President Barack Obama’s quest for Middle East peace must navigate very tricky geopolitical straits, with some traditional American enemies emerging as possibly his best allies and usual U.S. allies arrayed as adversaries.
To the surprise of some analysts, Obama is finding greater interest in a Mideast breakthrough from Russia, Iran and Iran’s clients in Hamas than among regular U.S. “friends” – Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – whose resistance is backed by influential neoconservatives in the United States.
On one side, Russia sees a peace deal as an opportunity to reassert itself on the global stage and to remove threats of instability; the Iranian government (including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) wants to be viewed in the Muslim world as the ones who finally forged a Palestinian state; and Hamas foresees a dominant role for itself in such an entity (and is dependent on Iran’s largesse).
On the other side, Israel’s Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bridles at Obama’s pressure for a viable Palestinian state and balks at dismantling Israel’s West Bank settlements, which Likud helped establish over the past three decades in a strategy of changing “the facts on the ground” and achieving a “Greater Israel.”
Israel has behind-the-scenes support in its resistance from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, two Sunni-led countries that are suspicious of a peace initiative pushed by Shiite-ruled Iran.
The Sunni-Shiite schism dates back almost 1,400 years, but the animosities have deepened in the 30 years since Shiite fundamentalists gained control of Iran, fought a long war with Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led Iraq, and pulled Iraq into Iran’s orbit after the United States deposed Hussein in 2003 and paved the way for Iraq’s Shiite majority to take command.
Iran also had built alliances with Syria, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. So it wasn’t hard for President George W. Bush to rally the Israelis, the Saudis and the Jordanians into an anti-Iranian coalition with the goal of countering Tehran’s growing influence.
Bush’s policy of isolating Iran, which he had counted in his “axis of evil,” drew the strong support of American neocons who echoed Israeli fears about an Iranian nuclear bomb and cheered Israel’s threats to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, if the United States didn’t act first.
Though the Bush administration is gone, its anti-Iranian coalition remains, now representing an obstacle to Obama’s plans for reengaging with Iran and trying to leverage Iran’s influence, especially with Hamas but also with Syria and Hezbollah, to achieve a breakthrough on Middle East peace.
Indeed, much of what has happened in recent months in the region can be viewed through this dark prism of one coalition seeking to damage the other.
Iran’s June 12 election, for instance, could be seen as pitting Mir Hossein Mousavi’s “green revolution” – which drew strong support from neocon elements throughout the world – against Ahamdinejad, whose decisive reelection would strengthen his hand in pushing for a Mideast peace initiative.
Mousavi – along with his top allies, ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former House Speaker Mehdi Karoubi – have had longstanding covert connections to Israel because Israeli governments in the 1980s set up crucial military supply lines for Iran to fight its war with Iraq, which Israel then saw as the greater threat to its security.
Israel’s Likud governments of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir oversaw those secret – and lucrative – arms shipments to Iran staring in 1980. Iranian leaders involved in this arms pipeline included Rafsanjani, then parliamentary chairman, and Karoubi, who served as a foreign policy envoy for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. [For details, see Ari Ben-Menashe’s Profits of War.]
However, in 1984, after Shimon Peres of the Israeli Labour Party assumed the post of prime minister in a Labour-Likud coalition, he wanted in on the action. So, he dispatched his assistant Amiram Nir to work with White House aide Oliver North in opening what became known as the Iran-Contra arms channel.
For that operation, Mousavi, who was then Iran’s prime minister, served as the control officer for Iranian intermediary Manucher Ghorbanifar, who collaborated with neoconservative operative Michael Ledeen, a consultant to Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, to open this new arms channel.
In November 1985, as one of the early U.S. missile shipments via Israel went sour, Ghorbanifar conveyed Mousavi’s anger to the White House.
"On or about November 25, 1985, Ledeen received a frantic phone call from Ghorbanifar, asking him to relay a message from the prime minister of Iran to President Reagan regarding the shipment of the wrong type of HAWKs,” according to Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s Final Report.
“Ledeen said the message essentially was ‘we've been holding up our part of the bargain, and here you people are now cheating us and tricking us and deceiving us and you had better correct this situation right away.’”
Though the Iran-Contra arms pipeline exploded into scandal in late 1986, Israel’s other covert channel – the one overseen by the Likud – stayed in business, at least through the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. Some of the money reportedly was used to establish West Bank settlements and thus turn thankful settlers into a reliable part of Likud’s political base.
In Iran, the reemergence of the Mousavi-Rafsanjani-Karoubi triumvirate around the June 12, 2009, election raised suspicions that the Israelis might be reactivating their old network to unseat Ahmadinejad through a “velvet revolution” or at least to weaken his authority.
Though no solid evidence has yet emerged to support those suspicions – and Mousavi’s “green” movement clearly spoke to genuine grievances inside Iran – the Israelis and the American neocons did relish the difficulties that the disputed election created for Ahmadinejad.
In some cases, major U.S. newspapers, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, accepted Mousavi’s allegations of electoral fraud as fact rather than a point in dispute. Across the political spectrum, the U.S. news media displayed undisguised contempt for the controversial Iranian leader.
Shortly after Iran's election, a “news analysis” coauthored by New York Times executive editor Bill Keller opened up with an old joke about Ahmadinejad looking into a mirror and saying “male lice to the right, female lice to the left,” a derogatory reference to his rise from the street and his conservative Islamic religious views.
Then, over the next several months, the Washington Post’s neocon editorial section beat the drum for a more belligerent approach toward Iran. [See, for instance, ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman’s “WPost Pushes Confrontation with Iran.”]
Beyond these political and media pressures, Obama has had to maneuver past the self-destructive – and offensive – antics of Ahmadinejad.
In a Sept. 18 speech honoring the Palestinians, Ahmadinejad veered off into questioning the Nazi Holocaust inflicted on European Jews during World War II. According to the English-language account of the speech on his official Web site, Ahmadinejad called the “pretext” for founding the state of Israel “a lie,” an apparent reference to the Holocaust.
Though challenging the Holocaust may have scored Ahmadinejad points with his hard-line base, his comment prompted another round of condemnations from Western political and media circles, including the Obama administration.
When the Iranian president appeared before the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23, many delegates walked out in protest. Rather than temper his remarks, he continued to denounce Israel’s repression of the Palestinians and to bait Israel about its future.
“Today, the Zionist regime is on a definite slope to collapse, and there is no way for it to get out of the cesspool created by itself and its supporters,” Ahmadinejad said, adding that “American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road.”
While those statements by Ahmadinejad drew the most media attention, in between the two points, he mentioned part of what was in an earlier Iranian peace initiative, “a free referendum in Palestine for determining and establishing the type of state in the entire Palestinian lands.”
According to a source knowledgeable about the Iranian proposal, key elements of the Iranian peace plan were new elections in Palestine with the winner (even if it’s Hamas) being accepted as the Palestinian representative; a peace conference in Russia with the goal of a two-state solution for the Palestinians and regional recognition of Israel; opening Iran’s nuclear facilities for inspection; and lifting economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran.
The proposal reportedly came from Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei and was to be pushed forward after the expected presidential election victory of Ahmadinejad in June. But the messy election aftermath complicated matters.
While it is unclear how President Obama feels about the Iranian initiative, he did mute his criticism of the Iranian post-election crackdown, at least initially. In a July 6-7 trip to Russia for meetings with President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Obama also made clear that Iran and Middle East peace were top issues to be discussed.
Obama also tamped down speculation that the United States had given a “green light” to Israel to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. Obama told CNN that "we have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East."
In another interview, Obama indicated to the New York Times that he would press ahead with his policy of engaging Iran.
“We’ve got some fixed national security interests in Iran not developing nuclear weapons, in not exporting terrorism, and we have offered a pathway for Iran to rejoining the international community,” Obama said.
The Times also confirmed what I had been told earlier about Iran’s secret outreach to Obama.
“Before Iran’s disputed election on June 12, the president’s top aides say, they received backchannel indications from Iran – from emissaries who claimed to represent the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – that the country would respond to Mr. Obama’s overtures this summer,” the Times reported. [NYT, July 6, 2009]
But Ahmadinejad’s disparaging remarks about the Holocaust and Israel in September – followed by the disclosure of a new nuclear facility near Qum – increased pressure on both Obama and the Iranian government to show some immediate progress if the negotiations were to be salvaged.
Some of that progress appears to have been achieved, if only tentatively, with Iran’s agreement to permit UN inspectors into the Qum facility on Oct. 25. Iran also has discussed exporting some of its nuclear fuel to other countries for processing, a step that would make it harder for Iran to refine enough fuel to levels needed for a nuclear bomb.
Iranian supporters say the steps show that Iran is telling the truth about wanting a nuclear industry for peaceful purposes, such as energy, not for building a bomb. However, many Western analysts remain skeptical.
If sufficient progress can be made on safeguards for Iran’s nuclear program – and if Ahmadinejad can stop himself from making more offensive speeches – the Obama administration might be able to shift its focus to what it considers the core reason for instability in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Then, Obama would have to hope that his odd coalition of peace partners can somehow hold together and overcome the opposition of the influential forces in favor of protecting something close to today’s status quo.
Obama will have to overcome Likud’s unwillingness to make major concessions to the Palestinians, the hopes of American neocons that they can regain power if they help make Obama fail, and the ancient religious animosities of the Sunni Arabs, who want to rein in Shiite-ruled Iran.
When other uncertainties – like Bush’s leftover wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – are factored in, it’s clear that Obama is on a very treacherous course.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on October 7, 2009.