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July 13, 2010 | Washington, D.C.
FRANK ANDERSON: Good morning, everyone. I’m Frank Anderson and I have the privilege – I learned this morning or just realized it, today is my first anniversary as president of the Middle East Policy Council. And it’s a good day to have that job. Middle East Policy Council is a nonprofit, proudly nonpartisan educational institution that is concerned with enabling an informed dialogue or discussion on policy issues in the Middle East and extending now to South Asia that affect American interests from an American point of view.
We do this in three programs. One is our Capitol Hill conferences. We do quarterly. I’ll get back to discussing this specific one. I’m particularly proud to be associated with what we’re about to do this morning. The second is, we publish the Middle East policy journal Middle East Policy, among the most cited sources for scholars on the region.
And our third – or the third leg of our stool is an educational outreach program, of which I’m particularly proud. Our educational outreach director Barbara Petzen travels around the country – she’s our road warrior – doing over 40 teacher workshops in which she provides materials, lesson plans, suggestions that enable and, I find, excite teachers of children from sort of K-12, but mostly (grades) 6-12 about the geography, the history, the culture and politics and religion of the Middle East.
We reach over a thousand teachers each year. When you figure out that each one of those teachers is going to be impacting on 50 to 100 kids, I think that our impact in providing information and understanding about the region is going to be profound for a long time. For this morning’s program, I think we’re thrice blessed.
First, we have a subject about which everyone is intentionally interested right now. In fact, a couple of our panelists and our executive director and I were talking about how do we say it, that the United States, Israel and Iran are far more interested in each other than any other of the players in the field.
It is an issue of great concern. It has been said – I’m not certain the president will put that way – but it’s certainly no lower than tied for second on foreign policy issues for the United States right now. I suspect it’s no less than tied for second in Israel and Iranian concerns about the United States and Israel are no less than second on their pile.
We’re blessed in terms of the timing. I think the issue is becoming critical certainly with visits in the United States by the prime minister of Israel in which this was a key component. And most importantly, we are blessed with a unique collection of speakers on this subject. I am particularly proud to have assembled this group.
Martin Indyk, with whom I had the privilege and honor to work on this issue – wow – 20 years ago, beginning when I worked in the Central Intelligence Agency as the chief of the Near Eastern/South Asia division and he arrived to be the special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East and South Asia at the White House. As you probably know, he then went on to serve as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and to be twice ambassador to Israel. He is currently the director of foreign policy programs at the Brookings Institution.
Paul Pillar. We go back a number of years – (chuckles) – again in serving with Paul, but Paul is currently at Georgetown University as a visiting professor and a member of the Center for Peace and Security Studies. He was the national intelligence officer, the U.S.’s chief analyst on the Near East and South Asia and served as deputy chief of the counterterrorism center before retiring and moving on to Georgetown.
Ian Lustick, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, but one of the country’s leading experts on Israel political process and relations with the United States and the significance of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also served in the United States government in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and comes to us with an academic record with which I’m proud to be associated.
Hillary Mann Leverett, another – a graduate of – a senior lecturer at Yale University, has also served in both the White House and National Security Council, is a senior director for Near East Asia and Iran – or Afghanistan, Iran and – I’m sorry – and Persian Gulf Affairs and continues lecturing and writing on the subject at a key time.
Thomas Mattair, I’m delighted, is our executive director. Tom is a graduate of Harvard College and of University of California at Berkeley, where he obtained his Ph.D., has taught at Kent State University, Cornell and – I’m sorry –
THOMAS MATTAIR: USC.
MR. ANDERSON: And University of Southern California. He was, during the 1990s, the director of research here at the Middle East Policy Council and then went off to be a research scholar at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies in Abu Dhabi from 1997 to 2003. And I’m proud to have made the decision to bring him back full-time to the Near East Policy Council (sic) as our executive director where he’s double-hatted.
He’s still our most important researcher but also runs the place in ways that I never could because I’m administratively incompetent. (Laughter.) But I wish very much to thank all of them for coming and thank all of you for coming. And I’m looking forward to listening to this discussion and I’ve collected a group of people far smarter than I. And I’m going to learn a lot and I think we all will. Thank you.
MR. MATTAIR: We still haven’t decided the order of speakers, but I think Hillary wants to go first and that sounds good to us. All right? Hillary Mann Leverett.
HILLARY MANN LEVERETT: Thank you very much for having me here today. Thank you for extending the invitation. Thank you everyone for coming. And I am happy to go first. Hopefully that just indicates my ability to adapt and be – (chuckles) – be flexible. I also just wanted to mention that if you’re interested in more of the positions that I lay out here, I also coauthor a blog called, “The Race for Iran,” which I encourage people to visit if they’re interested. But thank you again for having me and thank you for coming today.
The topic today is, I think, about linkages between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Iranian nuclear issue. So I’ll start by talking about some of the conventional wisdom that we have here in Washington. The conventional wisdom here has long held that Iran, its Syrian ally and their so-called proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, are the ultimate spoilers for Middle Eastern peacemaking efforts. According to this conventional wisdom, Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric and terrorist attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah have regularly scuttled what otherwise surely would have been deemed successful diplomatic initiatives. I say that with some sarcasm.
Given this conventional wisdom, two opposing strategies of linkage are typically put forward. Both start from the same premise: that Iran and its so-called proxies can and must be marginalized. The two linkages really only differ in how to achieve that base goal: marginalizing Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and other resistance groups.
The first part of this linkage package, favored by the Obama administration and articulated recently by National Security Advisor Jim Jones, holds that trying to achieve Arab-Israeli peace is the key to Iran and its proxies’ regional marginalization. From this perspective, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, or I should say more accurately, an Israeli-Fatah peace agreement and the creation of a more prosperous Fatah enclave in the West Bank, would undermine popular support for Hamas, even in Gaza, marginalize Hamas as an actor in Palestinian politics and effectively terminate Iranian influence in Palestinian affairs, with significant negative consequences for Iran’s regional standing.
Likewise, this linkage holds that the prospect of an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement could be used to wean Syria away from Iran, thereby circumscribing Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics and further reducing Tehran’s regional standing and influence. And of course from this perspective, progress in the peace process will supposedly make it easier to form that mythical – and I stress, mythical – diplomatic constellation to which several U.S. administrations have aspired: that is, a coalition between Israel and so-called “moderate Arab states” for the purpose of containing Iran.
The second strategy of this linkage – the second position of linkage in this argument – is one favored particularly by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, but by others as well. It posits that weakening Iran’s strategic position and stripping it of its nuclear capabilities, if necessary by force, is needed before there can be real progress on Arab-Israeli peace. Frankly, I see both sets of these linkages as wrong – really wrong-headed.
Let’s start with why the first set of linkages – that is, trying to achieve Arab-Israeli peace as a way of marginalizing Iran and its so-called proxies – why that piece of the linkage is wrong. The key point here is this: It is simply not possible today, if it were ever possible at some point in the past, to achieve Israeli-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli peace in a matter that excludes and marginalizes Iran and its regional allies. It’s just not feasible.
Osama Hamdan, the chief of international relations for Hamas, has said that Israel and the United States have what he calls “a Cinderella shoe” approach to Middle Eastern elections. That is, unless the winner fits a certain set of specific parameters, he will not be accepted as a legitimate interlocutor. Of course, this is Hamas’s experience. I agree with that, but I would add that Israel and the United States also have a Cinderella shoe approach to the Middle East peace process. That is, only parties that can frontload their concessions need apply.
This is a profoundly dysfunctional approach to diplomacy. It is something that Israel’s late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin referred to when he came to understand and explained why Israel needed to negotiate then with the PLO – very simple, very basic – because you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends. Policies that deny this basic reality are bound to and have failed, both in terms of Arab-Israeli peacemaking and in terms of dealing effectively with Iran.
I will elaborate on this with three basic points. First, though they are non-state actors, Hamas and Hezbollah have become indispensable political players in their respective national and regional contexts. Simply put, these groups win elections and they win them for the best possible reasons – because they represent unavoidable constituencies with legitimate grievances. We can’t get around that.
Under these circumstances, I challenge anyone to describe in a plausible way how Israel and the United States can reach sustained peace agreements on either the Palestinian or the Lebanese and Syrian tracks of the peace process without these groups’ buy-in. These groups should have a place in the peace process because otherwise the process has no meaning, except perhaps as a crash, motion-without-movement exercise. Those who continue to depict these groups as entirely nihilistic enterprises with no real political agenda are either not paying attention or are deliberately distorting reality for their own political purposes.
My second point deals with Syria and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who I have met on several occasions. I think that President Assad – wants and continues to want – better relations with the United States and a peace settlement with Israel, but one that meets well-established Syrian redlines – for example, full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
But – and I think this point is lost on many in Washington – as President Assad has made clear in my meetings with him – and my husband and I have had these meetings with him together – and as President Assad has said publicly, Syria’s relations with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are, at this point in time, not on the table. Syria’s relationship with these actors has moved primarily from being tactical relationships, tactical levers for the Syrian leadership to being increasingly strategic assets.
With the removal of Syrian military forces from Lebanon following the Hariri assassination in 2005, Hezbollah has become an even more valuable asset for Syria. Hezbollah is now, among other things, a key ally for Damascus in protecting Syrian interests in Lebanon. It also provides, from their perspective, a critically important and, at this point, strategic deterrent against Israel. Hamas’s control of Gaza and credibility among Palestinians more broadly makes it also hard to imagine that Assad would agree to expel Khaled Mashal from Syria as part of a purely bilateral settlement with Israel.
Iran has also proven its strategic value to Syria in recent years. Iran’s religious legitimization of the Assad’s Alawi sect is important as Syria’s secular regime navigates its way through a religiously charged regional environment. Iranian support was also critical for Syria in fending off heavy pressure from the United States, most of Europe and moderate Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, in the wake of the Hariri assassination. In such an uncertain strategic environment, Assad will continue to value the hedge provided by his close relationship with Iran. The idea that Assad could be weaned away from Syria’s alliance with Iran is just fanciful.
Third, all that I have laid out so far means that at this juncture, Iran is bound to be at least an indirect party to any serious Middle East peace process. It is wrong to see this – it is counterproductive to see this – as an obstacle to peace. More constructively, it should be seen as a requirement for progress toward peace.
In fact, Hamas leaders and President Assad have told my husband and me in our meetings with him – and Assad has said publicly and Khaled Mashal has said publicly – that Iran has backed their efforts to reach a settlement. Iran publicly endorsed Syria’s participation, for example, in talks that Syria had with Israel that were mediated by Turkey in 2008. They publicly endorsed it, not once but twice. And Iran does not try to block Hamas’s publicly stated openness to a popularly legitimated two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Okay.
Now for the more hawkish version of linkage favored by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel and others: namely, that rolling back Iran is a prerequisite for Middle East peace. I believe this vision is at least as delusional as the suggestion by many in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq that the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad. I think it’s very similar analytically.
I also think it is delusional to think that if the Islamic Republic of Iran disappeared or were effectively contained that there would be no more problems with the Middle East peace process and that Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria would simply fall into line with Israeli and American preferences for organizing the regional order. These actors have their own agendas and their own preferences for regional diplomacy which they will not give up simply because Israeli or U.S. military aircraft strike nuclear targets in Iran.
It is also important to keep in mind that the increase in Iran’s regional standing and influence in recent years – what concerns many in Israel and many in Arab states and in Washington – the increase in Iran’s regional standing and influence has not been a function of its military capabilities. To this day, the Islamic Republic has no meaningful capacity to project conventional military power beyond its borders. That’s not how they’ve done it.
To the extent that Iran’s regional standing and influence has increased in recent years, it has been because Tehran has picked winners for its allies in key regional arenas, like in Iraq, in Lebanon, among the Palestinians. Whether we like it or not, Iran has sided with groups and individuals that have been perceived and have actually won elections in their key regional contexts.
U.S. and Israeli pressure on the Islamic Republic is not going to undercut Iran’s regional influence. In fact, the opposite is true. Confrontation with Israel and the United States may in fact enhance Iran’s regional standing. I also believe that it is delusional to think that concern about a rising Iranian threat could somehow unite Israel and moderate Arab states in a brand alliance under Washington’s leadership.
In reality, the prospect of strategic cooperation with Israel, whether we like it or not, is profoundly unpopular with Arab publics, regardless of what some of their ambassadors may say from time to time. Even moderate Arab regimes cannot ignore the reality of this profound dislike among their publics and sustain that kind of cooperation.
Pursuit of an Israeli-moderate Arab coalition united to contain Iran is not only delusional; even more importantly, it will continue to leave the Palestinian and Syrian and Lebanese tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict unresolved and prospects for their resolution in freefall, as they are today. These tracks cannot be resolved without meaningful American interaction with Iran and its regional allies, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Iran also is not going to take Israeli or U.S. political or even military pressure without pushing back. And at least some of the ways in which Tehran will seek to push back are likely to make it even harder than it is now – that is to say, virtually impossible – to move forward with Syria’s Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
Finally, Netanyahu’s declaration this weekend after his visit to Washington that only the threat of U.S. military action can have a positive impact on Iran’s nuclear decision-making should be taken very seriously. It should be taken very seriously especially among those of us in the American Jewish community because he is on an extremely dangerous course. Netanyahu’s push for eventual U.S. military action against Iran could do real damage and the American Jewish community.
A U.S. attack on Iran would almost certainly result in a broader confrontation between the United States and Iran, a confrontation that would threaten U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the strategic outcomes of our military adventures in both of those countries, spike the price of oil and hurt an already shaky global economy and shatter international perceptions that reckless and dangerous U.S. behavior in the strategically vital Middle East were somehow peculiar to the George W. Bush administration.
These eminently foreseeable consequences would have a devastating impact on America’s standing in one of the world’s most important regions. Israel and the pro-Likud community, if not the broader Jewish community here in the United States may well be blamed when the resulting U.S.-Iranian confrontation does severe damage to American interests because they have led the charge to war. I know that’s a pretty controversial statement to make, but it is very serious and important to consider.
We should be considering a more constructive way forward. What would that entail? That would entail real U.S.-Iranian rapprochement to normalize U.S.-Iranian relations – what I call “the grand bargain” – along with a serious negotiation for Arab-Israeli peace that includes Hamas and Hezbollah in some form.
There is precedent for doing this successfully. That is what Nixon and Kissinger did with China and Egypt in the early 1970s, striking a grand bargain with, at the time, these two rising regional powers in a way that profoundly changed for the better their respective regional environments. In particular, the U.S. rapprochement with Egypt and its corollary, the Camp David Accords, has made another generalized Arab-Israeli war nearly impossible.
This is a much better scenario than if we had continued to try to contain or pushback, rollback Egyptian power and influence or – just think about it for a minute – Chinese power and influence in Asia. Today, from a strategic perspective, bringing Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah into a non-conflictual diplomatic process and eventually a political settlement would be at least as consequential.
For those who buy into the demonization of the Islamic Republic and these groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, it would be useful to remember that it is only in retrospect that the late Anwar Sadat is viewed as a man of peace. Throughout much of the 1970s, he was widely seen as an anti-Israel activist who had launched the 1973 Yom Kippur War, who had admired Adolf Hitler, who had collaborated with Nazi Germany against British forces in Egypt during World War II. These are all things that are much worse than anything Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has done.
But the critical point here is that without U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, the United States will not be able to achieve any of its high priority goals in the Middle East and more broadly into Afghanistan. This would be bad for America’s Arab allies and for Israel, which need credible and effective American leadership in the region to maintain a stable balance of power, address Syria’s threats and ensure their safety and survival. Thank you very much for your attention. I look forward to your questions after the other speakers. Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you. Thank you, Hillary. Martin Indyk would like to speak next.
MARTIN INDYK: Thank you, Tom. And thank you to the Middle East Policy Council and its esteemed chairman, my friend Frank Anderson, for hosting this event. I stand before you as the defender of the conventional wisdom. And I do so with an amendment to the portrait that Hillary has just given you of what the conventional wisdom is – actually two amendments.
The first amendment is that I don’t agree with Gen. Jones, although I don’t think he’s been quoted accurately, but at least in the quote that Hillary gave you, that solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem is the key to resolving the other conflicts in the region. But I do believe that it would help. And it would certainly help with the challenge that we face from Iran.
And that’s the second amendment to Hillary’s portrait of the conventional wisdom because she glosses over – and I’m sure we’ll hear her defend her position, but certainly in her presentation – she has glossed over certain inconvenient truths about Iran: that Iran is seeking to dominate the Middle East; that Iran is using its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas to spread its influence into the Arab heartland of the Middle East; that Iran is doing its best to thwart American-led efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab-Israeli conflict and has been doing so for the last three decades with a particular purpose in mind – that is, to advance its own influence in the region.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is a very convenient vehicle for doing so. One might ask the question, what is it Iran’s business to be interfering in this way? Why would they put out a fatwa on Yasser Arafat’s head because he had decided to make peace with Israel? Why would they have intervened in Egyptian efforts recently to reconcile Fatah and Hamas so as to provide a unified Palestinian polity that could make peace with Israel? Why would they have intervened to prevent Hamas from following through on that agreement?
Why is it that when any progress seems to be made – and I’m talking very much about the period of the 1990s and Frank and Paul and I were all working to try to make peace – why was it that Iran was doing its best through its terrorist proxies – in particular in those days, Palestine Islamic Jihad, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian ministry of intelligence – why would they use terrorism to destroy our efforts at making peace?
Why would they, when we were making progress between Israel and Syria, would suddenly we discover Hezbollah launching Katyusha rockets onto northern Israel to disrupt those negotiations? Well, ladies and gentlemen, there is a thread that runs through all of this: the inconvenient truth that Iran has no interest in making peace with Israel. It says very clearly over and over again that it wishes to destroy Israel, wishes to wipe it off the map. Those are the statements we all have heard very clearly emanating from Tehran – in particular, from its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But beyond the stated objective is the very real strategic calculation that the Arab-Israeli conflict serves to promote Iran’s agenda in the region, serves to promote its influence in the Arab heartland of the Middle East. And that is the fundamental inconvenient truth, which cannot be resolved by some mythical grand bargain on the Egyptian model.
Egypt sought to make peace with Israel. Egypt in the form of President Sadat evicted Soviet advisors in 1972 with the express purpose of seeking to build a relationship with the United States and make peace with Israel. And Anwar Sadat was very clear about his desire and intention to make peace with Israel before the 1973 war.
The tragic fact of the matter is that neither Israel nor the United States took him seriously and he went to war in order to make peace, but as soon as he had stood up the status quo, taken a position across the Suez Canal, he turned to making peace with Israel and he never turned back. That is a fundamental difference between the Egyptian model and the Iranian model. The Iranians have no desire or strategic interest in seeing a grand bargain struck which involves peace and reconciliation with Israel in the Middle East.
And that is a fundamental reality that we have to find a way to deal with. How to deal with it is, I think, clear. Hillary has laid out what she refers to as the conventional strategy for doing so. And I think it is one that makes sense. That is to say, on the one hand we work as hard as possible to bring together the international community through various mechanisms, the most recent of which was U.N. Security Council sanctions designed to send a message to Iran that its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons in contravention of its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it is a signatory member, will be opposed by the international community.
And successive U.N. Security Council resolutions have made that position very clear. Iran, of course, has refused to listen. That effort to send a message of unified resolve to Iran was combined last year by an effort to engage Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program, an effort that was spurned by Iran. And I don’t take seriously the tactical ploy that Ahmadinejad undertook right before the last U.N. Security Council vote on sanctions, via Turkey and Brazil.
But the effort by President Obama, which was a sincere effort, failed – failed because Iranians rejected what was by all accounts a very reasonable offer to try to deal with Iran’s security concerns, deal with Iran’s professed desire to have a civilian nuclear program but deny it the ability to have a breakout capacity for nuclear weapons.
And so now the effort is to apply more sanctions to try to bring Iran back to the negotiating table – not to make war on Iran, but to bring it back to the negotiating table. That effort to pressure Iran, to make it see that its interests do not lie in disrupting the whole nonproliferation regime has to be, in my mind, combined with an effort to make peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Precisely because Iran uses the Arab-Israeli conflict to expand its influence in the region, pressure on Iran can indeed be enhanced by a comprehensive effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. And yes, that involves both an effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside the Jewish state of Israel and it involves an effort to make peace between Israel and Syria.
Hillary cites some statement that the Iranians supported the Syrian negotiation with Israel. I don’t recall that, but what I do recall is that the Syrians and Israelis, through Turkish mediation, were negotiating not only what Israel would give up – that is, all of the Golan Heights in order to achieve peace with Syria – but they were also negotiating what Syria would give up.
And the question that Syria had to answer – and I believe did answer in those negotiations – was what its relationships would be with Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas were it to make peace with Israel. Why was this a relevant question? Because Syria has, as Hillary says, strategic relationships with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
And Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas have one particular thing in common: They all espouse the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel. They do not support peacemaking with Israel and therefore, the question is reasonably posed: If Syria intends to make peace with Israel, what will that peace treaty mean if it maintains strategic relations with a country and its proxies that are determined to destroy the very party that Syria is making peace with?
It’s not an unreasonable question to pose. And the Syrians considered it a reasonable question that they needed to answer. Their answer remained secret, but let’s just observe that whenever the Iranians see that Syria is moving towards peace with Israel, they become extremely nervous, Ahmadinejad turns up in Damascus, declarations are issued of undying love for each other.
And that’s because the Iranians understand the strategic equation very well. If Syria were to make peace with Israel, it could not maintain the same relationships with Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas. It would have to change those relationships or Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas would have to make peace with Israel too. That’s, I’m going to submit, an unlikely proposition based on the record.
And therefore, if it’s not about to happen, Syria would have to change its strategic relationship just like Egypt did with the Soviet Union back in those days when Egypt made peace with Israel. So you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have a grand bargain if the person you want to do the grand bargain with – if the state you want to do your bargain with does not share your interests in peace and stability in the region; seeks rather to counter and thwart America’s standing in the region; opposes and does its best to subvert America’s allies in the region – that is, our Arab friends; proposes the destruction of Israel and does its best to support those who pursue violence and promote terrorism against Israel. You can’t have a grand bargain with that kind of state.
And therefore, it is, I believe, far more effective to try to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Arab states and the Palestinians to try to find a way to thereby isolate Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and in that way, convince them that their way of violence, terrorism, conflict and destruction, abrogation of international obligations, does not achieve a more stable, peaceful and prosperous order for anybody in the Middle East, including the people they purport to represent. Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Martin. Our next speaker will be Ian Lustick.
IAN LUSTICK: Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure to be here. I’m going to focus heavily on Israel, though I’ll be making some remarks about Iran. There is hysteria in Israel regarding the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapon capability.
And the question I want to ask today – the central one – is, why is there hysteria there in light of the fact that not even Israeli security experts argue that Iran would ever use a nuclear weapon against Israel or that there is a threat of that? So where is this hysteria coming from and what can we learn by understanding where it’s coming from about opportunities and constraints on U.S. policy?
It’s an hysteria that has to do not only with the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons but even the possibility of Iran nearing the threshold of having nuclear weapons. And it’s not necessary to spend very much time – we don’t have very much time – to illustrate just how hysterical much of Israeli public opinion and many of the statements of the Israeli leadership are on this regard.
I’ll mention that last year a poll by the Iran center at Tel Aviv University by David Menashri showed, reported as follows: that 51 percent of Israeli Jews responding said they desired an immediate Israeli military attack on Iran. That is, absent any nuclear weapons, immediately, they should be attacked. That’s 51 percent. The poll also reported that 70 percent of Israeli Jews said they would not consider emigrating if Iran got the bomb. That’s an odd way to report a finding – how many would not consider emigrating. So there is a deep fear.
Every single decision that Israel makes about Gaza, about the flotilla, about Hamas, about the negotiations in general, almost every one is justified by references to Iran. And Netanyahu’s recent interviews in the United States with Larry King and elsewhere evinced this. News in Israel is not a politician saying that this is the 1930s, that Iran is Nazi Germany in 1938, that Ahmadinejad is Hitler. That’s not news because it happens all the time.
What’s news is Tzipi Livni saying actually, maybe a Holocaust is not around the corner. Maybe Israel of 2010, to quote her, is not the Jews of Europe in 1939. That’s news. It’s instructive to consider the effect, when we’re looking at a hysteria of this type about a country that might be about to cross a nuclear threshold, that it did have a massive effect in at least two cases we can think of. One gripped the Soviet leadership in the mid-1960s when another country in the Middle East whose name starts with I was believed to be about to cross the nuclear threshold.
Now, of course, that’s Israel. And a fantastic book by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, “Foxbats over Dimona,” used released documents and amazing research techniques to document the fact that the Soviets were egging the Arabs on to provoke Israel into a war that they could exploit to try to take out the budding nuclear capabilities at Dimona. Hence, the deployment – unprecedented – of Foxbats in reconnaissance missions over Dimona prior to the war.
I recommend that book to you just to show you the effects of this sort of hysteria, this sort of – or even if you don’t want to use the word “hysteria,” the effects of a calculation that another country is about to cross the nuclear threshold, about to get weapons of mass destruction. And it may have been a very powerful factor in producing the Six Day War. It is believe – I believe that in the month prior to the ’67 war is when Israel itself finally put weapons together in anticipation of that conflict.
And of course, more recently – and it was already mentioned – we can remember the hysteria that gripped the United States about whether weapons of mass destruction were in fact in the hands of Saddam Hussein, which precipitated what? A gigantic American war in the Middle East. So let’s not think that whipping up hysteria about the possible possession by a Muslim country, or a non-Muslim country; it just has to start with I apparently – in the Middle East – what that could do.
Now, quite apart – so let’s now look at the question of what drives this. Well, certainly there is vicious, calculated and largely effective rhetoric coming out of Tehran, and we’ve heard references to it. I don’t put much stock in it as a signal of intentions to carry out attacks. As was said, Iran has never been very good at projecting conventional military power outside its borders. But it is effective in pushing Israel’s buttons. Ahmadinejad is brilliant at that.
And in the question period, I can give you very good examples of how he calculatedly does this for his own interests. But at any rate, these statements about the Holocaust, about erasing Israel from the map or its erasure from the map do accentuate, do sharpen feelings of fear, angst and hysteria in Israel on this issue. But that hysteria has many sources – political, ideological, historical, policy-oriented, culturally oriented and sociological.
And I want to briefly go over some of those sources so we can come to see how powerful these feelings are in Israel and what they could be producing. On its most obvious level, the public Israel obsession with Iran, especially by Netanyahu and his government, is actually very simple and very familiar as a calculated distraction from what it does not want the United States and does not want the world to pay attention to.
This is just, in this sense, one more ride on the peace process carousel – a not-so-merry-go-round: endless Israeli delays, promises, backtracking from promises, sabotaging of apparent breakthroughs, clarifications of their position, embarrassments of mediators, retreats from substance to confidence-building measures, a new terrorist attack, rediscussion of the implementation of the promised confidence-building measures rather than the actual confidence-building measures, a new election, abandonment of the most recently celebrated framework, which began with much excitement two years ago, and the resuscitation, perhaps, of a much older framework, and the merry-go-round continues.
This “Iran is Nazi Germany” gambit involves the Israeli government in a portrayal of Iran as, ironically, “the Great Satan” in an effort to find some way to position Israel as a country within the world community facing an enemy, rather than as the enemy of the world community which, in terms of perceptions, is its current fate. I’m going to tell a little story that can communicate in one medium-quality joke more about Israeli policy than you can get from volumes of reading.
It’s a variation of the classic “Galut Jew” story in which the really clever Galut – that is, Jew living in exile, in the diaspora; that’s what “Galut” means in Hebrew – outsmarts the anti-Semites. And it’s worth telling because Israelis have often commented about Zionism’s incomplete success with the idea that, although you can take the Jew out of the Galut, you can never take the Galut out of the Jew. So this story about a Galut Jew is actually a story about Israeli right-wing governments, especially.
It goes like this. It’s about a poretz and a Jew. A “poretz” is the Polish, Yiddish word for landlord. They used to use Jews as intermediaries, tax collectors, enforcers, administrators and so on. So this poretz in Poland got very angry at his Jew and threatens to kill him. The Jew is desperate, says, no, no, don’t kill me. I’ve got a great idea. What’s that, Jew? You just give me a year and a bear and I will teach the bear to talk.
What? Nobody can teach a bear to talk, but anyway, what good is that? Kill him! No, wait a minute. Wait a minute, I’ll teach the bear to talk. With a talking bear, you’ll make a fortune. So the poretz thinks about it and he says, okay, I’ll give you one year, but if that bear’s not talking, you’re a dead man.
He goes home to his wife. His wife says, what are you, meshuganah? Are you crazy? You can’t teach a bear to talk. The poretz will kill you. He says, maybe I can teach the bear to talk. Maybe I can’t teach the bear to talk. But many things can happen in a year. Maybe the poretz will die. Maybe the bear will die. (Laughter.)
That’s a fundamentally Israeli policy when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, whenever a right-wing government is in power, and often when a non-right-wing government is in power. And it’s the current policy. It’s just that the distraction du jour is Iran. And all of them have some substance and this has some substance also. So that’s the political sources of the hysteria. It’s actually a calculated distraction.
But there are other, deeper sources. From an ideological position, every ideology is a combination of a theory and an imperative to action. So when you challenge the theory behind an ideology, you are challenging it. Zionism’s theory of its eventual success in the Middle East imagined that Jews were the vanguard of Western civilization in the region and that Jewish mastery of Western technology would allow it to force the Middle East to accept a Jewish state until the Middle East followed Israel’s example, became Westernized, highly technological, democratic. That was all part of one process: peace, democracy, technology.
The Middle East would develop in Israel’s image: That’s how Zionism would succeed. But an Iranian bomb, an Iranian nuclear capacity, would show, actually, that you don’t have to be Westernized. You can actually be Islamic. You don’t even have to be democratic to master nuclear technology. So the future of the Middle East is not necessarily democratic or Western. In other words – and this is very threatening to Zionism – the Middle East will not be in Israel’s image.
Another source of the angst, this hysteria, is Israel’s particular historical relationship with Iran, well-discussed in a wonderful book called “Iranophobia” by an Israeli scholar, Haggai Ram. When the shah – known as, you may recall, the Light of the Aryans – was emperor, his Pahlavi dynasty was put forward as a revival of the ancient Achaemenid dynasty. It was a Persian and secular, pre-Islamic political formula.
The spectacular rise of Iran under the shah was reassuring to Zionism that an ancient Middle Eastern people could reconstitute itself by using ancient myths as legitimizing formulas even in the modern Middle East: secular and modern. Israeli famously figured Iran as the core of its peripheral strategy, had close economic and security ties with the shah’s regime.
And the sudden and complete disappearance of the shah’s regime was a shock to Israel, suggesting that the deep, volcanic process in the Middle East might not tolerate this kind of thing, this kind of revival of an ancient, secular idea of a people that lived there, in the modern Middle East – not from the ancient Persians and perhaps not from the ancient Jews or Israelites either.
In general, Zionism has been based, in its relationship with the Arabs, since the 1920s, on the theory of the “iron wall,” a theory that requires Israel and Zionism to have the ability to win with the unilateral use of force decisively against – in encounters with Arabs and with Muslim opponents. The idea is to teach, eventually, through a series of defeats, over decades, to Arabs that there is no hope of destroying Israel.
They will have to accept the reality of it. It used to be the iron wall said, you didn’t have to accept as correct, as we should be here, only that we can’t be destroyed. Now, the Israeli government actually takes the position that they have to positively say that this is the homeland of the Jewish people; it’s a Jewish state. That’s a retreat from this strategy and a very important one. But that’s been the fundamental basis of the strategy, the need for a unilateral – the ability to use unilateral force at will in the region.
The problem with nuclear power is, in the hands of Iran, that Israel could not be confident it could do that because all of a sudden, you don’t know when a use of force will escalate to the nuclear level. It makes you think many times, not just twice, when nuclear weapons are in the zone of consideration of a policy that you’re thinking of implementing.
Best reports suggest that Israel, of course, has hundreds of sophisticated and highly – nuclear weapons and a highly capable delivery system. But the effect of what I’ve been discussing about Iranian nuclear capacity is not whether they get the bomb, but whether they’d get the capacity that Israel has, in the sense that the opacity.
Whether they get what they are actually trying to get and what I believe they will get, which is what Israel has had since the mid-’60s, which is a non-stated, non-documented, deniable – with some plausibility – that they have this capacity. In other words, they would get nuclear ambiguity.
Now, obviously, nobody’s going to believe that they have as much capability as the Israelis, but that is what they are trying to get and that is what I believe they will get. And that will be enough to interfere with the confidence, in Israel, that force can be used unilaterally without risking a nuclear conflagration.
That opacity policy that Israel has pursued is another thing that produces this hysteria in Israel. Nuclear weapons, if you read Israeli politics closely – and you have to do it very closely because almost everything that has to do with nuclear weapons is censored or coded in codes that only – that you have to know Israeli society extremely well to follow. It’s the ultimate hot-button issue.
Anything related to Israel’s nuclear capacity triggers censorship, nervousness, emergency procedures, extravagant behavior and feat because the idea is deeply embedded in Israel that one wrong move in this department could doom the entire enterprise. So Israel cherishes this opacity policy, famously formulated in, we will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. And then sometimes it says, and we won’t be the second either: a very ambiguous kind of, Alice in Wonderland sort of statement.
This is a status whereby Israel has weapons, everybody knows it, but it can be outside of the NPT and IAEA regime and still be treated by the U.S., in terms of aid, as if it does not have nuclear weapons. The United States couldn’t be giving aid to Israel if it were outside the NPT and we agreed that they had nuclear weapons.
So it’s got the best of three different worlds here. Israel achieved this “don’t ask, don’t tell” status with enormous dedication and difficulty. That is what they are risking – that is another thing that is put at risk by the Iranian move because the Iranian move is trying to do the same thing, which then pushes analysts and policy makers to start to approach the Iranian problem.
And they have to – and Iran says, well, if you’re going to treat us this way, why don’t you treat all states this way? Larry King said to Netanyahu, why should Iran not be able to have the same thing Israel does? Israeli analysts, nuclear analysts, have pointed to this argument as itself a danger, a serious danger to Israel’s nuclear status.
So Israel is afraid it will be forced into this scary situation of having to either give up nuclear weapons or go public with its capacity, with unpredictable consequences, not because of a fear that Iran will use nuclear weapons but because Iran is doing exactly what Israel did in developing an opacity that it’s being told is unacceptable.
Finally, we have the Holocaust trauma. I recommend highly a book by Avraham Burg – “The Defeat of Hitler” in Hebrew, “The Holocaust is Over” translated into English – in which he goes into enormous and brilliant detail about the saturation of Israeli life and psychology with the Holocaust and memorializations of the Holocaust that actually inflict constant PTSD on Israeli citizens – most Jews, but especially Israeli Jews.
This has an effect; PTSD had an effect. You can see it in “Waltz with Bashir,” by the way, if you look at that movie and realize what it’s actually about. “Waltz with Bashir” is the Hebrew name of it. “Vatlz” of course, sounds German to you. That’s right, because there’s no W in Hebrew. “Waltz with Bashir” means doing something German with Bashir. That’s what the movie is about.
If you realize that all of Israeli culture and politics is somewhat permeated by these images of the Holocaust, you can understand how Ahmadinejad is able to push those buttons so easily and produce reactions in Israel that serve his interest. It’s a kind of folie à deux between the right-wing government in Israel and the clerics in Tehran, each using each other’s distorted images of themselves to reinforce their own beliefs and protect themselves against reality.
The Holocaust imagery that comes out of Iran – not that they deny the Holocaust, but just even asking questions about it, talking about in this way – combined with the idea of weapons of mass destruction, of nuclear weapons – that it could happen – puts Israeli elites with children that they could send abroad into intolerable situations.
They have nightmares that they won’t be able to protect their children. It could happen in a split-second. We have another Holocaust. They’re being told by their elites that another Holocaust is around the corner. Then what do you do? You send your children abroad. There is a real fear that living in a Middle East that is multipolar, that has an Iranian ambiguous nuclear capacity, could encourage significant – even more significant levels of elite emigration out of the country. Either completely or partially, where you develop a new – you send part of your business abroad. One kid goes abroad; all of these kind of tactics.
Okay, so what is the major reality that these two elites are hiding themselves from? Well, there are a lot of them, but one big one is, of course, the United States. What can we learn from this analysis to clarify the opportunities for U.S. foreign policy in this domain that do and do not exist?
Israel developed nukes out of a desperate sense of existential dread and distrust and a need for security – that the Zionist project of the Jewish state – what’s called the third commonwealth, the third temple – would not be destroyed as the first two were. Now, the men who lead the Islamic Republic of Iran have a similarly intense and existential commitment to preserve their regime and the legacy of the Islamic revolution despite encirclement.
Here is where I would disagree with some of what Martin said, though I agree with a good deal of it. And that is that the interpretation of Iran as thrusting aggressively to dominate the region is a less efficient way to understand what it’s doing than as an encircled state desperately trying to prevent itself from being overthrown by sworn enemies who have invaded countries all around it.
And everyone knows that if you got some kind of nuclear device, that you can claim you’re not going to get invaded. Think North Korea; think Iraq. What was the difference? Think Iran, for that matter. That’s, of course, what Israel’s argument is, why it needs nuclear weapons.
So both of those regimes had similarly intense and existential reasons for developing nuclear weapons. And nothing the United States does and nothing Israel does is going to stop the Iranians from developing a nuclear capacity in this opaque way that I’ve been arguing. It doesn’t matter whether there’s an Arab-Israeli peace or not. That’s just not going to happen.
We are going to see an Iran with a capacity that a little more opaque than Israel, but it’s going to be clear enough to be policy-relevant and to have some of the effects I’ve been talking about. The regime will simply not be deflected from this objective, just as Israel was not deflected: not by America, not by anyone else.
The many sources of Israeli anxiety, fear and hysteria include, especially at the elite level, as I’ve argued, a strong dose of exaggeration for political effect. Because of that, U.S. attempts, whether clumsy or subtle, to try to trade U.S. pressure on Iran for Israeli concessions towards the Palestinians won’t work. Netanyahu knows he’s exaggerating.
He’s not going to say, oh, you’re going to put real sanctions on Iran. You’re going to maybe prevent him from having nuclear weapons. Sure, we’ll get out of the West Bank. It never will happen. They don’t take themselves that seriously. This is for foreign consumption.
Now, although the United States cannot stop Iran from adopting an ambiguous nuclear-weapons posture, it can and must begin managing the results of that development to prevent accelerated proliferation, accidents, wars and instability and further damage to its interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and its counterterror efforts.
It may seem that this could be accomplished without an Israeli-Palestinian settlement if the U.S. could credibly sponsor a nuclear weapons and nuclear power regime for the region that treats all countries equally. But Israel could participate in such a scheme only if its nuclear capacity were renounced or made public and placed under the international nuclear weapons and nuclear power regimes.
Of course, if Iran introduced weapons into the Middle East, then Israel would no longer be the first to introduce them if it did so, though it would be the second, which gives rise to some issues. The problem is that Israeli compliance with this idea is highly implausible in the absence of American or NATO security guarantees. And that is American extended deterrence with tripwire U.S. troops in Israel.
That cannot happen unless the borders of Israel that are being guaranteed by the American deterrent do not include the West Bank. In other words, if there is a viable Palestinian real state next to it. Otherwise, the United – we know from a deterrence theory, there is no way that we could credibly extend a nuclear umbrella to a country that includes things we don’t think it should have.
The bottom line is that as Iran passes the nuclear weapons threshold, camouflaged a la Israel or publicly a la India or Pakistan, the United States will be cross pressured to make an extremely difficult choice. The choice will be framed by its need for Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan and Iraq, its wider concerns in the region and the domestic political heat that will result from any interest-driven policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The U.S. will either dissociate itself in an unprecedented way from Israeli governments, allowing that country to come to terms on its own with a multi-polar Middle East by achieving at best a kind of regional hudna or it will combine – the United States will combine political pressure on Israel and partnership with it to rescue the two-state solution from the dustbin of history, to which it is otherwise being consigned. Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Ian. Paul Pillar will be our fourth speaker.
PAUL PILLAR: Well, good morning. I want to extend my thanks to Frank and Tom for their invitation to participate in this forum. I am an old college debater and this started to sound like a college debate with the first affirmative and the first negative. I am going to get out of that mode and, as the clean-up hitter, try to put some of this into perspective.
And I am going to do it this way. In reflecting on the assigned question of linkages and U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran, I think there are several levels and, in particular, three different levels at which that question can be addressed. The first one and the one that whether we like it or not, perhaps, matters most in shaping U.S. policies in the Middle East is the political constraint that is imposed on the making of U.S. policy toward Iran, imposed by strong domestic political support of Israel or more specifically, strong support not just of Israel, but of a particular conception of Israeli interests and particular Israeli policies, mainly those associated with the Israeli political right.
That has had – that political interest has had very strong constraining influence on U.S. policies in the Middle East, particularly toward Israel itself, of course. But the point I am making here is it has a very strong constraining influence on anything that the Obama administration or anyone else making U.S. policy for that matter can politically realistically do with regard to policy on Iran. Because the conception of Israeli interests involved has singled out Iran and in particular the Iranian nuclear threat as the leading, the overriding threat to what are seen as Israel’s interests, that is an area where the constraints have been at least as strong as anywhere else.
And might I comment just as kind of a digression, although it is not really a digression, although it is not strictly on the topic, that, that view does not, in my judgment, reflect really a cogent analysis of likely Iranian decision-making. We have heard so often from different quarters the idea of irrational Iranians in Tehran who cannot be trusted to be part of a deterrent relationship. And somehow this seems to assume that when one of the parties to a relationship wears a beard and a turban that the principles of deterrence somehow get repealed.
And somehow it goes against the record really of Iran itself in not showing itself to be suicidal. And it does not explain why this regime should be any different from other regimes, hostile regimes that we have had to deal with when it comes to nuclear weapons. Of course, the first one we had to deal with was the Soviet Union of Stalin, one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants in modern history.
And then we had to deal with China when it got the nuclear weapon in 1964. And you may recall at that time Mao Zedong who was still in charge in China talked about well, a nuclear war wouldn’t really be all that bad because we have got more Chinese than we have got Westerners. And so after the radioactive dust settled, there would be more of us than them. That scared me a lot more than anything I hear coming out of Iran.
But we have lived in a deterrent relationship and so have others with the likes of the Soviet Union and the Chinese. Well, whether it makes sense or not, this is a strong political constraint, as I say, on U.S. policy-making on Iran. It is one of the reasons for the extremely narrow fixation – I think that is the right word – on this Iranian nuclear thing to the exclusion of so much else, even to the exclusion of much else with regard to issues having to do with Iran.
And more broadly, it constrains the administration of the day from any policy departures that could be interpreted or could be depicted by one’s political opponents as going soft on Tehran or even worse, as making nice to Tehran. And I think all of this becomes all the more a major factor given what the political pundits tell us about the prospects heading into the midterm elections this fall in which the governing party faces the prospect of losing control of the House of Representatives and so on.
A second level for looking at this question is really one that Ian has just finished talking about at some length. And this has to do with U.S. management of its relationship with Israel. And the backdrop to this is the Israeli fixation or – I think Ian’s word was quite correct – hysteria with this particular issue of the Iranian nuclear program.
And for the reasons he described, it is a hysteria that goes well beyond the Netanyahu government, although I agree with him that the Netanyahu government has skillfully and tactically used the issue to distract attention from other things. But it is a much broader genuinely strongly felt, I would say understandably felt, deep, deep fear and concern about this particular problem, one that goes well across the Israeli political spectrum.
And the only couple of observations I would add to what Ian talked about were these. One, I think, given that hysteria in Israel, it is not feasible to talk, as many have talked, about U.S. and Israeli officials coming to a common strategic frame of reference as to how to handle this issue. There was a lot of talk when Netanyahu was here that that ought to be, you know, one of the key objectives of the talks. I don’t see how it can be unless U.S. perspectives become as hysterical to use the word as Israeli ones are. And I don’t think that would reflect sound U.S. policy.
The main goal here for the U.S. – and this is sort of my second point about this level – the main goal is to ward off the danger of an Israeli military strike on Iran. And the resort to military force in this mode either by Israel or by the United States, which Netanyahu seemed to be encouraging, would be for reasons that I think Hillary touched on earlier, a disaster for U.S. foreign policy interests in the Middle East.
The third level is the one where we foreign policy wonks like to think we are usually dwelling in. That is not just politics in Washington or emotions in Israel, but rather in the international relations of the Middle East and the diplomatic and strategic dynamics involved there. And on this topic, I think there are several dynamics to bear in mind. One is the effect of issues involving Israel, especially Israel’s conflict with Palestinians on Iranian regional influence and more specifically on the influence both domestically and regionally of Iranian hardliners.
There is a reason, a very calculated political reason why Ahmadinejad spews that execrable anti-Israeli invective. It sells. It resonates with a lot of his intended audience both inside Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. And if it didn’t, he wouldn’t be spewing it. And let us not confuse rhetoric with reality and propaganda with policy. The Iranian leadership is smart enough to know it is not going to wipe Israel off the map. And even if it did somehow do that, it would thereby deprive itself of one of its main points of leverage for precisely this kind of propaganda.
Well, this means that anything Israel does or fails to do with regard to things like the occupied territories and the peace process contributes to that influence and to those Iranian propaganda opportunities. And in saying this, I urge you to avoid the influence of the absolutist straw man argument one hears so often that basically says if the problems in the Middle East cannot be solely attributed to something Israel is doing, then it can’t be attributed at all, that it doesn’t contribute at all. And here, I think, it clearly does contribute.
There are more specific forms of influence. And here I think I would disagree a little bit with two of my co-panelists with regard to Iran’s relationship with the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. You know, Hamas has no particular reason to want to be a client of Iran. We are talking about a bunch of largely Sunni Muslims who are focused on political power over Palestinians. To the extent that Hamas is subject to isolation and strangulation, then it will take help wherever it can get. And one of those sources of help has been Iran. But this is not inherent to what Hamas is all about.
Now, as for Hezbollah, and I would emphasize we shouldn’t talk about the two H groups as if they were twins because here Hezbollah clearly is an organization that began life as a creature of Iran and has been a long-time client of Iran. But even here, now that Hezbollah has established itself as a force in its own right in Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics in the way it has over the last several years. It is not solely a creature of Iran.
And there are greater and lesser degrees to which that relationship can be tighter or looser. And I would just add also that the recent death of Sheikh Fadlallah makes the issue all the more germane since he seemed to have become at least in his later years representative of an alternative view here, one – a person who is highly respected and opposed the whole Iranian notion of Velayat-e Faqih.
A related dynamics – and here I think I would agree with much of the comments that Martin started off with – is how Israeli-related problems particularly as they relate to the conflict with the Palestinians complicate U.S. efforts to counter Iranian influence or to counter other Iranian programs and actions including the nuclear program. Because of what is perceived to be even closer than it really is, the close U.S. association with Israel, the U.S. for better or for worse, fairly or unfairly, does share in much of the opprobrium that comes Israel’s way because of Israeli actions or inactions in the Middle East.
This is a complication in trying to forge coalitions of the willing to contain or confront or influence or constrain Iran. This is especially so, I would suggest, on the nuclear issue. Given that the objective of preventing an Iranian nuke, if we achieve that objective, would mean preserving the Israeli nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. This elephant in the room – and Ian did get into this, of course, in his comments, up until then, it had been an elephant in the room – the Israeli nuclear arsenal by its very existence weakens a lot of arguments involved in efforts to forestall an Iranian nuke.
This includes the argument that the introduction of nuclear weapons in the region would set off immediately a daisy chain of further proliferation. And in any case, it does lend credibility to the view whether that view is justified or not or is true or not that what is really involved here is not a problem of nuclear weapons, but rather that some people just like some regimes more than they like other regimes. And the Iranian regime is one that we don’t like.
There are a couple of longer-term dynamics that we need to worry about as well. One is the question of how different U.S. policies toward Iran would affect Iranian politics, policies and actions, including actions that would affect Israeli interests. This is a big topic that is too big to explore in detail here about what all the ramifications would be if U.S. policy toward Iran were different from what it is right now, if it were more of an engagement policy such as Hillary has argued for.
But I will just make a couple of comments on this. One, it is hard to think of any way in which an alternative U.S. posture that was less confrontational and more pro-engagement would make things any worse as far as the Iranian posture towards Israel was concerned. I think it is easier – this is my second point – to think of ways in which it could well make it better by weakening the arguments in the position of the Iranian hardliners, which depends so much as they do on the image, the specter of hostility from the outside world and especially hostility from the United States.
Well, the final dynamics – and this really is a long-term one – has to do with what happens if Iran does get a nuclear weapon. And then I think the prime objective becomes encouraging in every way we can a relationship of stable deterrence between what would then be the two nuclear powers of the Middle East, Iran and Israel. The danger here is not some bolt out of the blue Iranian strike against Israel, which as Ian pointed out has a nuclear force with a three-decade head-start far, far greater than anything one can foresee Iran getting in what I would consider the foreseeable future.
But there are other ways in which a deterrence relationship can be more stable or less stable. This is something that Cold War theorists and strategists thought a lot about throughout the Cold War with regard to the U.S. and Soviet relationship. And there are lessons to be learned primarily from that relationship and then more recently from the Indo-Pakistani relationship, two other relative newcomers compared to the U.S. and the Soviet Union that have had to find ways to make their nuclear relationship more stable.
And there are things that the United States can do by way of teaching and encouraging the two sides on such matters as nuclear posture that discourages first strikes and ensures a second strike capability, lessons that really go back to that U.S.-Soviet Cold War equation that could be just as applicable to an Iranian-Israeli relationship.
And I will just close by noting that in looking ahead at how that kind of relationship might work, I am not writing off as a lost cause that Iran might or could stop short of having a nuclear weapon. I think we are talking about decisions in Tehran not yet made. But it is something we need to think about. And with that, I will turn the floor back to Tom. (Applause.)
MR. MATTAIR: Well, thank you, Paul. Well, as the moderator, I would like to ask two questions before we go to the floor. The first is a question for you, Hillary. You are arguing that we cannot achieve objectives like Arab-Israeli peace without a cooperative relationship with Iran. But you did say that Hamas and Hezbollah and Syria are independent actors with their own interests. So if a fair deal were offered that was in the interest of Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria, why would they not be able to take that, even if Iran was not part of the negotiating structure?
MS. MANN LEVERETT: There we go. Okay. Thank you very much. What I – (off mike) – at this point, Iran needs to be at least an indirect party to a negotiated resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Iranians would not stand in the way of the red lines that Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah have all laid out for how they want to see a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict go forward.
The problem with how diplomacy was structure, particularly in the 1990s, which let us recall was a failure and particularly because it was structured as people are trying to structure it today according to the conventional wisdom as I laid out, as a process that is intended to marginalize particular parties, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.
And I agree with Paul. It is a poor shorthand, but because these, I think, are the critical relevant players that would need to be involved. A process that is intended to structure to marginalize those players will predictably and did in the 1990s elicit their opposition. They will oppose, they have opposed, they did oppose in the 1990s a process that was intended to marginalize and leave them out.
A process that includes them, they have all said they would participate in in a variety of forms, whether that is Syria participating in indirect talks mediated by Turkey, whether that is Hamas saying that they would agree to long-term ceasefire or they would agree to a popularly legitimated resolution of the conflict. Each of these parties has put prospects for being willing to participate in a process.
What they will not participate in is a process that is intended to leave them out, to marginalize them and to weaken them. That is what we had in the 1990s. That is what unfortunately the Obama administration is bringing back is that found peace process from the 1990s to today that somehow if we work harder or some maybe more well-intentioned or whatever, it is going to turn out any other way. We have precedent for how it turned out.
Now, this does not mean that Iran would be the party sitting across the table from the Israelis or sitting hand in hand with the Palestinians. But it does mean a recognition that the Iranians are at least an indirect party here. And a process that is structured to weaken them regionally at a minimum will elicit their opposition. That has happened before. That will happen again. If we can structure a process that includes parties that Iran supports and is not structured to weaken Iran’s influence, but recognizes Iran’s regional role, we have a much better chance at a constructive outcome.
And again, you know, you look back at what we did with Egypt or even with China. The United States and China didn’t agree to agree to everything in their grand bargain. They had many contentious issues, which they had to essentially agree to disagree about, foremost of which was Taiwan. It is not correct to say that parties can only agree to a grand bargain can only resolve their differences if they agree to everything. That is not historically accurate. That is certainly not the case of what the United States did with China.
And if you go back to the case of what the United States did with Egypt, the critical piece there was the rapprochement between the United States and Egypt. The fact that we didn’t take it seriously then and Sadat had to go to war in 1973, in retrospect, we can excuse that. It only killed a couple thousand Israelis.
But we can excuse that because in the end – at the end of the day, he was able to come to terms with the United States and to make peace with Israel. Is that what is being posited that needs to happen today, that the Iranians would somehow have to make war to enter into a confrontation with the United States or with the Israelis for us to take them seriously as a regional player?
It is not that we have to agree with them. It is that we have to take them seriously as a regional player, take their interests into account. The question of well, why would they oppose – you know, why would they oppose Arab-Israeli peacemaking? What business is it of theirs? It is their business when there continues to be essentially an active conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Iran is going to look at that in zero-sum terms. We need to change that equation. That is what worked with Egypt. That is what worked with China. And that is what the opposite failed so miserably in the 1990s.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you. And the second question, Martin, in light of some of the things that Hillary just said, I would like to ask you about your comment that – and I have heard it from other people who have worked for the previous administrations that Iran has no interest in Arab-Israeli peace.
Why do they not have an interest in their friends attaining some of their objectives? Why do they not have an interest in the end of sanctions? Why do they not have an interest in the end of threats, for example, and the real possibility of strikes against Iran? Are those not sufficient for them to accept what – to accept a good deal that their friends have accepted?
MR. INDYK: You know, I guess, Tom, the answer to your question lies with the Iranians, not with me. And that is the heart of the problem here. What are Iran’s intentions? Is it just that they are a benign power that seeks peace in their environment and the United States and its Arab and Israeli allies are seeking to destroy and overthrow the regime and therefore, it has every reason to behave in this way? I think that is a fundamental distortion of reality.
That is not what this Iranian regime is about. It is a revolutionary regime. It prides itself on being a revolutionary regime. It seeks to change the status quo in the region. It seeks to subvert Arab regimes. It seeks to spread its influence and its revolution to the far-flung parts of the Middle East. That is its record, historical record and it is not doing that out of some kind of defensiveness because the United States is going after it.
The United States has repeatedly – and Hillary knows this very well – repeatedly tried to engage with this revolutionary regime. And it has repeatedly rebuffed those efforts, say that we didn’t do it effectively enough, we didn’t pursue it long enough. But the fact of the matter is we tried and they never showed an interest. There was one time in which they showed an interest –Hillary has written about this – which was when we overthrew Saddam Hussein and suddenly, they got scared about what we might do to them. I am not recommending that as a policy here. But it does happen to be, historically, the reality.
The rest of the time, they have done their level best to subvert our efforts at making the Middle East a more peaceful and more stable place. They see the United States as “the Great Satan.” They have defined us as the enemy. We didn’t define them as the enemy. They defined us as the enemy. And there are good, strong historical reasons why they see our defeat in the region in a very zero-sum way.
So we can imagine that somehow if we took their interests into account, we could reach an accommodation with that. But what is Hillary proposing here? It is an accommodation in which, I think, she said we accepted and respected their interests in the region. Well, what are their interests in the region? How do we define them? What is it we are being asked to accept here? Is it that they are the dominant power in the region, that they will be the arbiter of the fate of Lebanon and Palestine? Because that is not something that I think the United States can’t accept.
If they want to talk about their legitimate security concerns in the gulf, that is a completely different story. If they want to talk about their need for a civilian nuclear program, that is a completely different story. Those are legitimate interests. But their desire to dominate the Middle East is not a legitimate interest of Iran.
And to propose that we sit down and negotiate with them that kind of grand bargain requires an abrogation of our very real interests in the region. We are not just talking about Israel here. We are talking about our Arab allies as well who also feel deeply threatened by Iran’s ambitions in their neighborhood and by Iran’s efforts to subvert them. So I think, you know, we need to be realistic here.
If I could just make one other point about the – if you will allow me, Tom – about Ian’s very interesting argument about Israeli hysteria. I think that there are two points that I would make. First of all, a point that Ian and Paul have made is that the Iranians are very clearly threatening Israel and Israel – Israel’s people and Israel’s government, especially given their history that Ian referred to – would be foolish not to take those threats seriously.
But hysteria I don’t think captures what is actually happening in Israel today because the Israelis are actually responding, I think, quite calmly to the circumstances in which the Iranians continue to produce low-enriched uranium now according to the IAEA, enough for two nuclear weapons worth if they were to raise it to – enrich it to high-grade-enriched uranium. The Israelis are focused on sanctions.
The Israeli government, whether you believe them or not, is now talking about a two-state solution, wanting direct negotiations with the Palestinians, trying to work with the president to get into those negotiations. They are not at this point talking about bombing Iran. And, you know, that kind of talk has essentially been removed from their lexicon for the last year or so. That is not to say that they don’t reserve the right to it or that they don’t argue that the threat of force should be on the table. But I don’t see a hysteria in Israel today about the Iranian nuclear program. They seem to be approaching it in a very calm and deliberative way.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you. Well, we have a mike over here. And I would just like to say that actually Martin has to leave in about 20 minutes. So maybe if you do have a question for him, you may want to come to the mike first. Yes?
Q: Am I on? Yeah. I would like to address –
MR. MATTAIR: I think I would also like to ask you to identify yourself and your affiliation.
Q: Howard Moreland (ph), private citizen. I am interested in the question of the two-state solution and whether it has been resigned to the dustbin of history. When I have seen that place, I see absolutely no indication that Israel is willing to give up any aspect of sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza, including even Gaza by pulling the settlers out, they still maintain control over the borders and aerospace and so forth.
But if Israel were willing to pull back to the green line and give back to the Palestinians East Jerusalem and everything, I still don’t see the West Bank and Gaza able to be a viable economic cultural entity unless maybe Gaza goes back to Egypt and the West Bank goes back to Jordan. But it seems to me that this idea that well, a Palestinian state would solve a lot of problems – I don’t see a Palestinian state as a possibility.
MR. MATTAIR: Okay, but do you have a question?
Q: I mean, what is your vision of a two-state solution that would actually work and be viable?
MR. MATTAIR: Ian, maybe you want to take that.
MR. LUSTICK: No, that is Martin.
MR. MATTAIR: Okay.
MR. LUSTICK: It is wonderfully indicative of the desire to avoid answering that question of what the answer to the question is, which is on the one hand, the economic viability is more or less irrelevant in my view. It has always been irrelevant. It has been a minor question. There are very few countries in the world that are economically viable standalone entities.
The real question is what political cover would a Palestinian state that could take its place at the table, be a passport-issuing organization for Palestinians as issue cover for Arab regimes and for Israelis to put this issue behind them in some fundamental way and move on. That has always been the possibility.
You, of course, point to what everybody now sees is that the settlements were designed and having the – and have had the effect along with a movement that, of course, assassinated Rabin to stop that from ever happening for ideological reasons inside of Israel. I myself believe that it is basically in the dustbin of history. I don’t really see a way very clearly to rescue it. I offered one image of a way that tied vital American interests publicly to the requirement for a Palestinian state solution.
That is the only way I can see it done where the United States does something that is portrayed and is, in fact, necessary for U.S. vital national security interests and thereby, the president can deal with the political problems at home that would be associated with the steps necessary – not to be big steps, not to go cutting off aid. All you have to do is start voting in the U.N. Security Council the way the United States actually feels. That would basically do a lot in that direction.
But my own view is we have to start developing multiple utopias. You have to think beyond the idea of a two-state solution toward the fact that most of these kinds of problems historically don’t have solutions, that history provides a solution, which we don’t look back and say oh, that is nice, it was a solution. No, it wasn’t a solution in the sense of a negotiated architecture that finessed the problem and found a win-win outcome. No, somebody won and somebody lost. And in 30 years, I have grave doubts that there will be anything like what we see in Israel in Israel.
And in 100 years, there will be a solution. Now, that is a horrible thing to contemplate. But when you think about the other countries that have disappeared from the planet – I don’t mean swallowed up by the earth; I mean that the regime disappeared – the Soviet Union, South Africa, the shah’s Iran, Yugoslavia. These were countries that, within 10 to even five years before they disappeared, you wouldn’t know they were able to disappear.
We have to have – start thinking about how states behave when they start to see the horizon of their existence. Israel’s response to Iran is hysterical in that sense and it is understandable because they are approaching an abyss. When Martin says that in the last year, the Israelis have taken off the table talk of striking Iran militarily, that is pretty amazing as an indication of their non-hysteria. Only in the last year previous to that, I’ve heard Prime Minister Netanyahu, in person, in private, go on like a rocket about the need to attack Iran, to end this Nazi threat to the world.
When 51 percent of Israelis say they want to attack Iran now, what we see is that the policies of the government to speak in Nazi terms create a mood of hysteria, whether or not the Israeli government any longer talks that talk right now or not. So it may not be a crystal clear answer to your question. I don’t want to bury the two-state solution. I think it is the only negotiated way out of this. I just don’t think that a negotiated way out is what we are going to see.
MS. MANN LEVERETT: Just briefly on that, I think – I am too concerned that a two-state solution, you know, could be in the dustbin of history and I think that should concern everybody who is interested in stability, particularly in U.S. interests in the Middle East. But there are two key components that have not really been looked at in the face that need to be. One, of course, is the space, the actual land, the actual territory that would need to be – you would need to create a Palestinian state. And that gets into the questions of viability.
I think the Obama administration half-heartedly tried to do that in trying to push for a settlement freeze, but didn’t go as far as they would have needed for that to have really been a focal point for a negotiated settlement. But the critical piece here where the Obama administration doesn’t go anywhere near is who needs to be at the table to negotiate what is going to be – we know is going to be a less-than-satisfying, to say the least, negotiated outcome. To have people who sit in Ramallah, where Ramallah is going to be part of or could be part of the Palestinian state, negotiate for Palestinians for a lifetime to negotiate away their patrimony. That doesn’t make any sense.
The idea that particularly representatives of Hamas are going to be somehow kept out and marginalized and weakened so that people in Ramallah can live a nice life, that is fanciful. We need to have people at the table who not only represent constituencies that are inconvenient for us and legitimate grievances that are inconvenient for us, but we need them there because they are the ones who can make the concessions. That is something that U.S. policy doesn’t go anywhere near.
MR. MATTAIR: Hussein?
Q: Good morning. I am Hussein Youssef (ph), a concerned individual. To be honest, I was kind of disappointed when I received the invitation not to see any Iranian names on the panel. But I want to congratulate the council for finding quite a few people from this rare breed of reasonable people to discuss these issues.
Mr. Indyk introduced himself as the defender of the conventional wisdom. To the extent that he was so sensitive to even word hysteria, not even – you know, no one even mentioned paranoia. But pushing the perception of the peace process or spreading misinformation that was identified by others as well, which is really the hallmark of those who have been pushing the sanctions, instigating the dual containment and now unfortunately, new steps as well. The gentleman asked many questions. Unfortunately, there is no time to cover all. There is a long line here. But I believe that –
MR. MATTAIR: What is your question?
Q: He has forgotten that the problem of the Israeli-Arab issue was not created by Iran. And Israel is really the newest kid on the block. And as a defender of an Iranian value, which has been shared by many great Americans, I think the greatest strength of Iran is its weakness for the oppression. I am not in total agreement with everything Iran has done or is doing. But the notion that Iran should abandon that ideal is simply un-American. It was just a comment. Thank you.
MR. MATTAIR: We do have a great panel. It is a great opportunity for questions. So if you could ask questions instead of comments, it probably would be more profitable.
Q: Okay. I am Michele Steinberg from Executive Intelligence Review. And my question begins with something that Paul Pillar mentioned, which is – and it is in my view the most immediate danger that we face as a foreign policy issue and might be the highest priority, which is what do we do here in the United States to ward off a potential unilateral Israeli strike against Iran?
I have to disagree with the comment that this has left the lexicon of Israeli policymakers. – while maybe openly, but certainly not behind the scenes. I draw everyone’s attention to two big articles in the Times of London in the last year, complete with maps, what air routes will be taken, submarine capabilities, et cetera, which quotes a myriad of Israeli high policy sources that say we are ready, we are able and we are in the process of convincing the United States to go along with this.
I feared this for a long time since I read “Clean Break” back in 1996, which called for regime change in Iraq and then Iraq. And I fear it more now after hearing Netanyahu’s interview while he was here and that everything is on the table. And it’s been reinforced by some of the things that Mr. Indyk has said. So what can we do to ward off an Israeli strike against Iran from a United States standpoint?
MR. MATTAIR: Does anyone want to take that?
MR. INDYK: Well, we can convince Iran to come into compliance with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And then there wouldn’t be the problem. So again, it’s a question of what’s the cause here and what’s the effect. But I do agree with Ian that I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to be able to persuade Iran by a combination of factors that we’re now trying to use – international pressure, sanctions, and perhaps some progress towards comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. I don’t think, in the end, those things are going to be sufficient to prevent Iran from at least having a robust breakout capability.
And at that point, the United States – not just Israel – the United States is going to be faced with a very real choice between two problematic options. The first is not an Israeli use of force, but an American use of force to deal with Iran’s nuclear facilities. I don’t think I have to tell this audience the problems and difficulties involved with that approach.
Or the alternative is to live with Iranian nuclear weapons, and that’s also a very difficult proposition, not so much because the Iranians will use those weapons in an effort to destroy Israel. I think I agree with Paul that, that’s unlikely, because they do care, ultimately, about the survival of their regime more than anything else, and that would be the end of their regime, if they tried that.
But it would be highly problematic because it will put Israel on a hair trigger; it will put other Arab states in a situation where they will have to decide whether they can live under Iranian nuclear hegemony, or whether they, too, have to decide to go down the road that Iran has gone down of acquiring nuclear capabilities. And once we head in that direction, the Middle East becomes a far more unstable place, far more likely to be one in which there’s a nuclear arms race that gets underway.
And that’s highly problematic, too. So we’re faced with – down the road from here – with two bad choices. And that’s why it’s critically important to do our best, even if we can’t see how it’s going to work, to do our best to try to bring Iran back to the negotiating table by a variety of means that will convince it that it’s not in its interests to go down this road.
MR. PILLAR: Hey, Tom?
MR. MATTAIR: Yes, Paul?
MR. PILLAR: It’s a good and fair question, and since I raised the topic, I wish I had a better specific answer to the question. It’s mostly a matter of diplomatic tactics and rhetorical art. I think it’s a matter of combination, in our dealings with Israel, of firmness on those matters that do not relate to the core objective of Israel’s basic security – things like settlements – combined with reassurance on the core issues of Israel’s security.
And I would just summarize this by saying, I think what we need to get away with – or get away from, excuse me – in not just our declaratory policy, but the whole discourse in this country about relations with Israel is this unidimensional way of viewing it. You know, the relations are good or they’re bad; they’re up, they’re down.
You know, we had a crisis when Joe Biden was there, and then it’s improved. It’s not unidimensional, and there is nothing inconsistent about firmness on something like the settlements issue, which has absolutely nothing to do with the basic security of Israelis, combined with reassuring words, as well as deeds, about U.S. support for Israel’s basic security, as it might be threatened by Iran or anyone else.
MS. MANN LEVERETT: I think the only way that you can prevent an Israeli strike on Iran is for there to be a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that would deal with Israel’s security concerns, but even more importantly, it would reorient the relationship between the U.S. and Iran and reorient what Iran perceives to be its security concerns and what it needs to do, whether we agree or not, to protect itself and to protect its government and its system – its system of government, its system of a state – which is thinks that it needs to do because it is basically in a state of conflict with the United States.
If it weren’t in a state of conflict with the United States, it would see its security paradigm differently. Now, some could argue, well, it’s still some sort of Islamo-fascist state. That’s some of the rhetoric. And even if it weren’t in a conflict with the United States, it would still see its security paradigm irrationally. I don’t buy that, but at least that would be an argument. What we need to do is to reorient the relationship between the United States and Iran so that they don’t look at their neighbors, the region, in zero-sum terms because of the conflict with the United States.
If you take the example of China, Japan was very concerned that a rapprochement between the United States and China would negatively impact Japan. But one of the things that helped Japan, not only in terms of its economic boom, but in terms of its fundamental security, was a U.S.-Chinese rapprochement that did not put Japan in the target zone. If there is a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, Israel may not be as concerned that it is in the target zone of an Iran that is out to hurt the U.S., even indirectly through harassing Israel.
So the way to deal with the security threat is not to try more sanctions. We sanctioned the Iranians for 30 years and all that has done is bring us closer to the brink of conflict. More sanctions have not worked; they will not work. To reorient the relationship, as we did with China, as we did with Egypt – that is what has worked in the past and that is what has the best prospect to work in the future to prevent the Israelis from having to take matters into their own hands.
MR. LUSTICK: Just something very quick – I know there are questions that are waiting. I mentioned this idea of a folie a deux. It works in a few ways. You notice – I think the Israelis are not going to strike Iran. The only thing that – and all we have to do to stop any Israeli strike is don’t turn off the red light.
Every time Israel has used force significantly in the Middle East, against Lebanon, there’s 10 years later, scholars analyzed the extent to which that occurred because the United States turned on the yellow light, turned on the green light, or they turned off the red light. You can see that discussion. We should just don’t turn off the red light about attacking Iran. Israel, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons, will not take the risk of making a war like that when it doesn’t have a superpower behind it.
On the other hand, each side of this argument values the image that Israel is about to strike. The Iranian side of the argument, or that the United States should seek, aggressively, rapprochement with Iran, likes the idea that, oh, Israel is about to strike; you better hurry up and negotiate with us. Or the Israelis, of course, like it: You better hurry up and strike Iran yourself or deal with this problem or we will strike.
I want to remind you, from an historical point of view, it was not the British who overthrew Mosaddeq in Iran, but it was the Americans. But the Americans went in to do it only when the British came to us and convinced us that, because of the Anglo oil companies’ nationalization, that this was a nationalist project in Iran that was actually communist. And the United States should go in there and stop it.
It’s effectively the same thing happening again, from an Iranian point of view, except this time, it’s the Israelis coming to the United States saying a project with a lot of nationalist importance in Iran – nuclear development – is being carried out not by a Soviet regime, a communist regime, but a Nazi regime, and we should take care of it. So this dynamic is very familiar to Iranians, and we should not get caught up in it again. We’re already – we’re still paying a price of getting caught up in it in the early 1950s.
MR. PILLAR: And if I could add, that Anglo oil company, Iran, then became BP and look what we’re stuck with now.
MR. LUSTICK: Thank you.
MR. MATTAIR: Tom?
Q: Tom Lippman with the Council on Foreign Relations. In his very good book, Martin Indyk came to the conclusion, at the end, that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not possible. It will not happen. And I agree with that for reasons of sovereignty over Jerusalem or whatever else. That being the case, should the United States not delink relations with Iran, to the extent possible, from the whole question of the so-called peace process?
We have interests in every country on Iran’s perimeter except possibly Armenia, and everywhere in the gulf, and in Afghanistan. Ought we not to be able to pursue discussions and relations with Iran on those matters without reference to the peace process? And I’d like Hillary and Paul to try to address that, thank you.
MS. MANN LEVERETT: I certainly share your pessimism and Martin’s pessimism, in terms of prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Though I do think it is necessary, I certainly share your pessimism. In terms of delinking it, yes.
Again, if we look at the precedent where rapprochement has worked effectively, where you have a rising power in its regional context, even a hostile rising power in its regional context – here, I focus primarily on China – where there was an issue that the U.S. and China disagreed about vehemently – Taiwan – it was bracketed. We still disagree about it to this day, but at least the rapprochement between the U.S. and China was able to dial back both the rhetoric and the military preparedness on both the U.S. and the Chinese side, to take extreme actions about Taiwan.
So just like the U.S. and China sought and struck a rapprochement for much bigger issues than Taiwan, I think that the U.S. and Iran needs to have a rapprochement in the same way. Primarily because Iran, though, doesn’t approach what China means – and certainly not in today’s terms – back in the 1970s, there is some similarity, in terms of Iran’s rising regional role. And it’s not just because Iran’s tremendous hydrocarbon resources. It’s not just because of its nearly-80-million-person population, not just because of its strategic position at the crossroads of Asia and the Middle East, but because of U.S. mistakes over, parituclarly, the past seven years.
Iran has capitalized on those mistakes. Iran’s power has ascended as the U.S. power is in relative decline. That is not – I don’t see that changing on the horizon, and we need to, in some way, make peace with that – Iran’s rising regional role and our relative decline on the global stage. We need to do that in the same way we did with China, and not in a way that’s dependent on the biggest issue of contention. China-U.S., it was Taiwan; U.S.-Iran, it’s Israel.
MR. PILLAR: I agree with Hillary’s comments and with the premise of the question. And unfortunately, a lot of the linkage that goes in our minds these days refers back to what Ian described as the Netanyahu government’s tactic, you know, with the parable of the talking bear. Linkage sometimes does work to our advantage, as Nixon and Kissinger skillfully did with their triangular great-power diplomacy back in the 1970s. But in this case, it works more to our disadvantage.
Q: I’m Diane Pearlman. I’m with the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. And my question – I’d like to, like, frame the disagreements in terms of social science, coming from a background of conflict analysis, conflict transformation and actual social science, based on research.
And it seems like the difference of opinion is not framed in this way, that they’re really coming from very different paradigms, and that the dominant paradigm that Martin Indyk was referring to – I’m sorry he’s not here – is based on coercion, threat, isolation, punishment and pressure to get people to do what we want parties to do. And even, like, the idea of engagement is usually put in the form of pressure. And it usually creates the opposite effect, and there’s research on, like, 100 cases of sanctions and they failed 86 percent of the time, and sort of, belief in deterrence theory as they only theory where, when you act that way, you can provoke – there’s also spiral theory and tension reduction.
And Ian was talking about the hysteria, that parties are more dangerous when they’re afraid, and acting out of fear, you can justify the fears of the other party and keep ratcheting up the escalation. And also, exclusion – that a lot of things that policymakers – even well-meaning people believe in – have the opposite effect. So people were saying, we think that peace is not possible. Maybe it’s because of the lens that we’re using. I had this idea of the political Heisenberg Principle, that you can’t observe the behavior of a party like Iran without looking at the effect of our policy – a dynamic view, rather than a static view that they’re just the bad guys.
So you know, my question is that, you know, that I think the comments, especially of, like, Hillary and Ian are consistent with principles of social science, conflict transformation, tension reduction. And you know, from what I’ve heard from very few people are the common interests between Israel and Iran that could be mutually beneficial. So could you respond to that, and also, maybe, frame it in the context of social science?
MR. LUSTICK: I tend to like to answer questions in that way, and I should be able to trace everything I say to some kind of theoretical basis. But I mentioned so many topics and if you talk about the psychological factor that I mentioned, I think that it’s when you have that kind of trauma that’s enshrined in the mythology of a political formula and it’s institutionalized.
And what happens in any ideology, including Zionism, is that the founding problem that – the problem that existed when it came about as a solution – that problem gets solved and the world is very, very different from the world where the institutionalization of that solution is operating. It’s no longer – it keeps operating in the same way. You have efforts to redeem land in Negali (ph) when there’s no shortage of land for Jews to live in Negali. You have immigration efforts save Jews from – when there’s no immigration.
And so you have a fear that there’s Nazi-like anti-Semitism, and therefore, you’re seeing it all the time. And this is partly the leftovers of the trauma itself – and there’s a tremendous literature on PTSD, which, if you read it, you can see a lot more about Israel than otherwise would see – and one of the things that it does is, it forces the victims to keep seeing things that aren’t there, but seeing things that are other things as if they were the Nazis.
So how do you deal with that? There’s a lot of controversy, a lot of different approaches to PTSD. And I’m not so sure you can just automatically take even a clinical practice and apply it nationally. But I think in the long run, Israel and Jews in general have to remove remembrance of the Holocaust as such a central part of their lives if Israel is going to avoid the utter tragedy of producing that which it most fears.
MS. MANN LEVERETT: I think I understood, maybe, the core of your question as, are there mutual interests that Israel and Iran could play off with one another? You know, it’s very interesting, in Trita Parsi’s book, “The Treacherous Alliance,” where he documents a lot about the relationship between the United States, Israel and Iran, he makes this argument that it wasn’t until after the Iran-Iraq war and the fall of the Soviet Union that the Iranian-Israeli relationship became so acrimonious.
We all remember the 1980s very clearly, the Iran-Contra scandal. The Israelis were supplying the Iranians with all sorts of weapons systems and other things. And even at the height of what could have been cast as the revolutionary period for Iran after the fall of the shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, that first decade was not one that was really marked by Israeli-Iranian acrimony. There was a lot more cooperation.
What Parsi argues is that the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the fall of the Soviet Union – the end of the Cold War – essentially deprived Israel and Iran of a common enemy that they could arm against, that they could rally against, that they could have mutual interests, here and there, against. Nothing has really replaced that, in terms of some common cause. And instead, what’s happened is – and I think in particular, unfortunately, with the support of the United States, is that these two critically important players in the Middle East – Israel and Iran – have become regional rivals, regional competitors. And they see, then, everything through the lens of zero-sum terms.
Whether it’s possible for, at this point, there to be a common agenda is – you know, I think is speculative, at best. But I will put out one thing from my experience dealing with the Iranians officially over Afghanistan. We dealt with the Iranians over Afghanistan as a partner. So for example, for the donor summits on Afghanistan, particularly the first one in Tokyo – January, 2002 – the Iranians were not just invited to the donors conference; they were put on a steering committee. They put up $500 million and they are one of the few countries in the world that has actually made good on almost every penny of their stated donation to Afghanistan. They were on the steering committee.
What did we do after the 2008 Operation Iron Cast (sic) Israel military operation in Gaza? We had a similar, kind of, donors conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, but we did what we always do on Iran, when it comes to Palestinian issues. We didn’t put them on the steering committee. We kept them out and we made it as if this was a rallying cry for the entire Middle East to stand against Iran and Hamas. That is a really poor paradigm for any kind of functional diplomacy.
Now, I’m not saying that it would work the same way that it did in Afghanistan, but we do have a precedent where Iran worked cooperatively with the United States, even when our interests are not always allied, in Afghanistan. They’ve worked with us, in some instances, on Iraq, where our interests are not always allied.
So I’m not saying that there are high hopes for any kind of common agenda between Israel and Iran, but we know for a fact that setting them up and goading them to be each other’s regional rivals, that, that doesn’t work. So I do think that you’re right: We should be looking for something where the Iranians can be brought in, in a way that’s not necessarily confrontational or controversial – into a donors conference. That’s not something that should be that hard.
MR. MATTAIR: We have 10 minutes, so we have time for the questions.
Q: My name is Simana Ali (sp). I’m an intern with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and the Middle East Broadcasting Center. My question was originally to Martin Indyk, but he’s not here now, but let’s just put the focus on sanctions. Why do we keep thinking that sanctions will actually help when it usually shows to be a failure?
I mean, in Iraq, it was a total disaster leading to a very high humanitarian cost. So why do we keep talking about this? We have had sanctions on Iran for 30 years, and even though they were not that strong, I mean, stronger sanctions would only lead to more humanitarian disasters. So why? Thank you.
MR. LUSTICK: The simple, but uncomfortable, answer to the question is that it implies that foreign policy moves by the United States, for example towards sanctions, comes out of some kind of realist calculation of, if we do this, this will happen, when in fact, the reason why we do sanctions is because politically, it’s necessary to do something, in terms of the domestic political pressures, and by doing something, you can postpone the question of whether it’s going to work.
The Iranian nuclear capacity slides into view and it’s not like you did nothing. If you had done something, maybe it wouldn’t have happened. And you don’t want to attack. So in that sense, sanctions plays a positive role. It has nothing to do with an expectation that it’s going to stop this process.
MR. PILLAR: That’s the main explanation, but I think in fairness to a sanctions regime, you can say a couple of other things. One, there’s not quite as much fecklessness as it was when it was solely a unilateral matter. And now, you know, our differences with the Europeans, and even, occasionally, with the Russians, are much less than they were before.
The main deficiency with regard to the effectiveness of sanctions on Iran is not so much the sanctions itself, but the carrots to go with the sticks. And if there is no prospect, on the other side, no reason for the other side to believe that there is a basis for an improved relationship, then there’s no incentive to respond in the way that we would hope they would respond to sanctions. So don’t just indict the sticks; look for the missing carrots.
MS. MANN LEVERETT: I think it’s very important to remember – and very few people do; maybe Tom Lippman will. He was energy correspondent for the Washington Post for many years. After the revolution in Iran, there were some sanctions in place, but then they were largely taken back because of the deal to get the release of the U.S. hostages.
The comprehensive U.S. embargo imposed on Iran really came – U.S. unilateral embargo on Iran – really came in 1995. And it came in 1995 in response to then-Iranian President Rafsanjani’s galling idea that he was going to open up investment into Iranian hydrocarbons, essentially, to the West. Not just to the West, but he was going to have the first deal – he offered the first deal to Conoco – to an American company – with the idea that if he did that, there could be the start of a process to normalize relations between the United States and Iran, because you could get the United States involved, in its own interest, in developing Iran’s hydrocarbons.
The response here, particularly in the White House – and I worked in the Clinton administration at the time – the concern here was, if we allow that to happen, we would be entering into a process that would legitimate the Islamic Republic, as such. That was impossible because of domestic politics here in the United States – impossible.
So the response was not to just say, no thank you, but to say, U.S. companies, you are now barred legally from participating in that process. The next year, American companies complained about that legitimately – that their business was going to the Europeans. And that’s what then led to the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act the following year, in 1996, to try to impose sanctions on other companies from investing in Iran’s hydrocarbon resources.
So it’s not really a short-term – as it was posited before by one of our speakers – it’s not really posited to bring Iran to the negotiating table – the sanctions regime. It is posited to put a question mark over the very legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. Now, if that was ever a good idea, I think today, 30 years later, with the gains the Islamic Republic has made internally and in its regional standing, it certainly is not a good idea today.
Q: And I’m Liel Magin (sp). I’m from Israel and I’m participating in an Israeli-Palestinian NSL program. And I want to say that the United States has an integral role in Middle Eastern politics, especially after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I wanted to know how much these wars affect Iranian foreign and nuclear policies and how much they affect the agenda towards Israel, which is considered as a representative of the United States in the Middle East.
MR. PILLAR: Two points to start things off. One, both Iraq and Afghanistan – Hillary’s already touched on this, partly – demonstrate considerable convergence, or at least parallel interests, between the United States and Iran. And what Hillary referred to earlier – those very few weeks or months in late 2001, beginning of 2002, in which the U.S. and Tehran were working cooperatively, about the political rebuilding of Afghanistan, until we declared “Axis of Evil.”
That was one indication of it. And of course, our taking out of Saddam Hussein took out Iran’s biggest enemy – the one that had launched a war of aggression, with an enormous cost, against Iran in the 1980s. So let me just leave it at that, and the others will want to comment on it.
MS. MANN LEVERETT: It’s a very good question. I think as Paul just alluded to, the cooperation that we had with Iran over Afghanistan in particular, I think, could have set the stage for a more cooperative relationship between the U.S. and Iran that would have redounded to Israel’s benefit – to everybody’s benefit in the region if we had taken it forward to normalize relations.
Today, unfortunately, I think there is an idea that, somehow, we could turn the clock back to 2003 – 2001, even – and just do the same thing with Iran, but this time, instead of being in a presidency characterized by the “Axis of Evil,” we’re in the Obama era, and things will be different. Unfortunately, because of mistakes that the U.S. made, Iran is in a different position today. It is in a different position in Iraq today. It is not wondering about its interests. It’s not hoping that Saddam Hussein isn’t going to attack it with chemical weapons. It has the upper hand in Iraq. And in Afghanistan, it’s even more complicated for us.
Today, I think, there is gradual but growing recognition in the United States that there is no military settlement – resolution – to be had in Afghanistan and there needs to be a political settlement – a political settlement that would, in some way, include the Taliban in Afghanistan. That is something that the Iranians see as a red line.
The Iranians are not going to sit at the table with us quietly and calmly and nod as we try to bring about a political settlement that includes the Taliban that lets our forces leave. For the Iranians, there is no military exit. There is no exit from Afghanistan. They’re there; they’re there to stay. They’re not going to make it easier for us to leave because there’s some fig leaf of Taliban representation. They want no Taliban representation whatsoever.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. We need to figure out how to be working with the Iranians constructively, because the alternative is – and this will be very bad, I think, for Israel and for our Arab allies in the Middle East – the alternative is not only do you have the chaos that we have today in Afghanistan, but on top of that, you’re going to have a proxy war – a proxy war where Iran sees it as in its interests – its vital interests – to support its allies in Afghanistan against Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s allies on the other side.
So if we don’t try to figure out how to work with Iran now in Afghanistan, we are looking at a proxy war in that country, on top of the chaos that’s already there. That will – the Iranians will then take that out, in a sense, on American allies in the Middle East, whether they’re Israelis or Saudis or others.
MR. ANDERSON: I don’t have a question. I do have a statement, and that is, I wish to express my appreciation to this panel, to the audience for, I think, a uniquely interesting and positive discussion on a tough, tough subject. And I thank every member of this panel for being superb and everyone here for paying attention. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)
MR. MATTAIR: We will have the transcript of this conference on our website in about three days, and also the audio and the video. And I encourage you to visit us. It’s www.mepc.org. And in fact, we’re launching a new website later this summer. Thank you for coming.
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