Taking a fresh look at the Middle East options

    August 2009            
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“We Must Think Anew”

By Stephen M. Astrachan

It should be apparent that President Obama’s vision of engaging the Iranian leadership for a grand agreement to end their nuclear weapons program has little or no chance of succeeding.

Those who support this policy consider it to be new and untried. Nothing is further from the truth. For 30 years each American President has attempted some type of normal relations with Iran. For 30 years the mullahs have been frighteningly consistent. Presidents Carter’s and Reagan’s efforts ended with the humiliations of the embassy take over and the Iran-Contra Scandal. President George H. W. Bush offered adversaries a hand of friendship and reconciliation in his inaugural address. “To the world, too, we offer new engagement…Good will begets good will. Good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on.” President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright went so far as to apologize for past misdeeds and even declared the popular resistance movement Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) a terrorist organization as an incentive to improve relations. More recently, President Bush fully approved and supported the joint British, French, and German negotiations with Iran to end the nuclear weapons program and also allowed direct diplomacy by lower level officials. What have we gotten from these attempts? A major state sponsor of terror which is feverishly developing nuclear weapons and expanding its ballistic missile capabilities. And what has President Obama received for his offer of reconciliation? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

One partially successful attempt at “normalization” is instructive. In the 1990’s Germany initiated an economic relationship with Iran from which they still benefit. However, this new economic relationship did not preclude political murder on German soil with the assassination of three Iranian dissidents and their security guards in Berlin. The investigation identified the direct involvement of then Iranian President Hajemi Rafsanjani, who is also under indictment in Argentina for his role in the bombing of the Jewish Community Center of Buenos Aires in1994. Rafsanjani was considered a “moderate” when he took office.

It should also be apparent that President Obama is not supportive of Israel in the face of the impending Iranian nuclear threat. The insightful account of the press conference following the Obama-Netanyahu meeting by Jerusalem Post Editor-In-Chief David Horovitz (“In a battle of unequals, Obama lays down the law”, Northern California “J,” 5/22/09) leads to disturbing conclusions. First, Israel must accept a two-sate solution, but more importantly take “the historic opportunity to get serious movement.” Second, there is no U.S. emphasis on the Iranian nuclear threat, “just a vague presidential reference…that, by year’s end, the administration ‘should have some sense’ of whether Tehran was responding…” Third, Israel must not attack Iran, “We want to achieve a situation where all countries…can pursue economic development….without the threat that populations are going to be subject to bombs and destruction.” And finally, progress in dealing with Iran is linked to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process…To the extent that we can make peace…– between Palestinians and Israelis – then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with the potential Iranian threat.”

I have supported virtually every peace initiative and was happy with the negotiations between the previous Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority (PA) where the principle of Palestinian statehood was a given and realistic progress on the ground was being made; that is, on the ground in the West Bank where the PA governs, not in Gaza where it does not. However, this “historic moment” idea ignores not only the complete fracture of the Palestinian polity, but more importantly the dynamic influence of Iran in preventing reconciliation by supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. Reportedly, the Iranians encouraged Hamas’s rejection of the cease-fire extension last year which lead to the conflict in Gaza in December.

President Obama’s apparent ambivalence on the Iranian nuclear threat is unique. Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently emphasized the seriousness of the crisis by saying that the Iranians were one to three years from nuclear possession. Further, the President’s notion of linkage does not come from the Middle East where Dennis Ross has been trying to convince skeptical leaders from Cairo to Riyadh without much apparent success.

The threat that a nuclear Iran poses to Israel is enormous. Even without an attack the psychological threat will be devastating. Furthermore, the possibility of nuclear attack by this apocalyptic regime can not be dismissed. Such governments are not the norm, but they do occur. The war time leadership of both Germany and Japan contained strong apocalyptical elements. We must recognize that the combination of an ambivalent American policy with a warning to not take direct action is abandonment, even if unintentional, in the face of existential threat.

Can Israel act alone? An air attack is a very high risk venture, at best, that will involve considerable loss of civilian life. The Iranian nuclear program, with its multiple, dispersed, hardened, underground sites, was clearly planned to discourage and survive an air assault. Further an Israeli air strike may not be possible in light of the direct opposition of the President of the United States (if it continues.) Nevertheless, we must recognize the simple truth that an air strike is the only real policy option available to Israel in the face of this clear and present danger.

The United States, however, has another option, that of regime change, which should become our national policy. At the heart of this approach should be our active support and encouragement of the popular opposition movements of the Iranian people. The first step is removing the terrorist designation from the MEK as recommended by the FBI and already done by the European Union. It was the MEK who first revealed the Iranian nuclear program. They also provided us valuable intelligence in Iraq regarding the Iranian agents there. Today, many of them and other Iranian expatriate dissidents are under threat at Camp Ashraff in Iraq. Those who have helped us when we needed their help deserve our support and protection. Second, we should encourage the dissident National Council of Resistance, whose President Maryam Ragavi recently spoke movingly at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Contrast the essential decency of this Orthodox Shia woman with the recent statement of the Iranian Foreign Minister in Munich (no less) that there can be various perspectives on the factuality of the Holocaust. Another policy option is to seize the foreign bank holdings of the Iranian mullah leadership who have so often enriched themselves while impoverishing their country. There are many other steps we could take based on our successful efforts to assist the Solidarity Movement of Poland and the Orange Revolution of the Ukraine. Finally, under proper circumstances, we can blockade the oil flow in the Straights of Tehran which would cut off 40 % of the regime’s refined oil products and 80% of their pubic revenue.

The threats of today are dire. We must neither ignore them due to a false sense of euphoria nor surrender to despair. President Lincoln once said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.... As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” It may not be typical to read a case for an alliance with a primarily Moslem organization whose president is an observant Shia or for supporting a group called “Mujahedeen-e Khalq” in a Jewish journal. I advocate a very different policy, one that represents and alliance not only of interests, but of values. Those who wish to have freedom and security based on the rule of law and mutual respect should support each other.

The Obama Administration is going in a fundamentally different direction, but policies can change. We should advocate such a change and do so now, for time is not on our side.


from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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