Israel’s ‘Successful’ Defeat on Iran

Israel’s defeat in its bid to get Congress to block President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran may have represented a loss of face, but the fight generated lots of money and set a marker for Obama and his successors on the price to pay for crossing Israel’s lobby, writes Trita Parsi.

By Trita Parsi

A senior German official told me in 2010, quite proudly, that under the leadership of Angela Merkel, Germany’s Iran policy had become a function of its relations with Israel. Whether Germany would sanction Iran or engage in diplomacy very much depended on Israel’s reaction. In its simplest form, the German official was explaining to me the process of “Israelizing” Iran, that is, turning one’s policy towards Iran broadly into a function one’s relationship with Israel.

No U.S. official has ever described U.S. policy on Iran in those terms to me. And if they did, most likely, it would not be accurate. But in the course of the last two years, particularly this past summer, we have also seen that Israel has paid a far greater role in America’s Iran policy than many previously would have admitted. And for many on Capitol Hill, the reality is that Iran is primarily viewed through an Israeli lens.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on March 3, 2015. (Screen shot from CNN broadcast)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on March 3, 2015. (Screen shot from CNN broadcast)

This will be a major problem for President Obama, and for subsequent administrations seeking to sustain the nuclear deal with Iran. Not because Washington would not like to see significant changes in Iran’s posture towards Israel, or that it doesn’t believe that continued Iranian hostility towards Israel wouldn’t be a threat to the nuclear deal, but because the de-Israelization of Iran requires much more than just a change in Iran’s policy on Israel.

To understand why, we must first recognize why and how Iran came to be viewed from an Israeli lens by so many in Washington in the first place.

Iran was not an Israeli issue in Washington back in the 1980s, despite the hostile rhetoric of Iran’s then-ruler Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On the contrary, Israel spent significant diplomatic capital in Washington at the time trying to convince the Reagan administration to reach out to Tehran and come to terms with Iran’s theocratic regime.

What later turned into the Iran-Contra scandal is just one of the many initiatives Israel took at the time to get Washington and Tehran back on talking terms. Back then, Israel was primarily concerned with the conventional military capabilities of hostile Arab states and viewed Iran as a potential ally and a balancer against the Arab powers.

Similarly, Washington’s pro-Israel organizations, led by AIPAC, were focused on countering the Palestinians and hostile Arab states. Iran wasn’t anywhere near their radar.

As the Oslo process transformed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from a terrorist enemy to a peace partner, Israel’s attitude towards Iran began to shift dramatically. To sell the deal domestically, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin felt that another threat needed to be looming in the horizon. Rabin asked rhetorically what the real threat to Israel was: the weak Palestinians or the rising Iranians?

Moreover, in the new geopolitical reality of the region after the fall of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, the common threats that had provided the basis for Israel’s alliance with Iran in the era of the Shah, and Israel’s support for U.S.-Iran dialogue in the 1980s, were now gone. A U.S.-Iran rapprochement under these circumstances would come at the expense of Israel’s interest rather than enhancing Israel’s regional position.

“There was a feeling in Israel that because of the end of the Cold War, relations with the U.S. were cooling and we needed some new glue for the alliance. And the new glue was radical Islam. And Iran was radical Islam,” Israeli analyst Efraim Inbar told me in October 2004.

A massive campaign was launched to depict Iran as “the greatest threat [to peace] and greatest problem in the Middle East.” Iran and its Shia ideology were the source of Islamic fundamentalism and an irredeemable threat, Israel argued.

This focus on Iran was a complete 180-degree turn by Israel, which only a few years earlier had pressed Washington to talk to Iran, to sell arms to Iran and to ignore Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric.

At first, Israel’s new line on Iran was met with skepticism. That Iran suddenly was the new threat to the region was, “a controversial idea” with little credibility, according to The Washington Post.

“Why the Israelis waited until fairly recently to sound a strong alarm about Iran is a perplexity,” argued theNew York Times. [See Treacherous Alliance The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US for details.]

This sentiment was shared by the Clinton administration, which felt that Israel was exaggerating the Iranian threat for political gain, mindful of the fact that the campaign came at a time when Tehran was lowering its profile on the Palestinian issue.

“At that time, there were Iranian attempts to rhetorically soften the radical language of Khomeini,” Keith Weissman, the point person at AIPAC explained to me in an interview in 2004. “No doubt about it, there was a famous Rafsanjani interview where he said that if it’s okay with the Palestinians, it’s okay with us.”

For AIPAC, however, the Israeli shift against Iran was heaven-sent. The loss of the Palestinians as an enemy had cost the powerful lobby dearly, and the peace process, if successful, could deprive AIPAC of its very raison d’être. AIPAC could now reinvent itself at a moment where merely countering Arab influence in Washington had become obsolete.

“AIPAC made Iran a major issue since they didn’t have any other issue to champion,” said Israeli academic Shai Feldman during a visit I made to his office in Tel Aviv in 2004. “The U.S. was in favor of the peace process, so what would they push for?”

AIPAC needed a new issue, and Israel needed help in turning Washington against Iran. It was a win-win situation.

Iran was initially a gift that never stopped giving. Depicting Iran as a major threat was not particularly difficult mindful of Tehran’s anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric, even though in practice it was pursuing more moderate policies in the 1990s compared to the previous decade. And once Ahmadinejad took power in Iran and began questioning the Holocaust, few people in Washington needed any convincing from Israel or AIPAC.

“Ahmadinejad was literally writing AIPAC’s fundraising letters,” a former AIPAC insider told me. “All AIPAC needed to do was to quote Ahmadinejad’s latest statements and the money would be pouring in.”

Even the fight over the nuclear deal that AIPAC lost was good for business according to former AIPAC official Steven Rosen. “This fight has been good for AIPAC in that it brought in a lot of money,” he told Foreign Policy in September.

Letting go of Ahmadinejad after he left office was not easy for AIPAC. Letting go of the nuclear issue will be even more difficult. The losing battle it fought this past summer to kill the deal in Congress is telling. Much of the organization’s air of invincibility stems from its ability to pick battles it knew it would win and prevent conflicts it likely would lose from emerging in the first place. The showdown over the Iran deal was the opposite.

AIPAC had failed to prevent negotiations, it had failed to push the Obama administration to adopt red lines that would have forced Iran to walk away from the table, and once a final deal was concluded it felt it had no choice but to go up against the President of the United States, even though its chances of success were limited.

After all, Iran had topped AIPAC’s agenda since 1995. Sitting out a fight it had, in Rosen’s words, “spent 10 years preparing for,” could bring about the worst of all nightmares for AIPAC: irrelevance.

At a moment when AIPAC was being challenged from the right from a new group of pro-Israel organizations (some funded  by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly views AIPAC as too moderate), and from the left by J Street, neutrality was the worst of all options.

All was not lost for AIPAC over the nuclear deal, however. The mere fact that President Obama had to spend so much political capital defending the deal and securing support for it on Capitol Hill likely sent a strong signal to future presidents: Even if you ultimately can defeat AIPAC in a head to head confrontation, it will cost you so much political capital that you’ll likely have precious little left for your other priorities. Thus, even in defeat, AIPAC may have strengthened its deterrence.

Moreover, hard-fought defeats are good for fundraising. Clear-cut causes, even when losing, are preferable to lack of clarity. In other words, the Israelization of Iran will likely remain good for business, despite the passing of the nuclear deal.

This last battle,” Rosen said of AIPAC’s effort on the Iran deal, “may be remembered as the start of another growth spurt.”

Thus, even the reduction of a nuclear threat from Iran as well as a continuation of Iran disentangling itself from Israel (for instance, compare Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric on Israel to Rouhani’s silence on Israel, beyond his tweets wishing the Jewish people a happy Rosh Hashanah ), is obviously helpful, but ultimately insufficient to de-Israelize Iran.

Just like in 1993, when AIPAC abandoned Arafat and embraced Iran as its main threat, the abandonment of Iran today may only take place if a new threat emerges that takes its place. Perhaps the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement will be that threat. But unless something emerges to replace Iran, there is little to suggest that Israel, AIPAC and Netanyahu are ready to let Iran be de-Israelized.

Trita Parsi is the author of A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012). He tweets at @tparsi. [This article originally appeared at The National Interest.]

12 comments for “Israel’s ‘Successful’ Defeat on Iran

  1. alexander
    December 4, 2015 at 09:32

    Mr Parsi,

    I would be very interested to know if you believe Israel has a peace plan, at all.

    If it does, I have not seen it and if you have seen it, i would certainly like to know what it.

    Has anyone seen Israel’s peace plan ?

    I have seen very very many arguments made by Israel why there cannot be peace, but given the absence of a “peace plan” on their part…… what difference does it make ?

    Israel having a concise, judicious and well articulated “peace plan” would make all the difference in the world, in supporting it.

    Making “arguments” about Iran’s aggressive nature or belligerency seem to matter very little if you have no plan for peace yourself.

    • Israel plans terror
      December 4, 2015 at 20:09

      Israel’s plan is the same as the Zionists started with — to keep killing Arabs and stealing more land and all the while blaming their victims. They are the greatest and most successful organized and politically connected terrorists in the world over the last century. No one else is responsible for killing and displacing an equal number innocent victims on a per capita basis.

  2. jason
    December 4, 2015 at 04:12

    don’t worry trita, future administrations won’t have to fret about israel as they try to “sustain” the nuclear agreement. once the Iranians pocket the gains from sanctions relief they will violate this precious agreement like a virgin on her wedding night and it will be so obvious that no amount of white house press secretary obfuscation will be able to wipe away the stain of American humiliation and failure. to top it off, the Iranian officials will leak their impressions of Kerry and Obama during the nuclear negotiations as pathetic grovellers who shocked even the Iranians in their willingness to surrender completely. love to see how you spin that one.

    • Abe
      December 4, 2015 at 12:28

      Don’t worry Hasbara boys and girls, future Israeli administrations won’t have to fret about America as they try to “sustain” the “special relationship”.

      Once the Israeli government pockets the gains from their precious “Security Aid” they will violate Palestine, Lebanon and Syria like a harem of virgins on their wedding night, and it will be so obvious that no amount of White House Press Secretary obfuscation will be able to wipe away the stain of American humiliation and failure.

      To top it off, the officials in Tel Aviv will leak their delight that the U.S. President and Secretary of State are such pathetic grovellers. The only ones who won’t be shocked will be the Iranians, who have witnessed for decades America’s willingness to surrender completely to Israel.

      Love to see how you spin that one in the New York Times.

    • Abe
      December 4, 2015 at 12:47

      The current US-Israeli military aid package, set to expire in 2017, provides Israel with $3.1 billion in aid annually. Netanyahu is negotiating for $50 billion over the next ten years, a $1.9 billion increase in annual funding.

      Now that’s a “successful” defeat.

      AIPAC says, “Thanks Iran, we couldn’t have done it without you since 1979.”

  3. Abe
    December 4, 2015 at 01:41

    Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, recently told Iranian TV, “We have no plans for joint work with the US against Daesh (ISIS), but we will continue our help and consultations at the request of the Iraqi and Syrians governments,” he said. In his interview, he also affirmed that Iran will continue its support of countries in the Middle East who are endangered by extremist groups like ISIS. He stressed, however, that they would not be working alongside the US forces, who they believe are engaged in a “double-standard policy” against terrorists in the region.

    Iranian officials have publicly stated that the recent Iranian nuclear deal will not change its regional policies, including support for allies in the region. Iran publicly supports several Shi’ite military groups in the region, such as the Houthis in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In December 2014, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Gen. Massoud Jazayeri denied reports that Iranian fighter bombers had struck ISIS targets in Iraq in coordination with the US. On the contrary, he said “Iran blames the US as the root cause of unrest and problems [in the region], as well as the actions of ISIS in Iraq.” “The US has no place or future in Iraq or Syria”, he added further. This view continues to prevail in Iran’s highest policy circles and is very unlikely to change given that Iran is yet not considering to turn its rapprochement with the U.S. into an alliance.

    Even before the deal was announced, the chief of an elite unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard went on to accuse the U.S. of having “no will” to stop ISIS after the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi. He also stated, “Today, there is nobody in confrontation with (ISIS) except the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as nations who are next to Iran or supported by Iran.”

    In fact, his views certainly seem to have some substance, especially when we look at the duality of the US led campaign against ISIS. According to the official figures recently released by the US Central Command, “the U.S. and its coalition partners have struck 10,684 targets including 3,262 ISIS buildings, 119 commandeered tanks, 1,202 vehicles and 2,577 fighting positions.” Apparently, these figures look bright; however, when we match these figures with ground realities, ISIS seems to have more ground than it had exactly a year ago when the US led campaign began in August 2014. On the other hand, this highly selective targeting seems to be solely aimed at destroying Iraq and Syria’s physical infrastructure. In this behalf, the US led campaign is not much different from Turkey’s campaign against ISIS, which the former is using as a blanket to cover its campaign against Kurds. Indirectly, both continue to support ISIS by not targeting it.

    The stretch-limit of the US-Iran Rapprochement
    By Salman Rafi Sheikh

  4. Abe
    December 4, 2015 at 01:35

    Turkey and Israel both have been playing the role of “wild cards” NATO and the US in particular have attempted to feign an inability to control. This allows the US to carry out acts of aggression by proxy through the use of conventional military forces it itself could never justify carrying out.

    Turkey and Israel’s use by the US in this manner was revealed as early as 2012 in the Brookings Institution’s “Middle East Memo #21,” “Assessing Options for Regime Change,” which stated:

    “In addition, Israel’s intelligence services have a strong knowledge of Syria, as well as assets within the Syrian regime that could be used to subvert the regime’s power base and press for Asad’s removal. Israel could posture forces on or near the Golan Heights and, in so doing, might divert regime forces from suppressing the opposition. This posture may conjure fears in the Asad regime of a multi-front war, particularly if Turkey is willing to do the same on its border and if the Syrian opposition is being fed a steady diet of arms and training. Such a mobilization could perhaps persuade Syria’s military leadership to oust Asad in order to preserve itself. Advocates argue this additional pressure could tip the balance against Asad inside Syria, if other forces were aligned properly.”

    It appears an uninspired rewriting of this plan is being put into effect now, despite the presence of Russian forces in the region. Perhaps the US believes Russia too would seek to avoid a two-front war with Turkey and Israel as the primary combatants with the US itself playing a muted role for the sake of plausible deniability. Even if war was not the intended final outcome, perhaps the US believes this extra pressure could afford them much needed leverage in a conflict already clearly escaping out of their control.

    Russian Retaliation Will Be Defeating NATO in Syria
    By Tony Cartalucci

    • Babul Khan
      December 4, 2015 at 09:12

      All hypocrates are rushing to dominate Iraqi oil wells cause of Iraq’s weak Governemt, to dominate iraqi oil wells, The same thugs who created ISIS to refrain Sunni from power now wants invade that same countryfor the 3rd time to dominate volatile and vuneable oil wells These major power thugs has been dealing with ISIS for Iraqi oil now turnung gainstt heir own ISIS esltablishment.., a double standard…

  5. Abe
    December 3, 2015 at 23:10

    The ongoing conflict in Syria has always been a proxy conflict aimed at Iran, as well as nearby Russia, and more distant China. As far back as 2007, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh warned in his 9-page New Yorker report “The Redirection Is the Administration’s new policy benefiting our enemies in the war on terrorism?,” that a region-wide sectarian war was being engineered by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel – all of whom were working in concert even in 2007, to build the foundation of a sectarian militant army.

    The report would cite various serving and former US officials who warned that the extremists the West was backing were “preparing for cataclysmic conflict.”

    In retrospect, considering the emergence of the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS), Hersh’s warning has turned out to be prophetic. The destabilization of Syria and Lebanon were noted in particular as prerequisites for a coming war with Iran. Confirming this would be the lengthy policy treatise published by the Brookings Institution in 2009 titled, “Which Path to Persia?”

    In it, it is openly discussed that regime change for the purpose of establishing regional hegemony is the only goal of the United States and its regional partners, with attempts to frame the conflict with Iran as an issue of “national security” and “global stability” serving as mere canards.

    Throughout the document, US policymakers admit that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program are merely one of several pretexts being used to foster political subversion from within and justify war from beyond Iran’s borders.

    More importantly, Brookings details explicitly how the US will wage war on Iran, through Israel, in order to maintain plausible deniability. It states specifically under a chapter titled, “Allowing or Encouraging an Israeli Military Strike,” that:

    “…the most salient advantage this option has over that of an American air campaign is the possibility that Israel alone would be blamed for the attack. If this proves true, then the United States might not have to deal with Iranian retaliation or the diplomatic backlash that would accompany an American military operation against Iran. It could allow Washington to have its cake (delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon) and eat it, too (avoid undermining many other U.S. regional diplomatic initiatives).”

    Various diplomatic postures are discussed in consideration of the best formula to mitigate complicity amid a “unilateral” Israeli strike on Iran. Of course, and as the report notes, US-Israeli foreign policy is unified with Israel’s defenses a product of vast and continuous US support. Anything Israel does, therefore, no matter the political or diplomatic facade constructed, it does with America’s full backing – hence the inclusion of “encouraging” in the title of the chapter.


    Material support for terrorists operating in Syria has been provided for years by the West, with the West’s vast media monopolies providing rhetoric to undermine the legitimacy of the Syrian government, and US-created sanctuaries outside of Syria (primarily in Turkey and Jordan) for terrorists to to seek safe havens in and through which a torrent of arms, cash, equipment, and fighters flow.

    When understanding that the war in Syria is but a lead up to a larger conflict with Iran – with a literal signed confession created by US policymakers clearly serving as the foundation for several years of American foreign policy across the Middle East – one begins to understand the urgent imperative incumbent upon those who, for the sake of their own self-preservation, are tasked with stopping it.

    Russian and Chinese efforts to obstruct US designs in Syria are about more than selfish regional interests, they are a matter of self-preservation, stopping the conflict in Syria from spilling into Iran next, southern Russia afterwards, and eventually enveloping western China as well.

    That the US has committed itself to fueling chaos in Syria despite the unlikelihood of actually overthrowing the government in Damascus, costing tens of thousands of innocent people their lives, illustrates the callousness of US foreign policy, highlighting that Western sponsorship of terrorism around the world constitutes perhaps the most egregious, continuous, and most horrifically demonstrable threat to global peace and stability in our age.

    As the US and Israel conduct their latest diplomatic charade, a harbinger of even more chaos to come, those concerned must read the policy papers of the West and understand the true nature of their methodology if ever they hope to expose it and stop it.

    US-Israel Wage War on Iran in Syria
    By Tony Cartalucci

  6. Abe
    December 3, 2015 at 22:53

    Focus has shifted from the nuclear negotiations to the conflict in Syria, where Israel and Iran both are engaged.

    The US Navy is sending one of the largest aircraft carriers, the U.S.S. Harry Truman, to the Persian Gulf to assist in “the fight against ISIS”. The supercarrier is scheduled to arrive in the Persian Gulf around mid-December. It’s replacing the U.S.S. Teddy Roosevelt, which left the gulf in October.

    France has sent its largest aircraft carrier — the Charles de Gaulle — to the region in response to the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13. The Charles de Gaulle is the largest carrier in the European Union, but it pales in comparison to the American supercarriers such as the U.S.S. Harry Truman.

    • Abe
      December 4, 2015 at 02:02

      In the bio on his website, Trita Parsi proudly notes that he served as an adjunct scholar at the venerable Middle East Institute (MEI), publishers of Middle East Journal.

      The Middle East Institute hosted Parsi for a discussion on the prospects for a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear crisis in the wake of UN and US sanctions.

      Parsi apparently agrees with Graham E. Fuller, former CIA official and an Advisory Editor of Middle East Journal, that Iranian regional power is “exaggerated”

      The Middle East Institute recently admitted former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford as a Senior Fellow.

      On the MEI website in June, Ford outlines various scenarios of “Iranian support” for the embattled Syrian government.

      Ford reassures us that we can stop “hand-wringing about unlikely scenarios like the Islamic State or Nusra taking over” and start using “additional policy tools like serious material aid to the more moderate opposition” — you know, what worked so well before — “and perhaps even a no-fly zone”.

      Birds of a feather…

      At the very least, it does seem strange that Parsi fails to mention Syria in his discussion of the “de-Israelization” of Iran.

      Given the embarrassment of an Israeli colonel captured while assisting ISIS in Iraq (conveniently ignored by the Western media), Netanyahu and AIPAC will be even more loudly protesting the Iranian forces aiding the Syrian government.

      • David Smith
        December 4, 2015 at 14:30

        Abe, see my reply to your reply on the Obama Taunts Putin Over Syria article. Actually, we do not disagree. You correctly assembled The Ice Cream Sundae Of Evil, I merely added the cherry on top.

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