Iran Showdown Tests Power of Israel
by Jim Lobe
www.antiwar.com, April 12, 2006
One month after the publication by two
of the most influential international relations scholars in the
United States of a highly controversial essay on the so-called
"Israel Lobby," their thesis that the lobby exercises
"unmatched power" in Washington is being tested by rapidly
rising tensions with Iran.
Far more visibly than any other domestic
constituency, the Israel Lobby, defined by Profs. John Mearsheimer
of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt, academic dean of
Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, as "the loose coalition
of individuals and organizations who actively work to shape U.S.
foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction," has pushed the
government - both Congress and the George W. Bush administration
- toward confrontation with Tehran.
Leading the charge has been a familiar
group of neoconservatives, such as former Defense Policy Board
(DPB) chairman Richard Perle and former Central Intelligence Agency
director James Woolsey, who championed the war in Iraq but who
have increasingly focused their energies over the past year on
building support for "regime change" and, if necessary,
military action against Iran if it does not abandon its nuclear
(On Tuesday, Iran announced that it had
successfully enriched uranium, which can be used for both nuclear
weapons and nuclear power reactors, in defiance of a UN Security
Council resolution ordering an end to all enrichment activities
by April 28).
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee
(AIPAC), the premier Israel lobby group whose annual convention
last year featured a giant, multimedia exhibit on how Iran is
"pursuing nuclear weapons and how it can be stopped,"
has also been pushing hard on Capitol Hill for legislation to
promote regime change. Despite White House objections, the group
has sought tough sanctions against foreign companies with investments
"This bill has been pushed almost
entirely by AIPAC," noted Trita Parsi, a Middle East expert
at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS)
here. "I don't see any other major groups behind this legislation
that have had any impact on it."
Similarly, the American Jewish Committee
(AJC), whose leadership is considered slightly less hawkish than
AIPAC, has taken out full-page ads in influential U.S. newspapers
since last week entitled "A Nuclear Iran Threatens All"
depicting radiating circles on an Iran-centered map to show where
its missiles could strike.
"Suppose Iran one day gives nuclear
devices to terrorists," the ad reads. "Could anyone
anywhere feel safe?"
In their 81-page essay, entitled "The
Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" and condensed in a
shorter essay published last month in the London Review of Books,
Mearsheimer and Walt, pillars of the "realist" school
of international relations, argue that Washington's Middle East
policy is too closely tied to Israel to serve its own national
interests in the region, particularly in the so-called "war
They believe that the power of the Israel
Lobby - derived, among other things, from its ability to marshal
financial support for Democratic as well as Republican politicians,
its grassroots organizational prowess, and its ability to stigmatize
critics as "anti-Semitic" (a tactic already deployed
against the authors) - is largely responsible.
"No lobby has managed to divert U.S.
foreign policy as far from what the American national interest
would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans
that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially the same,"
the authors argued, noting that the lobby, while predominantly
Jewish, also includes prominent Christian evangelicals and non-Jewish
neoconservatives, such as Woolsey and former Education Secretary
In the administration's decision to invade
Iraq, pressure from Israel and the lobby played a "critical"
- although not exclusive - role, according to the paper, which
cited prewar public prodding by Israeli leaders and by leaders
of many major Jewish organizations as evidence, although it notes
that most U.S. Jews were skeptical and have since turned strongly
against the war.
Neoconservatives closely associated with
the right-wing views of Israel's Likud party - both in and outside
the administration - played a particularly important role in gaining
support for "regime change" in Iraq stretching back
to the mid-1990s, according to the paper.
But even during the run-up to the Iraq
war, Israeli leaders, notably then-Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer
and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, depicted Iran as the greater
threat, a theme that was picked up by the Lobby, led by the neoconservatives,
immediately after Baghdad's fall.
"The liberation of Iraq was the first
great battle for the future of the Middle East. But the next
great battle - not, we hope a military one - will be for Iran,"
wrote the Weekly Standard's neoconservative editor, William Kristol,
in early May 2003.
Shortly thereafter, neoconservatives and
other hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney succeeded in cutting
off ongoing U.S.-Iranian talks on Afghanistan and Iran and killing
an offer by Tehran to engage in a broader negotiation on all outstanding
What makes the growing confrontation with
Iran so remarkable is that the Israel Lobby appears to be the
only major organized force here that is actively pushing it toward
Mainstream analysts, including arms control
hawks who favor strong pressure on Iran over its nuclear program,
have spoken out against military action as far too risky and almost
certainly counterproductive. Even analysts at the right-wing Heritage
Foundation have voiced doubts. "It just doesn't make any
sense from a geopolitical standpoint," said Heritage's James
Carifano, noting Iran's capacity to retaliate against the U.S.
The Iranian exile community, which has
generally favored more pressure on Tehran, similarly appears divided
about the consequences of a military attack, with some leaders
fearing that it would strengthen the regime, Walt told IPS. He
added that "it's hard for me to believe that [U.S.] oil companies
would be in favor of a military option [because they] don't like
violence or events that create political risk or uncertainty."
While insisting that military action against
Iran's nuclear program should only be a last resort, the Israel
Lobby, on the other hand, appears united in the conviction that
an attack will indeed be necessary if diplomatic efforts, economic
pressure, and covert action fail.
"[Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad]
sees the West as wimps and thinks we will eventually cave in,"
Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research of the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank established by AIPAC,
told New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. "We
have to be ready to deal with Iran if the crisis escalates."
Hersh summarized Clawson's bottom line
as "Iran had no choice other than to accede to America's
demands or face a military attack."
That was much the same message delivered
by Perle himself and rapturously received by the attendees at
AIPAC's 2006 convention here last month. The convention, at which
the keynoter, none other than the administration's ultimate hawk,
Vice President Cheney, vowed "meaningful consequences"
if Iran did not freeze its nuclear program, drew several hundred
Democratic and Republican lawmakers in what could only be described
as a show of raw political power.
"I don't think there's another group
in the country that has two successive conferences in which the
centerpiece was beating the drums for war in Iran," noted
one senior official with another major pro-Israel organization,
who asked not to be identified. "They are the main force