The following is an edited transcript of the sixty-first in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held Tuesday, July 13, 2010, with Thomas R. Mattair presiding.
HILLARY MANN LEVERETT, Senior Research Fellow, Yale University; coauthor of blog at www.raceforiran.com
The topic today is about linkages between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Iranian nuclear issue. The conventional wisdom here in Washington has long held that Iran, its Syrian ally and their so-called proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, are the ultimate spoilers of Middle Eastern peace-making efforts. According to this conventional wisdom, Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric and terrorist attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah have regularly scuttled what otherwise surely would have been deemed successful diplomatic initiatives. I say that with some sarcasm.
Given this conventional wisdom, two opposing strategies of linkage are typically put forward. Both start from the same premise: that Iran and its so-called proxies can and must be marginalized. The two linkages really only differ in how to achieve that base goal: marginalizing Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and other resistance groups.
The first part of this linkage package, favored by the Obama administration and articulated recently by National Security Adviser Jim Jones, holds that trying to achieve Arab-Israeli peace is the key to Iran and its proxies’ regional marginalization. From this perspective, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement — or, more accurately, an Israeli-Fatah peace agreement and the creation of a more prosperous Fatah enclave in the West Bank — would undermine popular support for Hamas, even in Gaza; marginalize Hamas as an actor in Palestinian politics; and effectively terminate Iranian influence in Palestinian affairs, with significant negative consequences for Iran’s regional standing.
Likewise, this linkage holds that the prospect of an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement could be used to wean Syria away from Iran, thereby circumscribing Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics and further reducing Tehran’s regional standing and influence. And of course from this perspective, progress in the peace process will supposedly make it easier to form that mythical — and I stress, mythical — diplomatic constellation to which several U.S. administrations have aspired: a coalition between Israel and so-called “moderate Arab states” for the purpose of containing Iran.
The second position of linkage in this argument is one favored particularly by Israeli Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu, but by others as well. It posits that weakening Iran’s strategic position and stripping it of its nuclear capabilities — if necessary, by force — is needed before there can be real progress on Arab-Israeli peace. Frankly, I see both sets of these linkages as really wrong-headed.
Let’s start with why the first piece of the linkages — trying to achieve Arab-Israeli peace as a way of marginalizing Iran and its so-called proxies — is wrong. The key point here is this: It is simply not possible today, if it had ever been possible at some point in the past, to achieve Israeli-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli peace in a matter that excludes and marginalizes Iran and its regional allies. It’s just not feasible.
Osama Hamdan, the chief of international relations for Hamas, has said that Israel and the United States have what he calls a “Cinderella-slipper” approach to Middle Eastern elections. That is, unless the winner fits a certain set of specific parameters, he will not be accepted as a legitimate interlocutor. Of course, this is Hamas’s experience. I agree with that, but I would add that Israel and the United States also have a Cinderella-slipper approach to the Middle East peace process. That is, only parties that can frontload their concessions need apply.
This is a profoundly dysfunctional approach to diplomacy. It is something that Israel’s late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin referred to when he came to understand and explained why Israel needed to negotiate then with the PLO. Very simple, very basic: you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends. Policies that deny this basic reality are bound to fail, and have failed, in terms of both Arab-Israeli peace making and dealing effectively with Iran.
I will elaborate on this with three basic points. First, though they are non-state actors, Hamas and Hezbollah have become indispensable political players in their respective national and regional contexts. Simply put, these groups win elections, and they win them for the best possible reasons: they represent unavoidable constituencies with legitimate grievances. We can’t get around that. Under these circumstances, I challenge anyone to describe in a plausible way how Israel and the United States can reach sustained peace agreements on either the Palestinian or the Lebanese and Syrian tracks of the peace process without these groups’ buy-in. These groups should have a place in the peace process because otherwise the process has no meaning, except perhaps as a crass motion-without-movement exercise. Those who continue to depict these groups as entirely nihilistic enterprises with no real political agenda are either not paying attention or are deliberately distorting reality for their own political purposes.
My second point deals with Syria and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, whom I have met on several occasions. I think that President Asad wants better relations with the United States and a peace settlement with Israel, but one that meets well-established Syrian redlines, such as full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. However — and I think this point is lost on many in Washington — as President Asad has made clear in my meetings with him, and as he has said publicly, Syria’s relations with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are, at this point in time, not on the table. Syria’s relationships with these actors have moved primarily from being tactical levers for the Syrian leadership to being increasingly strategic assets.
With the removal of Syrian military forces from Lebanon following the Hariri assassination in 2005, Hezbollah has become an even more valuable asset for Syria. It is now, among other things, a key ally for Damascus in protecting Syrian interests in Lebanon. It also provides, from their perspective, a critically important and, at this point, strategic deterrent against Israel. Hamas’s control of Gaza and credibility among Palestinians more broadly also makes it hard to imagine that Asad would agree to expel [Hamas leader] Khaled Mashal from Syria as part of a purely bilateral settlement with Israel.
Iran has also proven its strategic value to Syria in recent years. Iran’s religious legitimization of the Asads’ Alawi sect is important, as Syria’s secular regime navigates its way through a religiously charged regional environment. Iranian support was also critical for Syria in fending off heavy pressure from the United States, most of Europe and moderate Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, in the wake of the Hariri assassination. In such an uncertain strategic environment, Asad will continue to value the hedge provided by his close relationship with Iran. The idea that Asad could be weaned away from Syria’s alliance with Iran is just fanciful.
Third, all that I have laid out so far means that, at this juncture, Iran is bound to be at least an indirect party to any serious Middle East peace process. It is counterproductive to see this as an obstacle to peace. More constructively, it should be seen as a requirement for progress toward peace.
In fact, Hamas leaders and President Asad have told me in meetings with him — and he and Khaled Mashal have said publicly — that Iran has backed their efforts to reach a settlement. Iran publicly endorsed Syria’s participation, for example, in talks Syria had with Israel that were mediated by Turkey in 2008. They publicly endorsed it, not once but twice. And Iran does not try to block Hamas’s publicly stated openness to a popularly legitimated two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Now for the more hawkish version of linkage favored by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel and others: namely, that rolling back Iran is a prerequisite for Middle East peace. I believe this vision is at least as delusional as the suggestion by many in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq that the road to Jerusalem ran through Baghdad. I think it’s very similar analytically.
I also think it is delusional to think that, if the Islamic Republic of Iran disappeared or were effectively contained, there would be no more problems with the Middle East peace process and that Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria would simply fall into line with Israeli and American preferences for organizing the regional order. These actors have their own agendas and their own preferences for regional diplomacy, which they will not give up simply because Israeli or U.S. military aircraft strike nuclear targets in Iran.
It is also important to keep in mind that the increase in Iran’s regional standing and influence in recent years — what concerns many in Israel, in Arab states and in Washington — has not been a function of its military capabilities. To this day, the Islamic Republic has no meaningful capacity to project conventional military power beyond its borders. That’s not how they’ve done it.
To the extent that Iran’s regional standing and influence have increased in recent years, it is because Tehran has picked winners for its allies in key regional arenas: Iraq, Lebanon and among the Palestinians. Whether we like it or not, Iran has sided with groups and individuals that have been perceived as winners and have actually won elections in their key regional contexts.
U.S. and Israeli pressure on the Islamic Republic is not going to undercut Iran’s regional influence. In fact, the opposite is true. Confrontation with Israel and the United States may enhance Iran’s regional standing. I also believe it is delusional to think that concern about a rising Iranian threat could unite Israel and moderate Arab states in an alliance under Washington’s leadership.
In reality, the prospect of strategic cooperation with Israel, whether we like it or not, is profoundly unpopular with Arab publics, regardless of what some of their ambassadors may say from time to time. Even moderate Arab regimes cannot ignore the reality of this profound dislike among their publics and sustain that kind of cooperation.
Pursuit of an Israeli-moderate-Arab coalition united to contain Iran is not only delusional. Even more important, it will continue to leave the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict unresolved and prospects for their resolution in freefall, as they are today. These tracks cannot be resolved without meaningful American interaction with Iran and its regional allies, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Iran is also not going to take Israeli or U.S. political or even military pressure without pushing back. And at least some of the ways in which Tehran will seek to push back are likely to make it even harder than it is now — that is to say, virtually impossible — to move forward with Syria’s Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
Finally, Netanyahu’s declaration this weekend after his visit to Washington that only the threat of U.S. military action can have a positive impact on Iran’s nuclear decision making should be taken very seriously. It should be taken especially seriously among those of us in the American Jewish community, because he is on an extremely dangerous course. Netanyahu’s push for eventual U.S. military action against Iran could do real damage to Israel and the American Jewish community.
A U.S. attack on Iran would almost certainly result in a broader confrontation between the United States and Iran. This confrontation would threaten U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and the strategic outcomes of our military adventures in both of those countries, spike the price of oil and hurt an already shaky global economy, and shatter international perceptions that reckless and dangerous U.S. behavior in the strategically vital Middle East were somehow peculiar to the George W. Bush administration.
These eminently foreseeable consequences would have a devastating impact on America’s standing in one of the world’s most important regions. Israel and the pro-Likud community, if not the broader Jewish community here in the United States, may well be blamed when the resulting U.S.-Iranian confrontation does severe damage to American interests because they have led the charge to war. I know that’s a pretty controversial statement, but it is very serious and important to consider.
We should be considering a more constructive way forward. That would entail real U.S.-Iranian rapprochement to normalize U.S.-Iranian relations — what I call “the grand bargain” — along with a serious negotiation for Arab-Israeli peace that includes Hamas and Hezbollah in some form.
There is precedent for doing this successfully. It is what Nixon and Kissinger did with China and Egypt in the early 1970s, striking a grand bargain with, at the time, these two rising regional powers in a way that profoundly changed for the better their respective regional environments. In particular, the U.S. rapprochement with Egypt and its corollary, the Camp David Accords, have made another generalized Arab-Israeli war nearly impossible. This is a much better scenario than if we had continued to try to contain or roll back Egyptian or Chinese power and influence. Today, from a strategic perspective, bringing Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah into a diplomatic process and eventually a political settlement would be at least as consequential.
For those who buy into the demonization of the Islamic Republic and these groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, it would be useful to remember that it is only in retrospect that the late Anwar Sadat is viewed as a man of peace. Throughout much of the 1970s, he was widely seen as an anti-Israel activist who had launched the 1973 Yom Kippur War, who had admired Adolf Hitler, and who had collaborated with Nazi Germany against British forces in Egypt during World War II. These are all much worse than anything Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has done.
But the critical point here is that, without U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, the United States will not be able to achieve any of its high-priority goals in the Middle East and, more broadly, Afghanistan. This would be bad for America’s Arab allies and for Israel, which need credible and effective American leadership in the region to maintain a stable balance of power, address Syria’s threats and ensure their own safety and survival.
MARTIN INDYK, Vice President and Director, Foreign Policy Program, Brookings Institution
I stand before you as the defender of the conventional wisdom. And I do so with an amendment to the portrait that Hillary has just given you of what the conventional wisdom is — actually two amendments. The first is that I don’t agree with General Jones — although I don’t think he’s been quoted accurately, at least in the quote that Hillary gave you — that solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem is the key to resolving the other conflicts in the region. But I do believe that it would help. And it would certainly help with the challenge that we face from Iran.
That’s the second amendment to Hillary’s portrait of the conventional wisdom, because she has glossed over certain inconvenient truths about Iran — that it is seeking to dominate the Middle East; that it is using its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas to spread its influence into the Arab heartland of the Middle East; that it is doing its best to thwart American-led efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab-Israeli conflict and has been doing so for the last three decades with a particular purpose in mind: to advance its own influence in the region.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is a very convenient vehicle for doing so. One might ask, is it Iran’s business to be interfering in this way? Why would they put out a fatwa on Yasser Arafat’s head because he had decided to make peace with Israel? Why would they have intervened in Egyptian efforts recently to reconcile Fatah and Hamas so as to provide a unified Palestinian polity that could make peace with Israel? Why would they have intervened to prevent Hamas from following through on that agreement?
Why is it, when any progress seems to be made — and I’m talking very much about the period of the 1990s, when Frank Anderson and Paul Pillar and I were all working to try to make peace — that Iran does its best through its terrorist proxies — in those days, Palestine Islamic Jihad, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian ministry of intelligence — to use terrorism to destroy our efforts?
Why, when we were making progress between Israel and Syria, would we suddenly discover Hezbollah launching Katyusha rockets into northern Israel to disrupt those negotiations? Well, there is a thread that runs through all of this: the inconvenient truth that Iran has no interest in making peace with Israel. It says very clearly over and over again that it wishes to destroy Israel, wishes to wipe it off the map. Those are the statements we all have heard very clearly emanating from Tehran, in particular, from its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But beyond the stated objective is the very real strategic calculation that the Arab-Israeli conflict serves to promote Iran’s agenda in the region and its influence in the Arab heartland of the Middle East. That is the fundamental inconvenient truth, which cannot be resolved by some mythical grand bargain on the Egyptian model. Egypt sought to make peace with Israel. Egypt in the form of President Sadat evicted Soviet advisers in 1972 with the express purpose of seeking to build a relationship with the United States and make peace with Israel. Sadat was very clear about his desire and intention to make peace with Israel before the 1973 war.
The tragic fact of the matter is that neither Israel nor the United States took him seriously, and he went to war in order to make peace. But as soon as he had upended the status quo and taken a position across the Suez Canal, he turned to making peace with Israel and never turned back. That is a fundamental difference between the Egyptian model and the Iranian model. The Iranians have no desire or strategic interest in seeing a grand bargain struck that involves peace and reconciliation with Israel in the Middle East.
This is a fundamental reality that we have to find a way to deal with. How to deal with it is, I think, clear. Hillary has laid out what she refers to as the conventional strategy for doing so. And I think it is one that makes sense. On the one hand, we work as hard as possible to bring together the international community through various mechanisms. The most recent of these were UN Security Council sanctions designed to send a message to Iran that its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons in contravention of its commitments under the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a signatory member, will be opposed by the international community.
Successive UN Security Council resolutions have made that position very clear. Iran, of course, has refused to listen. The effort to send a message of unified resolve to Iran was combined last year in an effort to engage Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program, an effort that was spurned by Iran. And I don’t take seriously the tactical ploy that Ahmadinejad undertook right before the last UN Security Council vote on sanctions, via Turkey and Brazil. But the effort by President Obama, which was a sincere effort, failed. Iranians rejected what was by all accounts a very reasonable offer to try to deal with Iran’s security concerns, to deal with Iran’s professed desire to have a civilian nuclear program, but to deny it the ability to have a breakout capacity for nuclear weapons.
Now the effort is to apply more sanctions, not to make war on Iran, but to bring it back to the negotiating table. That effort to pressure Iran, to make it see that its interests do not lie in disrupting the whole nonproliferation regime, has to be, in my mind, combined with an effort to make peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Precisely because Iran uses the Arab-Israeli conflict to expand its influence in the region, pressure on Iran can indeed be enhanced by a comprehensive effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. And yes, that involves both an effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside the Jewish state of Israel, and it involves an effort to make peace between Israel and Syria.
Hillary cites some statement that the Iranians supported the Syrian negotiation with Israel. I don’t recall that, but I do recall that the Syrians and Israelis, through Turkish mediation, were negotiating not only what Israel would give up — that is, all of the Golan Heights — in order to achieve peace with Syria, but also what Syria would give up. The question that Syria had to answer and, I believe, did answer in those negotiations was what its relationships would be with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, were it to make peace with Israel. Why was this a relevant question? Because Syria has, as Hillary says, strategic relationships with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas have one particular thing in common. They all espouse the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel, and they do not support peace making with it. Therefore, this question is reasonably posed. If Syria intends to make peace with Israel, what will that peace treaty mean if Syria maintains strategic relations with a country and its proxies that are determined to destroy the very party that Syria is making peace with?
It’s not an unreasonable question to pose, and the Syrians considered it a reasonable question that they needed to answer. Their answer remained secret, but let’s just observe that, whenever the Iranians see that Syria is moving towards peace with Israel, they become extremely nervous, Ahmadinejad turns up in Damascus, and declarations are issued of undying love for each other. That’s because the Iranians understand the strategic equation very well. If Syria were to make peace with Israel, it could not maintain the same relationships with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. It would have to change those relationships or Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas would have to make peace with Israel too. That is, I’m going to submit, an unlikely proposition, based on the record.
Therefore, if it’s not about to happen, Syria would have to change its strategic relationship, just as Egypt did with the Soviet Union back in the days when Egypt made peace with Israel. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have a grand bargain if the state you want to do your bargain with does not share your interests in peace and stability in the region; seeks rather to counter and thwart America’s standing in the region; opposes and does its best to subvert America’s allies in the region (that is, our Arab friends); proposes the destruction of Israel; and does its best to support those who pursue violence and promote terrorism against it. You can’t have a grand bargain with that kind of state.
Therefore, it is, I believe, far more effective to try to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Arab states and the Palestinians and to try to find a way to thereby isolate Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and convince them that violence, terrorism, conflict and destruction, and the abrogation of international obligation, do not achieve a more stable, peaceful and prosperous order for anybody in the Middle East, including the people they purport to represent.
IAN LUSTICK, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
There is hysteria in Israel regarding the prospect of Iranian nuclear-weapons capability, and the central question I want to ask today is, why? Not even Israeli security experts argue that Iran would ever use a nuclear weapon against Israel or that there is even the threat of that. So where is this hysteria coming from, and what can we learn by understanding where it’s coming from?
It’s a hysteria that has to do not only with the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons, but even the possibility of Iran’s nearing the threshold of having nuclear weapons. It’s not necessary to spend very much time to illustrate just how hysterical much of Israeli public opinion and many of the statements of the Israeli leadership are in this regard. Last year, a poll by David Menashri of the Iran center at Tel Aviv University reported as follows: 51 percent of Israeli Jews responding said they desired an immediate Israeli military attack on Iran. That is, absent any nuclear weapons, immediately, they should be attacked. That’s 51 percent. The poll also reported that 70 percent of Israeli Jews said they would not consider emigrating if Iran got the bomb. That’s an odd way to report a finding — how many would not consider emigrating. So there is deep fear.
Almost every decision that Israel makes about Gaza, about the aid flotilla, about Hamas, about the negotiations in general, is justified by references to Iran. Netanyahu’s recent interviews in the United States with Larry King and elsewhere evinced this. News in Israel is not a politician saying that this is the 1930s, that Iran is Nazi Germany in 1938, that Ahmadinejad is Hitler. That’s not news; it happens all the time.
What’s news is Tzipi Livni actually saying, maybe a Holocaust is not around the corner. Maybe Israel of 2010, to quote her, is not the Jews of Europe in 1939. That’s news. It’s instructive to consider the effect, when we’re looking at a hysteria of this type about a country that might be about to cross a nuclear threshold, that it did have a massive effect in at least two other cases. One gripped the Soviet leadership in the mid-1960s, when another country in the Middle East whose name starts with “I” was believed to be about to cross the nuclear threshold.
Of course, that’s Israel. And a fantastic book by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, Foxbats over Dimona, used newly released documents and amazing research techniques to document the fact that the Soviets were egging the Arabs on to provoke Israel into a war that they could exploit to try to take out the budding nuclear capabilities at Dimona. Hence, the unprecedented deployment of Foxbats in reconnaissance missions over Dimona prior to the 1967 war. I recommend that book to show you the effects of this sort of hysteria, or, if you don’t want to use the word “hysteria,” the effects of a calculation that another country is about to cross the nuclear threshold, to get weapons of mass destruction. It may have been a very powerful factor in producing the Six-Day War. I believe that it was in the month prior to the ’67 war that Israel itself finally put weapons together in anticipation of that conflict. More recently, as was already mentioned, we can remember the hysteria that gripped the United States about whether weapons of mass destruction were in fact in the hands of Saddam Hussein — which precipitated what? A gigantic American war in the Middle East.
So let’s think what whipping up hysteria about the possible possession of nuclear weapons by a Muslim or a non-Muslim country in the Middle East could do. Let’s look at the question of what drives this. Certainly there is vicious, calculated and largely effective rhetoric coming out of Tehran, and we’ve heard references to it. I don’t put much stock in it as a signal of intentions to carry out attacks. As was said, Iran has never been very good at projecting conventional military power outside its borders. But it is effective in pushing Israel’s buttons. Ahmadinejad is brilliant at that. I can give you very good examples of how he calculatedly does this for his own interests. But these statements about the Holocaust, about Israel’s erasure from the map and so on, do sharpen feelings of fear, angst and hysteria in Israel on this issue. But that hysteria has many sources: ideological, historical, policy-oriented, national-political-cultural-oriented and psychological.
I want to briefly go over some of those sources so we can see how powerful these feelings are in Israel and what they could be producing. On its most obvious level, the obsession with Iran, especially by Netanyahu and his government, is actually very simple and very familiar as a calculated distraction from what it does not want the United States and the world to pay attention to.
This is just one more ride on the peace-process carousel: a not-so-merry-go-round of endless Israeli delays, promises, backtracking from promises, sabotaging of apparent breakthroughs, clarifications of their position, embarrassments of mediators, retreats from substance to confidence-building measures, a new terrorist attack, rediscussion of the implementation of the promised confidence-building measures rather than the actual confidence-building measures, a new election, abandonment of the most recently celebrated framework — which began with much excitement two years ago — and the resuscitation perhaps of a much older framework. And the merry-go-round continues.
This “Iran is Nazi Germany” gambit involves the Israeli government in a portrayal of Iran as, ironically, “the Great Satan” in an effort to find some way to position Israel as a country within the world community facing an enemy, rather than as the enemy of the world community which, in terms of perceptions, is its current fate. I’m going to tell a little story that can communicate in one medium-quality joke more about Israeli policy than you can get from volumes of reading. It’s a variation of the classic “Galut Jew” story in which the really clever Galut — that is, a Jew living in the diaspora — outsmarts the anti-Semites. Israelis have often commented on Zionism’s incomplete success with the idea that, although you can take the Jew out of the Galut, you can never take the Galut out of the Jew. So this story about a Galut Jew is actually a story about Israeli right-wing governments, especially.
It’s about a poretz (landlord) and a Jew. In Central and Eastern Europe, they used to use Jews as intermediaries — tax collectors, enforcers, administrators and so on. This poretz in Poland gets very angry at his Jew and threatens to kill him. The Jew is desperate. He says, no, no, don’t kill me; I’ve got a great idea. What’s that, Jew? You just give me a year and a bear and I will teach the bear to talk. What? Nobody can teach a bear to talk, but anyway, what good is that? Kill him! No, wait a minute. With a talking bear, you’ll make a fortune. So the poretz thinks about it and says, okay, I’ll give you one year, but if that bear’s not talking, you’re a dead man. The Jew goes home. His wife says, what are you, crazy? You can’t teach a bear to talk. The poretz will kill you. The husband says, maybe I can teach the bear to talk. Maybe I can’t teach the bear to talk. But many things can happen in a year. Maybe the poretz will die. Maybe the bear will die.
That’s a fundamental Israeli policy when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict whenever a right-wing government is in power, and often when a non-right-wing government is in power. And it’s the current policy. It’s just that the distraction du jour is Iran. All of them have some substance, and this has some substance also. So that’s the political source of the hysteria. It’s actually a calculated distraction.
But there are other, deeper sources. Every ideology is a combination of a theory and an imperative to action. So when you challenge the theory behind an ideology, you are challenging it. Zionism’s theory of its eventual success in the Middle East imagined that Jews were the vanguard of Western civilization in the region and that Jewish mastery of Western technology would allow it to force the Middle East to accept a Jewish state until the Middle East followed Israel’s example, became Westernized, highly technological and democratic. It was all part of one process: peace, democracy, technology.
The Middle East would develop in Israel’s image; that’s how Zionism would succeed. But an Iranian bomb, an Iranian nuclear capacity, would show that you don’t have to be Westernized. You can actually be Islamic. You don’t even have to be democratic to master nuclear technology. So the future of the Middle East is not necessarily democratic or Western. In other words — and this is very threatening to Zionism — the Middle East will not be in Israel’s image.
Another source of this hysteria is Israel’s particular historical relationship with Iran, well-discussed in a wonderful book, Iranophobia, by the Israeli scholar Haggai Ram. When the shah — known as, you may recall, the Light of the Aryans — was emperor, his Pahlavi dynasty was put forward as a revival of the ancient Achaemenid dynasty. It was a Persian and secular, pre-Islamic political formula. The spectacular rise of Iran under the shah was reassuring to Zionism. An ancient Middle Eastern people could reconstitute itself by using ancient myths as legitimizing formulas, even in the modern Middle East, to become secular and modern. Israel famously figured Iran as the core of its peripheral strategy and had close economic and security ties with the shah’s regime. The sudden and complete disappearance of that regime was a shock to Israel, suggesting that the deep, volcanic process in the Middle East might not tolerate this kind of revival of an ancient, secular idea in the modern Middle East — not from the ancient Persians and perhaps not from the ancient Jews or Israelites either.
In general, Zionism has been based, since the 1920s, in its relationship with the Arabs, on the theory of the “Iron Wall,” a theory that requires Israel and Zionism to have the ability to win decisively with the unilateral use of force in encounters with Arab and Muslim opponents. The idea is to teach Arabs, over decades, through a series of defeats, that there is no hope of destroying Israel. They will have to accept the reality of it. It used to be that the Iron Wall theory said, you don’t have to accept as correct that we should be here, only that we can’t be destroyed. Now, the Israeli government actually takes the position that you have to positively say that this is the homeland of the Jewish people; it’s a Jewish state. That’s a retreat from this strategy and a very important one. But that’s been the fundamental basis of the strategy: the ability to use unilateral force at will in the region. The problem with nuclear power in the hands of Iran is that Israel could not be confident it could do that, because all of a sudden, you don’t know when a use of force will escalate to the nuclear level. It makes you think many times, not just twice, when nuclear weapons are in the zone of consideration of a policy that you’re thinking of implementing.
Best reports suggest that Israel, of course, has hundreds of sophisticated nuclear weapons and a highly capable delivery system. But the effect of what I’ve been discussing about Iranian nuclear capacity is not whether they get the bomb, but whether they would want what Israel has had since the mid-’60s: a non-stated, non-documented, deniable — with some plausibility — capacity. In other words, they would get nuclear ambiguity. Obviously, nobody’s going to believe that they have as much capability as the Israelis, but ambiguity is what they are trying to get, and that is what I believe they will get. That will be enough to interfere with Israel’s confidence that force can be used unilaterally without risking a nuclear conflagration.
This opacity policy that Israel has pursued is another thing that produces hysteria in Israel. Nuclear weapons, if you read Israeli politics closely — and you have to do it very closely because almost everything that has to do with nuclear weapons is censored or coded in language that requires you to know Israeli society extremely well to follow — is the ultimate hot-button issue. Anything related to Israel’s nuclear capacity triggers censorship, nervousness, emergency procedures, extravagant behavior and fear, because the idea is deeply embedded in Israel that one wrong move could doom the entire enterprise. So Israel cherishes this opacity policy, famously formulated as “we will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.” And then sometimes it says, “and we won’t be the second either,” a very ambiguous, Alice in Wonderland sort of statement.
This is a status whereby Israel has weapons, everybody knows it, but it can be outside of the NPT and IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] regime and still be treated by the United States, in terms of aid, as if it does not have nuclear weapons. The United States couldn’t be giving aid to Israel if it were outside the NPT and we agreed that they had nuclear weapons.
Israel has the best of three different worlds here. It achieved this “don’t ask, don’t tell” status with enormous dedication and difficulty. That is another thing that is put at risk by the Iranian move, because Iran is trying to do the same thing, which then pushes analysts and policy makers to start to approach the Iranian problem. And Iran says, well, if you’re going to treat us this way, why don’t you treat all states this way? Larry King asked Netanyahu, “Why should Iran not be able to have the same thing Israel does?” Israeli nuclear analysts, have pointed to this argument as itself a serious danger to Israel’s nuclear status.
Therefore, Israel is afraid it will be forced into this scary situation of having to either give up nuclear weapons or go public with its capacity, with unpredictable consequences — not because of a fear that Iran will use nuclear weapons, but because Iran is doing exactly what Israel did in developing an opacity that it’s being told is unacceptable.
Finally, we have the Holocaust trauma. I recommend highly a book by Avraham Burg — The Defeat of Hitler in Hebrew, The Holocaust Is Over in English translation — in which he goes into enormous and brilliant detail about the saturation of Israeli life and psychology with the Holocaust and memorializations of the Holocaust that actually inflict constant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on most Jews, but especially Israeli Jews. You can see this in “Waltz with Bashir,” by the way, if you realize what that movie is actually about. “Waltz with Bashir” is the Hebrew name of it. “Valtz,” of course, sounds German to you, because there’s no W in Hebrew. “Waltz with Bashir” means doing something German with Bashir. That’s what the movie is about.
If you realize that all of Israeli culture and politics is somewhat permeated by these images of the Holocaust, you can understand how Ahmadinejad is able to push those buttons so easily and produce reactions in Israel that serve his interest. It’s a kind of folie à deux between the right-wing government in Israel and the clerics in Tehran, each using the other’s distorted images of themselves to reinforce their own beliefs and protect themselves against reality.
The Holocaust imagery that comes out of Iran — not that they deny the Holocaust, but are even asking questions about it, combined with the idea of nuclear weapons –– puts Israeli elites with children that they could send abroad into intolerable situations. They have nightmares that they won’t be able to protect their children. It could happen in a split-second. They’re being told by their elites that another Holocaust is around the corner. Then what do you do? You send your children abroad. There is a real fear that living in a Middle East that is multipolar, that has an ambiguous Iranian nuclear capacity, could encourage even more significant levels of elite emigration. You send part of your business abroad; one kid goes abroad — all of these kinds of tactics.
What is the major reality that these two elites are hiding themselves from? One big one is, of course, the United States. What can we learn from this analysis to clarify the opportunities for U.S. foreign policy in this domain? Israel developed nukes out of a desperate sense of existential dread and distrust and a need for security — that the Zionist project of the Jewish state, what’s called the third commonwealth, the third temple, would not be destroyed as the first two were. The men who lead the Islamic Republic of Iran have a similarly intense and existential commitment to preserve their regime and the legacy of the Islamic revolution, despite encirclement.
Here is where I would disagree with some of what Martin said, though I agree with a good deal of it. The interpretation of Iran as thrusting aggressively to dominate the region is a less efficient way to understand what it’s doing than Iran as an encircled state desperately trying to prevent itself from being overthrown by sworn enemies who have invaded countries all around it. And everyone knows that, if you get some kind of nuclear device, you can claim you’re not going to be invaded. Think North Korea; think Iraq. What was the difference? Think Iran, for that matter. That’s, of course, Israel’s argument for why it needs nuclear weapons.
So both regimes had similarly intense and existential reasons for developing nuclear weapons. And nothing the United States or Israel does is going to stop the Iranians from developing a nuclear capacity in this opaque way that I’ve been arguing. It doesn’t matter whether there’s an Arab-Israeli peace or not. It’s just not going to happen. We are going to see an Iran with a capacity that is a little more opaque than Israel’s, but it’s going to be clear enough to be policy-relevant and to have some of the effects I’ve been talking about. The regime will simply not be deflected from this objective, just as Israel was not deflected — not by America, not by anyone else.
The many sources of Israeli anxiety, fear and hysteria include, especially at the elite level, as I’ve argued, a strong dose of exaggeration for political effect. Because of that, U.S. attempts, whether clumsy or subtle, to try to trade U.S. pressure on Iran for Israeli concessions towards the Palestinians won’t work. Netanyahu knows he’s exaggerating. He’s not going to say, “Oh, you’re going to put real sanctions on Iran. You’re going to maybe prevent them from having nuclear weapons. Sure, we’ll get out of the West Bank.” It never will happen. They don’t take themselves that seriously. This is for foreign consumption.
Now, although the United States cannot stop Iran from establishing an ambiguous nuclear-weapons posture, it can and must begin managing the results of that development to prevent accelerated proliferation, accidents, wars and instability, and further damage to its interests in Iraq and Afghanistan and to its counterterror efforts. It may seem that this could be accomplished without an Israeli-Palestinian settlement if the United States could credibly sponsor a nuclear-weapons and nuclear-power regime for the region that treats all countries equally. But Israel could participate in such a scheme only if its nuclear capacity were renounced or made public and placed under the international nuclear-weapons and nuclear-power regimes.
Of course, if Iran introduced weapons into the Middle East, then Israel would no longer be the first to introduce them. If it did so, though, it would be the second. This gives rise to some issues. Israeli compliance with this idea is highly implausible in the absence of American or NATO security guarantees, that is, American-extended deterrence with tripwire U.S. troops in Israel. This cannot happen unless the borders of Israel that are being guaranteed by the American deterrent do not include the West Bank — in other words, if there is a real viable Palestinian state next to it. We know from deterrence theory, there is no way the United States could credibly extend a nuclear umbrella over a country that includes things we don’t think it should have.
The bottom line is that, as Iran passes the nuclear-weapons threshold camouflaged à la Israel or publicly à la India or Pakistan, the United States will be cross-pressured to make an extremely difficult choice. The choice will be framed by its need for Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan and Iraq, its wider concerns in the region and the domestic political heat that will result from any interest-driven policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. The United States will either dissociate itself in an unprecedented way from Israeli governments, allowing that country to come to terms on its own with a multi-polar Middle East by achieving at best a kind of regional hudna [truce], or the United States will combine political pressure on Israel and partnership with it to rescue the two-state solution from the dustbin of history, to which it is otherwise being consigned.
PAUL PILLAR, Chief National Intelligence Officer, Near East and South Asia, National Intelligence Council (2000-05)
I am an old college debater, and this started to sound like a college debate with the first affirmative and the first negative. I am going to get out of that mode and, as the clean-up hitter, try to put some of this into perspective. In reflecting on the question of linkages and U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran, I think there are three different levels at which that question can be addressed. The one that, whether we like it or not, perhaps matters most in shaping U.S. policies in the Middle East is the political constraint that is imposed on the making of U.S. policy toward Iran. It is imposed by strong domestic political support for Israel or, more specifically, for a particular conception of Israeli interests and particular Israeli policies, mainly those associated with the Israeli political right.
That political interest has had a very strong constraining influence on U.S. policies in the Middle East, particularly toward Israel itself, of course. But the point I am making here is, it has a very strong constraining influence on anything that the Obama administration or anyone else making U.S. policy can realistically do with regard to policy on Iran. Because this conception of Israeli interests has singled out Iran and, in particular, the Iranian nuclear threat as the overriding threat to what are seen as Israel’s interests, that is an area where the constraints have been at least as strong as anywhere else.
I might add that that view does not, in my judgment, reflect a cogent analysis of likely Iranian decision making. We have heard so often from different quarters the idea of irrational Iranians in Tehran who cannot be trusted to be part of a deterrent relationship. And somehow this seems to assume that, when one of the parties to a relationship wears a beard and a turban, the principles of deterrence somehow get repealed.
Iran’s record has not shown itself to be suicidal. And the view of Iranian irrationality does not explain why this regime should be any different from other hostile regimes that we have had to deal with when it comes to nuclear weapons. Of course, the first one we had to deal with was the Soviet Union of Stalin, one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants in modern history. Then we had to deal with China, when it got the nuclear weapon in 1964. You may recall that at that time, Mao Zedong said, a nuclear war wouldn’t really be all that bad because we’ve got more Chinese than they’ve got Westerners; after the radioactive dust settled, there would be more of us than them. That scared me a lot more than anything I hear coming out of Iran.
But we have lived in a deterrent relationship, and so have others, with the likes of the Soviet Union and the Chinese. Whether it makes sense or not, the notion that deterrence would not be possible with Iran is a strong political constraint, as I say, on U.S. policy making on Iran. It is one of the reasons for the extremely narrow fixation on the Iranian nuclear issue to the exclusion of so much else, even to the exclusion of much having to do with Iran.
More broadly, it constrains the administration of the day from any policy departures that could be interpreted or depicted by one’s political opponents as going soft on Tehran or, even worse, making nice with Tehran. I think this becomes all the more a major factor, given what the political pundits tell us about the prospects heading into the midterm elections this fall, in which the governing party faces the prospect of losing control of the House of Representatives and so on.
A second level for looking at this question is one that Ian has just finished talking about at some length: U.S. management of its relationship with Israel. The backdrop to this is the Israeli fixation or — I think Ian’s word was quite correct — hysteria over the issue of the Iranian nuclear program. For the reasons he described, it is a hysteria that goes well beyond the Netanyahu government, although I agree with him that that government has skillfully and tactically used the issue to distract attention from other things. But it is a much broader, strongly and understandably felt, deep fear and concern about this particular problem, one that cuts across the Israeli political spectrum.
I would add only a couple of observations to what Ian talked about. One, given the hysteria in Israel, it is not feasible to talk, as many have done, about U.S. and Israeli officials coming to a common strategic frame of reference as to how to handle this issue. There was a lot of talk when Netanyahu was here that this ought to be one of the key objectives of the talks. I don’t see how it can be, unless U.S. perspectives become as hysterical as those of the Israelis. And I don’t think that would be sound U.S. policy.
The main goal here for the United States is to ward off the danger of an Israeli military strike on Iran. Resorting to military force in this mode either by Israel or by the United States, which Netanyahu seemed to be encouraging, would be — for reasons that I think Hillary touched on earlier — a disaster for U.S. foreign-policy interests in the Middle East.
The third level is the one where we foreign-policy wonks like to think we usually dwell: that is, not just politics in Washington or emotions in Israel, but rather in the international relations of the Middle East and the diplomatic and strategic dynamics involved there. I think there are several dynamics to bear in mind. One is the effect of issues involving Israel, especially Israel’s conflict with Palestinians, on Iranian regional influence and, more specifically, on the influence, both domestically and regionally, of Iranian hardliners.
There is a very calculated political reason why Ahmadinejad spews that execrable anti-Israeli invective. It sells. It resonates with a lot of his intended audience, both inside Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. If it didn’t, he wouldn’t be spewing it. And let us not confuse rhetoric with reality or propaganda with policy. The Iranian leadership is smart enough to know it is not going to wipe Israel off the map. Even if it did somehow do that, it would thereby deprive itself of one of its main points of leverage for precisely this kind of propaganda.
This means that anything Israel does or fails to do with regard to the occupied territories and the peace process contributes to that influence and to those Iranian propaganda opportunities. In saying this, I urge you to avoid the influence of the absolutist straw-man argument one hears so often: that if the problems in the Middle East cannot be solely attributed to something Israel is doing, then Israeli actions don’t contribute to them at all. Here they clearly do contribute.
There are more specific forms of influence. I would disagree a little bit with two of my copanelists with regard to Iran’s relationship with the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas has no particular reason to want to be a client of Iran. We are talking about a bunch of largely Sunni Muslims who are focused on political power over Palestinians. To the extent that Hamas is subject to isolation and strangulation, it will take help wherever it can get it. One of those sources of help has been Iran, but this is not inherent to what Hamas is all about.
I would emphasize that we shouldn’t talk about the two “H” groups as if they were twins. Hezbollah clearly is an organization that began life as a creature of Iran and has been a long-time client of Iran. But even here, now that Hezbollah has established itself as a force in its own right in Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics in the way it has over the last several years, it is not solely a creature of Iran. There are greater and lesser degrees to which that relationship can be tighter or looser. And I would just add also that the recent death of Sheikh Fadlallah makes the issue all the more germane. He seemed to have become, at least in his later years, representative of an alternative view, a person who was highly respected and opposed the whole Iranian notion of velayat-e faqih [rule by an Islamic jurist].
A related dynamic — and here I would agree with many of the comments that Martin made — is how Israeli-related problems, particularly as they relate to the conflict with the Palestinians, complicate U.S. efforts to counter Iranian influence or to counter other Iranian programs and actions, including the nuclear program. Because of the close U.S. association with Israel, which is perceived to be even closer than it really is, the United States, for better or worse, fairly or unfairly, does share in much of the opprobrium that comes Israel’s way because of Israeli actions or inaction in the Middle East.
This is a complication in trying to forge coalitions of the willing to contain, confront, influence or constrain Iran. This is especially so, I would suggest, on the nuclear issue, given that the objective of preventing an Iranian nuke, if we achieve that objective, would mean preserving the Israeli nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. Ian did get into this, of course, in his comments, but until then, it had been an elephant in the room. The Israeli nuclear arsenal by its very existence weakens a lot of arguments involved in efforts to forestall an Iranian nuke.
This includes the argument that the introduction of nuclear weapons in the region would immediately set off a daisy chain of further proliferation. It certainly lends credibility to the view — whether justified or true or not — that what is really involved here is not a problem of nuclear weapons, but rather that some people just like some regimes more than others. And the Iranian regime is one that we don’t like.
There are a couple of longer-term dynamics that we need to worry about as well. One is the question of how different U.S. policies toward Iran would affect Iranian politics, policies and actions, including actions that would affect Israeli interests. This is too big a topic to explore in detail here, including what all the ramifications would be if U.S. policy toward Iran were different from what it is right now — if it were, for example, more of an engagement policy such as Hillary has argued for.
I will just make a couple of comments on this. One, it is hard to think of any way in which an alternative U.S. posture that was less confrontational and more pro-engagement would make things any worse as far as the Iranian posture towards Israel was concerned. I think it is easier to think of ways in which it could well make it better by weakening the arguments of the Iranian hardliners, who depend so much on the specter of hostility from the outside world, especially from the United States.
The final dynamic, and this really is a long-term one, has to do with what happens if Iran does get a nuclear weapon. Then the prime objective becomes one of encouraging, in every way we can, a relationship of stable deterrence between what would then be the two nuclear powers of the Middle East: Iran and Israel. The danger here is not some bolt-out-of-the-blue Iranian nuclear strike against Israel. As Ian pointed out, Israel has a three-decade head-start, with a far, far greater nuclear capability than anything Iran can get in the foreseeable future.
But there are other ways in which a deterrence relationship can be more or less stable. This is something that Cold War theorists and strategists thought a lot about with regard to the U.S.-Soviet relationship. There are lessons to be learned primarily from that relationship and, more recently, from the Indo-Pakistani relationship, two other relative newcomers that have had to find ways to make their nuclear relationship more stable. There are things the United States can do by way of teaching and encouraging the two sides on such matters as nuclear posture that discourage first strikes and ensure a second-strike capability, lessons that really go back to the U.S.-Soviet Cold War equation that could be just as applicable to an Iranian-Israeli relationship.
I will close by noting that in looking ahead at how that kind of relationship might work, I am not writing off as a lost cause that Iran might or could stop short of having a nuclear weapon. I think we are talking about decisions in Tehran not yet made. But it is something we need to think about.
THOMAS MATTAIR: Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council, and associate editor, Middle East Policy; author, Global Security Watch—Iran: A Reference Handbook
Hillary, you are arguing that we cannot achieve objectives like Arab-Israeli peace without a cooperative relationship with Iran. But you did say that Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria are independent actors. So, if a fair deal were offered that was in the interest of Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria, why would they not be able to accept that, even if Iran were not part of the negotiating structure?
MS. MANN LEVERETT: At this point, Iran needs to be at least an indirect party to a negotiated resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Iranians would not stand in the way of the red lines that Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah have all laid out for how they want to see a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict go forward. The problem is with how diplomacy was structured, particularly in the 1990s, which, let us recall, was a failure. This was particularly because it was structured as people are trying to structure it today, according to the conventional wisdom as I laid out, as a process that is intended to marginalize particular parties: Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. I agree with Paul. It is a poor shorthand, because these are the critical relevant players that would need to be involved. A process that is intended to marginalize those players will predictably, as it did in the 1990s, elicit their opposition. They will oppose, they have opposed, and did oppose in the 1990s, a process that was intended to leave them out.
They have all said they would participate in a process that includes them, whether it is Syria participating in indirect talks mediated by Turkey, or Hamas agreeing to a long-term ceasefire or a popularly legitimated resolution of the conflict. Each of these parties has put out prospects for being willing to participate in a process. What they will not participate in is a process that is intended to leave them out, to marginalize them and to weaken them. That is what we had in the 1990s. That is what, unfortunately, the Obama administration is bringing back: that failed peace process from the 1990s until today; the idea that somehow if we work harder or are more well-intentioned or whatever, it is going to turn out some other way. We have precedent for how it turned out.
This does not mean that Iran would be the party sitting across the table from the Israelis or sitting hand in hand with the Palestinians. But it does mean a recognition that the Iranians are at least an indirect party here. And a process that is structured to weaken them regionally will, at a minimum, elicit their opposition. It has happened before. It will happen again. If we can structure a process that includes parties Iran supports and is not structured to weaken Iran’s influence, but recognizes Iran’s regional role, we have a much better chance at a constructive outcome.
Again, look back at what we did with Egypt or even with China. The United States and China didn’t agree to agree to everything in their grand bargain. They had many contentious issues, which they had to essentially agree to disagree about, foremost of which was Taiwan. It is not correct to say that parties can only agree to a grand bargain, can only resolve their differences, if they agree to everything. That is not historically accurate. It is certainly not what the United States did with China.
If you go back to the case of Egypt, the critical piece there was the rapprochement between the United States and Egypt. The fact that we didn’t take it seriously then and Sadat had to go to war in 1973 — in retrospect, we can excuse that. It only killed a couple of thousand Israelis. We can excuse that because, at the end of the day, Sadat was able to come to terms with the United States and make peace with Israel. Is that what is being posited that needs to happen today, that the Iranians would somehow have to enter into a confrontation with the United States or with the Israelis for us to take them seriously as a regional player?
It is not that we have to agree with them. It is that we have to relate to them seriously as a regional player, to take their interests into account. The question arises of, why they would oppose Arab-Israeli peacemaking. What business is it of theirs? It is their business when there continues to be essentially an active conflict between the United States and Iran. Iran is going to look at that in zero-sum terms. We need to change that equation. That is what worked with Egypt. That is what worked with China. And that is why the opposite failed so miserably in the 1990s.
DR. MATTAIR: Martin, about your comment that Iran has no interest in Arab-Israeli peace. Why do they not have an interest in their friends’ attaining some of their objectives? Or in ending sanctions and threats, and the real possibility of strikes against Iran?
AMB. INDYK: The answer to your question lies with the Iranians, not with me. And that is the heart of the problem here. What are Iran’s intentions? Is it just that they are a benign power that seeks peace in their environment, and the United States and its Arab and Israeli allies are seeking to destroy and overthrow the regime, and therefore, it has every reason to behave in this way? I think that is a fundamental distortion of reality. That is not what this Iranian regime is about. It is a revolutionary regime. It prides itself on being a revolutionary regime. It seeks to change the status quo in the region. It seeks to subvert Arab regimes. It seeks to spread its influence and its revolution to the far-flung parts of the Middle East. That is its historical record. It is not doing that out of some kind of defensiveness because the United States is going after it.
The United States has repeatedly — and Hillary knows this very well — tried to engage with this revolutionary regime. It has repeatedly rebuffed these efforts, saying that we didn’t do it effectively enough, or pursue it long enough. But the fact of the matter is, we tried, and they never showed an interest. There was one time in which they showed an interest — Hillary has written about this — which was when we overthrew Saddam Hussein, and suddenly they got scared about what we might do to them. I am not recommending that as a policy here. But it does happen to be, historically, the reality. The rest of the time, they have done their level best to subvert our efforts at making the Middle East a more peaceful and more stable place. They see the United States as “the Great Satan.” They have defined us as the enemy. We didn’t define them as the enemy. And there are good, strong historical reasons why they see our defeat in the region in a very zero-sum way.
So we can imagine that somehow, if we took their interests into account, we could reach an accommodation with that. But what is Hillary proposing here? It is an accommodation in which, I think, she said we accepted and respected their interests in the region. Well, what are their interests in the region? How do we define them? What is it we are being asked to accept here? Is it that they are the dominant power in the region, that they will be the arbiter of the fate of Lebanon and Palestine? Because that is not something that I think the United States can accept.
If they want to talk about their legitimate security concerns in the Gulf, that is a completely different story. If they want to talk about their need for a civilian nuclear program, that is a completely different story. Those are legitimate interests. But their desire to dominate the Middle East is not a legitimate interest of Iran. And to propose that we sit down and negotiate with them that kind of grand bargain requires an abrogation of our very real interests in the region. We are not just talking about Israel here. We are talking about our Arab allies as well, who also feel deeply threatened by Iran’s ambitions in their neighborhood and by Iran’s efforts to subvert them. So I think we need to be realistic here.
If I could just make two other points about Ian’s very interesting argument about Israeli hysteria. First of all, a point that Ian and Paul have made is that the Iranians are very clearly threatening Israel and Israel’s people and government, especially given their history; it would be foolish not to take those threats seriously. But I don’t think hysteria captures what is actually happening in Israel today. The Israelis are actually responding, I think, quite calmly to the circumstances in which the Iranians continue to produce low-enriched uranium — now, according to the IAEA, enough for two nuclear weapons if they were to enrich it to high-grade-enriched uranium. The Israelis are focused on sanctions.
The Israeli government, whether you believe them or not, is now talking about a two-state solution, wanting direct negotiations with the Palestinians, trying to work with the president to get into those negotiations. They are not at this point talking about bombing Iran. That kind of talk has essentially been removed from their lexicon for the last year or so. This is not to say that they don’t reserve the right to it, or that they don’t argue that the threat of force should be on the table. But I don’t see a hysteria in Israel today about the Iranian nuclear program. They seem to be approaching it in a very calm and deliberative way.
Q: Even if Israel were willing to pull back to the Green Line and give back to the Palestinians East Jerusalem and everything, I still don’t see the West Bank and Gaza being viable. What is your vision of a two-state solution that would actually be viable?
DR. LUSTICK: Economic viability is more or less irrelevant in my view. It has always been irrelevant. There are very few countries in the world that are economically viable stand-alone entities. The real question is, what kind of Palestinian state could take its place at the table, be a passport-issuing organization for Palestinians, and generate cover for Arab regimes and for Israelis to put this issue behind them and move on. That has always been the possibility.
The questioner, of course, points to what everybody now sees. The settlements, for ideological reasons inside Israel, were designed and have had the effect — along with a movement that, of course, assassinated Rabin — to stop that from ever happening. I myself believe that it is basically in the dustbin of history. I don’t really see a way to rescue it. I offered one image of a way that tied vital American interests publicly to the requirement for a Palestinian state. That is the only way I can see it done: the United States does something that is portrayed and is, in fact, necessary for U.S. vital national-security interests. Thereby, the president can deal with the political problems at home that would be associated with the steps necessary — not big steps, not cutting off aid. All you have to do is start voting in the UN Security Council the way the United States actually feels. That would basically do a lot in that direction.
My own view is we have to start developing multiple utopias. You have to think beyond the idea of a two-state solution toward the fact that most of these kinds of problems historically don’t have solutions — that when history provides a solution, we don’t look back and say, that’s nice, it was a solution. No, it wasn’t a solution in the sense of a negotiated architecture that finessed the problem and found a win-win outcome. No, somebody won and somebody lost. And in 30 years, I have grave doubts that there will be in Israel anything like what we see today. In 100 years, there will be a solution. That is a horrible thing to contemplate. But when you think about the other countries that have disappeared from the planet — I don’t mean swallowed up by the earth; I mean that the regime disappeared — the Soviet Union, South Africa, the shah’s Iran, Yugoslavia — these were countries that, within 10 or even five years before they disappeared, you wouldn’t have known they were about to disappear.
We have to start thinking about how states behave when they start to see the horizon of their existence. Israel’s response to Iran is hysterical in that sense, and it is understandable: they are approaching an abyss. When Martin says that, in the last year, the Israelis have taken off the table any talk of striking Iran militarily, that is pretty amazing as an indication of their non-hysteria. Only in the last year previous to that, I heard Prime Minister Netanyahu, in person and in private, go off like a rocket about the need to attack Iran, to end this Nazi threat to the world. When 51 percent of Israelis say they want to attack Iran now, what we see is that the policies of the government to speak in Nazi terms create a mood of hysteria, whether or not the Israeli government any longer talks that talk right now or not. This may not be a crystal-clear answer to your question. I don’t want to bury the two-state solution. I think it is the only negotiated way out of this. I just don’t think that a negotiated way out is what we are going to see.
MS. MANN LEVERETT: I, too, am concerned that a two-state solution could be in the dustbin of history. I think that should concern everybody who is interested in stability, particularly in U.S. interests in the Middle East. But there are two key components that have not really been faced that need to be. One, of course, is the space, the actual land, the actual territory that would be needed to create a Palestinian state. That gets into the question of viability. I think the Obama administration half-heartedly tried to do that in pushing for a settlement freeze, but they didn’t go as far as they would have needed for that to have really been a focal point for a negotiated settlement. But the critical piece here, that the Obama administration doesn’t go anywhere near, is this: Who needs to be at the table to negotiate what we know is going to be a less than satisfying, to say the least, negotiated outcome? To have people who sit in Ramallah — where Ramallah could be part of the Palestinian state — negotiate away the patrimony of all Palestinians, doesn’t make any sense.
The idea that representatives of Hamas are going to be kept out and marginalized and weakened so that people in Ramallah can live a nice life is fanciful. We need to have people at the table who represent constituencies and legitimate grievances that are inconvenient for us, because they are the ones who can make the concessions. That is something that U.S. policy doesn’t touch.
Q: What can we do to ward off a potential unilateral Israeli strike against Iran? I have feared this since I read “Clean Break” back in 1996, which called for regime change in Iran and then Iraq. I fear it more now after hearing Netanyahu’s interview while he was here, saying that everything is on the table. It’s been reinforced by some of the things that Mr. Indyk has said.
AMB. INDYK: We can convince Iran to come into compliance with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Then there wouldn’t be the problem. Again, it’s a question of what’s the cause here and what’s the effect. But I agree with Ian that it’s unlikely we’re going to be able to persuade Iran by the combination of factors we’re now trying to use — international pressure, sanctions and perhaps some progress towards a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. I don’t think, in the end, those things are going to be sufficient to prevent Iran from at least having a robust breakout capability. And at that point, the United States — not just Israel — is going to be faced with a very real choice between two problematic options. The first is not an Israeli use of force, but an American use of force to deal with Iran’s nuclear facilities. I don’t think I have to tell this audience the problems and difficulties involved with that approach.
The alternative is to live with Iranian nuclear weapons, and that’s also a very difficult proposition, not so much because the Iranians will use those weapons in an effort to destroy Israel. I agree with Paul that that’s unlikely, because they do care, ultimately, about the survival of their regime more than anything else, and it would be the end of their regime if they tried that. But it would be highly problematic. It would put Israel on a hair trigger; it would put other Arab states in a situation where they will have to decide whether they can live under Iranian nuclear hegemony or go down the road that Iran has gone down of acquiring nuclear capabilities. Once we head in that direction, the Middle East becomes a far more unstable place, far more likely to be one in which there’s a nuclear arms race underway. And that’s highly problematic, too. So down the road from here we’re faced with two bad choices. That’s why it’s critically important to do our best, even if we can’t see how it’s going to work, to try to bring Iran back to the negotiating table by a variety of means that will convince it that it’s not in its interests to go down this road.
DR. PILLAR: It’s a good and fair question, and since I raised the topic, I wish I had a better specific answer. It’s mostly a matter of diplomatic tactics and rhetorical art. I think it’s a matter of a combination, in our dealings with Israel, of firmness on those matters that do not relate to the core objective of Israel’s basic security — things like settlements — and reassurance on the core issues of Israel’s security. I think what we need to get away from not just in our declaratory policy, but in the whole discourse about relations with Israel, is this unidimensional way of viewing it: that relations are good or bad; up or down. But it’s not really unidimensional. There is nothing inconsistent about firmness on something like the settlements issue, which has absolutely nothing to do with the basic security of Israelis, combined with reassuring words, as well as deeds, about U.S. support for Israel’s basic security, as it might be threatened by Iran or anyone else.
MS. MANN LEVERETT: I think the only way that you can prevent an Israeli strike on Iran is for there to be a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that would deal with Israel’s security concerns. Even more important, it would reorient the relationship between the United States and Iran and reorient what Iran perceives to be its security concerns and what it needs to do — whether we agree or not — to protect itself and its government and its system. Iran thinks that it needs to do this because it is basically in a state of conflict with the United States. If it were not, it would see its security paradigm differently. Some could argue that it’s still some sort of Islamo-fascist state and that, even if it weren’t in a conflict with the United States, it would still see its security paradigm irrationally. I don’t buy it, but at least that would be an argument. What we need to do is reorient the relationship between the United States and Iran so that they don’t look at their neighbors and the region in zero-sum terms because of the conflict with the United States.
If you take the example of China, Japan was very concerned that a rapprochement between the United States and China would negatively impact Japan. But one of the things that helped Japan, not only in terms of its economic boom but its fundamental security, was a U.S.-Chinese rapprochement that did not put Japan in the target zone. If there is a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, Israel may not be as concerned that it is in the target zone of an Iran that is out to hurt the United States, even indirectly through harassing Israel.
So the way to deal with the security threat is not to try more sanctions. We sanctioned the Iranians for 30 years, and all that has done is bring us closer to the brink of conflict. More sanctions have not worked; they will not work. To reorient the relationship, as we did with China, Jordan, and Egypt, is what has worked in the past and has the best prospect of working in the future to prevent the Israelis from having to take matters into their own hands.
DR. LUSTICK: I mentioned this idea of a folie à deux. It works in a few ways. I think the Israelis are not going to strike Iran. All we have to do to prevent any Israeli strike is, not turn off the red light. Every time Israel has used significant force in the Middle East, such as against Lebanon, 10 years later, scholars have measured the extent to which that occurred because the United States turned on the yellow light, turned on the green light, or turned off the red light. We just shouldn’t turn off the red light against attacking Iran. Israel, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons, will not take the risk of making a war like that when it doesn’t have a superpower behind it.
On the other hand, each side in this argument values the image that Israel is about to strike. The Iranian side of the argument, that the United States should aggressively seek rapprochement with Iran, likes the idea: “Israel is about to strike; you better hurry up and negotiate with us.” The Israelis, of course, like it: “You better hurry up and strike Iran yourself and deal with this problem, or we will strike.”
I want to remind you that it was not the British who overthrew Mosaddegh in Iran; it was the Americans. But the Americans went in to do it only when the British came to us and convinced us that, because of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s nationalization, this was a “nationalist” project in Iran that was actually communist. Therefore, the United States should go in there and stop it. It’s effectively the same thing happening again, from an Iranian point of view, except this time, it’s the Israelis coming to the United States saying a project with a lot of nationalist importance in Iran — nuclear development — is being carried out, not by a communist regime, but a Nazi regime, and we should take care of it. This dynamic is very familiar to Iranians, and we should not get caught up in it again. We’re still paying a price for getting caught up in it in the early 1950s.
Q: In his very good book Innocent Abroad, Martin Indyk comes to the conclusion, that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not possible. That being the case, should the United States not delink relations with Iran, to the extent possible, from the whole question of the so-called peace process? Ought we not be able to pursue discussions and relations with Iran on those matters without reference to the peace process?
MS. MANN LEVERETT: I certainly share your and Martin’s pessimism in terms of prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, though I do think it is necessary. Again, if we look at the precedent where rapprochement has worked effectively, where you have a rising power in its regional context, even a hostile rising power in its regional context — here, I focus primarily on China — where there was an issue that the United States and China disagreed about vehemently — Taiwan — it was bracketed. We still disagree about it to this day, but at least the rapprochement between the United States and China was able to dial back both the rhetoric and the military preparedness on both sides regarding extreme actions about Taiwan.
So just as the United States and China sought and struck a rapprochement for much bigger issues than Taiwan, I think the United States and Iran need to have a rapprochement in the same way. Iran, though it doesn’t approach what China meant back in the 1970s, has some similarity in terms of its rising regional role. This is not just because of Iran’s tremendous hydrocarbon resources or its nearly 80-million-person population or its strategic position at the crossroads of Asia and the Middle East, but because of U.S. mistakes, particularly over the past seven years. Iran has capitalized on those mistakes. Iran’s power has ascended as U.S. power is in relative decline. I don’t see that changing, so we need to, in some way, make peace with Iran’s rising regional role and our relative decline on the global stage. We need to do that in the same way we did with China, and not in a way that’s dependent on the biggest issue of contention: for China-U.S., it was Taiwan; for U.S.-Iran, it’s Israel.
DR. PILLAR: I agree with Hillary’s comments and with the premise of the question. Unfortunately, a lot of the linkage in our minds these days refers back to what Ian described as the Netanyahu government’s tactic and the parable of the talking bear. Linkage sometimes does work to our advantage, as Nixon and Kissinger skillfully showed with their triangular great-power diplomacy back in the 1970s. But in this case, it works more to our disadvantage.
Q: I’d like to frame the disagreements in terms of conflict analysis and transformation. The dominant paradigm that Martin Indyk was referring to is based on coercion, threat, isolation, punishment and pressure. There’s research on about 100 cases of sanctions, and they failed 86 percent of the time. Ian was talking about the hysteria, that parties are more dangerous when they’re acting out of fear. A lot of things that policy makers and even well-meaning people believe in have the opposite effect. People were saying that peace is not possible. Maybe that’s because of the lens that we’re using. You can’t observe the behavior of a party like Iran without looking at the effect of our own policy. I think the comments of Hillary and Ian are consistent with principles of social science, conflict transformation and tension reduction. What are the common interests between Israel and Iran that could be mutually beneficial?
DR. LUSTICK: If you talk about the psychological factor that I mentioned, that kind of trauma becomes enshrined in the mythology of a political formula and is institutionalized. What happens in any ideology, including Zionism, is that the founding problem — the problem that existed when it arose as a solution — gets solved and the world is very, very different from the world where the institutionalization of that solution is operating. It keeps operating in the same way. You have efforts to redeem land in Galilee when there’s no shortage of land for Jews to live in the Galilee. You have immigration efforts to save Jews when there’s no immigration. So you have a fear that there’s Nazi-like anti-Semitism; therefore, you’re seeing it all the time. This is partly the leftovers of the trauma itself. There’s a tremendous literature on PTSD, in which you can see a lot more about Israel than you otherwise would see. One of the things that it does is to force the victims to keep seeing things that aren’t there — seeing things that are other things as if they were the Nazis. There are a lot of different approaches to PTSD. I’m not so sure you can just take a clinical practice and apply it nationally. But I think, in the long run, Israel and Jews in general have to remove remembrance of the Holocaust as such a central part of their lives if Israel is going to avoid the utter tragedy of producing that which it most fears.
MS. MANN LEVERETT: I think I understood the core of your question as, are there mutual interests that Israel and Iran could play off with one another? It’s very interesting in Trita Parsi’s book, The Treacherous Alliance, where he documents a lot about the relationship between the United States, Israel and Iran. He makes the argument that it wasn’t until after the Iran-Iraq War and the fall of the Soviet Union that the Israeli-Iranian relationship became so acrimonious. We all remember the 1980s and the Iran-Contra scandal. The Israelis were supplying the Iranians with all sorts of weapons systems and other things. Even at the height of what could have been cast as the revolutionary period for Iran after the fall of the shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, that first decade was not marked by Israeli-Iranian acrimony.
Parsi argues that the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the fall of the Soviet Union — the end of the Cold War — essentially deprived Israel and Iran of a common enemy that they could arm against, that they could rally against, that they could have mutual interests, here and there, against. Nothing has really replaced that in terms of some common cause. Instead, what’s happened — unfortunately, with the support of the United States — is that these two critically important players in the Middle East have become regional rivals, regional competitors. They see everything in zero-sum terms.
Whether it’s possible at this point for there to be a common agenda is speculative, at best. But I will put out one thing from my experience in dealing with the Iranians officially over Afghanistan: We dealt with them as a partner. For example, for the donor summits on Afghanistan, particularly the first one in Tokyo in January 2002, the Iranians were not just invited; they were put on a steering committee. They put up $500 million, and they are one of the few countries in the world to actually make good on almost every penny of their stated donation to Afghanistan.
What did we do after the 2008 Israeli military Operation Cast Lead in Gaza? We had a similar sort of donor conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, but we did what we always do on Iran when it comes to Palestinian issues. We didn’t put them on the steering committee. We kept them out, and we made it as if it was a rallying cry for the entire Middle East to stand against Iran and Hamas. That is a really poor paradigm for any kind of functional diplomacy.
I’m not saying that it would work the same way that it did in Afghanistan, but we do have a precedent in Afghanistan, where Iran worked cooperatively with the United States, even when our interests were not always aligned. They’ve also worked with us, in some instances, on Iraq, where our interests are not always aligned. I’m not saying there are high hopes for any kind of common agenda between Israel and Iran, but we know for a fact that setting them up and goading them to be each other’s regional rivals doesn’t work. So I do think that the questioner is right. We should be looking for an opportunity for the Iranians to be brought into a donor conference, in a way that’s not necessarily confrontational or controversial. It should not be that hard.
Q: Why do we keep thinking that sanctions on Iran will help, when they usually fail?
DR. LUSTICK: The simple, but uncomfortable, answer to the question is that it implies that foreign-policy moves by the United States — for example, towards sanctions — come out of some kind of realist calculation. In fact, the reason we do sanctions is because it’s necessary to do something in terms of domestic political pressures. By doing something, you can postpone the question of whether it’s going to work. The Iranian nuclear capacity slides into view, and it’s not like you did nothing. If you had done something, maybe it wouldn’t have happened, but you don’t want to attack. So, in that sense, sanctions play a positive role. It has nothing to do with an expectation that it’s going to stop this process.
DR. PILLAR: That’s the main explanation, but in fairness to a sanctions regime, you can say a couple of other things. One, there’s not quite as much fecklessness as there was when it was solely a unilateral matter. And now, you know, our differences with the Europeans, and even occasionally with the Russians, are far fewer than they were before. The main deficiency with regard to the effectiveness of sanctions on Iran is not so much the sanctions themselves, but the carrots to go with the sticks. If there is no reason for the other side to believe that there is a basis for an improved relationship, there’s no incentive to respond in the way that we would hope they would respond to sanctions. So don’t just indict the sticks; look for the missing carrots.
MS. MANN LEVERETT: I think it’s very important to remember that, after the revolution in Iran, there were some sanctions in place, but then they were largely taken back because of the deal to get the release of U.S. hostages. The comprehensive unilateral U.S. embargo on Iran really was imposed in 1995, in response to then President Rafsanjani’s galling idea that he was going to open up investment in Iranian hydrocarbons to the West. Not just to the West; he offered the first deal to Conoco, an American company, with the idea that there could be the start of a process to normalize relations between the United States and Iran, if you could get the United States involved, in its own interest, in developing Iran’s hydrocarbons.
The concern here, particularly in the Clinton administration, where I worked at the time, was, if we allowed that to happen, we would be entering into a process that would legitimate the Islamic Republic, as such. That was impossible because of domestic politics here in the United States. So the response was not to just say, no thank you, but to say to U.S. companies, you are now barred legally from participating in that process. The next year, American companies complained about that legitimately — their business was going to the Europeans. That’s what then led to the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act the following year, 1996, to try to impose sanctions on other companies investing in Iran’s hydrocarbon resources.
So the sanctions regime is not really a short-term strategy, as was posited by one of our speakers. It’s not really meant to bring Iran to the negotiating table. It is posited to put a question mark over the very legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. If that was ever a good idea, I think today, 30 years later, with the gains the Islamic Republic has made internally and in its regional standing, it certainly is not a good idea.
Q: The United States has an integral role in Middle Eastern politics, especially after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How much do these wars affect Iranian foreign and nuclear policies and the agenda towards Israel, which is considered a U.S. proxy?
DR. PILLAR: Both Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate considerable convergence, or at least parallel interests, between the United States and Iran. Hillary referred earlier to those very few weeks or months in late 2001 and the beginning of 2002, in which the United States and Tehran were working cooperatively on the political rebuilding of Afghanistan, until we declared them part of the Axis of Evil. And, of course, our taking out of Saddam Hussein removed Iran’s biggest enemy, the one that had launched a war of aggression, at enormous cost in Iranian lives, in the 1980s.
MS. MANN LEVERETT: The cooperation that we had with Iran over Afghanistan, in particular, could have set the stage for a more cooperative relationship that would have redounded to everybody’s benefit in the region, if we had taken it forward to normalize relations. Today, unfortunately, there is the idea that we could turn the clock back to 2003 or 2001, and just do the same thing with Iran, but this time, instead of being in a presidency characterized by the Axis of Evil, we’re in the Obama era, and things will be different. Unfortunately, because of U.S. mistakes, Iran has the upper hand in Iraq. It is not wondering about its interests. It’s not hoping that Saddam Hussein isn’t going to attack it with chemical weapons. In Afghanistan, it’s even more complicated for us.
Today, I think, there is growing recognition in the United States that there is no military resolution and that there needs to be a political settlement that includes the Taliban. That is something that the Iranians see as a red line. The Iranians are not going to sit at the table with us and calmly nod as we try to bring about a political settlement that includes the Taliban and lets our forces leave. For the Iranians, there is no exit from Afghanistan. They’re there to stay. They’re not going to make it easier for us to leave because of some fig leaf of Taliban representation. They want no Taliban representation whatsoever.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. We need to figure out how to be working with the Iranians constructively. The alternative — and this will be very bad for Israel and our Arab allies — is that, not only do we have chaos in Afghanistan, but on top of that, we’re going to have a proxy war in which Iran sees it as in its vital interest to support its allies in Afghanistan against the allies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. If we don’t try to figure out how to work with Iran now in Afghanistan, we are looking at a proxy war in that country, on top of the chaos that’s already there. The Iranians will then take it out on American allies — Israelis, Saudis or others.