Thursday, May 28, 2009

Israel & Iran: Peaceful or Warmongering Regimes?

Global debate rages over the true nature of the regimes in control of Israel and Iran: are these essentially peaceful but insecure regimes or are they extremist regimes looking for an opportunity to launch a war? Rhetoric and tactics on both sides can easily be interpreted as evidence of the latter. Each accuses the other of being evil incarnate, threatening the safety of the whole world.

To judge the issue, rather than starting from thoughtless assumptions about mad mullahs, Zionist conspiracies, or opponents who are 10 feet tall, one should take the following default position: all societies share certain concerns. Regimes--sometimes being composed of fairly small, regimented groups—may well vary considerably more than the societies they lead. Nevertheless, start with the assumption that regimes share the concerns of their societies. Then, and only then, look for unique features to explain behavior that cannot be explained on the basis of the default assumptions.

Much of the behavior of societies and the regimes that lead (or control) them is explicable in terms of the following rather obvious model: humans want security, independence, and influence. To what extent do these three general factors motivating human suffice to explain the foreign policy positions of the Israeli and Iranian regimes?

Ex. 1 Israeli Efforts to Undercut U.S.-Iranian Accommodation

Israel’s prime protector, the U.S., is trying to escape from the limitations of its former policy of intimidation and work out a much needed accommodation with Iran. Iran, meanwhile, is days away from a presidential election that could open the doors to an historic deal. On the other hand, Iran remains years away from gaining possession of the military means to pose an actual threat to Israel. Implemented with care, the accommodation Obama seeks would offer the hope of ending the threat of Iranian-Israeli conflict, exactly what Israel claims to want. So why does Israel’s regime choose this delicate moment, pregnant with possibilities, to sabotage U.S. policy?

Such an accommodation would enhance Israeli security and preserve its independence. Indeed, by minimizing the threat to Israel, accommodation with Iran could actually increase its independence: in a less confrontational Mideast, Israel would no longer be so dependent on U.S. military and economic subsidies. One could argue that any likely accommodation would somewhat reduce Israeli influence, since it would surely make Iran an accepted and significant player in Mideast affairs, ending Israeli hopes of having military control of the region. But Israel would still remain the regional superpower and would gain influence diplomatically because it would itself become more of an accepted player in regional affairs.

Something is missing. The model is useful in disconfirming the idea that all Israel wants is security, but clearly a factor omitted from the model needs to be identified: for some reason, it seems that the Netanyahu regime would find very distasteful a Mideast characterized by mutual accommodation, lowered tensions, declining utility of military force, and relative equality among leading countries competing through diplomatic and economic means. Why? Is not this the ideal situation for a small, ethnically distinct country?

The reason seems to be that the Iranian challenge to Israel is intimately linked to the nature of Israel. As long as Israel is a colonial power promoting the Zionist dream of an ethnically cleansed and much enlarged Jewish state, the region will be radicalized by the irresistible magnet of Palestinian frustration. That frustration both enrages sympathetic people everywhere and offers an excuse for any troublemaker who happens by. There will always be a leader of the anti-Greater Israel movement, be it nationalist Nasser, secular power politician Saddam, jihadi bin Laden, or a Shi’ite Iran puffing up its chest. The way to remove such a challenge is for Israel to remove the target on its own chest by reaching accommodation with the Palestinians.

A real U.S.-Iranian accommodation will cover many issues. Even on the nuclear issue, the obvious way forward is to establish a set of standards to be applied to all regional countries. Washington would undoubtedly find reassuring an Iranian willingness to allow unannounced IAEA inspections of any site without delay. If this were a regional standard applied to Israel as well so that it was not seen as discriminatory behavior toward Iran, it is quite possible that Iran would accept. One could list endless examples. The bottom line is that U.S.-Iranian accommodation will inevitably involve modifications of Israel’s behavior as well.

To the degree that any Israeli regime is committed to the expansionist vision of a religiously-pure Greater Israel, it will foment enmity. The explanation for Netanyahu’s efforts to sabotage U.S. efforts to reach accommodation with Iran the additional factor of ideology (omitted from the basic model outlined above): namely, his commitment to the Zionist dream of a Greater Israel.

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