The Visit and the Phone Call

October 2, 2013   ·   0 Comments


Above: Left, Associated Press. Right, Win Mcnamee/Getty Images.

By Murray Polner:

No-one knows yet how committed or serious Barack Obama was in reaching out to Iran when he accepted Hassan Rouhani’s invitation to call him before he left the country. But it has raised the possibility, however remote, of dramatic changes in the Middle East, much to Bibi Netanyahu’s horror and maybe even some pleasure too since the Palestinian issue has once again been derailed.

Netanyahu is a formidable opponent and Obama knows it. In addition to its powerful Lobby, Israel’s supporters here include most of Congress, conservative columnists, the usual collection of neocon’s armchair warriors and those who become alarmed when Israel injects unconvincing side issues like suddenly finding Iranian “spies” a  day before the Oval Office meeting of the two leaders. Israel also has Iran-hating/fearing authoritarian Saudi Arabia and the Gulf state oil monarchies and their lobbies on its side as well.

Following the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, and quoting anonymous “analysts”—a Times favorite source—the otherwise estimable Mark Landler reported that “the United States is unlikely to agree to a nuclear deal with Iran over Israel’s objections, if only because Israel will reserve the right to strike militarily if it believes Iran poses a dire threat”—a dubious scare tactic that will never happen. Imagine six million Israelis with nuclear bombs versus seventy million Iranians and their Middle Eastern friends with or without nukes. Contemporary Israelis do not have a Masada complex.

As always, Netanyahu and his fellow hard-liners always have the Holocaust card to play, as they have done in rejecting Rouhani’s attempt to supplant the Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s the-Holocaust-never-happened bunkum.  Rouhani didn’t use the H–word, and I wish he had, since its absence handed naysayer Netanyahu yet another weapon to attack the “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Last year Netanyahu correctly invoked assassinated Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin’s (murdered by an Israeli right-wing extremist) view that a nuclear Iran presented a danger to Israel. But, as Rabbi Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, recently wrote in Haaretz the liberal Israeli daily, “Rabin did not construe that danger to be another Holocaust, nor was he prepared to indulge Jewish religious and chauvinist obsessions with territory [the settlements] to justify a predatory and land-grabbing policy.”

But after the slapdash and frenzied way the Syrian mess was mishandled by the inexperienced Obama foreign policy team, Rouhani’s visit, his conciliatory approach and the phone conversation, were largely greeted with a dash of cynicism and skepticism by U.S. media. “Iranians Welcome Hassan Rouhani With Protest” went a Times headline even though his backers showed up at the Tehran airport to cheer him on. “Big Challenges Remain Despite Progress on Iran” by David Sanger in the same issue detailed all the obvious difficulties he may have to face in his own country.

The ubiquitous Thomas Friedman’s finely tuned “Hassan Does Manhattan” offered a somewhat more optimistic reaction to Rouhani’s Iran. A growing number of Iranians, he wrote, do appreciate the benefits of democracy and have had their fill of Islamic extremism and the devastating sanctions. Though still a “silent majority” they’ve become “empowered” and Rouhani’s new deal “was dictated as much by them as by the supreme leader.”

Nothing, of course, will be easy. A Times of Israel headline described the meeting of the two men: “Obama assures Netanyahu U.S. will be ‘clear-eyed’ in talks to thwart Iran bomb” while quoting Obama declaring, “We take no options off the table, including military options,” a phrase signifying little but endlessly and mindlessly repeated by his administration.

But if Obama ever actually moves toward reconciliation with Iran where will he find his constituency?

The always-reliable Jonathan Landay of  McClatchy (the one major news organization which early on reported that Saddam’s WMDs were a mirage) reported a  new CNN/ORC poll that found 87 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans favor talks with Iran about its nuclear policy.

But Obama will need many more allies in what will surely be a tortuous  negotiation and  frustrating political fight with implacable enemies in Tehran, Jerusalem and Washington waiting to pounce. He could look outside his closed circle. He could check out  the so-called realist school of writers in, say,  the National Interest, where recent articles by Zachary Keck of The Diplomat makes the cogent case for a verifiable “Rapprochement” with Iran and the U.S. Naval War College’s Nikolas Gvosdev’s  thoughtful and nuanced piece urges “Let’s Make a Deal” with Tehran. Or Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ insightful “Maximum Bibi” in Foreign Policy where he argues—and rightly so-- that a compromise “offers the best long-term safeguard against Iran developing its nuclear program.” Levy also makes the crucial point that inside Israeli’s establishment there are important and informed critics of Netanyahu’s refusal to budge.

And Landay reported retired Israeli Air Force General Amos Yadin’s memorandum, which as described by Landay,“urged Netanyahu to recognize that an imperfect deal was better  for Israel’s security than the status quo.” These kinds of Americans, Iranians and Israelis can become Obama’s allies—if he really is serious about trying his hardest to find a middle ground agreeable to all.

Murray Polner, former editor of Present Tense magazine, published by the American Jewish Committee from 1973-1990, writes our Keeping Score column.


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