by Mitchell Plitnick
Not everyone shares the optimism surrounding the recent communication between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani. From Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Monarchies and, of course, Washington, DC, voices of war are in a panic that tensions between the U.S. and Iran might be reduced by some means other than further devastation of the Islamic Republic.
The concern that Iran might emerge with a better relationship with the United States is quite vexing for the Gulf rulers and for Israel. For some years now, the drive to isolate Iran has focused almost entirely on the nuclear issue. In fact, regionally, much of the concern has been the ascendancy of Iran as a regional player more broadly, with revolutionary rhetoric that challenges the dominance of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Since the destruction, by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, of the dual containment policy, the issue for these parties has been how to contain Iran and its regional influence.
Iran has been cast as an “aggressor nation,” and this has been sold by illustrating Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other militant groups, its often bombastic rhetoric, and for the past decade, Iran’s ducking from some of its responsibilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). What gets left out is that Iran has never initiated an attack on another nation, its threats to “wipe Israel off the map” are factually known as (just not in mainstream discourse) to be a de-contextualized mistranslation of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s words, and even Iran’s failures with the IAEA have been part of a back and forth exchange, where they refuse or neglect to comply with some things in response to what they see as US-led unfair sanctions or restrictions. That doesn’t mean Iran has not caused some of these problems itself, it has. Lack of transparency on nuclear issues tends to raise the hackles of one’s enemies. But all this has hardly been the one-way street that’s been portrayed.
Too much scrutiny toward all of this sits poorly with Riyadh, Jerusalem, and in many circles in Washington. But because so much of the anti-Iran feeling has focused for so long on the nuclear issue, such scrutiny could come to bear at least a little more if Obama and Rouhani work things out. Labelling Iran an “aggressor nation” without the nuclear issue simply wouldn’t have the same impact anymore.
To combat this, Israel has been publicly playing down Rouhani’s overtures, sometimes calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and more generally, taking the “prove it” line. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s standard for proof is unrealistically high, and this is no accident. He has said that the conditions Iran must agree to are: halting all uranium enrichment, removing all enriched material, closing the reactor at Fordo and stopping plutonium production. This position is an obvious non-starter, but it reflects what has been the United States’ own position until now. Obama’s statements, while far from explicit, have given Iran reason to believe that this may have changed.
The reactions of Israel and the Gulf states would be puzzling if preventing a nuclear Iran was their main focus. But this has always been a means to an end: to isolate Iran and slow its rise as a regional power. The over-emphasis on the nuclear issue risks blunting other tools.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is already setting its sights on this issue. An AIPAC memo published on Sept. 20 urges the negotiations to be “backed by strength,” a vague enough statement, but one that shines light on its specific proposals.
One option AIPAC wishes to impede is the possibility of sanctions relief. “If Iran suspends its nuclear activity, the United States should be prepared to suspend any new sanctions” (emphasis added). This seems to make it clear that AIPAC wants to see the continued isolation of Iran no matter how the nuclear issue is resolved. UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions have repeatedly demanded that Iran suspend its enrichment programs and heavy water reactor programs, but the most recent resolutions, particularly UNSC 1835, also emphasize the UNSC’s commitment “to an early negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue” (emphasis mine). That is not something AIPAC wishes to see. An Iran that gets an agreement can be strengthened regionally. An Iran that either continues to labor under the status quo of sanctions and the looming threat of war or surrenders on the nuclear issue is seriously weakened. That is the game that’s being played here.
But this time, the playing field is much less certain. In the wake of the outcry against an attack on Syria, will AIPAC be able to push its measures through Congress without watering them down sufficiently to give Obama room to pursue substantive negotiations with Iran? Other than paranoia, there is scant evidence to support the position that Iran is merely putting on a show to stall for time while pursuing a nuclear weapon. But America’s own war footing keeps the risk of another Western misadventure in the Gulf region a real possibility. Obama seems bent on steering us away from that, and at least at first blush, seems to be acting on the will of his constituency in doing so.
Saudi Arabia will certainly add its voice to Israel’s on Capitol Hill. And Iran is not Syria. As appalled as many in the U.S. were over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, they were not convinced, for a variety of reasons, that this was cause for their country to take military action again in the Middle East. Syria may not be well-liked in the United States, but it is not a direct enemy. Iran is perceived as such, and has been ever since the fall of the Shah and the ensuing hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979-80. It may be that concern over Iran and the nuclear issue will provide fertile ground for AIPAC’s efforts to sabotage peace talks. It will also be a good deal easier to push their agenda in Congress because they won’t be advocating the immediate use of U.S. armed forces against Iran, as was the case with Syria.
While the congressional playing field is not entirely clear yet, one thing is obvious. Obama is going to need support in his peacemaking efforts. That support will need to come from the U.S. public and he will need to know that he has it in order to counter what is sure to be a furious onslaught from the most powerful forces that oppose any normalization with the Islamic Republic. That onslaught is coming and it is going to be furious. Obama will also need support from Iran, of all places. Rouhani will need to maintain the positive face he is portraying. And Rouhani should not be alone in this endeavour. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, apparently recognizing that Rouhani had not gone far enough in distancing himself from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial, has made sure to unequivocally acknowledge the Holocaust and its horrors. However prominent one thinks that issue should be, the clear statements were obviously intended to forestall the use of that issue against progress in upcoming nuclear talks.
More of that will be needed. Obama has restarted his Iran diplomacy on the right foot, being bold with his phone call to Rouhani and cautious in his public statements. He is proceeding deliberately but not giving his opponents big openings to attack his efforts at diplomacy. But the storm that is heading for Capitol Hill on this issue is going to be fierce. Obama will need all his skills and all the help he can get in weathering it.