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tony Karon

http://www.thenational.ae:80/article/20090301/OPINION/278172042/1080

TO: Distinguished Recipients
FM: John Whitbeck
 
Transmitted below is Tony Karon's Freeman-related article, as published in THE NATIONAL (Abu Dhabi).
 

 

Who will win the battle for Obama’s ear on Iran?

Tony Karon

March 01. 2009

http://www.thenational.ae:80/article/20090301/OPINION/278172042/1080

 

A week is a long time in Washington, especially for the influential Israel lobby. Last Monday it had cause to celebrate the appointment of one of its favourite sons, Dennis Ross, as the State Department’s point-man on Iran. But on Friday came the announcement that Charles Freeman is to be President Obama’s National Intelligence Council chairman – the superspook who distils the gleanings of America’s 16 different intelligence agencies into the authoritative National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) that guide US policy.

 

NIEs were key to the Bush administration’s case for war with Iraq, and the Iran NIE has become a fierce battleground between the traditional intelligence establishment and the neoconservatives and Israel lobby, who were furious when the 2007 NIE suggested that Iran was not currently engaged in nuclear weapons work. Israel and its supporters peddle alarmist views of Iran’s nuclear activities, not bothering to distinguish between developments that would give Iran the means to pursue nuclear weapons and the actual pursuit of such weapons (the international and US intelligence consensus is that Iran has not yet taken a decision to build nuclear weapons; the concern is its nuclear energy infrastructure puts such weapons within reach).

If Israel and its backers are to persuade the Obama administration to accept their views on Iran, it is a less than helpful for the NIE be the province of a sceptical, independent thinker who believes that Israel’s interests are not necessarily those of the US. Renowned as a brilliant diplomat and analyst, even-handed in his assessments of the Middle East and not bound by the Israel-first consensus that the Israel lobby has fought so hard to establish in US Middle East policy, Mr Freeman was denounced by Steve Rosen, a former top American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) official, as “a profoundly disturbing appointment”.

 

Last October Mr Freeman castigated President Bush for “writing blank cheques to Israel, which harms it by depriving Israelis of any immediate incentive to make the hard choices they must make to achieve long-term security for themselves and their state… it benefits no one for the United States to continue to underwrite the injustices, indignities, and humiliations of the occupation”.

 

His appointment was all the more remarkable given such statements, and the ire they provoked among Israel’s traditionally influential backers. Clearly, Dennis Ross’s reliably pro-Israel advocacy is not going to go unchallenged in the new administration. Mr Ross, of course, has been given a key State Department policy role on Iran, which is good news for Israel and its backers, even if the role may be less than they had expected: the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank created by Aipac, boasted recently that Mr Ross, who had headed the think-tank, would soon become Hillary Clinton’s “top adviser on a wide range of Middle East issues from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran”. Clearly his mandate is more limited than that: the Arab-Israeli dossier is in the hands of Senator George Mitchell, another appointment that caused alarm among key figures in the Israel lobby.

 

Tensions are set to mount between the new administration and Israel on Gaza, Israeli settlement activity and the tacit backing the US and its allies are expected to give Fatah-Hamas reconciliation efforts. But the key issue for Israel may be the new Iran policy currently being developed by the Obama team. The President has made clear that he intends to engage in “tough, direct diplomacy with Iran”, but the timing, content and strategy of that diplomacy remain under review.

 

Israel will press Washington to limit the terms of any engagement with Iran. The defence minister, Ehud Barak, insisted last week that it was “of utmost importance that US-Iran dialogue be relatively short, and followed by deep sanctions”. The prime minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, is if anything even more militant. And the Israelis’ primary method for pressing the Americans is to suggest that Iran’s nuclear activity is an urgent and intolerable threat, and that if it is not stopped Israel will be forced to take military action.

 

Coincidentally, in his forthcoming book Myths, Illusions and Peace, Mr Ross sees merit in Israel threatening to act crazy as a device to press reluctant Europeans into tougher sanctions against Iran. Mr Ross also concurs with the Israeli call for brevity in US-Iran negotiations: he recommends a 90-day limit, backed by tougher sanctions and a credible threat of force. While Mr Ross is mindful of the need to offer “meaningful” gains to the Iranian leadership for co-operation, and to negotiate in a manner that avoids humiliating them, he believes talks will succeed only if Iran’s leaders feel their backs are against the wall. “When we say that we are not taking force off the table, that must be more than a slogan,” he writes. “It is essential that the Iranians continue to believe that they may well be playing with fire if they persist in their pursuit of nuclear weapons.” Iran must perceive itself to be in a dangerous cul-de-sac, he argues, and they must believe that the clock is ticking.

 

Iran’s behaviour until now suggests that it is unlikely to respond positively to ultimatums, whether delivered through a megaphone or through a back-channel whisper. Mr Ross appears to recognise that they may fail. Talks and related diplomatic steps, he argues, “could be part of efforts to reach agreement with Iran but also part of a larger strategy that is designed to produce deterrence or set the stage for the use of force if agreement proves not to be possible”, because “we are better positioned to use force if we are seen has having first exhausted other options.”

 

But with sober heads such as Mr Freeman enjoying the President’s ear, Mr Ross will have a hard time selling an alarmist perspective on how to deal with Iran. Mr Obama appears to have extended his “team of rivals” idea into his Middle East policy, and looks set to take counsel from a wider set of advisers than those favoured by the Israel lobby. Indeed, Mr Freeman’s appointment suggests that the new administration won’t be stampeded into any new wars in the Middle East – and may even be ready to go far beyond its predecessor in pushing for peace.

 

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at Rootless Cosmopolitan: www.tonykaron.com

 

 



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