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From Military Threats to Crippling Sanctions, U.S.-Israel Posturing on Iran Stokes Fears of War

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As the drums of war beat louder in Israel for an attack on Iran, we’re joined by two guests: Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and author of the book, “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran”; and Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, author of several books, including “Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer.” Bennis says the Israeli push for military action before the U.S. elections in November makes this “a very dangerous moment.” [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryAug 15, 2012Israeli Journalist Gideon Levy on the Escalating Talk of a Military Attack on Iran
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Could Israel launch an attack on Iran before the U.S. election in November? As the drums of war beat louder in Israel, we turn right now to two guests in Washington, D.C. Trita Parsi is with us, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the United States. His new book is called A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. And Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, has written many books, including Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer.

Phyllis, let’s begin with you. This escalation in the United States, most people in this country wouldn’t even know this was taking place as it escalates in Israel. What does this mean for the United States?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: This is a very dangerous moment, Amy. I think that what we heard from Gideon Levy is very important, that there is a huge divide in Israel between the security, the military and the intelligence leadership, who are uniformly opposed to an Israeli strike, and the two top political leaders, the prime minister and the defense minister, who are agitating incredibly harshly for exactly that kind of a strike. We have the same thing here in the United States: massive opposition, both from the military and the intelligence services and from the political leadership here in the White House. The problem is there is a right wing—the neocons in the punditry, some of the right-wing columnists in the mainstream media, and, of course, by implication, the presidential contender, Mitt Romney, the Republican contender for president.

When Romney was in Israel, he used the kind of language, as we just heard, that was very anodyne in terms of an overall level of support for anything Israel might do. More significantly, his top foreign policy adviser, while in Israel, said explicitly that the candidate, that Romney, supports the Israeli definition of a red line, of at what point would they use force, would they use military force against Iran, and not the U.S. red line. There’s a vast difference between the two. Both are incredibly dangerous. The notion that any country is setting a red line and saying, “If you cross that red line, we’re going to use force,” is not only crazy and won’t work, but it’s a complete violation of international law.

But given that there are red lines in both the U.S. and Israel, it’s important to recognize the difference. The Israeli red line is based on what they call Iran’s nuclear capability, meaning some combination of: they have access to enriched uranium, and they have the technical know-how to build a bomb. In fact, any country that has a nuclear power program has that capability. Iran arguably has it now. They’re not making a bomb, as the U.S. has said. They don’t have a bomb, as the U.S. has said. And they haven’t even decided whether they want to build a bomb sometime in the future, as the U.S. has said. But nonetheless, that capability exists. The U.S. position is our red line is Iran having a nuclear weapon, a nuclear-armed Iran. That’s years down the line.

So when we hear this coming from Israel, particularly right now at this very vulnerable time of an election cycle here in the United States, what we’re hearing is that if there is going to be an Israeli strike, and with the political leadership saying there is, there’s not going to be a military coup in Israel where the military would refuse to carry out such an order. If they are told to do it, they will do it. The choice that the leadership has is, do we wait until after the election, when we might get a president we like better, meaning Mitt Romney, but we might get Barack Obama again, who might be in a stronger position? Imagine the problems facing President Obama today if we heard from the Israelis, “Oh, by the way, our planes are in the air. They are en route to bomb Iran. And we’re expecting your help to send refueling capacity, for instance, in the air. And if you don’t, our pilots might die.” Imagine what that would mean for a president running for re-election here in the United States. So we have a very dangerous moment despite the opposition of the military and the intelligence agencies of all across Israel, all across the United States, everybody disagreeing with this, the vice president, the president of the United States disagreeing with it. And yet, do we want to imagine that we would be certain there be no such attack and no such U.S. involvement at this moment of the election? I think it’s a very, very dangerous—a very, very dangerous moment.

It is true that in the past, when Israel has preventively attacked Arab countries, those being Iraq in 1981 and Lebanon in 2007, on the claim that they might someday be able to build a nuclear bomb, it was after silence. It was not after this kind of public campaign, public ratcheting up of the war rhetoric. This would be a very different scenario. But Bibi Netanyahu is a very different kind of Israeli prime minister in a host of ways, and I don’t think we can depend on those prior approaches to necessarily reflect what’s going on this time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to some of the comments that have been made recently by Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Speaking Monday, he said that Israel is threatened by Iran in a way that the United States is not. Ambassador Michael Oren was speaking on MSNBC.

AMBASSADOR MICHAEL OREN: There are structural differences between the United States and Israel which we can’t ignore, Andrea. The United States is a big country with very large capabilities, located far from the Middle East. Israel is a small country with certain capabilities, located in Iran’s backyard. And Israel, not the United States, is threatened almost weekly, if not daily, about—with annihilation by Iranian leaders. And so, as Iran continues to expand its program, both increasing its stockpiles—we now think they have close to five bombs worth of enriched uranium—and as they keep to—keep on moving that program underground to places which will be beyond our capabilities, then it’s built in that our considerations, our clocks, are moving faster.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren also said that all other measures had failed to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program.

AMBASSADOR MICHAEL OREN: We’ve now had five months of diplomacy, attempts to get Iran to negotiate an end to its nuclear program. They haven’t worked. We’ve had several now years of sanctions against Iran. The sanctions haven’t worked. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Iranian nuclear program is actually accelerating. It’s not stopping. Now, keep in mind that no country has a greater stake than Israel in resolving the Iranian nuclear threat by diplomatic means. We have the most skin in the game, Andrea. We’re right next door. And Iranian leaders—Ahmadinejad, the chief of the Iranian military—have just recently reiterated their goal, which is the annihilation of the state of Israel. We have to be very realistic about this. If diplomacy has not succeeded, sanctions have not succeeded, we have to keep very seriously all of those options on the table.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Trita Parsi, you’re with the National Iranian American Council. Can you comment on what the ambassador said?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think the ambassador has played a significant role in bringing the debate in this country to a hysterical level in which a lot of facts are just simply thrown out the window. And we’re looking at it from a perspective in which—a frame in which we’re essentially saying we either have to take military action or accept an Iranian nuclear bomb. Those are not the options. That is not the accurate frame. There are plenty of other options. Diplomacy certainly has not been exhausted. In fact, it’s only in its very early phases so far. So, there’s a deliberate attempt there to push it towards a position in which the only options are bomb now or bomb later.

But I think, also go back and talk about why we’re seeing this flurry of threats from the Israeli side at this moment. I would agree with the previous panelist in that this is different from previous cases, and we have to be careful not to necessarily dismiss it. But we also have to keep in mind that there is a value for the Netanyahu government to continue to make these threats and continue to increase the pressure on the Obama administration. If these threats work, as they have had success in the past, it would mean that the United States would move further into pursuing more sanctions on Iran, further away from pursuing a diplomatic compromise, and moving closer into the U.S. itself taking military action. If the Obama administration, on the other hand, resists and pushes back against Netanyahu two or three months before the elections, it would accentuate the differences that exist between Obama and the Romney campaign, which the Netanyahu government, I believe, calculates will benefit Romney in the U.S. elections. And the Obama administration, I think, agrees with that, in the sense that they don’t want to have a public spat with the Israeli government right before elections. The alternative, that the Israelis actually will take military action, would bring very unpredictable repercussions. As it was mentioned earlier on, there’s a lot of opposition to this within the Israeli military. The proposition of just making the threat, however, seems to be a win-win for the Israelis. Regardless of what Obama does, it does bring some benefit to the Netanyahu government. It either increases the likelihood of a Romney victory in the elections, or it pushes the U.S. closer towards the U.S. using the military option.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Trita Parsi, what do you think the Obama administration should be doing now?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think the Obama administration should be pursuing the type of diplomacy that has been successful in the past. It means that, on the one hand, the U.S. needs to tell the Israelis no and stick to it, because a military action by the Israelis, as the U.S. military has said on numerous cases, including in this segment, would not bring about the type of consequences that the U.S. would like to see. In fact, it would increase the likelihood of Iran going nuclear down the road. At the same time, he needs to pursue diplomacy with Iran in a patient way and focusing on what is possible. There is a solution to this case. It’s very important to understand this. This is not in any way, shape or form an impossible dilemma. There is a solution. The problem, though, is that the political will, on all sides—and this includes the Iranians, as well—have been lacking in being able to come to that conclusion. The contours of that deal is essentially that the United States—that the Iranians would be able to retain some levels of enrichment on their own soil, but under very, very strict inspections, additional protocol, etc., but they would completely render any option towards militarizing that nuclear program impossible. The United States then would have to accept that the Iranians have a nuclear program, but it would get its key objective, which is to make sure that the Iranians don’t have a nuclear bomb. Then there’s various technical ways of being able to implement this. But again, the problem is not technical, the problem is political. The political will to sustain diplomacy, to make sure that both sides make the compromises that are needed, have so far been lacking.

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