Is Netanyahu Dreaming in Cuban on Iran?

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Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images

Iranians walk on a street across from a building with murals of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and an unfinished picture of the late founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at Enghelab (Revolution) square in Tehran on February 28, 2012.

President Barack Obama, speaking Saturday in Turkey on the Iran nuclear standoff, reiterated his belief that “there is a window of time to solve this diplomatically, but that window is closing.” That may be a rhetorical device aimed at turning up the heat on the Iranians and on other interlocutors who might persuade them to be more forthcoming at next month’s nuclear talks with the major powers, but it also reflects the pressure created by Israel’s pounding of the war drum. It’s not Obama’s own hand, after all, that’s “closing” the diplomatic window of opportunity:  The President himself made clear just three weeks ago that his own red line for taking military action would be if that became necessary to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But he made clear, at the same time, that Iran is not currently building nuclear weapons, nor has it taken a decision to do so. The “closing window” to which he refers may be a reflection of the fact that the Israelis insist they take a darker view, and work off a shorter timetable. 

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei recently reiterated that the regime in Tehran regards the construction and use of nuclear weapons as a “sin against Islam” — in what appeared to be a public signal that Iran has no intention of crossing Obama’s red line. Iran analyst Vali Nasr also read that as a rebuke to those within the corridors of power in Tehran who argue that Iran should build nuclear weapons in the face of a mounting threat of foreign intervention. Khamenei also welcomed Obama’s emphasis on dialogue.

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But Netanyahu sets little store by Iran’s declared intentions, seeing the steady progress of its nuclear program as a burgeoning threat, and drawing its own red line at Iran having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon (arguably it already has that capacity). Netanyahu insisted during his recent Washington visit that if diplomacy and sanctions don’t produce the results Israel demands, it will take matters into its own hands by launching military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, acting on its own timetable. President Obama, trying to tamp down the war talk, has questioned the value of military strikes in stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons, noting in his speech to the Israel lobbying organization AIPAC three weeks ago that “the only way to truly solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons. That’s what history tells us.”

Obama has long been warned by the Pentagon that a bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities would at best delay Iran’s progress by one to three years, but would very likely spur Iran to expel the IAEA inspectors that currently monitor its uranium enrichment activities and take the decision to build a nuclear weapon — in the way that Israel’s 1981 strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor prompted Saddam Hussein within months to launch the covert bomb program that U.N. inspectors discovered only a decade later after the Gulf War.

But the Israelis may not share that assumption, or the widely held view among Iran analysts that military action would strengthen the regime at home. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg last week suggested (not in as many words) that Netanyahu, in fact, has taken a leaf from the Che Guevara playbook: “A widely held assumption about a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is that it would spur Iranian citizens — many of whom appear to despise their rulers — to rally around the regime,” wrote Goldberg. “But Netanyahu, I’m told, believes a successful raid could unclothe the emperor, emboldening Iran’s citizens to overthrow the regime (as they tried to do, unsuccessfully, in 2009).”

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That Netanyahu had a taste for Cuban cigars was widely reported in the 1990s, but who knew he had a taste for Che’s ideas on toppling authoritarian regimes? A central principle in the Argentina-born Cuban revolutionary’s approach to guerrilla warfare was the idea where an unpopular regime retained control by force, a few dramatic blows dealt by a small cadre of armed revolutionaries would demonstrate to the cowering masses that their tormentors were vulnerable, and this would embolden them to rise up and overthrow it. Wishful thinking that got Guevara killed in Bolivia, as he and his cadre find themselves isolated in the mountains as the local peasants, unimpressed by those who had (metaphorically) parachuted in to wage war on their behalf, were happy to inform on them.

But Netanyahu’s confidence that the Iranian masses can be spurred to action against their regime through outside pressure may even be shared by the Obama Administration. President Obama last week, in a message to Iranians marking the Persian New Year “Nowruz” told Iranians:

“I want the Iranian people to know that America seeks a dialogue. We want to hear your views and understand your aspirations… We’re using Farsi on Facebook and Twitter and Google+. And even as we impose sanctions on the Iranian government, today my government is adopting new guidelines to make it easier for American business to provide software and services into Iran that will make it easier for the Iranian people to use the Internet.”

The idea that ordinary Iranians will buy into this idea of the U.S. as holding their best interests at heart while  imposing sanctions that shrink their standard of living by fueling inflation and unemployment  requires more than a smidgen of optimism. Ordinary Iranians suffering economic woes attributable to sanctions (and you can be sure Tehran will henceforth attribute all economic woes to sanctions) may take some persuading that the measures imposed by the West are directed against the Iranian regime but not its people. Making the case won’t be helped, moreover, for any Iranians taking advantage of the Internet to connect with the wider world, as Obama urged them to do, had happened upon the Washington Post web site on January 10. There, they’d have learned that the paper had been told by an an unnamed senior U.S. intelligence official that one of the goals of the sanctions program was to put sufficient economic squeeze on the population to “create hate and discontent at the street level so that the Iranian leaders realize that they need to change their ways.”

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Israel followed a similar logic when, with the help of the U.S. and Egypt, it imposed an economically crippling blockade on Gaza in 2007, in the hope that this would spur the local population to rise up and overthrow Hamas. Five years later, Hamas still rules the roost in Gaza.

Cuba offers an even more discouraging example: The economic embargo designed to weaken the Castro regime and spur Cubans to rebellion marked its 50th anniversary last month, with the Castro regime no closer to collapse. There’s no sound reason to believe that ordinary Iranians feeling the impact of the sanctions on their household living standards are going to direct their anger at the regime rather than at those imposing the sanctions. After all, in Iran’s repressive climate, it’s not as if the citizenry has much say over the nuclear program — which, in any event, is something of a point of consensus on Iran’s divided political spectrum.

The Iranian decisions that most concern Obama — whether or not to engage in a process of negotiated  confidence-building measures with the West are going to be taken by Ayatullah Khamenei and his close circle of national security aides. Their intentions remain opaque. But  it’s a relatively safe bet that even if they’re amenable to a compromise, they’ll base it on Obama’s red line (building nuclear weapons) rather than Israel’s (Iran having the capacity to build nuclear weapons) — and will expect reciprocal concessions from the West. Discussions over that “diplomatic window” are therefore likely to becoming increasingly fraught in the months ahead.

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