Is There an Iraq-Iran Continuum?
Panel 6 Q&A
April 10, 2015
Moderator Dale Sprusansky: We are running on borrowed time right now. Everyone has a few question cards in front of them. Maybe if we’ll just go down the line, choose your best questions and give us your thoughts, and don’t take that long.
Gareth Porter: I have the good fortune of having the same question submitted by three different people. I’m really happy that three people thought of this question because it does in fact represent an extremely important point, which I had wanted to talk about and ended up not doing. In fact, I’ve prepared an entire different presentation, which did deal with this question.
The question is, in effect, is or isn’t the nuclear issue a distraction posed by the Israelis from the Palestinian issue? In my alternative presentation which I did write up, I make the point that not only is the Israeli demonization of Iran, which has been going on now ever since the early 1990s, since 1993 beginning with the [Yitzhak] Rabin administration or Rabin government, this demonization campaign has just been continuous ever since then. One of the themes of that demonization campaign has been that Iran is an existential threat. That’s one of the primary themes, an existential threat to Israel. That idea has been propounded by every single Israeli government since Rabin, and at least on three occasions, two of which are associated with Mr. Netanyahu. But there’s no question that this argument was in a large part to indeed distract attention from or to promote a policy toward the Palestinian issue. If you go back to the Rabin government, he actually created the idea of the existential threat to Israel from Iran in order to justify his policy of negotiations with the PLO beginning in 1993. One of the interesting things that I’ve learned about Rabin’s policy is that he originally started talking about the threat of nuclear weapons in the Middle East after he was elected in mid-1992. But he talked about Arab regimes, particularly, of course, thinking of Iraq. He didn’t talk about Iran.
It was not until he actually met with Bill Clinton in late 1992 during Clinton’s presidential campaign when Clinton apparently voiced the very, very hard line toward Iran, which he believed would be popular with funders who he was appealing to in the United States as the pro-Israel candidate. It was only after Clinton was elected that Rabin started talking about an existential threat from Iran. And so the point being that there is a reciprocal relationship here between the Israeli use of the existential threat from Iran politically and their enablers in the United States. In this case, Clinton wanting to run as the pro-Israel candidate, again in order presumably, although I can’t document this, to make sure that he had very strong support from funders as well as getting the Jewish vote.
But the point about Netanyahu is that on two occasions, he used the existential threat from Iran in order to ward off pressure from the United States to change his policy to become more forthcoming with regard to the Oslo process, the peace process. He started doing that in 1997 very explicitly. He started talking about the existential threat precisely when he needed to prevent the Clinton administration from putting pressure on him or soften any diplomatic pressure from the Clinton administration to carry out the agreements that had been already reached by the Israeli government with the Palestinians.
So there’s no question that that has been a fundamental policy of Israel—to use the supposed Iranian threat as a justification or a way of avoiding the serious negotiations and accommodating the rights of the Palestinians. He did it again in 2012 quite explicitly when he started talking about Hamas equals Iran. It was a way of making his domestic problems with the Palestinians an issue of the threat from Iran, which of course by that time, as I talked about earlier, was a major success that Israel had been able to achieve politically and diplomatically to create this idea of Iran as a nuclear threat.
Reza Marashi: Okay. I have a couple of questions that I’m just going to fly through here very quickly. Fortunately, sometimes you get duplicates as Gareth [Porter] pointed out. I’ll start with the duplicate question. “Today’s Washington Post indicateS that Iran will not agree to or sign a deal unless all sanctions are lifted. What’s the prospect of a final deal with Iran given [Ali Hosseini] Khamenei’s denunciation today on the front page of the Washington Post?”
I think there is an unfortunate propensity to take what the supreme leader says word for word at face value. I think like any politician that gives a speech, you kind of have to delve in there and connect the dots in terms of what he’s saying with what’s actually happening in the world.
In the exact same speech, he said that if we resolve the nuclear issue, it could in fact allow for conversations with the United States on regional security issues, which is something that a lot of people in this town said he would never approve. So I do think that he came out and said all sanctions should be lifted immediately, but I don’t think that’s his actual position. I think there is a bit of posturing, and I think that there is a bit of spin going on. I think the Iranians realized that it is not possible for American sanctions to be lifted upon signature of a nuclear deal. Commerce isn’t going to do that. So I think that there’s going to be a mutually acceptable process that’s put into place where it will be step by step. It will be based on reciprocity and it will be decided in advance, the steps that the P5+1 and Iran will take at the same time. Tit for tat, who gets what, when. That will all be sorted out in due course.
Don’t get me wrong. There will be a lot of haggling over this particular point between now and the end of June when a final deal is supposed to get done. There will be a lot of brinkmanship, but I don’t think that it’s going to be an insurmountable obstacle by any stretch of the imagination. Because if nothing else, it’s important to remember that every single compromise, concession, call it what you will, that the Iranians have made up to this point in these negotiations was approved in advance by the supreme leader. The Iranian negotiators are not freelancing. They’re running everything by the supreme leader. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is the supreme leader’s personal rep. at these negotiations. I think we’re in good shape when it comes to that particular point.
The next question: “Any chance that major powers will demand the same monitoring controls for the Israeli nuclear industry? Double standards is a major problem.” No, that’s unfortunately not going to happen. Not that I don’t want it to happen. I think it would be great if it happened. I’m just being realistic. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to see that anytime soon. But it should happen in my humble opinion.
The next question. “You said that nothing in the Middle East is separate despite nearly seven decades of suffering and human rights violations. Palestine was never able to get the U.S. to stand up to Israel. Why do you think the U.S. has been more willing to talk to and negotiate with Iran?”
I think it became an issue of war and peace as it relates to Iran. In a cycle of mutual escalation—where sanctions, cyber warfare, secret assassinations on our side, and then Iranian bombing campaigns against Israelis around the world, systematically advancing the technical aspects of their nuclear program, 20,000 centrifuges from over the past 10 to 15 years, both sides were running out of escalatory options that were short of what would essentially be a trip wire to war.
It’s kind of like those old James Dean movies, where the two cars are driving towards the end of the cliff playing the game of Chicken to see who will pump on the brakes first. Fortunately, they both hit the brakes at the same time, and that’s luck. I don’t even believe in luck. I think luck is for losers, but frankly we got lucky, okay? This was not a strategic decision on the part of the United States or the Iranians. It was just cooler heads prevailed. That doesn’t happen often when we’re talking about our world more generally or the Middle East more specifically, which is why I’m calling it blind luck.
As it pertains to mistreatment of Palestinians and America’s unwillingness to stand up to Israel, I think it was Harry Truman who compared the amount of Zionists that he has as constituents versus the lack of Arabs that he has as constituents. I don’t remember the exact quote, but the reality of the situation is that domestic political constraints in the United States have a propensity to dictate the positions that a lot of our elected officials take on this one very emotionally and politically charged issue. Love it or hate it, Jewish Americans are extremely well organized politically in the United States of America. Until we have equally organized minority groups that perhaps have a difference of opinion on how these policies should play out as it pertains to the United States involvement, I just don’t see a viable way for this to shift. But the fact that you’re all here right now I think speaks volumes to the fact that it is, in fact, possible.
The last thing that I would say as it relates to these questions. “Will the U.S. accept the deal with Iran unless all sanctions end? What about inspections of military installations?” I think I covered the sanctions bit. They’ll sort out a mutually acceptable way to get the sanctions terminated and then allow for the constraints on Iranian programs in a reciprocal manner. You don’t get this far in the process to let it blow up over minutiae. It is not to say that minutiae isn't important because the devil is definitely in the details. But I just don’t think it blows up at this point. I think it’s kind of like the banks in 2008; it’s too big to fail.
Inspections of military installations… It depends on what the military installation is. The International Atomic Energy Agency has had that access to some military sites in the past. If there is just cause to visit military sites in the future, I don’t think that there will be a problem on the part of the Iranian end to allow those visits. But what I don’t think the Iranians will agree to is allowing the IAEA to say, hey, you have a military site. We want to visit it. The Iranians will say, why? And then the IAEA says, because. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
I’d like to think that there is a grey area or a middle ground, if you will, that the two sides can agree on. In fact, I think that they actually will end up agreeing on a middle ground. Because again, the amount of compromise and concessions that both sides have made at this point are so massive that to backtrack and to let it fall apart now would be a failure of epic proportions.
Dr. Paul Pillar: All of the questions I was given are basically on the same topic. To quote one of the cards, “Why does no one bring up: (1) Israel’s nuclear program, (2) the fact that Israel has not been inspected by the IAEA, and (3) that Israel has never signed a nuclear non-proliferation treaty?” The U.S. government, as a matter of policy, has never pronounced on this topic. I will follow the prescribed rules and refer to Israel’s widely suspected nuclear weapons arsenal. In the writings of Avner Cohen, who is the foremost historian of Israel’s widely suspected nuclear weapons program—he’s written a couple of books on this subject—has, among others, described the origins of this.
It goes back to the time of Richard Nixon and Golda Meir in the earliest phases of Israel’s widely suspected program in which the basic deal that was struck was that the U.S. government would not make a stink about the program as long as the Israelis did not publicly acknowledge it and thus make it a huge foreign policy problem for the Nixon administration. That continues to be the policy through several administrations. I think just through longevity and the fact that it has gone through several Republican and Democratic administrations, for the U.S. to depart from that policy would be seen as a huge step. It would be seen by would-be supporters of Israel in this country of the ilk that we’re talking about in this conference, a big blow against Israel and a huge compromise to the special relationship.
You certainly won’t get any argument from me that it would be very wise to take that step. Indeed, Avner Cohen, he had an article in Foreign Affairs awhile back, and the other scholars had made this point, that from Israel’s own standpoint, it would make sense to bring their widely suspected program out of the closet. Among other things, it would enable a more open and worthwhile talks between U.S. and Israeli officials about security cooperation that really matters and that sort of thing.
But like Reza [Marashi], I don’t expect this is going to happen anytime soon. I would not rule it out entirely if over the next two years, in response to Israeli government continued attempts to do everything it can to sabotage or defeat the nuclear agreement, if the Obama administration in its closing months really wanted to play hardball, this is one thing they could have on their list of options, to finally change the policy that Nixon set over 40 years ago. But again, I’m not going to hold my breath.
[End of transcript]