February 6, 2012

The False Comfort of False Diplomacy

They obviously realize the magnitude of events at work. Potential conflict between Israel, America and Iran could reshape the Gulf, but for now the topic dominates international media spheres like no other global issue. By this point everyone who wants to throw their “informed” opinion into the arena has done so. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli military officials are leaning on the inevitably of conflict to justify any future operation, while U.S. officials have been scrambling to muffle their sabers throughout January (while still flexing in Hormuz).

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was recently forced to deny his own thoughts, paraphrased by Pentagon insider David Ignatius to the effect that Panetta’s “biggest worry is the growing possibility that Israel will attack Iran over the next few months.”

Choosing Super Bowl prime time as his venue, President Barack Obama once again caught up to Israel’s war machine and attempted to pull back on the throttle. He’s also trying to reign in the Pentagon and GOP frontrunners in an attempt to regain control over the international debate. Obama had just used his State of the Union to tell the world, “a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better; and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.” Now, after telling NBC’s Matt Lauer that he doesn’t believe Israel “has made a decision on what they need to do,” he reminded its leaders of the wider fallout from a preemptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear targets - a mess that U.S. and Gulf forces would have to clean up.

"Any kind of additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us," he said. "It could have a big effect on oil prices. We've still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran.”

Not long ago David Petraeus, as Afghanistan’s ranking general, allegedly complained that Israel’s behavior could put U.S. troops in danger, comments he quickly denied once they became public.

Whether Israel has committed to preemptive action remains hotly debatable, but any warning of regional chaos is self-evidently true (this specter already hangs over Syria). The Trench advocates diplomacy over military operations whenever pragmatic, and Obama appears to have temporarily succeeded in halting Netanyahu’s rhetoric. More likely, the premier was angling for additional measures from the West, and Obama promised to accelerate a cycle of oil sanctions that are supposed to break Tehran’s political will.

“We have mobilized the international community in a way that is unprecedented. And they are feeling the pinch, they’re feeling the pressure, but they have not taken the step that they need to, diplomatically, which is to say we will pursue peaceful nuclear power; we will not pursue a nuclear weapon.”

Unfortunately Obama’s interview is hardly diplomatic to the core, a dilemma that underlines the entirety of U.S. policy towards Iran. Despite offering an “open hand” at his inaugural address, the Obama administration has generally treated Tehran with a backhand and closed fist. Token diplomacy is mixed with jingoism to avoid appearing overly soft, and the resulting “cart and stick” diplomacy has jaded Iranian policymakers more than anything else. Many aspects of Tehran’s behavior cannot be excused, but Washington’s disproportionate “dual-track” and the Gulf-enabled "nuclear umbrella" are escalating tensions on both sides.

What U.S.-Iranian relations truly need is a political solution, not a mere diplomatic solution. The Obama administration, Israel, Western and Gulf capitals essentially demand that Iran trade its nuclear ambitions for economic rewards, when nuclear weapons extend to all areas of national policy. Iran’s opponents will not succeed in dissuading its nuclear program without altering the strategic environment around Iran; the international community’s thinking borders on surrender, not an equitable political resolution to the region’s militarization.

Some regional problems are wholly owned by Tehran, but the Obama administration has failed to engage in fair negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. After giving into most of Israel’s terms except for settlements, an issue that Obama’s critics used to wrongfully brand him as pro-Palestinian, Tehran continues to view U.S. foreign policy as an unbalanced influence in the region. Washington is equally responsible for Iraq’s current problems. The Obama administration has also managed to salvage or save pro-U.S. regimes Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, creating a double-standard that Tehran constantly refers to when protecting Bashar al-Assad. Iran is morally and strategically sunk in Syria, but these developments weigh on its leaders minds.

Obama’s NBC interview reads just like his State of the Union: a peaceful conclusion doused with references to the strength of U.S-Israeli military bonds. Many GOP critics accuse Obama of appeasing Tehran or the Palestinians, but he sounds eager to appease the hawks flying over U.S.-Israeli relations. By referencing the closest “military and intelligence consultation” that the two countries have “ever had,” Obama assures his audience, “We are going to be sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this - hopefully diplomatically."

“We’re not taking any options off the table,” he promised. “I’ve been very clear that we’re going to do everything we can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and creating an arms race, a nuclear arms race, in a volatile region.”

Naturally Obama says nothing about the nuclear weapons that Israel already possesses, one of many reasons that Iran may be seeking its own.

Unless all involved parties genuinely desire a peaceful resolution, the odds of large-scale conflict will continue to hang over Gulf throughout the decade. No force can stop a determined Israel from pulling the trigger and starting a global proxy war. An apparent majority stands ready to stop a gung-ho GOP candidate, but so long as America and Israel’s narrative remains dominated by war, U.S. officials are unlikely to convince their Iranian counterparts to defer their nuclear ambitions.

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