Monday, March 15, 2010

America, Iran and the “Showdown in Jerusalem”

According to recent news reports the controversy surrounding the visit by Vice President Joe Biden was, and would have remained, a tempest in a teapot. Only after the vice president’s hour and a half consultation with the White House the night of his state dinner with Netanyahu did the event become a high profile media fiasco.

Ramat Shlomo, topic of the controversy, is a suburb of Jerusalem previously recognized by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as part of Israel in a future peace accord. So while the timing of the Shas party’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s announcement of plans to build on the site two years in the future may be politically suspicious, the decision itself was not. Other than its timing there was nothing in the issue itself to justify the controversy.

Soon after arriving in Israel Biden began a series of meetings with Israeli leaders. While the talks touched on peace talks assumed to be the primary reason for the visit, the real conversations reportedly centered on Iran and the bomb. The substance of those discussions prompted King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to summon Defense Secretary Gates, just flying out of Afghanistan, to make an unscheduled stop in Riyadh for “urgent clarifications."

What might have so alarm the Saudi king that prompted him to issue that summons; what might have warranted Gates agreeing to the unscheduled stopover? According to Israeli military sources, the summons immediately followed "the failure of US Vice President Joe Biden's talks with Israeli leaders to resolve their differences on Iran."

That Biden was unable to convince Israeli leaders should come as no surprise since administration Iran policy to date has nothing by way of success to show for more than a year of conciliatory gestures towards the Islamic Republic.

With the departure of its director Mohamed ElBaradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) disclosed what had been widely known outside of the American intelligence community, that Iran had for years failed to comply with United Nations resolutions, had evaded inspections, and was now in an advanced stage of developing a nuclear weapon. Soon after the IAEA disclosure Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s boasted that Iran had succeeded in enriching uranium to 20%, also known as the “breakthrough level” to weapons grade uranium. A few days later President Obama announced that he was, yet again, delaying his “final deadline” for “strong” sanctions.

Israel is not the only country in the region troubled by administration reluctance to take on the Iranian nuclear threat, as the Saudi summons to Gates demonstrates. Just two weeks earlier the president dispatched Secretary of State Clinton to Riyadh with the same message Biden brought to Israel: support the Obama sanctions effort, trust administration assurances. And the Saudis reportedly gave the secretary the same reply, but without the public upheaval from Washington following Israeli skepticism. The United States, the Saudis observed, is thousands of miles and an ocean away, so might be comfortable with a long-term sanctions program. But for states in the region the Iranian threat sits across a narrow water way, only seconds distant as the rocket flies. The only assurance that would satisfy the king would be the president’s pledge to back up those sanctions with military force, something recognized and approved by more than 60% of surveyed Americans.

And, as if the message to the president needed further evidence of how its hesitancy was seen by the Arabs, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, second only to Saudi Arabia in importance, told the press that his country and Israel "see eye to eye on the Iranian issue."

What is obvious from the above is that America’s approach to Iran does not inspire confidence in her allies, including Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. That the United States is reconciled to, and willing to accept a nuclear armed Iran is something totally unacceptable to Iran's neighbors across the gulf. This being the case no amount of assurance by the president’s emissaries will serve to convince, to reassure. By their concerns expressed in the press Arab oil producers view American policy as more directed at protecting its interests in gulf oil and its transport than with the survival of the regimes producing it.

And, following seven years of chairman of Admiral Mullen’s repeated concern that an attack on Iran would result in “unintended consequences,” Israel is forced to agree with the Saudis that the Obama Administration long since concluded that an Iranian bomb is a fait accompli, that America’s Iran policy is of appeasement, containment and deterrence.

Since it is unrealistic for the administration to expect Israel and the Arabs to fall on their swords for the superpower, President Obama must choose between equally undesirable alternatives. To prioritize Afghanistan over Iran will, in the end, likely result in the loss of American influence over the region, and its oil.

Alternatively the United States can begin to behave as “the world’s only superpower,” fulfill its obligations to defend the region and its oil. But this will require Obama use the real threat of force to deter Iranian ambitions. And be prepared, should threat fail to deter, to carry through on those threats.

There is precedence for an alternative to America joining the fight. In 1957 President Eisenhower intervened to save the Egyptian president by forcing the withdrawal of England, France and Israel following the 1956 Suez War. By saving President Nasser Eisenhower unleashed a decade of radical Arab nationalism, opened wide the door to Soviet influence in the Middle East. Today, by coincidence, a resurgent Russian is supporting Iran. And those same conservative Arab oil producing monarchies, threatened forty years ago by Nasser’s radical secular Arab nationalism are today threatened by Ahmadinejad’s radical Islamic fundamentalism.

The Obama Administration expresses concern that defiance by Israel presents the United States as weak on the world stage, so places American global interests and her military forces stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan in danger. I suggest that America is judged by its actions, not by those of such mini-states as Israel and Saudi Arabia, or even Syria and Iran. That reputation is earned and, unfortunately, deserved. Let the United States act as the superpower she insists she is and no one would doubt or challenge her strength.

Today the United States is a hesitant giant. But in the fast-evolving Iranian situation hesitation is not an option. The administration’s only choice is to either lead, follow or get out of the way. In the final analysis Admiral Mullen’s mantra is correct: whichever course Obama takes will have “unintended consequences.”

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