Thursday, March 25, 2010

AIPAC Conference on Iran

From: "Yoshie Furuhashi"

Israel's Perspective on Iran:
Insights from the AIPAC Conference

by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
Monthly Review: March 24, 2010

Yesterday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)
concluded its annual policy conference in Washington, DC. This year
saw the largest-ever turnout for AIPAC's annual conference, with 7,800
people in attendance, an important percentage of whom were not Jewish
but evangelical Protestant Christians. At the climax of the
conference, participants deployed to Capitol Hill to lobby for AIPAC's
top policy priorities. As AIPAC's lobbying packet underscores, the
conference was heavily focused on "the Iranian threat," which topped
Israeli-Palestinian peace and even the state of U.S.-Israeli relations
in the wake of Vice President Joseph Biden's recent trip to Israel for
pride of place on AIPAC's agenda.

This year's lobbying effort was concentrated on the imperative to
"prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability." To this
end, AIPAC wants the United States "to lead the international
community in imposing crippling sanctions on Iran without delay."
According to AIPAC, "American and international sanctions on Iran must
be immediate, broad and overwhelming in order to force the regime to
confront the choice between abandoning its pursuit of nuclear weapons
or facing crippling sanctions." AIPAC's material does not explicitly
call for military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets, but, subtly
and ominously, the group notes that "tough sanctions that are strictly
enforced still remain the best option at this time to persuade Iran's
leaders to alter their course" (emphasis added).

Some of AIPAC's congressional guests leaned further forward than the
group's own materials did about the possibility of military strikes
against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. In his address, Senator
Charles Schumer (D-New York) departed from the Obama Administration's
approved talking points by asserting that,

"Diplomatic efforts have failed. We are too close (to a nuclear
Iran) to simply continue those efforts. The U.S. must hit Iran first,
on our own, with unilateral sanctions, no matter what the other
nations of the world do. And, we cannot wait, we must push those
sanctions now . . . we cannot afford to wait for Russia or China."

Senator Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) went even further,
portentously claiming that "time is not on our side" with regard to
Iran's nuclear program and that this year's AIPAC conference could be
the last before Iran actually acquired nuclear weapons. To deal with
this threat, Graham underscored that "all options must be on the
table" and "you know exactly what I'm talking about." But Graham
argued that, if military strikes against Iran are initiated, they
should not be limited to the Islamic Republic's nuclear

"If military force is ever employed, it should be done in a
decisive fashion. The Iran government's ability to wage conventional
war against its neighbors and our troops in the region should not
exist. They should not have one plane that can fly or one ship that
can float."

Why are AIPAC and its supporters putting all of this effort into
pushing the Obama Administration into a more assertive "war footing"
toward Iran? What does this focus tell us about Israel's perception
of its strategic interests vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic? As we have
written previously, the idea that an Iran which is capable of
enriching uranium -- or even an Iran which has actually fabricated a
nuclear weapons -- is an "existential threat" to Israel does not hold
up to serious scrutiny. So what really is at stake here for Israel
and its friends in the United States?

From an Israeli perspective, three points are important. First,
Israel's political and policy elites want to eliminate Iran's
fuel-cycle capabilities in order to preserve a regional balance of
power that is strongly tilted in Israel's favor. Regional perceptions
that the Islamic Republic had achieved a nuclear "breakout" capacity
would begin to erode Israel's long-standing nuclear-weapons monopoly
in the Middle East, thereby chipping away at the image and reality of
Israel's strategic hegemony over its neighborhood.

Second, the emergence of an increasingly nuclear-capable Iran might
begin to constrain Israel's own strategic and tactical choices in the
region, at least on the margins. For many years now there has been a
broad-based consensus within Israeli political and policymaking
circles that Israel's security requires that an Israeli government be
able to use military force unilaterally in the Middle East at any time
and for any purpose that it chooses. Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu himself alluded to this view in his address to AIPAC
yesterday. Netanyahu noted that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston
Churchill, "two of history's greatest leaders," had "helped save the
world. But they were too late to save six million of my own people."
He then declared that "the future of the Jewish state can never depend
on the goodwill of even the greatest of men. Israel must always
reserve the right to defend itself." The Prime Minister went on to
apply this idea directly to Iran and its nuclear program, noting that
"Israel expects the international community to act swiftly and
decisively to thwart this danger. But we will always reserve the
right to defend ourselves."

In this context, it is clear that Netanyahu is not referring to
self-defense against an active threat, for which Article 51 of the
United Nations Charter might be invoked as a legal justification.
Rather, Netanyahu is reiterating longstanding Israeli policy that
Israel claims the right to initiate, at its own discretion, not just
preemptive wars, but also preventive wars. From this perspective,
anything which might begin to constrain Israel's currently
unconstrained freedom of military action is problematic. Thus, a
nuclear-capable Iran is bad because in some circumstances it might
make Israeli strategic planners and decision-makers think twice about
the unilateral initiation of military conflict. (Similarly, the
accumulation of more capable rockets and conventional military
hardware by Hizballah in Lebanon since 2006 is a problem for Israel
not because Hizballah will, some day, decide to launch massive rocket
barrages against northern Israel for no reason. Rather, Hizballah's
military capabilities are a problem primarily because they constrain,
at least to some degree, Israeli decision-making about initiating
military confrontation in the region. This is true with regard to
prospective strikes against Iranian targets -- because Israeli
planners must worry about Hizballah's response. It is also true with
regard to sending Israeli ground forces into Lebanon -- because
Hizballah, having become capable of what Tom Ricks usefully describes
as a "high-intensity insurgency" campaign, can now fight the IDF to an
effective standstill on the ground.)

The third point relates to the Palestinian issue. From an Israeli
perspective, keeping America focused on Iran as an urgent threat is
useful in distracting Washington from working too seriously on
Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. This is particularly attractive to a
Prime Minister like Netanyahu, who is disinclined to take the concrete
steps necessary to reach a two-state solution -- whether in the near
term on settlements or in the longer term on final-status issues.
Netanyahu -- or any other Israeli Prime Minister with a similar view
of the Palestinian issue -- will always argue for prioritizing Iran
over the Palestinians. An Israeli Prime Minister can always claim
that his government's bureaucratic and national security capacities --
as well as his own political capital -- are finite. There is simply
not enough of those resources for an Israeli government to deal
effectively with an "existential threat" from Iran and, at the same
time, make and implement the "painful concessions" entailed in a
negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

Those who claim that the Obama Administration could use the argument
that resolving the Palestinian issue would marginalize Iran to
leverage greater cooperation from Israel on Arab-Israeli peacemaking
miss this important reality: the Israeli government is exaggerating
the Iranian "threat" as a way of fending off pressure to do more on
the Palestinian issue, not as a way of facilitating greater American
intervention on the Palestinian issue. Moreover, this position
ignores what we have frequently identified as a major weakness in the
current U.S. position vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic and the Middle
East more generally -- at this point, the United States cannot broker
negotiated settlements on the unresolved tracks of the Arab-Israeli
peace process without a more positive and productive relationship with

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation,
where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches
at Pennsylvania State University's School of International Affairs.
Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis
(STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. In September 2010, she will
also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research
Fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 24 March 2010
under a Creative Commons license.
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