With righteous indignation, Pres. Obama announced at the UN that Iran had secretly begun a nuclear research facility near the holy city of Qom, which our intelligence agencies believe can only be meant to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel. This development delighted the anti-Iran hawks in Israel and the U.S., who have been talking up the military option for months. I’m half convinced that much of Obama’s reaction may have something to do with trying to pre-empt the hawks and so stay ahead of the neocon curve. Nothing speeds the demise of a president’s political relevance more than to appear to be out of touch with hot button cable news-ready stories like this one. Had Obama not rattled the sanctions saber mightily he’d be even more the object of rage and scorn on FOXNews and the other right-wing media outlets.
But where does all this leave us? Iran has certainly miscalculated in a major way in developing this secret facility. But does it care? The Revolutionary Guards, who built this facility, derive political strength from the prospect of confrontation with the west. I simply don’t see any way that we in the west can weaken their hold on power, which is supposedly what most of us want to see happen, by reacting as if Iran had done the equivalent of introduced nuclear missiles on Cuban soil, 90 miles from American shores.
Let’s keep in mind that we’ve discovered the facility, the Iranians have agreed to its being inspected. We’ve known for several years about the plant though we weren’t sure what it’s purpose was until recently. Going to Defcon IV at this point would be a bit premature.
There is an almost universal cry in the U.S. and Israel for “punishing sanctions” against Iran. Though interestingly, much of the rest of the world (German, Russia, and China in particular) doesn’t seem to share in this consensus. Just what can sanctions do? Very little, especially in light of the reluctance of Iran’s major trading partners to go along.
Roger Cohen has written yet another sharp analysis of the current situation in his column in today’s Times:
Sanctions won’t work. Ray Takeyh, who worked on Iran…at the State Department…told me that “sanctions are the feel-good option.”Yes, it feels good to do something, but it doesn’t necessarily help. In this case, sanctions won’t for four reasons.
One: Iran is inured to sanctions after years of living with them and has in Dubai a sure-fire conduit for goods at a manageable surtax. Two: Russia and China will never pay more than lip-service to sanctions. Three: You don’t bring down a quasi-holy symbol — nuclear power — by cutting off gasoline sales. Four: sanctions feed the persecution complex on which the Iranian regime thrives.
A senior German Foreign Ministry official last week told an American Council on Germany delegation: “The efficiency [ed. I think the world the speaker intended to use is “efficacy”] of sanctions is not really discussed because if you do, you are left with only two options — a military strike or living with a nuclear Iran — and nobody wants to go there. So the answer is: Let’s impose further sanctions! It’s a dishonest debate.”
This last point is very important. The sly hawks are talking sanctions (the talon-exposed hawks are going right for the jugular and talking regime change). But the former likely know, as Bush did when he proposed sanctions against Saddam, that time will come when people will say sanctions have not worked and we need to go on to the next stage. That’s when the anti-Iran warrior class expects the world to come to its senses and embrace a military attack as the only viable option.
This is why it’s very important that Iran pragmatists put the sanctions cards on the table for all the players to see. Those cards are a losing hand. But the card players believe their ace in the hole is the military card and they can barely wait to play it. We need to tell the world that sanctions are little more than a ploy, a device to mark time till the real show can begin.
That’s why anti-Iran programs like one sponsored here in Seattle by the local Jewish federation are all heat and no light. They are foisted upon an unsuspecting Jewish community by the Israeli diplomats and the Israel lobby (in the form of StandWithUs and Aipac, who are providing the main speakers and paying their way) in hopes of invoking Jewish fear and paranoia in the fight to demonize Iran. If you’re so unfortunate as to attend, you’ll hear about the existential threat to Israel that Iranian weapons pose (neglecting scores of Israeli nuclear weapons currently aimed at Teheran). You’ll hear the Bibi mantra that today is 1938 and Teheran is Munich and we must not fail this time to confront the contemporary equivalent of the Nazis. You’ll hear about Shimon Peres’ grandstanding slogan condemning Iranian nukes as “a flying Holocaust.” What won’t you hear? Reason and pragmatism. You might hear tepid endorsement of diplomatic engagement, but only in the context of ratcheting up pressure when it fails (as it must in the war party’s vision).
As progressive Jews, we must fight the doomsday lobby and fight the inclination to “resolve” this issue with force. That’s why I’m planning a counter-conference here in Seattle that will feature Iranian-American and American Jewish pragmatists who are also experts in this field. The event will be sponsored by the Seattle chapter of the United Nations Association and local Jewish groups. Our speakers’ message may be critical of Iran (and Israeli policy toward it). But it will not be shrill and it will not be knee-jerk. It will present a vision of what could work and improve Israel-Iran-U.S. relations. And it will support the Obama administration’s policy of diplomatic engagement. I expect it will cost upwards of $5,000 to cover the travel costs and accomodations for our speakers plus rental of a hall. I urge you to support our effort.
Cohen proposes an intriguing alternate approach to defusing the crisis. Engage with the Iranians on all major regional issues that unite and divide us:
…Open a…bilateral U.S.-Iran negotiation covering…Afghanistan and Iraq (where interests often converge); Hezbollah and Hamas (where they do not); human rights; blocked Iranian assets; diplomatic relations; regional security arrangements; drugs; the fight against Al Qaeda; visas and travel.
Isolated, nuclear negotiations will fail. Integrated, they may not. Iran’s sense of humiliation is rooted in its America complex; its nuclear program is above all about the restoration of pride. Settle the complex to contain the program.
There is no guarantee that diplomatic engagement will work. But there is far more likelihood it will succeed than the military option.