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Obama’s Election: Is Grand Bargain With Iran Possible?

I gave this as a talk this morning at University Christian Church in Seattle with Dick Blakney:

We’re now several days from Barack Obama’s re-election victory.  What does it all mean?

First, we dodged a bullet.  We came perilously close to finding a man in the White House who would have taken us to war with Iran along with our Israeli ally.  All I can say is thank God that didn’t happen.

But does Obama’s victory mean that we’re out of the woods regarding Iran?  Hardly.  If our relationship with Iran followed a rational arc, there’d be no chance of war.  After all, the American people clearly want little to do with Middle Eastern wars.  They’re fed up with the thousands of deaths of our boys in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our last major entanglement there is coming to an end.  The administration has, so far, refused to intervene in the Syrian civil war.  Military intervention is not a popular policy (except when it involves drones).

Do we really think Pres. Obama would join Israel in a war on Iran?  If there was a way to guarantee that such an attack wouldn’t drag us into a prolonged engagement—perhaps.  But it appears that any attack on Iran would drag Israel, the U.S., and much of the Middle East into a long-term, low-intensity conflict.  There can be no way the U.S. could limit its exposure.  While Iran is no match for us or Israel in conventional terms, the Islamic Republic could draw blood through asymmetrical warfare and its proxies over a very long period.  Hamas, Hezbollah, the Revolutionary Guards, all of them might dedicate themselves to avenging any attack on Iran.

I am not naïve enough to believe that Obama will avoid war with Iran because of any set of principles or values.  His considerations are solely pragmatic and based on notions of political advantage and survival.  That’s why the primary approach of his administration to the Muslim world and the Islamist threat is based on drones and targeted killings.  It’s a substitute for a substantive engagement based on a diplomatic policy.

In an article in Foreign Policy, the director of the Brookings Doha Center said the slogan regarding the Middle East for the next four years will be:

Engage where we must, disengage when we can.

Given that, is there any hope for a constructive resolution to the nuclear impasse with Iran?  Yes, there is.  Iran has proposed that in return for ending enrichment of uranium beyond 20%, the west would ease or end sanctions.  This is an offer it put on the negotiating table some time ago.  So far, the western response hasn’t been overwhelming.

But this seems the most realistic possibility for compromise.  It gives both sides something they want: the U.S. wants to prevent Iran from going nuclear.  Iran wants relief from strangling sanctions.  Such an agreement would give both sides breathing room to resolve more intractable issues.

Shortly before the election, administration sources told the NY Times that both sides had agreed to bilateral talks on outstanding issues.  Though different sources denied the original report, the Times never retracted it and Iran did not summarily reject it.  This gives some hope that at least the two sides might talk to each other, if not achieve a breakthrough.

Where would that leave Israel?  Frankly, given Bibi Netanyahu’s explicit support for Romney’s presidential bid, Obama isn’t likely to give much consideration to the concerns of Israel’s prime minister.  Israel’s position is–until Iran’s uranium enrichment ends, it is on the road to a nuclear weapon.  As far as Israel is concerned, allowing any enrichment permits an ongoing threat to Israel’s existence.

Earlier this week, Netanyahu told a TV interviewer that he was willing to “push the button” to start a war with Iran.  In answer to the question, would Iran have a nuclear program at the end of his next term, he answered point-blank: No.

All this leaves great danger that Netanyahu might go it alone in attacking Iran.  If he did, Israel would not have nearly enough capability to wipe out Iran’s nuclear program.  It doesn’t have bunker buster bombs of sufficient power to penetrate mountain redoubts like Fordo, where Iran’s most sophisticated nuclear facility is housed.  At best, Israel could set back Iran by a year.  At the end of that period, Iran would be where it is now.  But such an attack might cause Iran to withdraw from the Non Proliferation Treaty.  This would deny the west whatever rights of inspection it now has, and drive Iran’s nuclear ambitions even farther underground.

Can Obama rein in Bibi?  Can he stop an Israeli attack?  I don’t know.  I do know that the president isn’t the only one who doesn’t want such a war.  All of Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs including the air force chief are opposed.  That leaves the prime minister and defense minister.  They’re the only ones rattling sabers.  It seems almost inconceivable that an entire nation goes to war solely on the command of one powerful leader.  I’m sad to say, it is possible.  I can’t say whether it’s likely, but it is possible.  And that possibility scares me.

Israel, I’m sorry to say, is a nation that is marching toward authoritarianism.  The next election, scheduled for January, will likely ratify a third term as prime minister for Bibi Netanyahu.  It would make him the longest serving leader in the country’s history.  In all this time, he has radically remade the country and its institutions.  He has inaugurated what I call the permanent right wing majority.  Gone are any serious challenges from left or centrist parties.  Though you can’t call Israel a one-party state, you can call it a state in which anti-democratic, ultranationalist forces are not just in the ascendancy, but in control of all the levers of state power.

We have seen throughout history that when power is unchecked in this fashion, that such nations not only drag themselves into destructive spirals of mayhem and violence, but draw their neighbors and entire regions after them.  Frankly, I don’t have faith that Barack Obama can check Israel’s most dangerous impulses.  I wish I could say that the Congress might exercise some restraint.  But it is even more beholden to the Israel lobby than the president.  Dick sent me a letter Sen. Maria Cantwell sent to him in which she erroneously claimed Iran had a nuclear weapons program.  For that reason, I couldn’t bring myself to vote for her earlier this week.

There’s another slightly alarming development related to the resignation of Gen. David Petraeus as CIA chief.  Pres. Obama will be seeking a long-term replacement for him.  One of the candidates suggested by CNN (and I’m glad to say that she’s just one among many) is former Rep. Jane Harman.  She was once under consideration to be chair of the House Intelligence Committee.  She bargained with wealthy Aipac donor Haim Saban, promising she would lobby against prosecution of Aipac’s Steve Rosen for spying if Saban would lobby House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for Harman to be committee chair.  This interchange was a clear violation of federal law and the FBI investigated, but didn’t pursue the matter.  Imagine how happy the lobby and Israel would be if Obama appointed her to head the CIA.  For that reason, I doubt it will happen.  But you never know.

What about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace?  I’m afraid it’s not in the cards.  Not only does Obama detest Netanyahu (the feeling is surely mutual), our president simply doesn’t have the stomach or guts to go up against the Israel lobby.  I don’t see the U.S. supporting any major peace initiatives.  In fact, I see us continuing to play a negative role regarding questions like Palestinian statehood and a bid for recognition via the UN.  The next four years promise stasis, benign neglect.

All this doesn’t mean things stay the same.  That’s rarely the case in the Middle East.  When there is a vacuum, it is filled by those who have the most to gain by tipping over the apple cart.  It might be Hezbollah.  It might be Assad.  It might be Hamas.  It might be Israel.  There are so many unresolved issues in the Middle East, so many grudges nursed and injustices ignored, that someone will come forward and torpedo the status quo.   A terror attack, kidnapping an Israeli soldier, anything could do it.  When that happens, there will be no glue holding things together.  No balance of power or force of deterrence holding anyone back.  Then violence will rage once more.

I regret to say that there is almost a 100% chance there will be a major conflict in the next four years.  It will either be in Iran, Lebanon, Syria or Gaza.  It will stem from American refusal to buck the power of the Israel lobby and from Israel’s impulse to address all its problems with military force rather than compromise or diplomacy.

I’m not a seer and can’t tell you exactly what will happen.  All I can do is write my blog and put my body and spirit on the line for peace.  We can both make our voices heard through whatever avenues we have.  Create momentum for peace.  If war is one of those Caterpillar armored bulldozers Israel uses to raze Palestinian homes, then let’s stand in its path and stop it in its tracks if we can.

{ 20 comments… add one }
  • Carl November 12, 2012, 5:33 AM

    maybe a hopeful sign is the dismal failure of aipac, adelson, and netanyahu to change the voting complexion of American Jews — I think there was something like a 5% shift towards Romney, which is not much more than would be expected from the population as a whole. This is one imperative that netanyahu can’t buck (or whatever word one may use) and may be the ultimate limiting factor for Israel (netanyahu).

    • Tibor November 12, 2012, 8:08 AM

      It is important to understand that the US-Israel relations have reached a state that transcends episodes, personal issues and even the particular persons at the helmet (in each country). They are all good gossip material but not substantive. There was a short period in the onset of Obama`s presidency when “other winds” blew for a while but that was quickly buried under the weight of the multi-facet bonds that now ties the US and Israel together. For instance, a vote in the Senate or the House of almost all against almost none when it is an Israel-related issue has become a commonplace.

      • mary November 12, 2012, 10:46 AM

        Yes, those other winds blew Operation Cast Lead into the Gaza Strip, and of course, AIPAC’s influence in Congress is abundantly obvious.

        • Davey November 13, 2012, 12:29 AM

          I don’t know. The Lobby runs on money and American Jews are pretty clearly not that interested in AIPAC’s choices, rather Netanyahu’s choices. It could be that AIPAC will have to kowtow to public opinion at least for a while, to regroup, assure its funding and launch an uphill campaign to convince congress that it can deliver the votes. I mean it must be obvious to all that money will not necessarily achieve Zionist policies. I know I’m spittin’ in the wind, but there must be some softening now because all these warriors are badly injured including Nut&Yahoo, AIPAC, Adelson…the whole awful crew. They surely cannot tout broad mandates of any kind. If the administration has any idea of striking out at these creatures, now is probably the very best time it will ever have.

          • Tibor November 13, 2012, 2:21 AM

            Of course money cannot achieve that and if it was merely about that it would have been gone ages ago. Money, simply catches the headlines but I don`t think President Bush (the recent) for instance spent a minute thinking about that in his ardent support of Israel. That is also why the Adelson saga makes little difference – money always ignited people`s imagination and a Casino mogul slashing big bucks around is certainly a “good story”, but it`s really not much more than that. The US-Israel ties became part of the very political (and beyond) fabric in the US and if anything then, given the mounting problems that both countries view through the same prism, it is only bound to strengthen

          • mary November 13, 2012, 5:25 AM

            There is no shortage of Democratic support for Israel; don’t forget who Obama has in his Cabinet (some very staunch Zionists including his own vice president), and he counts Alan Dershowitz among his strongest supporters. AIPAC crosses party lines.

          • Tibor November 13, 2012, 6:48 AM

            69. Of course money cannot achieve that and if it was merely about that it would have been gone ages ago. Money, simply catches the headlines but I don`t think President Bush (the recent) for instance spent a minute thinking about that in his ardent support of Israel. That is also why the Adelson saga makes little difference – money always ignited people`s imagination and a Casino mogul slashing big bucks around is certainly a “good story”, but it`s really not much more than that. The US-Israel ties became part of the very political (and beyond) fabric in the US and if anything then, given the mounting problems that both countries view through the same prism, it is only bound to strengthen

          • Davey November 13, 2012, 9:17 AM

            I am not suggesting the imminent demise of AIPAC (G*d forbid!) but the election results were something of a surprise and, given that, public opinion is relatively open at the moment, positively inviting of new initiatives. I don’t agree that the money, the Adelson saga this time around, is only a good story. It is the very heart of the matter and certainly some donors are going to think twice about AIPAC and other right wing PACS because of their failure to capture the election or even make a good showing. Obama might be able to launch some grand bargain right in the face of Congress and AIPAC.

          • mary November 15, 2012, 8:03 AM

            Israel isn’t as fortunate as Tibor would like to think, simply because the US’ influence in the middle east is waning. I’m sure Obama is thinking at this moment that Egypt’s President Morsi is a big ol’ loose cannon.

  • mary November 12, 2012, 5:35 AM

    It looks to me like Bibi has decided to take out his disappointment about Obama’s reelection on Gaza. One of his cronies is calling for the killing of all Hamas officials, or even better, the complete destruction of the Gaza Strip.


    “”Asked how he would deal with rocket barrages from the State of Gaza, Avital said, “We first must make the disengagement final. So far the disengagement has been one-sided. Israel continues to supply Gaza with energy: electricity, gasoline and consumer goods are still being trucked over. We must block all that permanently. If we are disengaged, then let’s be disengaged in both directions. And then we have to pick whatever targets must be exploded and destroyed in order that the citizens of Israel can live in security.”

    The next phase in Dr. Avital’s plan is to “take out the heads of Hamas. Either kill them or take out Gaza as a whole, something totally dramatic.””

    • Davey November 13, 2012, 12:40 AM

      Death, destruction, starvation, exposure…all the good things that modern munitions and technology can bring to your neighborhood. A modern, large army and air force are poised to destroy a hapless people already driven from their homes and hammered into the dirt for no good reason. There is just so much to proud of as a Jew these days, beating up unarmed civilians, demolishing homes, piracy, lies galore…our cup runneth over, surely goodness and… Israel will be judged by its moral behavior and, just as Germany still carries a tremendous load today and into the future, regardless of anything, so Israel will be known for generations by its behavior on the world stage.

  • fillmore hagan November 12, 2012, 6:30 AM

    Israel is a much smaller country than Iran. They risk huge casualties in any sustained conflict with Iran even if they do have a military edge. Unless of course they use nukes which would almost certainly lead to the end of Israel as the nations of the world finally unite to put down this mad dog.

    The idea that Israel is going to attack Iran on its own with conventional weapons is absurd. They can dish it out but cannot take it. Their efforts will be devoted to doing all they can to touch off a US-Iran war.

  • Carl November 12, 2012, 1:56 PM

    What is Richard bringing into focus … a ‘Grand Bargain’. It would seem that President Obama has shown he may be willing to confront the big picture problems with big picture solutions — just look at his several almosts at getting a grand bargain with the budget negotiations. Or, look at Obama’s Cairo speech and push to get Netanyahu to pause the ‘settlement’ building. It would seem that Obama is willing to go for the global cure where nitpicking has always been the norm.

    But, is a Grand Bargain possible in the I-P conflict? It certainly seems that dealing with the I-P mess with little itsy-bitsy attempts has been an enduring failure. So,is it reasonable to ask whether it is possible to contain a Grand Bargain that solves the I-P mess. So maybe the only Grand Bargain worth considering would have to be a regional solve everything grand bargain — making the ME a nuclear free zone and resolving the I-P at the same time.

    Not possible. Israel holds all the cards and is getting a gigantic free-bee; there is no incentive for a resolution and the current situation keeps the self-serving mutual hatred on the front burner. So there will be no solution and it is a matter of whether Obama can contain Netanyahu’s (Israel’s) desire to attack Iran and continue absorbing Palestinian land and resources.

    • mary November 13, 2012, 12:18 AM

      It should be obvious to the world by now that Israel wants land, not peace, and will not stop building settlements until there is nothing left to build them on.

      • Davey November 13, 2012, 12:51 AM

        Right. They won’t stop settlements for anything, not even if a majority of Israeli citizens decide against settlements. This should be clear to anyone following Israel’s flight plan. Israelis have given up on governing themselves and handed it over to the professional racists of Likud, the natural heir to all European racism. But it is our purpose to make that project as painful and costly as possible. To isolate this state and embarrass it every minute of every day, to chop apart their thin veneer of civility that accompanies its policies and excuses, tell the truth against its preposterous lies and provide succor to the victims of this vicious anachronism.

  • dickerson3870 November 12, 2012, 6:25 PM

    RE: “Earlier this week, Netanyahu told a TV interviewer that he was willing to ‘push the button’ to start a war with Iran. In answer to the question, would Iran have a nuclear program at the end of his next term, he answered point-blank: No.” ~ R.S.

    SEE: “Is Netanyahu Planning Nuclear Attack on Iran?” ~ By Common Dreams staff, 11/11/12

    [EXCERPT] The ‘Sunday Times’ of London is reporting that ‘Rivals fear Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu is plotting nuclear strike on Iran.’
    Netanyahu thinks ballistic missiles carrying tactical nuclear warheads will be necessary to take out Iran’s Fordow uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom.
    The site is buried deep beneath a mountain.
    Western sources say Israel firing a Jericho-3 missile carrying a tactical nuclear warhead would be “sufficient to ‘bury’ the plant.” The United States is the only nation that has used nuclear weapons thus far. . .

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/11/11-0

    • dickerson3870 November 12, 2012, 6:51 PM

      P.S. ALSO SEE – “Report: Israel forced to change Iran strike tactics”, By JPost.com staff, Jerusalem Post, 11/11/12
      ‘Sunday Times’ report says Iran’s nuke site hidden safe from conventional airstrikes; Israel left with nuclear, ground options.

      [EXCERPT] Israeli military experts have concluded that a conventional strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities may fail, and have been forced to change their plans accordingly, The Sunday Times reported Sunday, quoting Western intelligence and defense sources.
      “Israel’s plans have been constantly evolving in recent years according to the progress Iran is making,” The Sunday Times quoted a senior defense source as saying.
      The Jerusalem Post could not confirm the veracity of this report.
      According to The Sunday Times, Western defense experts discovered Iran’s Fordow nuclear site is hidden deeper underground than previously thought and therefore safe from conventional air strikes.
      The Sunday Times report, quoting Western defense experts, added that due to the “upgraded” progress of Iranian enrichment, Israel has to change its tactics to prevent a loss of up to 20 percent of its planes in a conventional air strike.
      Defense experts claim Israel have two options, either deploy special forces on the ground, or use ballistic missiles with tactical nuclear warheads, the British paper reported.
      The report follows a Channel 2 investigation that discovered Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the IDF to raise its alert level ahead of a possible attack in 2010. . .
      . . . However, setting Iran’s nuclear plans back a few years to buy time for regime change or other unforeseen developments would be good in its own right, even if Israel cannot completely take out Iran’s nuclear program, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said recently, the Post learned.
      Netanyahu, in private meetings, repeated a number of times that before Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, the Mossad and Military Intelligence were opposed because they thought the best that could be done was to delay the program for a couple of years. . .

      SOURCE – http://www.theburningplatform.com/?p=43876

      P.P.S. “FREE DON” SIEGELMAN PETITION – http://www.change.org/petitions/president-obama-please-restore-justice-and-pardon-my-dad

      • Richard Silverstein November 13, 2012, 2:08 PM

        Anytime you see a Times of London story about Israel check to make sure it wasn’t published by Uzi Machnaimi. If it was, automatically deduct 85% from its truth-credibility rating. Then you’ll have more or less how much truth there may be in anything he writes, including this piece. Not saying it isn’t possible. Just unlikely.

  • Fred Plester November 13, 2012, 6:58 AM

    I think that Obama needs a pretty long spoon before sitting down with either Israel or Iran, to be honest.

    Rather than a bargain, he needs to devise a status quo which suits America and the many other countries in the region, and which both the belligerents, Israel and Iran, can bring themselves to live with if pressure is applied. Then apply the pressure.

    Iran and Israel only agree to things in order to get more, later. (I’ve observed before that they are becoming a mirror image of each other.) If something is imposed on them, to their outrage, it will actually be more stable because there won’t be any scope for scheming towards something else.

    America must stop treating Iran as an enemy, but also stop treating Israel as an ally, which it has never honestly been, too.
    Now that America has energy self-sufficiency in sight (and, remarkably, it has), its main interests in the Middle East are free trade, free passage on the seas and an absence of warfare. Iran’s tendency to threaten to block international waterways every time it is poked in the eye with a stick, and Israel’s tendency to poke Iran in the eye with a stick at regular intervals, make both countries part of the problem and a most unlikely part of any solution.

    The solution, then, will have to be imposed, one day. Until then, there will be no solution. One-sided imposition will mean instant war, impartiality will produce a grudging peace.

  • fillmorehagan November 13, 2012, 1:32 PM

    Iranian general downplays Israeli war threats.


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