President Obama has dispatched his Middle East envoy and is poised to engage in active, tough-minded diplomacy in the Middle East, just as he promised. However, the new commander-in-chief should at least take a careful look before leaping for the strategic groundwork has shifted dramatically in the region over the last several months and especially now in the aftermath of Israel’s retaliation against Hamas.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was concerned back in June that the then-Democratic candidate for president was too eager to engage US foes without establishing the most important precondition of all. “When you have leverage, talk,” wrote Friedman. “When you don’t have leverage, get some. Then talk.”
That is Israel’s White House-warming gift to the new President: leverage
The three-week long raid on Gaza is the capstone of a two-and-a-half year Israeli campaign to strip Tehran of its regional assets and weaken the regime’s hand as it moves closer to completing its nuclear program. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni commented that the new American president could use Israel's success in that its recent offensive against Hamas to change the reality in the Middle East; has more than a little merit Consider the hand Israel has dealt Obama with operations against Iran and its Resistance bloc, starting with the July 2006 war against Hezbollah.
While most estimates asserted that the Israelis had walked away from that confrontation with its tail between its legs, the overwhelming evidence proves otherwise. If Hassan Nasrallah and the Party of God enjoyed a “Divine Victory” back in 2006 then why did they shy away from engaging the Zionist enemy the last three weeks? Couldn’t they have joined forces with Hamas to dismember the Jewish state once and for all?
There were a few spurts of rocket fire from South Lebanon, after which Hezbollah denied any responsibility or even knowledge of the attacks. This guileless modesty from a party that claims to defend all of a state whose security apparatus it has penetrated almost entirely indicates that Hezbollah, despite its ferocious rhetoric, has been deterred since August 2006.
In the late summer of 2007, Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear facility; and then there was the February 2008 assassination of Hezbollah legend Imad Mughniyeh in the middle of Damascus that bore the markings of an Israeli operation. The Syrian response to both of these indignities suffered on their home turf, the beating heart of Arab resistance, was impotence.
Finally, the recent Gaza campaign not only set back Palestine’s Islamic Resistance Movement, but also delivered an ominous message to Iran and all her allies: The Zionists have your number - literally.
Lost in all the advocacy for a more proportional - i.e. Bedouin - war is the question: How did the Israel Defense Forces get all those phone numbers of Gaza residents and coordinate them with selected targets to warn non-combatants of impending strikes? Hassan Nasrallah knows how or else he would not have been moving from bunker to bunker for the last two years plus - Israeli clandestine services are very competent. Unless there is some damning flaw in Israel’s intelligence on Iran, a yawning gap that does not appear in their intelligence on Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria, it is safe to assume that whatever the Israelis are telling the Americans in private about the Iranian nuclear program is accurate.
It is strange then that many US policymakers and analysts refuse to comprehend the fact that Israel, if it is left to them, will almost certainly strike Iran. If it is not a bombing raid, as a New York Times article several weeks ago suggested, then there are other options available.
And still official Washington’s halls of power are festooned with quotes from experts who counsel that we had better start getting used to the Iranian bomb. However, a Jewish state created three years after the Holocaust that laid siege to Gaza for three weeks to keep its citizens in the south safe from Qassam rockets is not going to accommodate itself to what it considers an existential threat. Instead, it would be much more useful to consider what may happen in the aftermath of an Israeli attack on Iran.
So what sort of recourse does Tehran have at this point? What are its assets?
Hamas? Disabled. Hezbollah? Deterred. Syria? It is now clearer than ever that Damascus is not going to lift a finger to help Iran. With the Golan, the Assads (father and son) have enjoyed what is maybe the quietest border in all the Middle East for thirty-five years and are unlikely to open up that front come hell or high water. After all, the Alawi regime supports Hamas and Hezbollah for the express purpose of spilling someone else’s blood on behalf of Syrian interests. It is inconceivable that Bashar al-Assad would stick out his own neck for the sake of the Iranians.
Tehran has two cards left: The threat of terror against Israeli embassies and Jewish centers around the world, and the prospect of a covert or proxy war against US troops in Iraq. As for the first, terror attacks in world capitals, especially in Europe, will do nothing to change the status of a pariah state that craves international respect. Moreover, in the aftermath of an attack on Iran, any operations by so-called rogue networks of stateless terrorists will in fact be stamped with a clear return address - a Tehran still wobbling from a strike on its nuclear program.
As for the second, the Israelis surely do not want to upset their allies in Washington. However, democratic states can ill afford to trade the security of its citizens for the sake of alliances, no matter how meaningful. The Bush administration didn’t, and Israel should not be expected to either.
Moreover, from the Iranian point of view it is not obviously wise to test the mettle of a first-term US president with no national security credentials by daring him to fight back from a forward position on a long border that he says he wants to withdraw from. In effect, the Iranians need to make a decision. Is it more valuable to them for the Americans to draw down? Or would they prefer to risk having their heads served to them by a military whose mid-level officers - as opposed to much of its senior leadership - are aching for a chance to go after the Iranians in earnest?
Nevertheless, Iranian terror abroad and war in Iraq remain serious concerns; for Tehran, they carry yet more serious, and maybe existential, risks. Two other dangers have been so greatly exaggerated that they have taken on the form of myth.
One: An attack will only rally people to the regime’s defense.
Extremely doubtful. Consider for instance Hezbollah: Lebanon’s Islamic resistance was deterred not only on account of Israeli might, but also out of concern for further alienating their local shia constituency that is still reeling from the 2006 war. Nasrallah’s calculation is not that all of Lebanon will come to the defense of Hezbollah but that he will lose support within his own Shia community and face war with other Lebanese parties.
Similarly with Iran, if, as many analysts tell us, the government in Tehran is not loved, then a withering blow is unlikely to enhance its prestige. If on the other hand the clerics are in fact wildly popular then it makes little difference what motivates the Iranian masses to kill and die on behalf of an obscurantist regime.
The issue then is not how much of the public will side with the Iranian leadership, but how the different centers of regime power will go scurrying for cover in the hope that they might be able to cut a deal and save their lives. For an example, look at the reported split in the Hamas leadership, where the besieged Gazans sought a ceasefire which Khaled Meshaal in Damascus would not let them accept.
Two: After an attack on a Muslim state, the Arab street will rise in angry defiance and jeopardize the security of US-allied Arab regimes.
Virtually impossible. For instance, at the outset of the Gaza siege, Nasrallah implored the Egyptian masses to bring down the Mubarak government. Cairo was furious, but were they scared? No. Even with images of hundreds of dead Palestinians televised around the region, Egypt bided its time to make sure that any prospective ceasefire did not bolster Iran or Syria’s regional position.
Hence, contrary to the belief of many Western journalists and officials, the engine of Middle East politics is not the Arab street, but regime interests. When Iran’s nukes are taken down, Cairo and Riyadh will know how to manage a crisis that they can blame on the subversive ambitions of the Shia Persians to revive the Safavid empire and enslave the Sunni Arab masses.
The Iranians, therefore, have little left to bargain with. Accordingly, the new American president, or his Secretary of State, should offer Tehran simply this - Nothing. In exchange for dismantling its nuclear program, the clerical regime gets to live another day. Someday the regime will die of its own accord, perhaps sooner rather than later given the price of oil and the global financial crisis. But for now, it is allowed to survive at the sufferance of Washington, which will do its very best to restrain - although perhaps with some trouble - its highly motivated ally in Jerusalem. The Iranians should take the deal sooner rather than later, because the clock is ticking, and not just for the Israelis.