Dispatches From The Edge: The Democratic Majority and Iran

By Conn Hallinan
Friday November 24, 2006

As the dust begins to settle from the mid-term elections, popular thinking is that, over the next two years, the Democrats will force the Bush administration to edge away from the unilateral militarism that has entrapped the nation in two open-ended wars.  

You might not want to bet the rent on that. 

Indeed, if you are putting down a wager, the odds are better than even that sometime in the next two years the United States will attack Iran, an assault that may have more support on both sides of the aisle than one would assume. 

The administration’s bombast on Iran is well known. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the United States “may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.” 

Similar comments have come from leading Israeli officials. The Jerusalem Post reported Nov. 12 that an Israeli Self-Defense Force (IDF) spokesperson told the newspaper that “Only a military strike by the U.S. and its allies will stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons,” while Israeli Defense Minister Ephraim Sneth openly threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear sites. Israeli Ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon said that he is confident that Bush “will not hesitate to use force against Iran in order to halt its nuclear program.” 

Some of that rhetoric has been echoed by Democrats, particularly incoming speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi. In 2005, she told a meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), “The greatest threat to Israel’s right to exist … now comes from Iran.”  

AIPAC has long been associated with some of the more extreme sectors of the Israeli political spectrum, and the organization is particularly aggressive in lobbying for war with Iran, a war that polls show the U.S. public is strongly opposed to. 

The Democrat’s close ties with AIPAC and the Israeli government are already causing problems. The Democrats won the election on a platform of getting the United States out of Iraq, but AIPAC and the current Kadima-Labor government strongly support that war.  

Following an hour-long meeting with President Bush last week, Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert told the press, “We in the Middle East have been following the American policy in Iraq for a long time, and we are very much impressed and encouraged by the stability” that the war in Iraq has brought to the Middle East. 

A number of Democrats angered by the comments, although so far, Pelosi has remained quiet. 

Olmert’s remarks also feed into the myth that Israel led the United States into the Iraq war. While Israeli concerns did play a role in influencing the march toward war, the United States invaded Iraq for its own reasons, mainly centered around controlling strategic oil reserves and as a warning to other countries in the region not to get out of line. 

The problem for the Democrats is how to extract the United States from Iraq, and few observers think that can be done without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian question. In a recent editorial “Changing Iraq policy is not enough,” the Financial Times argued that Israeli expansion on the West Bank “is what constantly threatens to set the region alight.” 

A recent survey by Israeli retired Brigadier General Baruch Spiegel, a former assistant to Israel’s Defense Ministry, found that the IDF and West Bank civil authorities are suppressing what the newspaper Haaretz calls “the systematic illegal expansion of existing settlements … in blatant violation of the law.” The newspaper called the survey—which is yet to be reported in the United States—“political and diplomatic dynamite.” 

Yet Pelosi explicitly rejects the argument that the occupation has anything to do with the current crisis between Israelis and Palestinians. “There are those who contend that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza,” she told the AIPAC audience. “That is absolute nonsense. In truth, the history of the conflict is not over occupation, and never has been: it is over the fundamental right of Israel to exist.” 

Aside from AIPAC, the Bush administration’s neo-cons, and the Israeli right wing, few would agree with that formulation. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently argued that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement was “the core” of a broader effort for peace in the region. Indeed, elevating the conflict to a matter of Israel’s survival plays into the hands of extremists on both sides. 

AIPAC and Olmert make the same survival argument about Iran, in spite of the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to wipe out Israel are not backed up by any ability on his part to carry them out. As Scott Ritter points out in the Nov. 20 Nation, Ahmadinejad has no authority over anything pertaining to national security, the armed forces, the police or the Revolutionary Guard. He is, as one former Iranian president commented, “a knife without a blade.” 

The authority to go to war rests with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in May 2003 offered to open up Iran’s nuclear plants for inspection, rein in Hezbollah, accept a two-state solution, and cooperate against al Qaeda. He also issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons. The initiative was shot down by Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. 

In a Nov. 27 New Yorker article, Seymour Hersh says the CIA has “found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program.” Buying into the arguments of the Bush administration and the Israeli right wing on the Middle East is a formula for catastrophe.  

For all their rhetoric, the vast majority of Democrats do not want war with Iran, but under our system of government, the president has enormous powers. According to Rice, the administration has already been authorized to attack Iran under powers given it by the congressional legislation on the war on terrorism. 

Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel and strategy teacher at the National War College, the Naval War College and the Air Force War College, says President Bush is determined to attack Iran. Gardiner says Bush compares himself to Winston Churchill and “talks about the Middle East in messianic terms, and is said to have told those close to him that he has got to attack Iran because even if a Republican succeeds him … he will not have the same freedom of action that Bush enjoys.”  

According to Hersh, during a recent discussion on national security, Cheney said that the Nov. 7 election “would not stop the administration from pursuing a military option with Iran.” 

Rhetoric by the Democrats that projects Iran as a threat to Israel’s survival plays into Bush and Cheney’s vision of the Middle East.  

The Democrats are going to have to make some hard choices if they are going to keep the loyalty of those who voted for an end to the Iraq War and military adventurism. For starters they must call for: 

1) An immediate end to Israeli settlement expansion. 

2) Immediate negotiations with all Palestinian parties culminating in full Arab recognition of Israel and a full withdrawal from all occupied Arab land. The U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should guarantee to defend Israel within its 1967 borders. 

3) A regional conference, including Iran, Syria and all elements in Iraq, to reach a peace accord and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the region. 

It is time to go to work, Madame Speaker.