14 March 2009

More of the same on Iran

The Secretary of State’s performance in relation to Iran during her first visit to the Middle East was every bit as disappointing as her performance in relation to peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians (for the latter see No way to approach Middle East peace).

Megaphone diplomacy is rarely the way to succeed in international diplomacy, certainly not the way to pursue the Administration’s stated aim of instituting a new approach to a country with which the United States has been at odds for 30 years. Successful engagement with Iran, in pursuance of the U.S. national interest, is an objective that will require quiet, patient diplomacy away from the spotlights. Raising the loud hailer from a podium in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest cities, in company with the Foreign Minister of the country that occupies that city and refuses to discuss sharing it, would have to be considered a trifle insensitive. Yet that is what Mrs Clinton did on this occasion.

After declaring that the bond between the United States and Israel remains fundamental, unshakeable and eternally durable, Secretary Clinton said of Iran:

The foreign minister and I also discussed Iran. We share Israel’s concerns about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and its continued financing of terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. As we conduct our policy review and consider areas where we might be able to productively engage with Iran, we will stay in very close consultation with our friends here in Israel, with the neighbors of Iran in the region and beyond with those countries that understand what a threat Iran poses today, and what a greater threat it would pose were it ever to be successful in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

So on Iran policy, the United States and Israel are joined at the hip. Iran’s “pursuit of nuclear weapons” is stated as established fact by Mrs Clinton – yet on 10 March the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, told the House Armed Services Committee that Iran had not yet made a decision to pursue the production of weapons grade uranium and the parallel development of the ability to load it onto a capable ballistic missile. He said that this was an agreed position of the intelligence community.

The fact that the U.S. intelligence community believes that Iran has not yet made the decision to develop a nuclear weapon makes it all the more regrettable that Secretary Clinton seems unprepared to rethink the triangular US-Israel-Iran relationship in any way. For reasons explained in Withdrawing from Iraq - don't forget Iran, the US-Israel and US-Iran relationships cannot be treated as separate issues.

Some commentators take comfort from the fact that Mrs Clinton proposes to invite Iran to a regional conference on Afghanistan. This is certainly a break with the approach of the Bush Administration, and at least Mrs Clinton had the good grace to acknowledge that Iran had been very helpful in the early stages of the Afghanistan campaign. But not too much should be read into this - how could one sensibly contemplate a conference on Afghanistan without the involvement of Iran? And Mrs Clinton appears less than desperate to have the Iranians there: “So we will invite them. Whether they attend or not is up to them”.

As a footnote, I wonder what the conservative clerics who rule Iran, or Ms Livni herself, made of the fact that Secretary Clinton was railing against terrorism alongside the daughter of the operations chief of the terrorist organisation Irgun. Perhaps Ms Livni permitted herself a wry smile.

One of Irgun’s most spectacular operations was the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, an event which was part of the foundation story of Israel. A plaque commemorating the attack, in which 91 lives were lost, was unveiled at a ceremony in 2006 on the 60th anniversary. This event was well attended by right-wing Israeli politicians, including Binyamin Netanyahu, now Prime Minister-designate. It was protested by the British Government.

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