Participants at an otherwise informative discussion on "Iran at a Crossroads" at the Senate on Wednesday seemed at pains to barricade the doors against the proverbial elephant being admitted into the room - in this case, Israel.
This, despite the fact that the agenda virtually dictated that the elephant be allowed in. The cavernous hearing room also could have accommodated it - however awkward and untidy the atmosphere might have become.
Otherwise, as was entirely predictable, the discussion would be lacking a crucial element. Which is exactly what happened. Which is exactly what always happens.
The tongue-tied impediment displayed by some of the presenters can be chalked up mostly to the all-too-familiar timidity on Capitol Hill to countenance candid discussion of any issue on which Israel can be revealed to be a fly in the ointment.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, obtained use of the hearing room for the organizers of the discussion, the thoroughly professional National Iranian American Council headed by Professor Trita Parsi. This is to Levin's credit, in my view.
At the same time, Sen. Levin holds the all-time-high record for PAC contributions from groups affiliated with the self-described "America's Pro-Israel Lobby" - the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I'm guessing that Levin's office may have asked that some caution be exercised, so that it would be difficult for Fox News to misrepresent the proceedings as "Israel bashing."
Setting the Stage
In any case, a truly distinguished panel launched a discussion on "The U.S. and Iran: Back to Confrontation?" which Professor Parsi moderated. The panelists began by setting a fact- and reality-based context, which in turn raised hopes of a no-holds-barred discussion. Their observations included, or implied, the following:
-The status of the U.S. as the "world's sole remaining superpower" may have "turned a corner." In many key respects, China, India, Russia and Brazil now represent a rival "superpower" strong enough to thwart American policy objectives.
-The consequences of nuclear weapons proliferation in the general area of the Persian Gulf would be so truly ominous that "everything imaginable" should be done to head it off.
-The main "positive" of robust sanctions against a country like Iran is simply that those who impose them can feel good. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to target sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps without hurting the Iranian people at large.
-The experience of the past several years demonstrates that the U.S. and Iran share - and can act on - a range of common interests (in Afghanistan, for example). Neither country would profit from hostilities involving Iran.
-Iran is nowhere near a nuclear weapon, so there is time to reconsider what guarantees could be offered to Tehran to dissuade it from pursuing a nuclear weapons option.
-No member of Congress has set foot in Iran since 1979.
No Discussion of Implications
With these observations on the table, it was as if the doors to the hearing room were clanked shut and bolted, lest the Israeli elephant be allowed to intrude. And this, despite a palpable yearning in the audience for the panelists to address uncomfortable questions like:
-If there are no intrinsic factors dictating implacable hostility between Iran and the U.S., how does one account for its persistence? What promotes, what feeds it?
There was, of course, the sad history of 1953 when the CIA and British intelligence engineered the overthrow of Iran's first democratically elected government, and the outrage of Iran's holding 52 American hostages for 444 days at the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency.
But aside from those incidents, could the mutual hostility today have anything to do with Israel and its ability to enlist the U.S. behind Israeli strategic objectives?
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-Do the Iranian leaders see as contrived the oft-expressed concern that Iran might eventually obtain a nuclear weapon, when American officials do nothing about Israel's actual nuclear weapons, or for that matter, those of Pakistan and India?
-Is the real objective of Israel and, by extension, the U.S. the same as it was with respect to Iraq seven years ago - that is, "regime change"? (How I dislike using the euphemism in vogue for what we used to call overthrowing governments!)
Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let drop last month that, even if Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon, this does not "directly" threaten the United States.
-Is it true, as one of the panelists asserted, that "No one believes that the Green (opposition) movement in Iran is supported by outside forces; that rather it is clearly an entirely indigenous, spontaneous movement?"
Into the memory hole went past news reports about the Bush administration earmarking $400 million to support covert operations designed to frustrate Iran's nuclear program and to destabilize its political system. Also unmentionable were troubling reports that the United States has helped "good" terrorist organizations, like Jundullah, to strike violent blows against Iran's regime.
-Is it a given, as one afternoon panelist suggested, that "Everyone knows that the Israelis would not use their considerable nuclear arsenal except in self-defense"? It seems that when Israel is mentioned in these affairs, commentary must be only in the most positive light; there can be no suggestion that Israel might use, say, bunker-busting tactical nukes to destroy hardened Iranian targets.
-Does the Israeli government honestly perceive an "existential threat" in Iran's possible acquisition of a few nuclear weapons against the 200-300 devices already in Israel's arsenal? If so, is Israel prepared to "defend itself" by attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, using the preventive-war justification which has long been a staple of Israeli policy, and was adopted kit and caboodle by Bush and Cheney?
-Are the Israelis counting on U.S. logistical support for such a preventive attack -intelligence and operational planning support of the kind that enabled its surgical strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981? Are they expecting the kind of political support the United States provided in the wake of Israel's September 2007 attack on a suspect nuclear-related facility being built in Syria?
-Why is it that former Ambassador Robert Hunter, now an adviser to RAND and himself a passionate opponent of nuclear proliferation, can endorse the idea of a "nuclear-free Middle East," and then with a wan smile simply throw up his hands lamenting that that's never going to happen. Why must this proposal be banned from the category of "everything imaginable," simply because "everyone is sure" that Israel would never go along?
-If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels he can thumb his nose at the U.S. President (and Vice President) on the signal issue of Israeli settlements, is there reason to believe that Netanyahu is inclined to take into account repeated "please pleas" from the likes of Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, who has warned the Israelis publicly that an attack on Iran would be a "big, big, big problem for all of us?"
-Was this week's chutzpah-laden Israeli announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem - in the midst of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden - a case of what one might call "practice mouse trapping," to test whether the Obama administration really has the toughness to push back in a meaningful way?
Ambassador Hunter was accompanied on the afternoon panel by prolific writer, Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, and Robert Malley, who served in senior positions at President Bill Clinton's National Security Council and is now Program Director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C.
All three have a wealth of experience on the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this gave rise to eventually dashed expectations of a more candid discussion of several related issues as they impinge on Iranian interests.
There are, of course, limits to what can be covered in an hour and a quarter. Still, there did seem to be distinct reluctance to include Israel in any discussion of the political obstacles preventing sensible accommodation between Tehran and Washington.
No doubt the main obstacle can be traced to the timeworn "passionate attachment" of U.S. leaders to Israel's perceived interests, and the tendency to view them as identical to those of the United States. This politically and emotionally sensitive issue needs to be addressed openly and without fear-in the interest of Israeli, as well as Iranian and American citizens.
If Not Now, When?
Granted, volunteering to sponsor such a discussion would be seen as the kiss of death for the vast majority of lawmakers. But can it be that there is no group, no think tank with courage enough to arrange such a forum? For it truly needs to be done, and quickly, somewhere - whether permitted in a Senate office building, or not.
Without free discussion and greater understanding, there is virtually no prospect of lessened tensions. Rather, the volatile situation seems likely to get still worse, and could even include an Israeli provocation and/or a preventive strike on Iran.
Here Admiral Mullen is right; such actions would constitute a "big, big, big problem for all of us."