Features | Security | Central Asia

How Iran Defeated Obama

The US is making a mistake in demonising Iran, says Patrick Seale. Obama should have seized the chance to engage.

By Patrick Seale for

It’s now widely accepted – and lamented – that US President Barack Obama failed dismally in attempting to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Defeated by Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, and by Israel’s friends in the United States – lobbyists, lawmakers and neo-conservatives – the president simply threw in the towel.

What is less well understood is that Obama was also defeated in another major area of foreign policy – relations with Iran. When he came to office he vowed to ‘engage’ with the Islamic Republic, but this admirable objective was soon supplanted by a policy of threats, sanctions and intimidation aimed at isolating Iran, subverting its economy and overthrowing its regime.

Israel and its friends led the campaign against Iran, demonizing it as a threat to all mankind, and forcing the United States to follow suit. Israel has repeatedly, and very publicly, threatened to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities, and has done its best to drag the United States into war against it, in much the same way as pro-Israeli neo-conservatives at the Pentagon were alleged to have manipulated intelligence to push the United States into war against Iraq in 2003, with catastrophic consequences.

Why did they do it? Because they feared that, having survived the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq might just possibly pose a threat to Israel. It had to be destroyed. Tony Blair, Britain’s prime minister at the time, was foolish enough to tag along. The war totally discredited him.

The neo-cons’ strategic fantasy wasn’t just to use American power to smash Iraq. Once Saddam had been dealt with, they are said to have wanted to use the US military again and again to ‘reform’ Syria, Hizbollah, Iran, the Palestinians and even Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

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Having brushed the Iraqi fiasco under the carpet, Israel and its friends are now doing it again. In recent weeks there has been a flurry of reports that Israel was planning to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities this September – a bluff clearly intended to pressure the United States into taking ever tougher measures against Iran so as to make it unnecessary for Israel to attack.

In addition to such a transparent propaganda ploy, Israel is believed by many over the past two years to have been behind the murder of a number of Iranian nuclear scientists – two were killed and one was seriously injured last year, and a fourth was killed last month.

Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear programme has been attacked through the introduction of the Stuxnet virus at its nuclear facilities. Not surprisingly, Tehran now views the United States and its Israeli ally as one and the same enemy.

Assassinations and other acts of state terrorism are short-term expedients that usually end up being paid for dearly. Countries have long memories. Hate isn’t easily expunged. The United States, and to a lesser extent Britain, are still paying for their clandestine overthrow in 1953 of Mohammad Mosaddeq, Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister, whose ‘crime’ was to seek to protect Iran’s oil from imperialist predators.

Why has Netanyahu chosen to portray Iran’s nuclear programme as the gravest threat to the survival of the Jewish people since Hitler? He must know that this is pure fantasy. Ehud Barak, his defence minister, has himself admitted that Iran poses no ‘existential threat’ to Israel. With its own vast nuclear arsenal, Israel has ample means to deter any attack.

But a nuclear Iran – if it ever came to that – would indeed pose a different sort of challenge to Israel: it would not threaten its existence, but it would curtail its freedom to strike its neighbours at will. Israel has always sought to prevent any of its neighbours acquiring a deterrent capability. It wants to be the uncontested military power from Tehran to Casablanca. Hence the hysteria it has sought to generate over Iran’s nuclear programme and over Hizbollah’s rockets.

In recent weeks, the troubles in Syria have encouraged Israel and its friends to seek to disrupt, and if possible destroy, the Tehran-Damascus-Hizbollah axis that has challenged the regional hegemony of Israel and the United States. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has been particularly active in rousing opinion against all three members of the axis. To quote a single example among many, in an overheated article in Foreign Affairs last month, Matthew Levitt described Hizbollah as one of the largest and most sophisticated criminal operations in the world.

The ‘crime’ of this Lebanese resistance movement was to have forced Israel out of South Lebanon after an 18-year occupation (1982-2000) and to have built up a minimal capability to deter future Israeli aggressions, such as its invasion in 2006, which is estimated to have killed 1,600 Lebanese.

The United States has already paid dearly – in men, treasure, and reputation – for its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It remains trapped in the AfPak theatre of war. It must surely know that there can be no settlement in Afghanistan without Iran’s support.  Simply glancing at a map should be enough to confirm this.

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But the relentless demonising of Iran goes on. Most recently, David S. Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism at the US Treasury, made the excitable accusation that ‘Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world today.’ Without advancing a scrap of evidence, Cohen alleged that Tehran had a ‘secret deal’ with al-Qaeda to use Iranian territory to transport money and men to the war in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This approach is eerily like the one the neo-cons took against Saddam Hussein to justify the 2003 invasion.

Instead of such propaganda, the United States would be better advised to listen to Turkey and Brazil. Having approached Iran with respect and understanding, these two powers concluded a deal in May last year whereby most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium would have been swapped for fuel for Tehran’s research reactor. Had the United States conceded Iran’s right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme, as allowed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the deal could have provided the basis for a global settlement.

Obama rashly dismissed this highly promising approach. Instead, yielding to his ill-intentioned advisers, he pressed for a new round of Security Council sanctions against Iran. But by making an enemy of Iran, he has simply increased the bill the United States will eventually have to pay – in Afghanistan, and no doubt in Iraq and elsewhere as well.