international analysis and commentary

The US and the Iranian issue: the great balancing act


US President Barack Obama’s speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on March 4 had been anticipated with great eagerness, since the question of how to deal with Iran’s alleged nuclear program has advanced to become a hot issue in the American election campaign. Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich had lately outmatched each other with calls for military attacks on Iran and hard stances towards the Palestinians. Obama’s speech was also important in face of growing tensions between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose staunch supporter, Sheldon Adelson, helps finance Newt Gingrich’s election campaign. In an attempt to ease the tensions, Israeli President Shimon Peres has shown public support for President Obama.

Following Obama’s speech, the Israeli Prime Minister appreciated that he mentioned Israel’s right “to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.” But the American President had actually manifested the standing cornerstones of his policy towards Tehran: diplomacy first with the military option remaining on the table. Obama specifically stressed that he does not aim to contain Iran, but rather to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Nonetheless, he criticized the war-inciting rhetoric, pointing out that this only serves Iran in the end. In a long interview to The Atlantic, preceding his speech, Obama had suggested the following: “I don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are.” He also said: “at a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally [Syria] is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim?”

Israelis seem to agree with Obama: they are extremely cautious about the prospect of a war with Iran and don’t seem particularly impressed by the many anti-Palestinian slogans that are characterizing the current campaign. This is confirmed by the results of a pool fielded by Israel’s Dahaf Institute at the end of February, according to which “Obama was the preferred candidate over every potential Republican rival among Jewish-Israelis, and ahead of all among a combined sample of Arab- and Jewish-Israelis.”

Notwithstanding the reserved attitude towards the aggressive approach of the conservative presidential candidates, Israeli public opinion is highly concerned about the Iranian nuclear program. Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, and now director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), clarified that a nuclear Iran could lead to a regional nuclear arms race. Such disquietudes are further fueled by the IAEA’s most recent reports on Iran and the fact that its nuclear program could soon enter what Defense Minister Ehud Barak calls a “zone of immunity,” when substantial portions of the Iranian program could be transferred to locations secure from an Israeli air strike.

Palestinians, for their part, complain about a “policy of double standards.” Tel Aviv pursues an international condemnation of the Iranian nuclear program despite its own prolonged rejection to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory country. Moreover, Israel demands that Tehran stop all nuclear activities as a condition for starting any negotiations, while ignoring a similar request – about the freezing of the settlements in the occupied territories – from the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Besides, Palestinians are concerned that the focus on the Iran issue is diverting international attention from their denied quest for statehood or the ongoing expansions of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank. (Just two weeks ago, the Israeli Defense Ministry gave preliminary approval to a plan to build 600 new homes in the Shiloh settlement.) As happened with the last Iraqi war, the current rhetoric concerning Iran can in fact be perceived as a tool to divert attention from other problematic issues.

A similar accusation of “double standards” is levied at the Obama administration. The latter has, in the context of the Iranian nuclear program, confirmed an arms deal with Saudi Arabia valued at nearly $30 billion. This was announced last December, on the eve of the first anniversary of the Arab Spring and signaled that the US continues – as Thomas Carothers called it in The Washington Post – its “decades-old US policy of uncritical support for friendly dictators who are helpful on matters of security and economics.”

Furthermore, some important voices are often downplayed. Despite the absolute preeminence of the clerical Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the Iranian arena – once again confirmed by the still “unclear” results of the parliamentary election held last March 2 – Western media are almost entirely focused on the populist propaganda of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Just two weeks ago, Khamenei gave an important foreign policy speech in which, once again, he stressed that “the Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons […]. The Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.” As noted by Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, “even if you think it is a lie, you have at least to report what he says. I guarantee you that Khamenei’s speech opposing nukes was not so much as mentioned on any of the major American news broadcasts.”

The Iranian nuclear program is a longstanding issue in the international arena. Already in 1992 Israeli parliament member Binyamin Netanyahu predicted that Iran was “3 to 5 years” from having a nuclear weapon. That same year, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres predicted an Iranian nuclear warhead by 1999 on French television. Today, Tehran is operating under crippling international sanctions and has agreed to grant the IAEA access to the Parchin military complex. A restart of nuclear talks with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the US is in the making. Such negotiations can only work if the same rules are applied in the same way to all actors.