In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece Chronicle of Death Foretold, a murder is committed in defense of family honor because nobody does anything to stop two brothers carrying it out, even though they actually want to be stopped. And the careless and infantile scripts being penned by politicians in the U.S., Iran and Israel may yet have a similar outcome. Indeed, what is most remarkable about the actions of many of the key players is the extent to which they’re driven by local, self-serving agendas.
As I noted on TIME.com, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad owes a massive debt to those who made such a gevalt over his visit to New York: Ahmadinejad doesn’t give a toss what audiences in New York think of him, but by turning what might have otherwise been an obscure talk in a small Ivy League auditorium into a national media dog-and-pony show, the protestors allowed Ahmadinejad to grandstand for the folks back home, eliciting sympathy from even some who oppose him for the way he conducted himself in the “lion’s den.” Ahmadinejad, as we’ve proclaimed ad nauseum, does not control Iran’s foreign policy any more than Nancy Pelosi control’s Washington’s. He’s facing an increasingly difficult reelection battle in 2009, and his provocations of the West on issues such as the Holocaust are designed precisely to put him in the spotlight, and sabotage prospects for the rapprochement with Washington sought by his more pragmatic rivals. And by turning him into an “evil” rock star, the Columbia protesters ensured he got an hour-long address on national TV in the U.S. and a major boost at home.
You could argue, I supposed, that Lee Bollinger, the Columbia president who scolded Ahmadinejad at length in his introduction was also playing a form of “local” politics — after all, colleges in the U.S. are privately funded, and Bollinger needed to make very sure that donors were not turned off by the Ahmadinejad invitation.
But the more serious local politics may be neither those of Ahmadinejad or Bollinger. Almost a year ago, I wrote about the danger of war with Iran being based more on Israeli domestic political calculations and the law of unintended consequences than on a clear strategic intent. Israeli politicians across the spectrum continue to whip up hysteria — and a frenzy of expectation — by telling their people that they face imminent annihilation by Iranian nuclear weapons. More rational Israeli voices, such as former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami who argues that Israel can and should seek a grand bargain with Iran, are drowned out in the clamor for action. Instead, Israeli leaders are telling their people that 2007 is the last year for diplomatic solutions; if they can’t force an Iranian surrender by 2008 then the time has come for action. Of course, this timetable has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear progress; it’s based entirely on the remainder of the Bush Administration’s tenure.
Of course there is no imminent danger of Iran actually possessing nuclear weapons, and there’s no sound reason to believe that even if it had these, it would brandish them at Israel — which, after all, has far more nuclear weapons at its disposal and wouldn’t hesitate to nuke Tehran if it felt threatened with extinction — the Iranians are not stupid; they know this. Don’t expect to hear too much from such sensible voices as General John Abizaid, until recently the U.S. commander in the Gulf, who bluntly dismisses the hysteria, arguing that the U.S. could, in fact, find a modus vivendi with a nuclear-armed Iran.
As Ben Ami noted, “Revolutionary Iran has given frequent proof of its pragmatism” and, in fact, “it was the United States, not Iran, that conducted rigid ideological diplomacy” in the Washington-Tehran equation.
Ben Ami writes:
Iran backed the U.S. during the first Gulf war, but was left out of the Madrid peace conference. Iran also supported America in its war to depose the Taliban in Afghanistan. And, when American forces overran Saddam Hussein’s army in the spring of 2003, the encircled Iranians proposed a grand bargain that would put all contentious issues on the table, from the nuclear issue to Israel, from Hizbullah to Hamas. The Iranians also pledged to stop obstructing the Israeli-Arab peace process.
But American neoconservative haughtiness - “We don’t speak to evil” - ruled out a pragmatic response to Iran’s demarche.
Iran’s mood changed by the time America’s entire Middle East strategy had gone adrift, but the grand bargain remains the only viable way out of the impasse. This would not be achieved, however, through an inevitably imperfect sanctions regime, or by America’s resort to Cold War logic aimed at breaking Iran by drawing it into a ruinous arms race. Iran’s growing regional influence does not stem from its military expenditures, which are far lower than those of its enemies, but from its challenge to America and Israel through an astute use of soft power.
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But the Israeli domestic political equation is worrying: Olmert has seen his own approval ratings climb out of the toilet as a result of having bombed something in Syria a couple of weeks ago. Nobody knows what he bombed, but his numbers have climbed from about 3% a few months ago to over 35% today. That’s why the scoundrels to the left and right of him, Ehud Barak and Bibi Netanyahu, have been scrambling to claim some paternity over the mysterious Syria raid.
The Israeli electorate likes the flexing of military muscle, particularly after last summer’s humiliation in Lebanon, and even more so in the face of a steady stream of hysterical nonsense about a new Hitler on the march in the east.
The danger of Israel’s leaders’ own rhetoric painting themselves into a corner where military action becomes inevitable is reinforced by reports that Dick Cheney’s neocon jihadists have actually been planning to goad Israel into doing something this stupid, precisely in order to set off an Iranian response that would force the U.S. into a war with Iran. (Talk about a scorched-earth presidency!)
I tend to agree, though, with the assessment of Steve Clemons that the Cheney/berserk position won’t necessarily prevail — but that the posturing and rhetoric from Washington could force the U.S. into an “accidental” war (a prospect that the berserkers have actually been trying to engineer). Its domestic and internal political shape — besides the neocons around Cheney, there’s also the AIPAC warning Capitol Hill that any legislators seeking to restrain the White House from military action against Iran will henceforth be treated as anti-Semites — certainly appears to be dissuading the Administration from sending any signals to Tehran making clear that Washington has no aggressive intent. Indeed, based on what they’re hearing from Washington, the Iranians might well assume that confrontation is inevitable.
The key to avoiding a confrontation may be the U.S. military, whose opposition to such a catastrophic blunder remains steadfast. The problem, though, is that the Bush Administration has painted itself into a corner by defining a “diplomatic solution” as simply an Iranian surrender to U.S. terms on the issue of uranium enrichment. But there’s little chance of that — which may help explain the rather cynical French hysteria — nor of any new sanctions any time soon, since Iran is cooperating with the IAEA to address outstanding concerns. That’s going to leave the Cheney berserkers, and the Israeli politicians scrambling to outdo each other in satisfying the public’s expectation of action, entering 2008 with no sign that diplomacy is going to produce the only outcome short of war that they’re prepared to countenance.
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