Speaking to America?

The meeting started with an Israeli offering a handshake readily accepted by a retired Saudi general.

By AMITAI ETZIONI
June 13, 2015 22:07
4 minute read.
US Capitol

The US Capitol building in Washington.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The meeting started with an Israeli offering a handshake readily accepted by a retired Saudi general. The hand was extended by Dore Gold, hours before he became the director general of the Foreign Ministry, and accepted by retired general Anwar Eshki, the head of a Saudi think tank. The assembled audience, at the DC branch of the Council on Foreign Relations, soon learned that the two had met five times before.

The general spoke first. He wasted no time on pleasantries and moved right to tearing into Iran. He listed in rapid succession the attacks sponsored by Iran on Americans, beginning with the 1983 suicide truck bomb attack on the US Marine barracks in Beirut, the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers, and so on. Gold pointed out that Iran has successfully increased its sway in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, and is on its way to becoming a hegemonic power in the region.

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While both indicated their displeasure with the “very bad deal” that is being crafted in Geneva, they focused more on what Iran would do on other fronts, through its various proxies. They seemed to assume, correctly in my judgment, that the American public has heard plenty already about the dangers of a nuclear Iran, but much less about Iran’s influence over large parts of the region, and reaching into still others.

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Oddly, neither closed the deal, either because of the time limits for their presentation – Gold was said to be rushing to make it back to Israel before Shabbat – or because they assumed that it was obvious why the US would not – or at least should not – tolerate being pushed out of the Middle East.

“The US should not mind too much Iran’s growing role in the region,” an international maven from the nearby George Washington University explained to me; anything would be better than to drag the US into another losing war in the Middle East, especially in a country much larger than either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Indeed, there is a deep war fatigue among the American public. At the same time, US corporations would rather sell aircraft carriers, submarines, and F-35s to fight China, a much more profitable proposition than fighting Islamic State, and the US military would much prefer to fight another nation, with conventional means, than to have to deal with irregular forces fighting from the homes of civilians and places of worship. Some add that the US no longer needs oil from the Middle East.

When I asked a Navy captain on the way out what he thought about what he had heard, he allowed that a nuclear Iran was indeed a serious threat for Israel – but not for the US. And anyhow, Iran could be deterred from using the bomb, just as the USSR had been. He added a line I hear often in DC – “after all, they’re not crazy.” As to proliferation, which Gold mentioned was sure to follow Iran’s rush to a bomb, the captain did not believe Saudi Arabia had the drive and talent to proceed in that direction, though he allowed it might get the bomb from Pakistan.

I am not sure what would get American analysts and the public truly revved up about Iran. Maybe if they learned that if the US abandons Saudi Arabia and Israel, and effectively the whole region, US allies in the Far East would not feel that they can trust the US. In effect, the US would have no ally left. Maybe if there was evidence that nations involved will serve as launching pads and training bases for terrorists? But none of this was mentioned by either presenter.

Many in the audience, myself included, were impressed by the “historic” nature of the meeting and the similarities in the two presentations. But if the purpose of the two speakers was to get the Obama administration to reconsider its dream of a restrained nuclear Iran working with the US to stabilize the region after some kind of a rapprochement, I did not believe the presentations changed many minds. To be heard by Americans, one must address their concerns, rather than focus on those of the nations represented by the speakers.

The author is a professor of international relations at George Washington University. His latest book is The New Normal: Finding a Balance Between Individual Rights and the Common Good.


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