By Allan C. Brownfeld
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June-July, 2015, pp. 41-42
TOGETHER WITH OTHER elements of the Israel lobby, neoconservatives—the same people who successfully pushed the nation to war with Iraq, a country which never attacked us and never possessed “weapons of mass destruction”—are now promoting a war with Iran, a country more than three times the size of Iraq.
The war in Iraq, it should be noted, left a regional power vacuum that helped promote the growth of ISIS, helped increase the chaos in Syria and increased the regional importance of Iran.
Writing in The New York Times, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton had this advice: “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran…Force is the only option.” Posing the question “Is our only option war?” in The Washington Post, longtime neoconservative Joshua Muravchik with the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies answered “Yes.” William Kristol, whose Weekly Standard is a voice for neoconservatives, not only echoes these views, but has even suggested that Dick Cheney would be a worthy Republican presidential candidate in 2016!
Evidently, these men and their fellow travelers have learned nothing from the Iraq war, which they successfully promoted. For Americans to follow their advice again would be folly.
Neoconservatives have been obsessed with Iran for years. Norman Podhoretz, for many years editor of Commentary, wrote an essay in 2009 depicting Iran’s president as a revolutionary “like Hitler…whose objective is to overturn the going international system and replace it…with a new world order dominated by Iran…The plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force.”
The panic about Iran seems in retrospect to have been mostly emotional hyperbole—as it is today. In 2006, Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, an adviser to President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney, predicted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Iran’s then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was going to end the world. The date, he explained, “is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the Prophet Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to the farthest mosque, usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back. This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary the world.”
Many have pointed to the close ties of many neoconservatives with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel’s right wing. Prominent neocons Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, James Colbert and David and Meyrav Wurmser wrote a memo to Netanyahu in 1997 entitled “A Clean Break,” which recommended the reordering of the entire Middle East to the benefit of Israel.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) was an unknown before he prepared a letter signed by 47 Republicans to leaders in Iran warning against a nuclear agreement. He echoed all the points made by Netanyahu and by American neoconservative spokesmen. The Emergency Committee for Israel, led by Kristol, spent $960,000 to support Cotton in his Senate race in Arkansas. In that same race, a firm run by Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire from New York and a leading donor to pro-Israel causes, contributed $250,000 to Arkansas Horizon, an independent expenditure group. Seth Klarman, a Boston-based pro-Israel billionaire, contributed $100,000 through his investment firm.
The political action committee run by Bolton spent at least $825,000 to support Cotton. That PAC is in part financed by other major pro-Israel donors, including “bingo king” Irving and Cherna Moskowitz of Miami, who fund illegal Jewish-only settlements in East Jerusalem.
Although Senator Cotton claims to have personally composed the letter to Iran’s leaders, this seems less than likely. After all, it is highly unusual for a freshman senator to take a bold step like the Iran letter and then persuade dozens of colleagues to endorse it. Kristol admits having had a conversation with Cotton about the letter. There continues to be much speculation about who really composed it.
“It may be obvious, but it is worth emphasizing how deranged all of this is,” wrote political commentator Daniel Larison in The American Conservative. “It is already quite strange when anyone in this country has such a strong ideological attachment to another state, but to demand that all of a party’s candidates must share that attachment and share it to the same degree is madness. If the relationship with that other country were extremely useful to the U.S. it would still be absurd, but it might be a little easier to understand. When the relationship does virtually nothing for the U.S. and imposes significant costs on the U.S., as is the case with Israel, requiring all candidates to give reflexive support to the other state is bizarre and indefensible.”
While no Democrats signed Cotton’s letter, that doesn’t mean they are supporting their president. As Josh Nathan-Kazis noted in the April 8 Forward, “The path to a bill that would effectively scuttle President Obama’s deal with Iran on its nuclear development program runs through two Jewish senators: Ben Cardin of Maryland and Chuck Schumer of New York.”
Both men are Democrats who, before a compromise was reached with the White House, had indicated they might vote to override a threatened presidential veto of a bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) which, according to the Forward, would require that “any agreement with Iran be put on hold for two months after signing as Congress reviews its details. Congress could then pass a resolution against the deal, which would bar the president from lifting sanctions that Congress had previously imposed on Iran.”
Because overriding a veto requires 67 votes, and there are only 54 Republican senators, a veto by President Obama would stand unless at least 13 Democrats joined their Republican counterparts. Both Cardin and Schumer are in positions of influence—Cardin as the new ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Schumer as Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) anointed successor as minority leader—and presumably could lobby Senate Democrats to vote with the Republican opposition.
In Israel itself, there are many who oppose any march to war with Iran. Efraim Halevy, former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, said, “Even if the Iranians did obtain a nuclear weapon, they are deterrable, because for mullahs, survival and perpetuation of the regime is a holy obligation. We must be much more sophisticated and nuanced in our policies toward Iran.”
In fact, attacking Iran would have an effect opposite of what the neoconservatives and Netanyahu claim to seek. As Prof. Stephen Crowley, chairman of peace and conflict studies at Oberlin College, explains, “Since nuclear weapons provide the ultimate deterrent, nothing could better persuade Iranian hard-liners to abandon negotiations and to develop such weapons full speed than calls to bomb Iran. Mr. Bolton speculates that bombing could set back Iran’s nuclear program ‘by three to five years.’ What then, Mr. Bolton? Where does it end?”
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has a history of interfering in American political life. In 2002, he stated before a congressional hearing that Saddam Hussain was “pursuing with abandon, with every ounce of effort, weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons…Saddam is hell bent on achieving atomic bombs as fast as he can.”
Netanyahu went on to charge that Saddam had sprinkled Iraq with “nuclear centrifuges the size of washing machines” and that nothing short of an U.S. invasion or regime change would stop Saddam from passing out nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. According to Netanyahu, an invasion of Iraq would be a great success. “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you it will have enormous positive reverberations around the region,” he concluded. Of course, as everyone now knows, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Inaccurate and Alarmist
Netanyahu’s predictions about Iran also have been less than accurate—but always alarmist. In 1995, he wrote that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in “three to five years,” and in 1996, speaking before a joint session of Congress, he warned that the deadline for Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon was “getting extremely close.” In 2012, Netanyahu spoke at the U.N., warning that Iran was mere months away from producing a nuclear weapon.
Now, with the U.S. engaged in sensitive negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear program, Netanyahu again has interfered in domestic American politics, criticizing the president and secretary of state as naive and about to enter into a dangerous agreement. No other foreign leader—much less the recipient of the largest amount of U.S. taxpayer dollars in our history—has ever acted in this way.
Mossad’s formal assessment of Iran’s nuclear capacity and intentions clearly contradict the scenario outlined by Netanyahu at the U.N. According to the Mossad report, Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons,” declared The Guardian. “The report highlights the gulf between the public claims and rhetoric of top Israeli politicians and the assessments of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment.”
As Prof. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan notes, “Iran does not have a nuclear bomb and is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty…In contrast, Israel refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has several hundred nuclear warheads, which it constructed stealthily, including through acts of espionage and smuggling in the U.S. and against the wishes of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson…Iran has not launched an aggressive war since 1775, when Karim Khan Zand sent an army against Omar Pasha in neighboring Iraq…Modern Iran has not occupied the territory of its neighbors.”
In Israel itself, many commentators argue that Netanyahu’s focus on Iran is simply a means to avoid dealing with the question of the continued occupation of the West Bank. In its March 3 edition, the daily newspaper Haaretz editorialized: “Netanyahu and other Israeli candidates are ignoring the real existential threat to Israel…the unending occupation of the territories. Israel’s insistence on ruling over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank who lack civil rights, expanding the settlements and keeping residents of the Gaza Strip under siege is the danger threatening the future.”
The idea that either Netanyahu’s campaign against an agreement with Iran, or the machinations of the far-right Israel lobby and its associated neoconservatives, in any way represents American Jewish opinion—a view its advocates promote—is clearly untrue. Polls show that the majority of American Jews support efforts to achieve an agreement with Iran. The widely read Jewish newspaper The Forward has endorsed moving forward with an agreement, and groups such as J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace are seeing their memberships booming. Rabbi Brant Rosen, one of the founders of Jewish Voice for Peace, laments, “The State of Israel is now the living embodiment of Judaism as empire. It demonstrates all too tragically, the consequences of this quasi-Faustian bargain we have made with political nationalism.”
A decade ago the U.S. permitted neoconservatives and the Israel lobby to take us to war with Iraq on false premises and with disastrous results. To permit them to lead us down this path once again, this time with Iran, would be ruinous.
* Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.