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Roger Cohen: Obama’s Iran Address Will Bring ‘Painful But Necessary Redefinition of Relations with Israel’

The Israeli-Arab conflict is so murky, so fraught with confusion and distortion that one can only be thankful when a commentator manages to cut through the haze, allowing light to penetrate and illuminate essential truths. This is what Roger Cohen has done with his latest N.Y. Times column praising Pres. Obama’s address to the Iranian people.

Cohen visited Iran recently and spent time with Iranian Jews and is one of the few American Jews who has done so and written about it. Cohen’s trip and columns urging a transformation of U.S. policy toward Iran were perfectly timed with an Obama administration policy review happening roughly at the same time.

The N.Y. Times journalist notes that the speech–which recognized for the first time the Iranian revolution and current regime, and called for a peaceful, negotiated resolution of outstanding differences–was the fruit of the policy review. Gone was the former Bush approach calling Iran a member of the “axis of evil.” Gone were references to “mad mullahs” and Nazi appeasement circa 1938. In their place were carefully crafted notes of pragmatism. An acknowledgment of serious differences, but an accompanying acknowledgment that there should be means to resolve those differences short of war.

You can imagine how much this must rattle Israel’s intelligence agencies, military command, and members of the incoming rightist coalition headed by Bibi Netanyahu (one of those who has claimed that today’s Iran is “Munich, 1938”). The most telling passage in Cohen’s column and one of the wisest statements I’ve read in months on this subject is this:

[In his speech], President Obama achieved four things essential to any rapprochement.

He abandoned regime change as an American goal. He shelved the so-called military option. He buried a carrot-and-sticks approach viewed with contempt by Iranians as fit only for donkeys. And he placed Iran’s nuclear program within “the full range of issues before us.”

By doing so, Obama made it almost inevitable that one of the defining strategic issues of his presidency will be a painful but necessary redefinition of America’s relations with Israel as differences over Iran sharpen.

With this lucid, cogent and scalpel-like appraisal of the future of U.S.-Israel relations, Cohen has cut through layers of detritus laid down by Aipac and pro-Israel forces. It will earn him the enmity of the lobby and Israel’s new rightist leaders. It will earn him the admiration of those who really care about a peaceful future for Israel and its Arab neighbors.

As M.J. Rosenberg and others have pointed out, it’s no accident that Israeli president Shimon Peres delivered on the same day, a bellicose, chutzpahdik address to the Iranian people calling on them to put an end to their slavery to the crazy mullahs by rising up en masse to overthrow them. If you read the text of Peres’ remarks it seems like something out of the Kennedy administration’s disastrous attempts to overthrow Castro via the Bay of Pigs invasion. The address was a ham-handed, grotesque attempt at persuasion using a hammer and anvil instead of reasoned argument (which was what Obama’s speech represented).

I view the Peres address as almost an act of desperation: as if the Israeli hardliners are saying to the U.S. and rest of the world, “we don’t care what direction Obama takes, we’re going to lay down our own marker in this game and devil take the hindmost.” And it may be even worse, Peres and his handlers could be expressing their disgust at Obama’s abandonment of the former Bush administration informal pact with Israel by which both nations agreed that Iran was one of the greatest dangers to world peace. An Israel that expresses disgust with a U.S. president could be a very dangerous partner, one that could “go it alone” and take unilateral military action against Iran. It may take all of Obama’s persuasive rhetoric and even a bit of the stick to rein in Israel as Cohen writes here:

Obama’s new Middle Eastern diplomacy and engagement will involve reining in Israeli bellicosity and a probable cooling of U.S.-Israeli relations. It’s about time. America’s Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy has been disastrous, not least for Israel’s long-term security.

The pro-Israel crowd can cry and moan about Cohen being anti-Israel (and this statement is a very strong one in the context of the U.S.’ former relations with Israel under Bush), but this journalist is anything but a Chas. Freeman. There is no animus here. No shrillness. No railing against Israeli policy. There is just pure lucidity and pragmatism, something that has been missing from U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran for a LONG time.

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • gene schulman March 23, 2009, 1:17 AM

    Roger Cohen’s recent pieces regarding Israel in the NY Times have shown a refreshing turnaround. But I think he misses the boat on Obama’s speech to Iran. This wasn’t a reaching out, except with a hand clothed in armor. What chutzpah to tell Iran that if they do as we want them to do, we might be nice to them.

    Another view of Obama’s speech which is more to the point can be found at http://www.counterpunch.org (weekend edition, 20-22 March, 2009): “Happy New Year, Iran!”, by John V. Whitbeck.

    Obama’s position is no different than G.W. Bush’s. He merely presents it with a nice smile rather than a sneer. He’s working for the same people Bush worked for. Why should we expect change in policy.

  • Alex Stein March 23, 2009, 2:39 AM

    Well it’s over to Iran now. What’s interesting is this issue is being covered (generally, I mean, not specifically here) as if there’s only one player – the States. We can encourage Obama’s approach as long as we want, but the crucial thing is whether or not Iran responds positively, and the signs regarding that are inconclusive to say the least. Speeches are all very nice, but we need to see what the policies are, and I’m not as convinced as you are that Obama’s going to be all that friendly to the Iranians, although naturally he (like most sensible people) will do all he can to avoid the military option.

  • SimoHurtta March 23, 2009, 5:11 AM

    One thing behind the possible rethinking of US policy in Middle East are the clear attempts by biggest regional powers Turkey and Iran to begin to use local currencies in the bilateral trade and the increasing co-operation.

    Turkey and Russia also are also planing to domestic currencies in their trade. If these “examples” are put in reality the example will spread and USD’s dominant position as the world currency is in real danger.

    This development could change dramatically the geopolitical landscape of central Eurasia.

    Seems that USA is finally realizing that Middle East is not only Israel.

  • Daga March 23, 2009, 6:07 AM

    Excellent post Richard.
    Maybe Olmert should have postponed the election a few month for the paradigm-shift to sink in ? With the Scare/ Warmongers marginalized in Washington it might have a spill over effect on the Israeli population.

  • Crimson Ghost March 23, 2009, 7:09 AM

    I wonder what the reaction of the US military would be if Israel attacks Iran on its own and the Iranian response results in the death of US soldiers in the region?

    Will they attack Iran or Israel?

    I don’t think the US military will ever again allow israel to kill US servicemen as it did in 1967 –either directly or indirectly.

  • mrut March 23, 2009, 9:21 AM

    At last an American journalist has mustered the courage to talk about the Middle East as an entire region, rather than just pushing the views of right-wing Israeli parties.

    Cohen’s last sentence is absolutely correct: the myopia of the Israeli war parties (and the US government’s mindless endorsement of their views) endangers Israel’s long-term security. Finally, some pragmatism and long-range thinking. Thank you, Mr. Cohen!

  • Richard Witty March 23, 2009, 12:56 PM

    I agree with the attractiveness and sobriety of Obama’s speech, and I agree that Peres’ speech was trivial and certainly intended as some contrast to Obama’s.

    I wish that Richard had commented on Khatami’s response, which is equally, or even more important, a comment.

    Some have cited the Khatami response as nuanced, containing “take the next step” comments.

    I didn’t find Khatami’s response to be hopeful for one reason that creates an ultimate divide. That is as evidence of US’s change in attitude, Khatami seemed to condition any non-belligerant relationship on the US severing ties with Israel.

    It was not stated as “you have your friends, we’ll have ours”, but “give up your friends or don’t expect any thaw”.

    While I agree that the US relationship with Israel should change, I do NOT agree that it should sever, nor even relax its common aversion to terror.

    The same statement of “we’ll judge you by your actions” equally applies to Iran. IF Iran continues to encourage, fund and arm extra-legal militias on Israel’s border, then it will remain an aggressor in the world.

    And, if it presses the question to do you side with us OR do you side with Israel, my expectation is that the US will on merit side with Israel (though if the US continues its horrendously wasteful ways re: oil, the oil addiction may supercede what is right, and in the US commercial and social interests).

    • kylebisme March 23, 2009, 3:34 PM

      “Khatami seemed to condition any non-belligerent relationship on the US severing ties with Israel.”

      Rather, ending our unconditional support for Israel. Not that I expect you to comprehend the difference, I just wanted to mention it for for those who might.

      here is the full text as well:


      Shame our media is too corrupt to report it in full rather than selective quoting it to misrepresent it.

      • Richard Witty March 23, 2009, 4:08 PM

        We’ll see what Iran does.

        • kylebisme March 23, 2009, 5:59 PM

          Anything short of letting Israel transfer all the Palestinians to Iran and Iran opening up to US corporations exploiting their resources however they please won’t be enough for the powers that be, and Iran has no intent of doing anything of the sort.

    • fiddler March 24, 2009, 12:30 PM

      Richard W., that’s (Supreme Leader Ali) KHAMENEI, not (former President Mohammad) KHATAMI. Different names, different dudes.

  • Ken Jurist March 23, 2009, 2:44 PM

    Crimson Ghost, did you support or oppose Israel bombing Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981?
    It sounds to me like you would have opposed it.

    • Richard Silverstein March 23, 2009, 5:22 PM

      10 comments in your first day ever commenting here is ultimate chutzpah. Take a look at the comment rules before you comment again. I will approve the first two of your 10 comments today. If you want to comment again in future, don’t abuse the privilege. Not everyone here wants to read your scholarship as much as you need to spout it.

      I have no interest in making my comment threads a repository for Islamophobic maundering. So if your goal is to prove to us that Islam is a perfidious religion give it a break. There are hundreds of other website where this sort of rubbish would be welcomed. DOn’t waste our time or yours.

      • Richard Witty March 24, 2009, 3:01 AM

        If you applied that policy consistently (free from consideration of perspective), then there are others you’d have to limit as well.

        I personally think that allowing individuals to respond to questions or assertions posed to them adds to the vitality of the place.

        I don’t know the specific posts that you are referring to, maybe they were offensive.

        Others can never know.

        • Richard Silverstein March 24, 2009, 12:36 PM

          You don’t know what you’re talking about. This guy tried to publish 10 comments in a single day. I’d limit anyone who did that. He’d never published a comment here before. He wasn’t responding to anyone’s comments posed to him. He was just a right wing troll fueling the hasbara machine.

          • Richard Witty March 24, 2009, 7:26 PM

            So leave him three.

            Otherwise you’re just censoring.

            Excepting paid agents, what does “hasbara troll” mean anyway?

          • Richard Silverstein March 24, 2009, 11:38 PM

            you’re just censoring.

            You betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what a blog is. A blog is not a public soap box. It is not the public airwaves (controlled by the FCC). It is not a political candidate’s forum. A blog is a public forum that is owned by an individual. That individual sets the tone, rules, whatever for the site. The site is a reflection of that person & his or her values. So the idea of free speech or censorship is entirely beside the point.

            While there is certainly debate and disagreement with my ideas here, that does not mean I have to give voice to every nut, crackpot or wingnut troll for the sake of “free speech.” I’m attempting to maintain a relatively civilized forum in which ideas are discussed with a certain level of intelligence & analysis. That doesn’t mean that I’m running an afternoon tea, as there is strong language and antagonism here at times. But I have no obligation to publish everything that everyone attempts to post here in my comment thread.

            A hasbara troll is someone who sees their role in life to write long-winded comments at multiple sites which they believe will show the flag of Israel among the heathens, Israel-haters, self-hating Jews, etc. These are people who have too much time on their hands and a very limited supply of media resources fr. which to draw the bile they spew. They have NO INTEREST in engaging in debate or dialogue. They only want to ARGUE. They are propagandists.

            I’ve said all I want to say about this so move on please.

  • RWH March 23, 2009, 3:52 PM

    I think Richard Witty meant Khamanei, not Khatami. There is a big difference. Khamanei is the head Mullah and calls the shots in Iran. He is the religious leader and has all the actual power.

    Khatami, a former president, just withdrew his name as a candidate in the upcoming election — in order to avoid splitting the liberal vote.

    • Richard Witty March 24, 2009, 2:53 AM

      Thats right. Sorry for the error.

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