Will Iran’s Third-World Jamboree Hasten an Israeli Attack? Probably Not

Why the uproar among some in the U.S. and Israel over Iran's hosting of the Non-Aligned Movement summit is sound and fury, signifying little

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Vahid Salemi / AP

Damaged cars that three Iranian scientists were riding in when they were killed in bombings over the last three years are displayed outside a conference hall hosting the meeting of Non-Aligned Movement, in Tehran, Iran, Aug. 26, 2012. Iran says the attacks against its scientists are part of a covert campaign by Israel and the West to sabotage its nuclear program, which the U.S. and its allies suspect is aimed at producing nuclear weapons.

Despite Iranian and Israeli statements to the contrary, it’s a tad misleading to cast this week’s Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran a “setback” for U.S. efforts to isolate Iran. Sure, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon showed up despite the efforts of Israel and the U.S. to dissuade him from going. And yes, Egypt’s new president Mohamed Morsy is there, too, along with dozens of other leaders of the 118 member states. Don’t be surprised if the NAM summit passes boilerplate resolution supporting Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, and condemning unilateral sanctions. But none of this is new: To view the NAM summit as a reversal in the U.S.-led campaign to isolate Iran is to vastly overestimate that campaign’s success in the first place — and also to vastly overestimate the significance of the anti-imperialist pageantry and pablum that has been the movement’s staple since its inception.

The NAM summit was scheduled three years ago, its venue reflecting the fact that Egypt will hand Iran the rotating chair of the movement founded in 1961 to express independence from the major powers waging the Cold War. The U.N. Secretary General has attended every NAM summit since the movement’s creation; for Ban to have stayed away would have been a shocking reversal of tradition. As the most senior official of the international body, he is answerable to the U.N. as a whole, and would fatally undermine his position if he was seen to be party to the geopolitical agenda of Israel and the Western powers.

(MORE: Why Do Israeli Media Keep Predicting War with Iran?)

Nor is Morsy’s appearance is a surprise: It was always expected that a more democratic Egypt would break the Mubarak habit of carrying water for U.S. regional agendas and instead pursue an independent foreign policy more reflective of the popular will. Even before Morsy’s election, the military junta that replaced Mubarak moved to normalize relations with Iran — not to embrace it as an ally, but simply to open diplomatic ties and distance itself from a binary approach to the region that it sees as fueling confrontation.

As for the NAM itself, it has always broadly supported Iran’s position at the IAEA, insisting on Iran’s right to all aspects of a peaceful nuclear energy program and rejecting any limits on those rights, as well as threats and unilateral sanctions. At the same time, NAM is committed to non-proliferation and the principle of the IAEA as the competent body to police it, and insists that Iran comply with IAEA demands over its nuclear activities.

In short, neither NAM nor the U.N. Secretary General were party to any effort to isolate Iran in the first place, but nor are they about to give Tehran a free pass over non-compliance with the IAEA. Other than restate its longstanding positions and provide a pleasing photo opportunity, there’s not much the NAM can actually do for Iran in the nuclear standoff — and the vexed issue of Syria, as well as domestic political repression in Iran could yet provide some uncomfortable moments for the regime in Tehran.

(MORE: Is Israel Angling for a Commitment from Obama on Iran?)

But Iran’s efforts to paint the NAM summit as a major propaganda coup were actually amplified by Israel’s response. “Mr. Secretary General, your place is not in Tehran,” declared Netanyahu, in a tone reportedly deemed so condescending by Ban aides that it reinforced his determination to attend. And the Israeli media portrayed the event as if a portent of crisis. One senior Israeli commentator even offered the feverish suggestion that the NAM summit represented “a clear and present danger” that would “shorten the path to war” — ostensibly by affirming Israeli complaints that Iran is not as isolated as the Obama Administration likes to say it is, reinforcing the hawkish narrative that sanctions have failed. Painting a NAM summit as a threat to anything other than road traffic in the host city is an argument hard to sustain outside of the Israeli simulacrum in which a war with Iran is both inevitable and imminent.

The Obama Administration may be among those skeptical of the Israeli media clamor predicting a unilateral military strike on Iran before Americans go to the polls in November. Former Clinton Administration ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk last Thursday told IDF radio that the Administration is unlikely to be moved by the latest round of Israeli saber rattling, having become convinced last March that Netanyahu was about to order an attack, only to determine that he had been bluffing in order to push Washington to adopt a tougher stance. Administration officials “were convinced that Israel was going to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities in the spring, and we’ve tried everything in our power to change their stance,” Indyk told his interviewer. “I think afterwards they felt that Prime Minister Netanyahu created a big fraud.”

MORE: New Sanctions, Old Postures as U.S.-Israel-Iran Stalemate Drags On

The drums of war have pounded all summer in the Israeli media, although their rhythm is increasingly discordant given the near unanimous opposition reported among Israel’s military and security leadership to a unilateral strike. The very public nature of that push-back from Israel’s security establishment may have damaged the reputations of Netanyahu and Barak, with a steady stream of Israel’s most respected former security chiefs making media statements questioning their judgement, motivations, strategic competence and even sanity. Gen. Uri Sagi, who served as head of military intelligence under Barak, last week offered some distinctly unflattering assessments of the personalities of his former boss and the prime minister, and questioned “whether Israel can rely on the judgement and mental stability of its current leaders to guide it in time of war.” Such jibes have fueled a furious backlash from other quarters insisting that political leaders, not generals, will make the decisions — but that has hardly stopped the steady stream of statements questioning the war talk by the political leadership.

Another former Clinton Administration official, Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller, concurs that Israel won’t take military action before November. “For the time being,” he writes, “it’s far less risky to maintain the status quo. Sanctions are tough and may get tougher, cyber and covert war have had some effect, and the unraveling situation in Syria… has isolated Tehran even further. Meanwhile, the Israelis can keep the world focused on their agenda and on the edge of their collective chairs, worried about a military strike and perhaps willing to do even more to hammer the Iranians.”

(MORE: Deadlocked, Iran and Western Nuclear Negotiators Agree Only to Keep Talking)

The Obama Administration continues to urge restraint, and has certainly escalated its sanctions pressure on Iran in part to placate the Israelis by assuring them that there’s a viable alternative path to stopping Iran attaining nuclear weapons. The President has also offered public assurance that the U.S. will take military action if Iran moves to build a nuclear weapon — which, of course, it is not currently doing, despite steadily accumulating the means to build a bomb, with its ever-expanding capacity to enrich uranium shortening the time-frame that would be required. The IAEA is expected to report later this week that Iran has installed hundreds more centrifuges in its reinforced plant at Fordow, built deep in a mountainside near Qom, thereby considerably expanding its capacity to produce nuclear fuel beyond the reach of Israeli bombs — news that will, no doubt, fuel another round of saber-rattling.

Still, the Administration — and, indeed, Israel’s security establishment — argue that there’s still time for sanctions and diplomacy to avert a crisis. But with little sign that the sanctions, painful as their impact has been on Iran’s economy, are changing Iran’s nuclear calculations; and the existing negotiation process essentially stalled, there’s little sign that either current negotiations or current sanctions are going to change the game any time soon.

That’s why President Obama — and, indeed, Gov. Mitt Romney — got some sobering advice from former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who had led the Bush Administration’s efforts to deal with Iran.

(MORE: Long-Term Uncertainty Remains in Nuclear Talks with Iran)

“The negotiating channel we have tried for six years now — a multilateral with the United States as one of six countries under European Union leadership — has produced no results and tied the hands of American negotiators,” Burns warned. That made it urgent, he argued, for the U.S. to “begin an extended one-on-one negotiation with all issues on the table. The United States should aim for the sustained and substantive talks it has not had in the three decades since American diplomats were taken hostage in Iran… To attack a country before we have had our first meaningful discussions since 1979 would be shortsighted, to say the least.”

Mindful of the politics of the current standoff, Burns also recommended that Washington “take the reins of this crisis from Israel to give us more independence and protect Israel’s core interests at the same time… We should reaffirm our determination to protect Israel’s security. But the United States, not Israel, must lead on Iran during the next year. It is not in America’s interests to remain hostage to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s increasingly swift timetable for action. We need the freedom to explore negotiations with Iran on our own slower timeline before we consider force.”

Snatching back the Iran file from an Israeli leadership that insists on Israel’s independence in making the key decisions over its security, however, is far easier said than done at the best of times. It may be politically impossible before November.

MORE: For Israel, the Problem with Iran Diplomacy Is the Prospect of Nuclear Compromise

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