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.
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.
Iran as a Threat to the World? That's an Exaggeration
The immediate ancestors of these forces came together during the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan to block the possibility of deepened and extended détente with the Soviet Union. Kissinger and Nixon and Ford, having opened and stabilized relations with China, sought agreements on arms control and a general reduction of US-Soviet tensions. Kissinger and Nixon were the American architects of the Helsinki Agreement -- the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. That alarmed the unilateralists.
Their preferred strategy was to get the US to increase its superiority in weapons before negotiating with a powerful USSR. The unilateralists were supported by the pro-Israel lobby, which demanded that the USSR allow large scale Jewish emigration as a pre-condition of any other agreements with the US. Together, they stopped Kissinger, Nixon and Ford from achieving anything more than partial détente. They completely paralyzed Carter, and they incited Reagan to intensify hostility to the USSR.
But even they were only able to push back the end of the Cold War by a further 20 years. Delay was not the only result of their efforts: in the crisis over stationing medium-range missiles in Europe and later over Reagan's Stars Wars project, the Western European nations were put at serious risk. Then they were stridently denounced by Americans who had themselves known no combat other than for academic and governmental appointments, research grants or space on opinion pages, for lack of courage.
The language reappeared in American denunciations of European refusal to support the invasion of Iraq by George W. Bush. At the moment, there's no need for America to revive its power rhetoric -- our ideological foreign legion in the European governments, media, parliaments and research institutes has anticipated our war party. Europe, they declare, must do its share against Iran.
Our European friends could do more than their their share by drawing on their accumulated experience and intelligence to question the inevitability of a conflict with Iran. It is impossible for a citizen with no special access to intelligence to say how far the Iranians have progressed toward the capacity to fabricate nuclear weaponry. That may be impossible, as well, for a US president or his European colleagues with intelligence ostensibly at their disposition. After all, the reports could be erroneous or falsified.
The head of the Washington bureau of the New York Times recently said that in the final months of the Bush government, the US refused to allow Israel to attack Iran. He also reported that US covert operations are now proceeding against Iran. At the same time, he said he couldn't discuss all that he knew because the government had asked him not to. I can still recall the spring of 1961, when President Kennedy asked the New York Times to suppress information it had on preparations for the ill-fated expedition to the Bay of Pigs. The newspaper agreed, although even Castro knew of the plans and had indeed publicly referred to them. The major party kept in the dark was the American public.
The least that can be said is that apparently the US is now engaged in what under international law is aggression against Iran. It would be interest ing to know if Brown, Merkel, Sarkozy think this wise--- or if they have even been consulted.
Let us suppose that Iran, one way or another, achieves the capacity to make nuclear weapons, or actually produces some. It would take time before they reach Israel's estimated total of 150 such weapons, much less the thousands possessed by the US.
Whatever Iran's actual or potential arsenal, the use of the weapons against Israel, or the US, would amount to an act of national suicide. No nuclear weapons have been employed since the US attacked Japan. Since then, deterrence has worked -- even between India and Pakistan. Perhaps an Iranian government would engage in self-immolation -- but there is little to support that hypothesis.
No doubt, an Iran with nuclear weaponry would be a difficult state to have to deal with. But the notion that Iran's nuclear weaponry project constitutes an existential threat to the rest of the world is an exaggeration. It would be a major problem amongst many others, and no more than that. Iran will also change. One just has to think of the profound paradox of the Cold War -- the idea, on the one hand, that democracy was irresistible, and on the other that the Soviet Union would never change.
Iran's diffculties with the West are not entirely of its own making, either. The Europeans would do well to evince some of the realism and restraint they urge on everyone else. An attack on Iran would deepen as well as extend the US-led conflict with the entire Muslim world. In terms of any calculus of costs and benefits, the costs would far outweigh the benefits.
But which European leader now in office has had the format to declare publicly that Europe is not available for adventures? As long as the US announces at every turn that military action against Iran remains an option, European silence is a form of complicity.
The Europeans, no doubt, wish to be helpful to the new American administration and in particular facilitate its development of multilateralism and a more differentiated and less militarized conception of politics. The brutal Republican effort to sabotage President Obama's economic recovery proposals provides an indication of their response to any serious attempt by the president and his government to re-examine the country's global ambitions.
The Europeans could render our new president a very large service -- by developing their own policy toward Iran. The new American leadership invariably speaks of partnership. A Europe reminding the American public and elite that partnership requires major changes in US thought and policy would actually strengthen the president's capacity to exercise his large pedagogic gifts.
A president and thinker whose writings show an acute awareness of the contradictions and paradoxes of politics would appreciate being taken seriously enough to be thought capable of changing course.