In the Feb. 1, 2008, edition of the American Jewish World, I wrote about a teleconference with then-Sen. Barack Obama, who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The candidate participated in a teleconference with Jewish newspaper editors, just before appearing on a stage at American University in Washington, D.C., where he received the coveted endorsement of Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Democratic pillar of the U.S. Senate who died last year.
As it happened, Obama answered just four questions, and I was selected to ask the fourth and final question. I asked the senator what his policy would be toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.
(As the teleconference was wrapping up, Obama announced that he wanted to add one last comment. He addressed the “virulent smear campaign via the Internet that I know has been particularly targeted to the Jewish community,” and denounced the rumors being propagated on the Web and via e-mail, which alleged that he was a secret Muslim, who “was sworn in to my Senate office with my hand on a Koran, and I don’t pledge allegiance [to the U.S. flag].” This is likely the main reason Obama wanted to spend 20 minutes with editors of Jewish newspapers from across the country.)
But back to my question for Obama about Iran. I noted that Israelis were worried about the Iranian president’s statements denying the historical facts of the Holocaust, about wiping Israel off the map of the Middle East, and his commitment to a uranium enrichment program, which looked like a short step to the creation of a nuclear weapon. “So, as president, what is going to be your course? You want to talk with the Iranians?” I asked Obama.
He replied that Ahmadinejad “has used reprehensible language with respect to Israel… The United States should condemn it in the strongest terms.” Obama also stated that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons “would not only be contrary to U.S. interests and destabilizing to the region, but would be an extraordinary threat to Israel, given the anti-Israeli language used not only by Ahmadinejad, but other Iranian leaders.”
Shifting gears, Obama noted that the “essence of diplomacy is not simply talking to your friends, it is also talking to your enemies.” He said that the Bush administration “strategy of not talking [to Iran] has not worked, it has not dampened Iran’s anti-Israeli position, it has not lessened its move toward developing at least the capacity to enrich uranium.” And citing the most recent National Intelligence Estimate, published in Nov. 2007, Obama pointed out that Iran had backed off its program to develop nuclear weapons, which showed that the regime is influenced by “carrots and sticks,” a combination of economic sanctions and incentives, including the possibility of “normalization of diplomatic relations” with the U.S.
Obama also said that the Bush administration’s “unwillingness to talk has just produced further defiance and empowered extremists like Ahmadinejad and weakened the power of more moderate forces inside Iran. We want to send a signal to the Iranian people, and to the larger world community, that we are reasonable and not looking to impede Iran’s legitimate national aspirations; but that they have to change their behavior in order to be a welcomed member of the community of nations.”
As we all now know, Obama was elected president in 2008; and throughout the year the issue of Iran simmered. Pundits, alleged experts in Middle East affairs, predicted that either Israel or the U.S. would initiate an attack on Iran to destroy their nuclear facilities. It was imminent. These erroneous assessments were predicated on the existential threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iranian regime. The military attack never came — not in 2008, nor in 2009. Instead, late in 2008, Israel launched a war in the Gaza Strip to stop the steady rain of mortars and rockets into Sderot and other Negev communities. The Israeli military campaign ceased just before Barack Obama was sworn in as president.
Although most Israelis apparently feel that President Obama is not sufficiently dedicated to their security, when I spoke last summer with two security analysts from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they stressed that the U.S. and Israel were on the same page in the effort to engage diplomatically with the Iranian leadership.
However, the Iranian clerical regime has shown its repressive character again in recent months. The massive street protests last June over the disputed presidential election results were met by brutality on the part of the police and the Basij militiamen, the thugs loyal to the regime. Protesters were rounded up and there were reports of dissidents being tortured in prison. Protests in late December resulted in the shooting deaths of at least eight people, including the nephew of Mir Hossein Mousavi, an opposition leader.
The dissident movement, which has varied ideological strands and nuances, has taken root in Iranian universities. On Monday, the Associated Press reported that nearly 90 professors at Tehran University signed a letter to the ruling clerics, stating that the violence against demonstrators shows the weakness of the country’s leadership.
The AP story noted that the involvement of the professors highlights the “evolution of the opposition movement. What began as raw and angry voter backlash,” in June, “has moved to a possibly deeper and more ingrained fight against Iran’s Islamic leaders.”
The Israeli Foreign Ministry officials who spoke with the AJW last summer correctly predicted that the Iranian regime would survive the mass street protests that riveted the world. Ahmadinejad and his cronies have not used the full array of weaponry and personnel at their disposal. Some observers are urging protesters to maintain a nonviolent approach, lest the Iranian hardliners decide to unleash a Tiananmen Square-type massacre.
More turbulence is in store for the Iranian rulers, who still have the upper hand, according to a recent essay by Dr. Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Herzliya, Israel. He suggests that the new round of protests — which testify to the “continued strength and resilience of Iranian civil society” — will kick off on Feb. 11, which marks the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
In his article, “Iran — the End Is Not Nigh,” Spyer analyzes the opposition tendencies, notably the “Green movement,” which includes former presidential candidates and the ex-president, Mohammad Khatami. And among the crowds in the streets are those who want to see the downfall entirely of the regime that came to power in 1979; however, Spyer writes that “no credible, organized revolutionary leadership with a clear program for toppling the regime can yet be identified from within the broad mass of this movement.”
There is a well-organized “movement” within the Iranian regime, according to Spyer. This trend is represented by Ahmadinejad and his hard-line base, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which “have been steadily advancing in the institutions of the Islamic Republic over the last half-decade.”
The president and his like-minded allies seek a “second Islamic revolution.” Spyer writes that this movement “will revive the original fire of 1979. What they are aiming at is the replacement of clerical rule with a streamlined, brutal police-security state, under the banner of Islam. This state will be committed to a goal of building regional hegemony — through possession of a nuclear option and the backing of radical and terrorist movements.”
These hard-liners do not seem to be the kind of folks amenable to “carrots and sticks.” Indeed, the problem of the Iranian regime — for the U.S., Israel, the European Community and the world — will come into sharper focus in 2010. Beyond “regional hegemony,” Iran has been extending its diplomatic and economic reach to the Western Hemisphere, East Asia and other areas.
The cauldron of the Middle East seems to be coming to full boil again.
— Mordecai Specktor / email@example.com
(American Jewish World, 1.8.10)