Biden, Israel, and Tehran's Hardliners
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
21 Mar 2010 03:58
[ opinion ] In the depth of their worries about the deep crisis into which they have brought Iran over the past nine months; amid all the problems that they face, both domestically and internationally; and in the midst of their preparations for preventing the Green Movement from making a show of strength during Chaharshanbeh Souri -- the traditional fire festival on the night before the last Wednesday of the Iranian calendar -- Tehran's hardliners received a Nowrooz present. The Nowruz gift came courtesy of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israel's right wing, led by Premier Benjamin Netanyahu. While the hardliners are evidently happy about what they have received, the Arab states of the Middle East have been completely silent -- yet another piece of good news for the regime.
What happened during Biden's trip to Israel and its aftermath has been analyzed extensively in the press and on the Internet. I would like to focus on what these developments mean for Iran.
Biden has been a loose cannon. He cannot stop himself from talking, and when he does, he often gets himself and the Obama administration into trouble. His latest act has surpassed whatever he has done in the past and has already yielded significant consequences.
Biden visited Israel during March 9 and 10. The purpose of the trip was not publicly articulated, but he presumably went there to talk about the two most pressing topics in the Middle East: Iran and the Palestinians. From the moment he arrived in Israel, he was in "top shape," talking constantly about how great the country is.
First, when he visited Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, he declared Israel "a central bolt in our existence" -- presumably referring to the United States. He continued, "For world Jewry, Israel is the heart. Israel is the light. Israel is the hope." Was he including the 5 million American Jews? I cannot say for certain, but I am guessing that was his intention.
The next day, Biden met with Shimon Peres, Israel's president. He gushed that when he first visited the country at the age of 29, "Israel captured my heart." He told Peres, "It is good to be home." To top it off, he wrote, "The bond between our two nations has been and remains unshakable," in Peres's guest book.
When he met with Netanyahu, Biden called him a "real friend," and declared that the U.S.-Israel relationship "has been and will continue to be the centerpiece of our policy." He did not stop there. At Tel Aviv University, Biden declared that "the U.S. has no better friend than Israel." And even that was not enough for Biden. He also said,
There is no space -- this is what they [the world] must know, every time progress is made, it's made when the rest of the world knows there is absolutely no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to security, none. No space. That's the only time when progress has been made.
Now, praise for Israel by an American official, regardless of rank, is nothing new, of course. It is, in fact, obligatory. But there were a number of distinctions this time: (a) when Biden lavished praise on Israel, he went beyond even the effusive norm; (b) in return, he got a slap in the face (some would say a punch) that has created a crisis in the U.S.-Israeli relationship; and, most importantly, (c) the result produced a gift for Tehran's hardliners and silenced the governments of the Arab world. The implications for the strategic interests of the United States are not yet clear. The damage assessment is still going on. Let me explain.
While Biden was lavishing encomiums on his Israeli hosts, he was being "rewarded" lavishly too: Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced that 1,600 new apartments would be built in East Jerusalem, where the Palestinian population is concentrated and which many Palestinians regard as rightfully the future capital of an independent state. Why did this happen? In my opinion, because Israel's right wing and its American allies -- the neoconservatives -- perceive President Obama as weak and susceptible to pressure, and for good reasons. Obama has retreated from many of his campaign promises.
Guantanamo was supposed to be closed within one year; it has not been. After harshly criticizing the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- and rightly so -- he has continued Bush's policies there. He has not only expanded the war in Afghanistan (the one campaign promise that he has delivered!), but also has involved Pakistan in it. After seemingly getting tough with Israel at the beginning of his presidency (just a few days after Israel's invasion of Gaza had ended), he retreated shortly thereafter, declaring the problem between Israel and Palestinians "too difficult." His Cairo speech to the Islamic world rings hollow.
Domestically, the president has retreated from his promise to seriously pursue universal health care, as well as tough regulations for the financial industry. In each case, the president has retreated because he found the pressure unbearable. Why, then, should Israel's right wing care about humiliating the vice president of the United States?
Biden condemned the announcement and Netanyahu apologized for its timing (but not for the policy, of course). According to Politico, Biden even told Netanyahu that Israel's intransigence with regard to the Palestinians "is starting to get dangerous for us. What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace."
But Israel is going ahead with the apartments anyway. Indeed, as Biden was leaving for Jordan, the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that Israel plans to build 50,000 new homes in East Jerusalem over the next few years, which has since been confirmed. This entire set of developments was a gift to Tehran's hardliners, and for several reasons.
First, the central incident happened just a few days before Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas lashed out at Iran, blaming it for encouraging Hamas not to reconcile with his secular Fatah movement. In a meeting in Tunisia, Abbas said, "Iran doesn't want Hamas to sign the Cairo reconciliation document." But if Israel continues colonizing East Jerusalem and the West Bank, why should any Hamas leader want to reconcile with Fatah, Israel's negotiating partner? Hamas needs no encouragement from Tehran's hardliners. Fatah is widely seen as inveterately corrupt and in the "pocket" of the United States. Abbas's accusation against Tehran's hardliners, even if it was true, was thus dismissed as a result of the attention brought to bear on Israel's plans for East Jerusalem.
Second, an important aspect of U.S. strategy has been to scare the Arab states with the specter of a "nuclear" Iran. American officials argue that Iran wants to produce nuclear weapons in order to be the hegemon of the region even though, at least to date, there is no evidence that Tehran's hardliners actually want to manufacture such arms. Even if they eventually do, it would be for the purpose of deterrence.
There has been talk of a tacit alliance between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United States, and Israel against Iran. In order to convince the other Arab states to join this alliance, the United States must deliver on the Palestinian problem, a deeply felt issue throughout the entire Islamic world. The Arab states need results in this area as a cover. Otherwise, given their corrupt and dictatorial regimes, their close relations with the United States, and the fact that Tehran's hardliners are perceived -- correctly or not -- by Arabs in the street as the only true supporters of the Palestinians' cause, they cannot dare to join the alliance.
But, how credible are U.S. promises to the Arab world, when its vice president is humiliated during his trip to Israel? How credible are its promises, when Israel is taking over more and more Palestinian lands with seeming impunity?
Third, when Biden announces that "there is absolutely no space between the United States and Israel," why should any Arab leader believe that America is an honest broker between Arabs and Israelis? What does it mean to say, "There is no space"? That every single U.S. national interest is identical with Israel's? This is the type of claim that Israel's American lobby makes, but does the vice president have to subscribe to it?
More importantly, Tehran's hardliners have been claiming for years that the entire confrontation between them and the United States over Iran's nuclear program is the result of the pressure put on American administrations by Israel and its lobbying operation. There is credible evidence that the claim is at least partly true. But even if it were not, if "there is no space between the United Stated and Israel," and it is Israel that, despite having up to 400 nuclear warheads, is making the most outlandish and outrageous claims about Iran's nuclear program, why should anyone not believe the claims made by Tehran's hardliners? It is Israel that has been claiming for two decades that Iran is six months, or one year, or two years away from making nuclear weapons.
Fourth, if Israel perceives President Obama as weak and susceptible to pressure, what will stop Tehran's hardliners from thinking the same? They know that Israel is trying to provoke tough sanctions against Iran and, eventually, war. Why should they not think that Israel may get its way with the president, after observing the humiliation of Joe Biden?
In 2007, Israel asked the Bush administration to support an attack on Iran, but Bush rejected the idea. President Obama has been sending one high-ranking U.S. official after another to Israel, presumably to try to warn it against attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, but Israel has continued its belligerent behavior and anti-Iranian rhetoric and propaganda, not to mention its preparatory military exercises. Why can the president not pick up the phone and tell Netanyahu in no uncertain terms that the United States is opposed to a military attack on Iran? Is it because he does not want to confront Netanyahu head on?
If that is indeed the perception that Tehran's hardliners have of Obama, why should they be willing to reach a compromise with the United States and its allies? If they believe that Israel is bent on attacking Iran, will that not likely make them hasten to put Iran in a position to make nuclear weapons on short notice, in order to deter an Israeli assault? Why should Tehran's hardliners believe that Obama can resist Israel's push for a strike on Iran's nuclear program?
And, here Joe Biden committed yet another gaffe, one that supports the Tehran hardliners' perception of President Obama as being susceptible to Israeli pressure. In an interview on ABC's "This Week" last July, Biden was asked whether Netanyahu was taking the right approach in indicating that Israel would take matters into its own hands if Iran did not show a willingness to negotiate by the end of the year. Biden responded, "Look, Israel can determine for itself -- it's a sovereign nation -- what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else..."
Biden then added that this was the case, "whether we agree or not" with the Israeli view.
When he asked whether the United States would stand in the way if the Israelis decided to launch a military attack against Iranian nuclear facilities, he responded, "Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do."
So, Bush did not know that Israel is a sovereign nation, but Biden and Obama do? Since when can Israel undertake such a huge adventure on its own? Let us cut off the $3 billion in annual aid to Israel, deny it access to the most advanced U.S. military technology, and stop protecting it at the United Nations and see whether it can accomplish its quest.
It is not just the hardliners in Iran who have a stake in the developments between the Obama administration and Israel. In my opinion, any Iranian or Iranian-American who is opposed to economic sanctions and military attacks on Iran should be following these events. The crux of the issue is this: If U.S. and Israeli policy are one and the same -- as Biden has declared -- then the perception of Tehran's hardliners that the Obama administration cannot stand up to Israel when it comes to Iran is correct. In that case, we may expect a new catastrophe in the Middle East, namely, a war with Iran -- economic, military, or both.
Even here in the United States, prominent officials have been expressing their worries about the implications of Israel's policy and actions. On March 13, Mark Perry of Foreign Policy Magazine reported on a briefing that senior officers working under General David Petraeus, chief commander for U.S. forces in the Middle East, gave to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to Perry, General Petraeus's central message to Admiral Mullen was that "Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region" and could cost American lives. Mullen conveyed this message to the White House and the president. Add to this Israel's provocations for attacking Iran, and the picture that emerges is not pretty.
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