Category Archives: Iran

War on Iran: Recent Must Reads

A few voices of sanity as the drumbeats for a US and/or Israeli military strike on Iran reach a fever pitch. First, here’s Gary Sick’s smart blog post addressing Ronen Bergman’s egregiously alarmist cover story in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday:

Bergman’s dramatic statement that “I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012,” is also nothing new — it simply changes the date. We heard the same thing a year ago from Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, and two years before that from uber-hawk John Bolton, who confidently predicted that the U.S. and/or Israel would strike Iran before George W. Bush left office.  It is becoming almost an annual ritual.

Why do these false alarms keep going off? Bergman suggests an answer with disarming honesty: “Some have argued that Israel has intentionally exaggerated its assessments to create an atmosphere of fear that would drag Europe into its extensive economic campaign against Iran…” To this, the ubiquitous “senior American official” adds that “It is unclear if the Israelis firmly believe this or are using worst-case estimates to raise greater urgency from the United States.” In other words, Israel benefits by keeping the pot near the boiling point so that no one can ignore the Iran issue, even for a moment.

Tom Englehardt’s op-ed in Al Jazeera English:

The only issue seriously discussed in this country is: How exactly can we do it, or can we do it at all (without causing ourselves irreparably greater harm)? Effectiveness, not legality or morality, is the only measurement. Few in our own little world (and who else matters?) question our right to do so, though obviously the right of any other state to do something similar to us or one of our allies, or to retaliate or even to threaten to retaliate, should we do so, is considered shocking and beyond all norms, beyond every red line when it comes to how nations (except us) should behave.

This mindset, and the acts that have gone with it, have blown what is, at worst, a modest-sized global problem up into an existential threat, a life-and-death matter. Iran as a global monster now nearly fills what screen-space there is for foreign enemies in the present US moment. Yet, despite its enormous energy reserves, it is a shaky regional power, ruled by a faction-ridden set of fundamentalists (but not madmen), the most hardline of whom seem at the moment ascendant (in no small part due to US and Israeli policies). The country has a relatively modest military budget, and no recent history of invading other states. It has been under intense pressure of every sort for years now and the strains are showing. The kind of pressure the US and its allies have been exerting creates the basis for madness – or for terrible miscalculation followed by inevitable tragedy.

And this one is a few weeks old already, but it’s still haunting my dreams: Mark Perry’ deeply disturbing expose for Foreign Policy that describes how Israel recruited members of a terrorist organization to fight their covert war against Iran. If you have any doubt about how reckless Israel has become in its determination to bring down the regime in Iran, please take the time to read this one.

The kicker:

While many of the details of Israel’s involvement with Jundallah are now known, many others still remain a mystery — and are likely to remain so. The CIA memos of the incident have been “blue bordered,” meaning that they were circulated to senior levels of the broader U.S. intelligence community as well as senior State Department officials.

What has become crystal clear, however, is the level of anger among senior intelligence officials about Israel’s actions. “This was stupid and dangerous,” the intelligence official who first told me about the operation said. “Israel is supposed to be working with us, not against us. If they want to shed blood, it would help a lot if it was their blood and not ours. You know, they’re supposed to be a strategic asset. Well, guess what? There are a lot of people now, important people, who just don’t think that’s true.”

Thousands of US Troops To Be Deployed in Israel?

How did this one slip in under the media radar (pun intended)?

From the Jerusalem Post 12/20:

Israel is moving forward with plans to hold the largest-ever missile defense exercise in its history this spring amid Iranian efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.

Last week, Lt.-Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of the US’s Third Air Force based in Germany, visited Israel to finalize plans for the upcoming drill, expected to see the deployment of several thousand American soldiers in Israel.

This is not the first example of US military presence on Israeli soil. Back in 2008, it was reported that 120 US military technicians and advisers were permanently in Israel to help operate a new early-warning radar system that was designed to ward of a potential Iranian missile attack.

But the deployment of “several thousand American soldiers” in Israel is something else entirely. Could there be any more ominous sign of the “special relationship” between these two military-industrial juggernauts?

BTW, shortly after this report was issued, the chief of the Mossad publicly stated a nuclear Iran would not pose an existential threat to Israel. And still the drumbeats grow ever louder.

This one hasn’t trickled down to the mainstream media yet and clearly needs more independent confirmation. But for those hoping against hope that 2012 would be a more peaceful year, I’d say things are off to a pretty dismal start…

Israel Seeks Attack on Iran (aka “Politics as Usual”)

Netanyahu is seeking support in his cabinet for a military attack on Iran. Shimon Peres has just said an attack is “more and more likely.” This, despite the fact that numerous leaders in Israel’s security establishment, including former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, feel that such action would be disastrous.

Make no mistake: this has nothing to do with any imminent threat and everything to do with politics. Even Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said publicly he doesn’t believe Iran would ever drop a nuclear bomb on Israel.

So why this latest panic? Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar hits it right on the head: Netanyahu knows that Obama is politically hamstrung on this issue and he smells serious blood in the water:

(Newt) Gingrich…declared at the week’s end that if the Israeli prime minister reaches the conclusion that the country is in danger, no American president could doubt it and expect Israel to sit with its arms folded and face the danger of another Holocaust. One of his rivals for the candidacy, Rick Perry, then hastened to announce that if Israel decided to attack Iran, he would demand that the United States stand behind it.

What do they have to lose? If this is a false threat designed to goad the United States into exerting more pressure on Tehran, they can wave their support. If a military assault is a new version of the last war in Iraq, they will be able to place the blame on President Barack Obama.

The problem with all this political saber-rattling, as Iran analyst Trita Parsi correctly points out, is that the more Israel presses its cynical “another Holocaust” narrative against Iran, the harder it will be “for any Israeli politician to walk back the threat depiction without losing critical political capital at home.” In other words, all this political bluster could well create a disastrous military fait accomplis.

Last word to David Remnick, who recently posted an important piece on this subject in the New Yorker blog:

A unilateral attack from Israel…would be a grave mistake for all the reasons made plain by Meir Dagan and so many others. It is terrible enough to imagine what might happen if Iran came to possess a bomb; but an attack now would almost certainly lead to a tide of blood in the region. The Middle East today is in a state of fragile possibility, full of peril, to be sure, but also pregnant with promise. A premature unilateral attack could upend everything and one result of many would be an Israel under fire, under attack, and more deeply isolated than ever before.

The Occupation: Attention Must Be Paid

Photo from ActiveStills

Moshe Yaroni, writing in Zeek, offers an extremely eloquent answer to the question “Why is there so much attention on Israel’s human rights abuses when there are so many other worse offenders, including Iran and any number of Arab states?”

This is a tired argument. Few states enjoy such close cooperation in the diplomatic, industrial, political and economic arenas with the United States than Israel. None of these countries have the kinds of human rights violations allegations made against it that Israel does due to a forty three year long occupation, one that has only grown harsher and more complex in its severity since the peace process first began in the early 1990s.

Israel is welcomed into the family of Western democracies, by the US and Europe, and therefore enjoys many benefits that Arab states and Iran and other states do not. Israel’s recent admission to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is the latest example. These benefits should carry with it raised expectations—Israel is supposed to behave better than Iran or Saudi Arabia.

The occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza are very serious issues. They are sources of immiseration and exploitation, with enormous global consequences. It is a fallacy to suggest that these issues, which involve American governmental and corporate support to a much greater degree than many other issues, cannot be protested simply because there are worse problems in other places.

Finally, few human rights issues around the world affect Americans to the extent that the Occupation does. Not only do they complicate American diplomatic and military efforts in the Middle East (even Dennis Ross, who wrote, with David Makovsky, the strongest argument against what they called “linkage” recently admitted this) but Israel is a close ally on many levels and is a focal point for the faiths of a majority of religious Americans. There is every reason for Americans to focus on this conflict.

“Iran May Be Radical, But It’s Not Meshugeneh…”

Orly Halpern’s very wise piece in Foreign Policy:

For years now, official Israel has been scaring its people into believing Iran is near the ‘point of no return’ and the day it reaches it will be doomsday for Israel (of course, Israel’s estimated ‘point of no return’ dates continuously pass, prompting it to make new ones). But the Israeli establishment knows that there is no existential threat, that the Iranian regime is radical, but not suicidal; that if it is building weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it is in self-defense.

So why all the hype?  Why the deception?  The reasons are many, but they come down to money, politics, and security.

In other words:

Money: Israel’s military establishment is inflating Iran’s existential threat in order to obtain a bigger military budget.

Politics:  Israeli politicians are using Iran to divert attention away from “thorny domestic problems at home.”

Security: Israel claims that Iran might share its nuclear know-how with “non-state actors.”

On this last point, Halpern concludes:

If Israel really does fear this prospect it needs the help of its allies, either to pressure or persuade Iran. So when Vice President Biden comes to town it is best not to embarrass him with the announcement of settlement expansions and then insist on making more announcements that deepen the rift; when Turkish television broadcasts a television series depicting Israel in an ugly manner, best not to humiliate the Turkish ambassador on Israeli television; when the Secretary General of the UN visits, best to send someone to greet him at the airport, and not just the security guards; and when Israel wants to make a revenge assassination for the killing of Israeli soldiers, best to let it go, rather than use fake passports of your allies (or don’t get caught).

Israel’s recent behavior is not conducive to achieving its stated goals. It must reassess its priorities and decide whether a settlement in the West Bank, the humiliation of diplomats, and the killing of an arms smuggler are more important than its security.

At the end of the day, Israel needs help if it wants to remain the only kid on the block with a big stick.

Charles London to Daniel Gordis: Israel may be at war, but the Jewish People are not…

Here’s one I’ve been meaning to get to for a few weeks now: a great point/counterpoint between Rabbi Daniel Gordis and journalist Charles London (above).

Back in February, Gordis wrote a Jerusalem Post column in which he addressed Im Tirtzu’s nasty campaign against the New Israel Fund and its President, Naomi Chazan.  His conclusion: while Im Tirtzu may have gone a bit overboard in its rhetoric, folks need to understand that the Jewish people are at war with those who would “delegitimize Israel.”  And when you are fighting a war, you can ill-afford luxuries such as civil liberties:

Commitment to our democracy must not come at the cost of commitment to our survival. No country at war maintains the same freedoms of speech or action that countries not facing existential threat can permit themselves. Since the Jewish people is at war, it must think as a people at war must think.

London’s eloquent counter in the Huffington Post:

In my experience around the world, the Jewish people are not at war. There are Bosnian Jews building institutions in cooperation with their Muslim and Christian neighbors; there are Ugandan Jews who are at war with Malaria, HIV, and poverty, but not with some eternal anti-Jewish enemy. There are Iranian Jews struggling alongside Sunni, Shiite, Christian, and Baha’i for the very “liberties” their government denies all Iranians. There are Israeli Jews who are trying to build democratic institutions, multi-ethnic schools, and interfaith understanding, all of whom should take serious umbrage at his characterization of the Jews as a people at war.

Bravo: London’s response to Gordis’s Jewish siege mentality is spot on.

Yes, the Jewish people face challenges today, but we have faced daunting challenges throughout our history. And through them all, we have resolutely rejected the notion that physical might can ensure our survival. Mighty empires have come and gone, but the Jewish people have remained not by compromising our values (as Gordis counsels) but by affirming them.  By connecting our survival to a more transcendent truth.  By asserting that there is a Power far greater than physical power.

On this point, the young journalist eloquently reminds the rabbi:

I fear that arguments like Gordis’s war without end and war that values cannot endure undermines the spiritual genius of our culture. Jews have not survived for 2500 years because of nation-states, nor because they were not willing to risk life and limb for higher values. They have not survived merely to survive.

If this Jewish vision is your cup of tea, check out London’s recent book “Far from Zion: In Search of Global Jewish Community.”  (I far preferred it to Gordis’s “Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End.”)

An Israeli Voice of Sanity on Iran

Avner Cohen asks exactly the right questions in a Ha’aretz editorial:

What if our leaders and pundits had reacted to the Iranian nuclear program in a completely different way than they actually have? What if they had not viewed an Iranian bomb as an “existential threat” and instead treated it as something that, even if it became a reality, would be a major global political problem, but not a military threat – because Iran (like every other nuclear state) would never be able to use a nuclear bomb as an operational military weapon?

What if Israel had treated Iran’s nuclear project as an exhibitionist, even childish, attempt by a nation mired in a deep identity crisis to exploit the prestige and mystique of nuclear power to create a national ethos of technological progress at home, as well as a diplomatic miracle cure that would enable it to challenge the West and move to the center of the international stage?

And his answers are spot on. Click here to read.

What the US Should Do About Iran

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been engaging in a bit of lively back and forth with one reader over my 2008 Yom Kippur sermon on Iran. I haven’t posted on Iran in some time, but that certainly doesn’t mean I’m not following developments there with great interest.

I do believe the Islamic regime’s increasingly brutal crackdown on human rights is a sign that it is taking the challenge of the Green Movement very, very seriously.  For our part, the the US administration appears somewhat paralyzed – issuing tepid statements, wary of throwing too much support to the Greens lest they get accused of meddling in Iranian politics yet again.  Meanwhile, the regime-change drumbeats of the right continue to grow ominously louder and louder.

Still, it would be mistaken and foolhardy to assume the only choice we have is between doing nothing and doing too much. In this regard, I commend to you this very insightful and helpful article by Dr. Trita Parsi and Alireza Nader of the National Iranian American Council.

Here’s my edited version:

(Between) the extremes of doing nothing and doing everything, there is a middle ground: providing the Iranian pro-democracy movement with breathing space, rather than engaging in risky and imprecise exercises that would directly involve America as an actor on the Iranian scene. The United States can achieve this through a few simple steps.

First, the United States should tread carefully when it comes to issuing military threats. Under the shadow of a foreign military threat, the uphill battle of the Iranian pro-democracy movement becomes even steeper, as the Iranian regime is quite adept at exploiting foreign threats to stifle criticism at home…

Second, the United States should avoid sanctions that put a burden on the Iranian people, rather than the Iranian government. Broad-based sanctions that hit the entire economy hurt common citizens far more than the powerful elites. Any new sanctions should demonstrate not only international discontent with the conduct of the Tehran government, but also an effort by the United States to keep from harming average Iranians…

Third, Washington should slow down the diplomatic process. Negotiation with Iran in and of itself is not the problem; engagement doesn’t legitimize the Iranian government, as only the people of Iran can do that. But in spite of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s latest offer to accept the International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear deal, Iran remains in political turmoil. It is questionable that Tehran can make enduring decisions on issues of this magnitude under these circumstances…

Fourth, the international community, including the White House and U.S. State Department, should be vocal in excoriating Iran’s human rights abuses. Condemning abuses should not be confused with interfering in internal Iranian affairs…The Iranian government is, perhaps surprisingly, very sensitive in this area, due to its ambition to be perceived as a regional leader. This sensitivity should be utilized to make advances on the human rights front in Iran…

Finally, Washington should exercise patience and view Iran as a long-term factor in shaping U.S. national security interests across the Middle East. The green movement will not and cannot adjust its action plan to suit the U.S. political timetable. But if patience is granted – which includes avoiding a singular focus on the nuclear issue at the expense of all other considerations – Washington will access a far greater potential for change.

Playing Politics at Yad Vashem

This is what I call cynically using the Holocaust for political purposes: Netanyahu recently used the opening of a new exhibit at Yad Vashem as an opportunity to denounce the Iranian regime, saying:

There is a new call to destroy the Jewish state, it’s our problem, but not only our problem. This is a crime against the Jews, and a crime against humanity, and it is a test of humanity. We shall see in the following weeks whether the international community deals with this evil before it spreads.

When I read this report, it sounded vaguely familiar – then remembered blogging about a similar comment Netanyahu made three years ago. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Clearly Ahmadinejad’s murderous rhetoric toward Israel cannot and should not be taken lightly, and we should never minimize the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But we must also be very clear about what we are suggesting when we compare Ahmadinejad to Hitler and present day Iran to Nazi Germany. For what it’s worth, consider me to be one member of the organized Jewish community that finds this comparison unhelpful – and the prospect of an American or Israeli attack on Iran truly horrifying to contemplate.

Apropos of Netanyahu’s most recent comments: Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric toward Israel is definitely hateful, and is clearly designed to bait Israel and the West – but I can’t see how it possibly constitutes a “crime against humanity.”

Netanyahu’s Yad Vashem rhetoric certainly seems to indicate he’s itching to take the bait. Let’s hope the international community will see past his dangerous, wrongheaded invoking of a “second Holocaust” and deal with this crisis with intelligence and moderation.

Gilad Shalit and the Sorrows of Tribalism

Not long ago I was asked by a friend: why are Israelis and Jews so fixated on the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit? With all of the crises and injustices being committed in the world, why is there such a hue and cry over this one particular man?

I answered that like all nations, Israel takes this kind of thing personally. I mentioned that just like many Jews in Israel and around the world, I also experienced Hamas’ abduction of Gilad Shalit as an injustice committed against one of my own. Even as a Jew living in the comfort of my Evanston home, I felt a visceral sense of pain three years ago when I first heard the news of Shalit’s kidnapping. Over time, my pain turned to anger as Hamas denied him Red Cross visits and refused to confirm (until only recently) whether he was even dead or alive.

I went on to compare Israel’s trauma to the feeling of collective trauma we felt in our country in 1979, when Iranian militants took American embassy workers hostage: how violated our nation felt: how personally we identified with the hostages; how deeply we experienced the injustice of their imprisonment.

On a less tribal level, of course, I do understand that there was a deeper context to the hostage crisis. Underneath our feelings of personal violation were more challenging questions – questions few of us were prepared to ask out loud. Why, for instance, did we have so much concern over 53 fellow Americans, but not for countless other political prisoners around the world, many of them incarcerated by regimes actively supported by our nation?

In just the same way, I believe too few Jews even know – let alone protest – that while Hamas unjustly imprisons Shalit, Israel holds hundreds of Palestinians taken in operations that at best must be considered ethically dubious. While Israel defends its actions legally by terming these prisoners “enemy combatants,” the hard truth remains that for decades Israel’s security services have rounded up scores of Palestinians without charge and have imprisoned them indefinitely – in many cases for years.

Yes, many of the prisoners are undoubtedly guilty of plotting or carrying out violent acts against Israelis. Many of these incarcerations can surely be defended on grounds of security. But it has become impossible to ignore that Israel has also incarcerated considerable numbers of Palestinians who by any reasonable definition must be considered political prisoners.

(One recent case in point: many Jews are familiar with the case of Gilad Shalit, but I’m sure that far fewer know, for instance, about Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a Palestinian high school teacher and coordinator of the non-violent campaign in the West Bank village of Bil’in, who was arrested last week by the Israeli military. According to eyewitness accounts, Abu Rahmah was taken from his bed at 2:00 am in the presence of his wife and children.)

And so, beyond the emotions of tribalism, the question remains: will we ever be able to see past our own loyalties and find equal value in the lives of others – human beings who are just as eminently worthy of fair treatment, justice and dignity? And even more challenging: will we ever be ready to admit that the violence committed against us is often inspired in no small way by the injustices we ourselves have committed – and continue to commit?

To return to the Iranian hostage example: back in 1979, few Americans cared to even ask why their Iranian captors might have been so motivated to commit this act. Most of us were ignorant to the powerful significance of the American embassy for Iranians – that it was this very same embassy from which our nation had plotted the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. As it turned out, the regime we subsequently installed would persecute and unjustly imprison countless Iranian citizens over the next two decades.

So too in the case of Gilad Shalit. Few of us in the Jewish community are truly ready to examine the source of Gazan’s fury toward Israel – a fury that has been building since long before Hamas even existed. Few of us are willing to face the history of Israel’s oppressive policies in Gaza or the fact that Gazans have been living under an intolerable occupation for decades.

And even fewer of us even know that the overwhelming majority of the 1.5 million who live in Gaza belong to families that originally came from outside of Gaza – from towns and villages like Ashkelon and Beersheba – and were expelled from their homes by the Israeli military in 1948. Indeed, when I think of Gazan rage in 2009, I can’t help but think of these chilling words by Moshe Dayan from back in 1956:

Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us? (They) sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled.

The history of Gaza is indeed a tragic one – and yes, Israel’s oppression of its population is a critical part of this tragedy. Unless we take the time to understand this history – and our part in it – I don’t believe we can even begin to pretend there is a way out of this conflict.

To be clear: understanding the source of Gazans feelings toward Israel does not mean condoning their actions. Hamas’ imprisonment of Gilad Shalit is barbaric. As a fellow Jew, I grieve for Shalit and I pray for his safe return. But at the same time, I cannot look away from the more painful realities that led to his capture in the first place, and I truly believe that until we make an honest effort to face and address these realities, there will invariably be more Gilad Shalits in Israel’s future.

Following Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, journalist Amira Hass wrote these powerful words in Ha’aretz. I believe she presents us with a profound model of an Israeli who is able to hold her own concern for her people together with a willingness to face the truth of the injustices perpetrated her nation. Her words are doubly tragic as we now approach the one-year anniversary of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza:

We are justly concerned about the welfare of northern residents, proud of their fortitude, understand those who leave, are shocked by the death of each person and by every rocket hit, and identify with those suffering from anxiety. Take what the northern residents have been going through for a month, multiply it by 1,000, add an economic blockade, power and water cuts, and no wages. This is how the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been “living” for the past six years.

The Israelis allow their army to continue destroying, trampling and killing in the Palestinian territories. Here, like in Lebanon, the real intelligence and security failure is Israel’s ignoring the extent of our uninhibited, unrestrained devastation and their amazing power of human endurance. This is why Israel has delusions of “victories.” If the homemade rockets are still being fired at Sderot despite the Palestinians’ extensive suffering, it is because they have concluded, correctly, that Israel’s destruction power is not intended to stop Qassam rockets – or to free Gilad Shalit. It is intended to force them to accept a surrender arrangement, which they reject not with military victories but with their power of endurance.