Republic now comes from the American friends of Israel, their allies in Congress and the government, as well as a network of allied experts (or pseudo-experts) and journalists. They have allied themselves with the unilateralists so dominant in much of the Bush era who think little of international cooperation.

The announced intention of the Obama White House to negotiate, if possible, with the Iranians is no less alarming to these lobbyists. They fear that the US will be able define its national interests independently of Israel in the future. The unilateralists dislike any negotiation with any adversary which does not begin with the complete acceptance of American terms. They cannot accept a philosophy, and this they have in common with George W. Bush, that the world is not clearly divided into good and evil.

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