Ray McGovern
March 1 3, 2010

Participants at an otherwise informative discussion on “Iran at a Crossroads” at the Senate on Wednesday seemed at pains to barricade the doors against the proverbial elephant being admitted into the room — in this case, Israel.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen has warned the Israelis publicly that an attack on Iran would be a “big, big, big problem for all of us.”

This, despite the fact that the agenda virtually dictated that the elephant be allowed in. The cavernous hearing room also could have accommodated it — however awkward and untidy the atmosphere might have become.

Otherwise, as was entirely predictable, the discussion would be lacking a crucial element. Which it turned out to be.

The tongue-tied impediment displayed by some of the presenters can be chalked up mostly to the all-too-familiar timidity on Capitol Hill to countenance candid discussion of any issue on which Israel can be revealed to be a fly in the ointment.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, obtained use of the hearing room for the organizers of the discussion, the thoroughly professional National Iranian American Council headed by Professor Trita Parsi. This is to Levin’s credit, in my view.

At the same time, Sen. Levin holds the all-time-high record for PAC contributions from groups affiliated with the self-described “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby” — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

In any case, a truly distinguished panel launched the discussion on “The U.S. and Iran: Back to Confrontation?” which Professor Parsi moderated. The panelists began by setting a fact- and reality-based context, which in turn raised hopes of a no-holds-barred discussion. Their observations included, or implied, the following:

-The status of the U.S. as the “world’s sole remaining superpower” may have “turned a corner.” In many key respects, China, India, Russia and Brazil now represent a rival “superpower” strong enough to thwart American policy objectives.

-The consequences of nuclear weapons proliferation in the general area of the Persian Gulf are so truly ominous that “everything imaginable” should be done to head it off.

-The main “positive” of robust sanctions against a country like Iran is simply that those who impose them can feel good. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to target sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps without hurting the Iranian people at large.

-The experience of the past several years demonstrates that the U.S. and Iran share — and can act on — common interests (in Afghanistan, for example). Neither country would profit from hostilities involving Iran.

-Iran is nowhere near a nuclear weapon, so there is time to reconsider what guarantees could be offered to Tehran to dissuade it from pursuing a nuclear weapons option.

-No member of Congress has set foot in Iran since 1979.

With these observations on the table, it was as if the doors to the hearing room were clanked shut and bolted, lest the Israeli elephant be allowed to intrude. And this, despite a palpable yearning in the audience for the panelists to address uncomfortable questions like:

-If there are no intrinsic factors dictating implacable hostility between Iran and the U.S., how does one account for its persistence? What promotes, what feeds it?

There was, of course, the sad history of 1953 when the CIA engineered the overthrow of Iran’s democratic government and the unpleasant memory of Iran holding 52 American hostages for 444 days at the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

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But aside from those incidents, could the mutual hostility have anything to do with Israel and what it perceives as its security interests?

-Do the Iranian leaders see as contrived the oft-expressed concern that Iran might eventually obtain a nuclear weapon, when American officials do nothing about Israel’s actual nuclear weapons, or for that matter, those of Pakistan and India?

-Is the real objective of Israel and, by extension, the U.S. the same as it was with respect to Iraq seven years ago — that is, “regime change”? (How I dislike using the euphemism in vogue for what we used to call overthrowing governments!)

Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let drop last month that, even if Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon, this does not “directly” threaten the United States.

-Is it true, as one of the panelists asserted, that “No one believes that the Green (opposition) movement in Iran is supported by outside forces; rather it is clearly an entirely indigenous, spontaneous movement.”

Into the memory hole went the past news reports about the Bush administration earmarking $400 million to support covert operations designed to frustrate Iran’s nuclear program and to destabilize its political system. There also have been troubling reports that the United States has helped “good” terrorist organizations, like Jundullah, in striking violent blows against Iran’s regime.

-Is it a given, as one very distinguished panelist suggested, that “Everyone knows that the Israelis would only use their considerable nuclear arsenal to defend itself”? It seems that when Israel is mentioned in these affairs the comments must only be in the most positive light and there can be no suggestion that Israel might use, say, bunker-busting tactical nukes to destroy hardened Iranian targets.

-Does the Israeli government honestly perceive an “existential threat” in Iran’s possible acquisition of a few nuclear weapons against the 200-300 devices already in Israel’s arsenal? If so, is Israel prepared to “defend itself” by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, using the preventive-war justification which has long been a staple of Israeli policy, and was adopted kit and caboodle by Bush and Cheney?

-Are the Israelis counting on U.S. logistical support for such a preventive attack —intelligence and operational planning support of the kind that enabled its surgical strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981? Are they expecting the kind of political support the United States provided in the wake of Israel’s September 2007 attack on a suspect nuclear-related facility being built in Syria?

-Why is it that Robert Hunter, a former American ambassador, and now adviser to RAND, a passionate opponent of nuclear proliferation, can state his support for a “nuclear-free Middle East,” and then with a wan smile simply throw up his hands lamenting that that’s never going to happen (presumably because Israel would never go along).

Why is this thought automatically exempt from the category of doing “everything imaginable” to stave off a worsening crisis from nuclear proliferation?

-If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels he can thumb his nose at the U.S. President (and Vice President) on the signal issue of Israeli settlements, is there reason to believe that Netanyahu is inclined to take into account repeated “please pleas” from the likes of Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, who has warned the Israelis publicly that an attack on Iran would be a “big, big, big problem for all of us?”

Was this week’s chutzpah-laden Israeli move announcing new settlement construction in East Jerusalem – in the midst of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden – a case of practice mouse trapping, a test of whether the Obama administration really has the toughness to push back in a meaningful fashion?

Ambassador Hunter was accompanied on the afternoon panel by prolific writer, Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, and Robert Malley, who served in senior positions at President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council and is now Program Director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C.

All three have a wealth of experience on the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, giving rise to eventually dashed expectations of a more candid discussion.

There are, of course, limits to what can be covered in an hour and a quarter.  And yet, there did seem a distinct aversion to including Israel in any discussion of the political obstacles preventing sensible accommodation between Tehran and Washington.

No doubt the main obstacle can be traced to the time-worn “passionate attachment” of U.S. leaders to Israel’s short-term interests as if they were identical to those of the United States. This politically super-sensitive issue needs to be addressed openly and without fear.

Granted, volunteering to sponsor such a discussion would be seen as the kiss of death for the vast majority of lawmakers. Is there no group, no think tank with courage enough to arrange such a forum? For it truly needs to be done, and quickly, somewhere — whether permitted in a Senate office building, or not.

Otherwise, there is virtually no prospect of lessened tensions, and a near-term prospect that things can get dramatically worse — an Israeli provocation and/or a preventive strike on Iran, for example.

Otherwise, like Mrs. Lincoln at Ford Theatre on April 14, 1865, we are all likely to find it difficult to enjoy the rest of the show.


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