Make Them Wait

The case for a tactical pause with Iran.

No one said diplomacy with Iran would be easy. And now, before it even started, the Iranian election crisis has left Tehran politically paralyzed and Washington without a clear diplomatic path ahead. Iranian centrifuges keep spinning, leading some to think that September should be the deadline for Iran to accept the U.S. offer of talks. Although diplomacy must remain the policy, the momentous upheaval in Iran has completely changed the political landscape. Opening talks with Iran's current government at this decisive moment could backfire severely. Indeed, now is the time for a tactical pause with Iran.

U.S. President Barack Obama has stated that the United States is in a wait-and-see mode until Iran's post-election crisis comes to a conclusion. Clearly, that has not happened yet. The Iranian opposition is alive and kicking. Two weeks ago, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani cast doubt on the election results during the Tehran Friday prayers, an important venue for political speeches. A day later, former President Mohammad Khatami upped the ante and called for a referendum on the elections and the government. And presidential hopeful Mir Hossein Mousavi continues to defy Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accusing him of insulting the Iranian nation by claiming that the protesters are acting on behalf of foreigners. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the official election winner, is entangled in a battle with conservatives over his cabinet picks.

The opposition's resilience has clearly taken Ahmadinejad and Khamenei by surprise. At a minimum, the opposition has deprived Ahmadinejad of any sense of normalcy, forcing him to devote several hours a day to address the election dispute instead of advancing his own political agenda. Khamenei is increasingly resorting to warnings and threats rather than calls for unity and reconciliation. "The elite should be watchful, since they have been faced with a big test. Failing the test will cause their collapse," Khamenei said last Monday in a speech that many perceived as verging on desperation. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad now seem to be off balance.

The dispute between the Ahmadinejad government and the opposition is about far more than a disputed election. It goes to the core question of whether there is a peaceful path toward changing Iran's political system from within. For a population that is highly critical of the government, but values stability, the existence of such a path has been important. It enabled Iranians to push for gradual, controllable change without risking another revolution that could end up like the previous one, when one unpopular, repressive political system was replaced with another.

If Ahmadinejad succeeds in silencing his internal critics and opponents, many will conclude that this path has been closed. Iran cannot be changed through the ballot box if people's votes won't be honored. The likely result will be a radicalized population whose opposition to the government will be met with increased repression at home and more adventurism abroad.

The Obama administration should avoid repeating the key mistake of the Bush administration, for which Iran was solely viewed through the prism of its nuclear program. Delaying nuclear talks a few months won't make a dramatic difference to Iran's nuclear program. It could, however, determine which Iran America and the region will be dealing with for the next few decades -- one in which democratic elements strengthen over time, or one where the will of the people grows increasingly irrelevant to Iran's decision-makers.

Moreover, even nuclear talks would have a negligible impact on the election dispute, Iran currently is not in a position to negotiate. Some in Washington believe that the paralysis in Tehran has weakened Iran and made it more prone to compromise. But rather than delivering more, Iran's government currently couldn't deliver anything at all. The infighting has simply incapacitated Iranian decision makers.

Iran's lack of capacity creates a tremendous danger for the White House. Of all scenarios the Obama administration could end up facing -- an Iran that refuses to come to the table, for example, or an Iran that only uses talks to play for time -- the worst scenario is another one: where the parties begin talks according to the set timetable, but fail to reach an agreement due to an inability to deliver. If talks fail, U.S. policymakers will be left with increasingly unpalatable options as a result.

Obama should not be married to any artificial deadlines. Pushing for talks now simply because he decided on a timetable before the elections could undermine the chances for diplomacy to succeed. Paradoxically, the best way to enhance prospects for diplomacy might actually be not to pursue diplomacy for now. Better instead to make a tactical pause, see how things develop, and be ready to engage at the right time.



Is Obama Ignoring Israel?

Not at all. In fact, he's engaged with the Middle Eastern country in a way no president has for 40 years.

Some Israelis have been shocked to discover that Barack Obama might be serious about ending further construction of settlements in the West Bank. Among them is Aluf Benn, editor-at-large of Haaretz. In a New York Times op-ed, he complains that while the U.S. president has traveled the globe delivering major addresses, he hasn't directly spoken to Israelis.

"The Arabs got the Cairo speech; we got silence," Benn writes. Somehow he must have missed this passage from Obama's address:

America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed -- more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful.

Is Benn miffed because Obama made these remarks in Cairo instead of Tel Aviv? Because they were aimed at Muslims instead of Israeli Jews?

Nope. It's just that acknowledging the "unbreakable bond" between the United States and Israel (in a speech aimed at Muslims!) was not enough.

"Mr. Obama's stop at Buchenwald and his strong rejection of Holocaust denial...appealed to American Jews but fell flat in Israel," Benn writes. "Here we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle -- not guilt over the Holocaust -- brought Jews a homeland." He then says Obama's comments "infuriated" Israelis who felt the comments were redolent of those of "enemies like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad."

Talk about gratitude for 60 years of uninterrupted, unwavering and limitless U.S. support for the Zionist project. And talk about history being written by the victors.

Benn does some additional creative construction of history when discussing the politics of the settlement freeze. He says that Obama has not just failed to bring about a freeze, but has failed "even to stir debate about the merits of one" in Israel. What of the fact that no U.S. president has ever induced Israel to stop settlement expansion? Does Benn really believe that Obama should have done in six months what his predecessors could not achieve in 40 years?

The Times op-ed also ignores the veritable parade of U.S. officials in Israel. Benn apparently counts the recent visit of Defense Secretary Robert Gates as "ignoring Israel." Middle East envoy George Mitchell's shuttle diplomacy must also mean "ignoring Israel." Famous friend of Israel Dennis Ross of the National Security Council recently landed in the country to discuss Iran policy, which must also count as "ignoring Israel."

The "price" paid by Obama, Benn says, is that Israelis don't like him. The article cites a Jerusalem Post survey showing that 50 percent of Israeli Jews consider Obama pro-Palestine, while just 6 percent consider him pro-Israel. And, he notes, Israeli "rightists" have taken to calling Obama "Hussein," as "proof of his pro-Arab tendencies."

Benn is on a slippery slope here, as he of course knows -- even if his American readers do not pick up on the nuance. For an Israeli rightist to refer to Obama as an Arab or pro-Arab is to associate him with "bugs" and "insects" -- the terms used by Israeli rightists to describe Palestinians.

He then longs for the good old days of the Clinton and George W. Bush White Houses. In those years, "memories of State Department 'Arabists' leading American policy in the Middle East were erased."

The statement is plainly nonsense. Where were those Arabists when President Harry Truman recognized the State of Israel within hours of its birth? Or when the Johnson administration overlooked the deliberate attack on the U.S.S. Liberty and the death of 34 sailors in 1967? Or when former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former President Richard Nixon saved Israel in 1973 by shipping U.S. tanks from Germany -- risking nuclear war with the Soviet Union? Or when the Reagan administration smiled upon the 1982 invasion of Lebanon? They lost the internal debate.

It's not enough for Benn to moan, whine, and threaten. He must also insult: "In Israeli eyes, he [Obama] was humiliated by North Korea's nuclear and missile tests." If only Obama took a cue from Israel's destruction of the French-built Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981. If only Obama would give the green light -- apparently not yet forthcoming -- for Israel to do it again in Iran. As if nuclear non-proliferation policy can be advanced by F-16s (he might consider looking to the examples of India, Pakistan, and Israel itself).  

Benn feigns puzzlement as to why the Obama administration might have qualms about what would have been an illegal deal (in both U.S. and international law) between George W. Bush and former conservative Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon regarding continued expansion in the West Bank. Benn writes, "[Why] deny... previous understandings between the United States and Israel over limited settlement construction?" The argument here is that an alleged oral understanding should trump actual official signed agreements, like the so-called road map (which banned settlement expansion, and which current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not endorse).

Benn tries to end his essay on an upbeat note: "Perhaps there are good reasons behind Mr. Obama's Middle East policy... But until the president talks to us, we won't know. Next time you're in the neighborhood, Mr. President, speak to us directly. We will surely listen."

Israelis have been "listening" to American presidents about the occupied territories for decades. What do Americans have to show for these exchanges? The settlements have grown enormously in size and number under every Israeli government since 1967 contrary to international law, U.N. Security Council resolutions, and declared U.S. policy.  Netanyahu has said in no uncertain terms that settlement construction will proceed. It's become infinitesimally more difficult for the Israeli tail to wag the American dog under Obama. Just wait for the reaction should Obama actually show some real spine in the relationship.