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Middle Eastern Turmoil and the Scaremongering on Iran

January 24, 2015 Topic: Iran Israel Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Middle Eastern Turmoil and the Scaremongering on Iran

It has not been a smooth month for those who want to keep Iran in pariahdom forever and thus seek to kill any international agreement on Iran's nuclear program. The sanctions bill that is the deal-killers' principal vehicle at the moment and is in the Senate banking committee has not been attracting the hoped-for Democratic co-sponsors. The strong position taken on the issue by President Obama obviously is a major reason for this. And however unlikely this may seem with almost anything that happens these days in Congress, reason and good sense have probably had some effect—among those who realize that the bill adds no negotiating value whatever in threatening additional sanctions on an Iran that already knows full well such sanctions would follow any breakdown of negotiations. With the exception of Robert Menendez (who has alienated himself from the president by wanting not only Iran but also Cuba to be in pariahdom forever), the deal-killing campaign has increasingly taken on an all-Republican flavor. That makes all the more obvious how, in addition to the other motivations behind the campaign, it has become a partisan endeavor to deny Mr. Obama a foreign policy achievement.

There also has been the widespread and thoroughly justified criticism of Speaker of the House John Boehner's invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on the subject—criticism that has been wider than Boehner probably expected. The inappropriateness of this invitation was apparent even to many people who may not fully appreciate how much Netanyahu has been trying to undermine U.S. foreign policy, and how he is much more of an adversary of the United States than an ally on this issue. His unwavering opposition to any agreement with Tehran, even an agreement that moves Iran farther away from having a nuclear weapon, is motivated by objectives the United States does not share and in some respects—such as the objective of limiting U.S. freedom of action regarding whom it cooperates with on Middle Eastern issues—is directly opposed to U.S. interests.

Many people also recognized the narrowness and cheapness of what Boehner did. He ignored the usual procedure, as former speaker Nancy Pelosi described it, of consulting with Congressional leaders of both parties before offering someone the high honor and exceptional privilege of addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress. People recognize that it debases the currency of this privilege to extend it a third time to Netanyahu when the only person so far to have addressed Congress three times is Winston Churchill. (We Americans knew Winston Churchill well. Winston Churchill was a friend. Bibi, you're no Winston Churchill.)

People also recognize that it is an indignity for the People's House if a foreign leader is to use it as a prop to berate the host country's policies as well as to try to score points with his voters in his own country in an election just a couple of weeks after he is scheduled to speak. He would be using Congress as a prop just as he used as a prop a cartoon drawing of a bomb—which he doesn't use anymore because the preliminary agreement that Netanyahu has always denounced drained his cartoon bomb by ending Iran's medium-level enrichment of uranium.

Zbigniew Brzezinski summarized well the nature of Boehner's move: “Speaker Boehner has an odd definition of leadership: inviting a foreign leader to undermine our President's policy in front of Congress?”

The opponents of an agreement may be increasingly aware that their fiction about supposedly just wanting to strengthen the U.S. negotiating position is wearing thin. There have been compromises of this cover story that have become difficult to hide, such as the direct, willing, and repeated admission of the freshman senator from Arkansas that the purpose of new sanctions legislation would be to kill the negotiations, not to aid them.

Further wearing away of the fiction has come from Israel, where the director of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, told visiting U.S. officials that new sanctions legislation would serve as a grenade that would blow up the negotiations. Pardo later tried to spin the story backward by saying that yes, the negotiations would blow up but what he meant was that this would be a good thing because negotiations could reconvene later under more favorable circumstances. That was a nice try by the Mossad chief to minimize the apparent rift with his prime minister—and a politically prudent try, given how already well known it has been that heads and former heads of Israel's security services disagree with Netanyahu's declared positions on Iran—but there won't be any more favorable circumstances. The current political circumstances in Iran are as good as they're going to get for this sort of deal for the foreseeable future, and if the current negotiations are blown apart by a legislative act of bad faith they will not come back together for a long time.

Against the backdrop of these setbacks to the anti-agreement campaign, the campaigners have recently been relying more on a strategy that isn't really new but has a new twist. That strategy involves going beyond the nuclear question and repeatedly voicing alarm about other aspects of Iranian policy and behavior. The strategy tacitly recognizes that the campaigners do not have logic and reason on their side regarding the objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, because an agreement of the sort that is being negotiated clearly would be much better at achieving that objective than the alternative, which would be the absence of an agreement and the loss of all the special restrictions on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program that already have been won through negotiations.

The strategy of reminding people of everything Iran does that we don't like, or that the campaigners tell us we're not supposed to like, operates on two levels. To some extent the anti-agreement forces try to make an argument that letting Iran out of its international penalty box will enable an ill-intentioned state to do even more ill-intentioned things. But to a large extent the appeal is simply an emotional, non-intellectual one that relies on popular distaste for doing any business with people we don't like. It is the sort of appeal that tacitly rejects the principle that the need for diplomacy and doing business with other states is at least as great with one's adversaries as it is with one's allies.

 

The newest twist is to recite some of the most recent turmoil in the region, such as the governmental collapse in Yemen, to interpret that turmoil as the consequence of Iran's evil doings, and to suggest that regional messiness is all of a piece with the nuclear question. Thus Charles Krauthammer, in his column on Friday under the headline “Iran's emerging empire” sounds an alarm about how “Iran's march toward a nuclear bomb” has combined with “Iran's march toward conventional domination of the Arab world” to make for an Iranian-created threatening mess in the Middle East. Yemen, Syria, Iraq, along with terrified Gulf Arab states—the whole set of conflicts is all, according to Krauthammer, one big Iranian campaign to establish an empire throughout the region. And then in the last part of the piece he says that he does not like those nuclear negotiations at all, and that given all that Iranian empire-building we should not like the negotiations either.

Published on the same day as Krauthammer's column, a piece by Dennis Ross, Eric Edelman, and Ray Takeyh centers on the same notion that “Iran is on the march in the Middle East.” (Evidently the current talking points from the anti-agreement war room recommend generous use of the term march.) Ross et al. say that “the American alliance system stands bruised and battered” while “our friends” in the region see the Iranian advance as even more rapid than a march: they “perceive Iran and its resistance-front galloping across the region.” The piece maintains the fiction about supposedly wanting an agreement, while recommending aggressive measures that, like new sanctions legislation, would be designed to derail the negotiations and prevent an agreement. The measures include a “revamped coercive strategy” that is vague but seems to consist of intentionally butting heads with the Iranians in any civil war we can find, as well as a “political warfare campaign” against Tehran and, in the most direct sort of negotiation-derailer, willingness of U.S. diplomats “to walk away from the table and even suspend the talks.”