U.S. interests served by more nuanced views on Israel and Iran in Congress

This year may mark a positive turning point in the acrimonious 35-year relationship between the U.S. and Iran.  If the P5+1 negotiations fail, however, Congress will undoubtedly pass more constricting sanctions and likely at some point in the near future an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iran.

Advocates for military strikes targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities have posited that while the U.S. may not be able to permanently eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability through airpower, if necessary the U.S. can bomb its nuclear infrastructure every x number of years if Iranian leaders decided to rebuild their program.

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Proponents of this deceptively attractive option tend to avoid discussion of Iran’s retaliatory options and the possibility that if it retaliated in a provocative enough manner, the U.S. would be effectively compelled to respond through an escalation in military force in order to signal its resolve.  How far the mutual escalation might go should not be left outside the scope of the public debate.

Several weeks ago I asked a retired senior U.S. foreign policy official with expertise on Iran whether he’d ever seen a U.S. military plan for overthrowing the Iranian government that did not involve the major use of U.S. ground forces.  “No, I have not,” he replied. 

If a realistic plan for this does not exist, why are advocates of airstrikes implying through omission that the U.S. can simply bomb its nuclear Iran dilemma away?  One would hope that our elected officials are thinking several moves ahead in the game rather than indulging in wishful thinking about what airpower could accomplish.  Regrettably they do not seem to be, judging by their statements and lack of questioning in unclassified hearings. 

Many of them also seem to maintain a distorted view of Iran, particularly concerning its official policy toward Israel, which is an important point of contention that has negatively influenced the U.S.-Iran relationship but could be used as an opportunity to improve it.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s position toward Israel is certainly a radical one.  He views Israel as an illegitimate state that should be forcibly dissolved as a political entity in order to redress the status of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Khamenei is not genocidal, however, as some advocates for military force against Iran have asserted. 

Khamenei believes, rather, that a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue requires that it be put to a democratic referendum in which Jewish, Christian, and Muslim inhabitants and refugees of Palestine should have the right to vote. His view is also based on his perception that the Israeli government is insincere regarding its stated desire for a two-state solution and his ostensible long-term strategic assumption that it will continue to expand its territory and power at the expense of the Muslim world if it is not countered.

Khamenei’s non-recognition of the State of Israel and willingness to support terrorist organizations against it are problematic to say the least; equally problematic, however, is Israel’s continuing annexation of territory in the West Bank, including neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, which Secretary of State John Kerry cited as the primary reason why the latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations failed.  On this issue, Congress has given Israel a pass, opening the U.S. to charges of hypocrisy.

Expansionist Israeli leaders and their American political proxies in AIPAC are far more clever than their Iranian counterparts, who are to their own detriment much more explicit and inflammatory in their rhetoric.  In effect, however, there is not much difference between the intentions of radicals on both sides: Iranian hardliners have a long-term strategy of supporting Islamist militants against the State of Israel to eventually eliminate it as a political entity; Israeli expansionists have a long-term strategy of military occupation and economic constriction against the Palestinians to pressure them to emigrate or otherwise perpetuate their subjugation. However much Israeli officials might claim otherwise, their actions belie their words.

This game will go on unless Congress changes the political cost-benefit analysis of Israeli expansionists’ by making foreign aid to Israel contingent on its dismantlement of settlements. 

That would signal to Iranian leaders that the U.S. is serious about its commitment to justice for the Palestinians and could open an opportunity for the Rouhani administration to advocate for compromise on this issue with the Supreme Leader, who “publicly has confirmed that Iran would not impede any settlement which would be acceptable to the Palestinians,” according to Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council.

If the U.S. could convince Iran to shift its support from radical Palestinian organizations to those who support a two-state framework as well as bring Hezbollah’s policy toward Israel in line with a two-state solution, this would send a powerful signal to Israel that it is in its interest to compromise in good faith rather than continue to play its longstanding political game with the U.S.  The Fatah-Hamas coalition would split and moderate Palestinian leaders would have a real opportunity to deliver, leaving Hamas stewing in Gaza until it moderated its own policies or the Palestinians there swept it aside in favor of compromise. 

While this diplomatic effort should be pursued on a separate track from the nuclear negotiations given the more pressing nature of the latter, a U.S.-brokered de-escalation in tensions between Israel and Iran would improve the overall security and diplomatic environment by reducing perceptions of Iranian leaders as hell-bent on realizing a set of radical ideological goals, which may be motivated more by deeply rooted fears of Western intrigue against Iran than by aggressive impulses.

Critics will argue that any proposal along these lines would be an affront to an ally and an expression of weakness toward a government that has conducted covert military operations and terrorist attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets.  It is worth noting, however, that neither Israel’s nor the U.S.’s records on human rights or adherence to international legal norms are spotless, nor are those of other adversarial governments the U.S. has negotiated with. 

Finally, Congress has a responsibility to those it authorizes the president to send to war to allow all diplomatic options to be exhausted.  Given that it cannot assume U.S. airstrikes would not escalate into a ground conflict, Congress should maintain a high threshold for military action and it should demonstrate political courage by pushing back against AIPAC and those in the Israeli government who are undermining the United States’ diplomatic standing in the region by supporting territorial expansion and pushing for war.  Israel certainly has the right to live in peace and the U.S. should defend that right.  Israel does not have the right to annex territory and blackmail the U.S. on the Iran negotiations by threatening to bomb if the U.S. does not.  A faithful friend would remain committed to Israel’s defense while holding it accountable for its damaging behavior, which may end up proving deeply harmful to itself as well as to the United States if it is left unchallenged by Congress.

Buonomo is a former military intelligence officer and Middle East specialist.