Hegemony or Appeasement? US Incoherence On Iran

Prime Minister Netanyahu has lost his bet on a Congressional override of the Iran nuclear deal. The partisanship of US politics was far too evident a barrier to overcome. Besides, Bibi only made matters worse. Even among the majority of American Jews (who should have known better) the Iran nuclear deal became an “us vs. them” issue. However, unlike in Israel where “them” means the terrorist state of Iran, for US Jews, “them” means the “warmonger” Republican Party.

The divide between the two American political parties is now so deep that the whole issue of Iran as a regional power within the Middle East can best be described as a US partisan war. The Democrats will be tested soon on Iranian support for Hezbollah, the end game in the Syrian civil war, and whether to support a new round of Congressional sanctions regarding Iranian support for terrorism. Unsurprisingly, this test will come in the middle of a crucial US presidential and senatorial election year, 2016. The war between the two US political parties will also involve Israel and the future of the Iran nuclear deal. In other words, not only is the future of the nuclear deal in jeopardy, but so too will be the entire role of US foreign policy for the region of the Middle East.

The Republican Party will emphasize the necessity to continue America’s historic hegemonic role within the region. While, on the other hand, the Democrats will attempt to cast such Republican aspirations as war-like and dangerous. The Democrats will be called appeasers, and the nuclear deal with Iran will be compared to Munich in 1938. Meanwhile Republican policy will be compared with what is vastly considered a failed war in Iraq. And everything going wrong in the Middle East will be portrayed by Democrats as the misguided policy projections of George W. Bush’s “deceitful” Iraq invasion in 2003. Republicans will howl at this analysis, claiming that the Obama presidency (eight years in the making) has been soft on Iranian terrorism, too trusting of Iranian intentions and clearly malfeasant by allowing Iran to become a threshold nuclear power. That is, with a breakout time of mere days within a very short decade. On this final point the Republicans will quote President Obama himself.

The Iran nuclear deal is not a treaty, and it can be reversed at any second. The question for Democrats will be: If a Republican is chosen President of the United States, how soon will the deal be abrogated, and what then becomes the alternative to an immediate Iranian nuclear breakout? Again the Democrats will claim that such a policy can only lead to a new war in the Middle East. The Republicans will answer that the Democrats are afraid to fight against tyranny, including a Middle East under the thumb of an Iranian regime whose ubiquitous slogan is “Death to America”.

The question of Israel will be raised, and the Republicans will attempt to tar the Democrats as soft on Israel’s security or even much worse. The Democrats will have to prove that President Obama’s record is strong with regard to all its Middle East allies. But in order to do that, they will have little choice but to support new sanctions against Iranian support for terrorism. In fact, the new Saudi king is coming to Washington on September 4th, and he’ll be asking President Obama many of the same question as those raised by the Republicans. Will Obama risk his nuclear deal by supporting a new round of Congressional sanctions directed toward Iran’s behavior in the region? And if he doesn’t, how will the Democratic Party nominee respond? Are you listening, Hillary or Joe? And how is Bibi going to respond to a potential Obama veto of a new round of sanctions directed at Iran’s terrorist activity? Will Bibi continue to play the partisan game, or instead attempt to convince the Israeli Labor Party leader to agree on a joint statement? If both Likud and Labor deplore a potential presidential veto, how would the American Jewish community respond to such a strong left-wing Israeli response?

What about the Hezbollah-Iranian missiles in Lebanon? Is the US ever going to take the lead in instituting UN Security Council Resolution 1701? I’m certain that the Republican presidential nominee will make those missiles, and Obama’s lack of action, an issue in the campaign. What will be the Democratic Party response? And does the US even have a Syrian policy? Certainly the Republicans can’t be blamed for Obama’s shifting redlines in the face of Assad’s use of chemical weapons. But it is those very same shifting redlines that the Republicans will use to paint Obama’s presidency as soft on state-sponsored terrorism originating from both Tehran and Damascus. Is America destined to reestablish its hegemonic position in the Middle East or to sit it out on the fence, hoping all goes well for its friends in the region? Obama’s foreign policy legacy will be decided on whether or not he is an appeaser or a hegemonic leader. Whichever he chooses, he loses.

In the final analysis, neither hegemony nor appeasement can work. Both are incoherent foreign policy projects; because they lead to an expansion of the present regional war, either through the actions of the US (hegemony) or a lack of action causing an extreme response from other regional powers. Iran needs the sanctions lifted because they want a free hand in the Middle East. But they can’t have both without a total US capitulation to their desires. Such a US capitulation doesn’t seem to be politically possible. Something will have to give within this scenario as it stands. Most likely, it will be the Iran nuclear deal. Because unless all sides compromise — within a much broader regional framework (both conventional and nuclear) — renewed sanctions leading to a broken nuclear treaty make a larger war almost inevitable.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).