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Iran in Obama's speeches at AIPAC: Advancing the policy of "aggressive diplomacy"


By Sasan Fayazmanesh (originally published by Counterpunch)

The best way to understand Middle East policies of US officials is to study their speeches at the annual policy conferences of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where nearly every political figure must pay homage to Israel and its most powerful lobby. True, some of the speeches are exaggerated because, when it comes to Eretz Yisrael, the more blood and gore in the speech, the louder the applause. Nevertheless, these speeches are usually indicative of policies that will be pursued, because they are written by some of the same advisors who have come out of the Israeli lobby groups. President Barak Obama is no exception. His speeches at AIPAC policy conferences, as a Senator in 2007, Presidential Candidate in 2008, and President in 2011 and 2012, have been quite consistent with the “liberal” wing of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), an offshoot of AIPAC. As far as Iran is concerned, these speeches have been time and again in line with the policy of “tough” or “aggressive diplomacy” that Dennis Ross-former director of WINEP, advisor to the Secretary of State Clinton, special assistant to President Obama, and now “counselor” at WINEP-advocated. As I have pointed out in another essay, it was Ross who partly wrote the speech delivered by Senator Obama at the 2007 AIPAC conference, where the policy of “aggressive diplomacy” was enunciated. I have analyzed this policy here and there and will not dwell on it in this essay. Instead, I will analyze Obama’s speeches at these conferences and show how they intend to advance the policy of “aggressive diplomacy.”

With the exception of the 2011 speech, when the most burning issues were the Palestinian question and the so-called Arab Spring, Obama’s speeches at AIPAC policy conferences are like paint-by-numbers. They follow a formula, a set of lines that appear in the following order: 1) The government of Iran, i.e., President Ahmadinejad, denies the Holocaust and wishes to “wipe Israel off the map.” 2) Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. 3) The acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran will destabilize the Middle East, because countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will also try to acquire nuclear weapons, and this will start an arms race. 4) Iran supports terrorist groups and, with nuclear weapons on its side, Iran will provide a nuclear umbrella for these terrorist groups. 5) Iran will provide nuclear weapons know-how to these terrorist groups or will actually give them a nuclear bomb. 6) The Iranian government must give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. 7) Our policy of tough or aggressive diplomacy will make the Iranian government forsake its nuclear weapons program, but if it does not, all options are on the table.

Let us look at the truth and/or logic of each line in the argument. 1) The Iranian government and wiping Israel off the map: President Ahmadinejad does not represent the views of the Iranian government as a whole. He is actually a weak president whose views are seldom shared by other members of the Iranian government, particularly those in the Iranian Parliament (Majlis). His loose and uniformed talk about the Holocaust has at times been criticized by some members of Majlis. It is therefore a fallacy to identify the views of the Iranian government as a group with those of Ahmadinejad. Moreover, while Ahmadinejad has questioned the historical narrative of the Holocaust and how the Palestinians fit into this narrative, he has never said that he wants to “wipe Israel off the map.” Numerous individuals, including this author-who have read the original text of Ahmadinejad’s speech allegedly containing “wipe Israel off the map”-have pointed out that there is no such phrase in it. Indeed, such an idiom does not even exist in the Persian language. The speech writers of Obama know this, and probably Mr. Obama himself knows it as well. But the falsehood is perpetuated in Israel and the US in order to portray Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel.

2) Iran pursuing nuclear weapons: Note that there is no logical transition between line 1 and line 2. It is left to the imagination of the audience to connect Iran wishing to “wipe Israel off the map” to “Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.” In other words, it is not explicitly stated that Iran intends to wipe Israel off the map with a nuclear bomb. But the implication is there.

The claim that “Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons” is another falsehood. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the most authoritative US assessment conducted by the Director of National Intelligence, declared in 2007-and has reiterated ever since-that: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Setting aside the contention that Iran had a nuclear weapons program until 2003-which seems to be based mostly on the alleged information found on a mysterious laptop in possession of the US government-the message of the NIE, gathered from a series of reports from the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies, is quite clear and unambiguous: the US does not have any proof that Iran is building nuclear weapons. This same message has appeared in every quarterly report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 2002. Even the most recent reports, issued under the leadership of Yukiya Amano, the new Director General of the IAEA who has politicized these reports, contain the same message. The speech writers of President Obama, and probably Mr. Obama himself, know this fact. But they perpetuate the falsehood to appease Israel and its lobby groups in the US.

3) Destabilizing effect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and the arms race in the Middle East: Let us set aside the previous point and assume that Iran has a nuclear weapons program that will lead it to acquire such weapons. The Middle East has lived for many decades with a nuclear armed power in its midst, Israel, a power that is most belligerent, expansionist, and warmongering. Yet, despite this fact, there has been no nuclear arms race in the region. Why would a nuclear armed Iran, a country that in its modern history has never threatened its neighbors, cause other countries in the region, such as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to rush to acquire nuclear weapons? The arms race argument makes no sense and President Obama and his speech writers know it. Yet, they push this illogical argument that has been put forward by the Israeli government.

4) Iran’s support for “terrorist groups” and the nuclear umbrella: By terrorist groups President Obama is referring to Hamas and Hezbollah, two parties that under heavy pressure from Israel and its neoconservative brethrens were classified by US State Department as terrorist groups in November of 2001. Hamas and Hezbollah are, however, parties whose members were democratically elected to serve, respectively, in the Palestinian and Lebanese governments. Not all nations agree with the US classification of these parties as terrorist groups. This is certainly true of the Iranian government, which considers these parties as legitimate and resistance forces against Israel’s expansionist policies. The Iranian government supports these groups openly. It has never needed a nuclear umbrella to do so, and a nuclear umbrella will not enhance Iran’s support for these parties. President Obama and his speech writers can easily figure out the lack of logic in their own argument. But they do not wish to do so because they must please Israel and its lobby groups.

It should be noted that as far as Israel is concerned, it is indeed Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah that is the crux of the matter and not the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Without Iran’s support for these parties, the Israeli government believes, there would hardly be anything standing between Israel and Eretz Yisrael.

5) Iran providing nuclear weapons know-how or even nuclear weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah: This is probably the most illogical argument that appears in President Obama’s speeches. Many in the US intelligence community, as well as military forces, have held that Iran is a “rational actor,” including current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. The same must be said of Hamas and Hezbollah. Even if these parties could have access to a nuclear bomb, or even a “dirty bomb,” they would not use it, since they and everyone else around them would be annihilated, either by their own bomb or by Israel. But let us suppose that they are “irrational actors” and want to obtain nuclear weapons know-how. They do not need Iran for that. They can obtain the know-how from any nuclear physicist or even the internet. The know-how, however, does not do them much good. They must build a nuclear weapon; and that, as Iran’s torturous, tumultuous, long and costly experience with enrichment of uranium shows, is impossible. Even if Hamas and Hezbollah could obtain a nuclear weapon from an irrational Iran, they have no means of delivering such a weapon.

We are left with one possibility: an irrational Iran could give a “dirty bomb” to an irrational Hamas or Hezbollah. But Iran does not need to wait any longer to do that. Currently, Iran has a total of “5451 kg of UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235” and a total of “95.4 kg of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235” (IAEA Report of February 24, 2012). These are not only enough for many “dirty bombs,” but enough for at least four nuclear bombs.

Even if we assume that the logic of the above argument escapes President Obama’s speech writers, it is hard to see how it eludes the President himself. After all, Mr. Obama could consult the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to see if his argument makes any sense.

6) The Iranian government giving up its pursuit of nuclear weapons: As stated above, there is no proof that the Iranian government has a nuclear weapons program, and Iran has consistently maintained that it has no desire to build such weapons. So what is it that Iran must give up? Should it give up its nuclear enrichment, something that Iran has been doing for nearly a decade and can, according to Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, do legally? President Obama’s speeches at AIPAC policy conferences are quite ambiguous on this point and do not exactly state that any enrichment must stop or else.

It is interesting to note, however, that the Israelis and their surrogates in the US Congress, such as Senator Joseph Lieberman, have been pushing to lower the threshold by arguing that Iran must give up its pursuit of “a nuclear weapons capability.” If that is the case, Iran has long passed this Israeli “redline” and the time for a military action against Iran is overdue. It is also interesting to note that in his 2008 speech at AIPAC policy conference Presidential candidate Obama stated: Iran “pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists.” In his last two speeches as President, Obama has not mentioned “nuclear capability.”

7) The policy of “tough” or “aggressive diplomacy” and “all options being on the table”: As I have explained elsewhere, the policy of “tough” or “aggressive diplomacy” was never meant to have any diplomacy in it to begin with. All that it was supposed to do was to unify the Europeans behind the US belligerent policy. It was designed to arrange some face-to-face meetings with Iran, forcing Iran either to accept US-Israeli demands or face aggression, including more severe sanctions, a possible naval blockade and military actions. President Obama and his speech writers know all this, and, indeed, if the speeches at AIPAC policy conferences, particularly the 2007 speech, are read carefully, the intent of the policy is quite clear. Yet, Obama and his speech writers try to create the illusion of diplomacy.

It should be pointed out that so far the policy of “aggressive diplomacy” has proceeded along the lines originally planned, and President Obama was correct to brag about the result in his last AIPAC speech. The policy has managed to unite the Europeans behind the US imposed “crippling” sanctions that are destabilizing the Iranian economy and creating much hardship for the people of Iran. One sign of this is the rising rate of inflation that, according to Iranian media, is now over 21%. Another sign is the wave of fear and anxiety created in the Iranian currency market in fall of 2010 and, again, in winter of 2011-2012. However, these economic difficulties have not yet translated into what the architects of the policy of “aggressive diplomacy” have been waiting for: widespread discontent in Iran. Nor have the sanctions resulted in a complete collapse of the Iranian economy. That is why President Obama is cautioning against launching a “premature strike” against Iran. In order to launch a successful strike, the economic conditions in Iran must become as dismal as they were in Iraq before it was invaded.

In sum, the speeches of Barak Obama at AIPAC policy conferences are filled with statements that are either false or illogical. Yet, if one wants to understand the policy of “tough” or “aggressive diplomacy,” reading these speeches is a must.

Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno.

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