Foaad Khosmood: Let’s talk about the midterm elections. Many of the neocons and their allies were not re-elected. People like Curt Weldon and Rick Santorum were very hawkish on Iran, and had very militant rhetoric throughout their campaign. They were rejected by the voters. Do you believe we have now gotten rid of the type of neocons who were pushing for military action toward Iran?
Stephen Zunes: The more extreme hawks of the neoconservative tradition have definitely suffered a setback in the election by the defeat of some of their key allies. This has been part of an overall decline in influence in recent months as a result of what’s been happening on the ground on Iraq and elsewhere. But there are still plenty of hawks of other stripes remaining in Congress, including a number of Democrats who will soon find themselves in the leadership of some key committees.
FKh: It seems one of the things the neocons are most afraid of, in this new reality, is the idea of engagement. Frank Gaffney was on MSNBC on Wednesday and he said that both Jim Baker and Bob Gates are “looking to cut deals with enemies like Iran and Syria.” Do you think there will be engagement with Iran? And why would Gaffney be so worried about it?
SZ: People like Gates and Baker are certainly quite conservative by almost any measure and have little regard for international law and human rights. Their priorities are maintenance and — if possible — extension of American power. But they are also realistic enough to know that in the real world, you have to engage with other powers, you can’t just bully your way through. Not that they would object to doing such things if they thought they could get away with it, but they are realistic enough to know that it is a more complex world than people like Gaffney would like to think. You might say they are more pragmatic imperialists.
FKh: Right. “Iran-contra” is their idea of engagement.
SZ: Yes, exactly. So this is more of a tactical shift, I would say, than any kind of major ideological shift. People like Baker, while they may have an ideological agenda as well, are not so blinded that they don’t understand where it might be appropriate to compromise in certain ways in order to advance their broader goals in the longer term.
FKh: There is now a race for the majority leader. Both Jack Murtha and Steny Hoyer have announced their intention to run. What do you think the foreign policy implications of these two individuals are?
SZ: Both Murtha and Hoyer have been traditionally among the more hawkish Democrats, though Murtha, of course, has taken a more realistic approach to the Iraq situation. He is also much less of an ideologue when it comes to Israel, while Hoyer has been one of the leading Likudniks on Capital Hill. So, while there’s really no genuine progressive in the race for majority leader, Murtha — who has strong ties with the military establishment — may be able to have a more positive impact regarding U.S. military policy, since he is more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.
FKh: Israel itself has had very harsh rhetoric regarding military action against Iran. Avigdor Lieberman has been made deputy minister in charge of “strategic threats.” What steps do you think Israel may take with regard to Iran in the near future?
SZ: My understanding is that there are major elements in the Israeli military establishment and the more hawkish civilian circles that recognize that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been a disaster for Israel’s interests and for western interests in general on a number of grounds, including making the United States more reticent to take military action against Iran, which Israel has long seen as the greater threat.
At the same time there’s a growing recognition in Israel that military action may not work. As Seymour Hersh and others have pointed out, this summer’s war on Lebanon was in many ways a trial run for US/Israeli attack on Iran, and that didn’t go so well. They figure that, given that they had that much trouble taking out these rockets belonging to a guerilla group, how can they be confident of success in taking out Iran’s heavily fortified nuclear facilities? I think they realize that if anyone is going to do it, it has to be the United States, so they are willing to push for a military option.
At the same time, some pragmatic voices in the Israeli establishment, as well as the majority of Israeli public opinion according to polls, are opposed to the idea of an attack on Iran. And the Israelis are encouraging the United States to back off on Syria, since they figure Assad is probably better than whoever might replace him. It is interesting to note that last month the United States essentially blocked Israel from renewing peace talks with the Syrians.
FKh: Right. But diplomatic pressure seems to be fair game, as they are trying to put more international pressure on Iran directly and through the United States.
SZ: Israel itself doesn’t have any diplomatic pressure to put on Iran directly, so they are encouraging others to do so.
Though I generally disagree with those who claim that Israel and its supporters play a decisive role in shaping US foreign policy, it is certainly true that AIPAC and like-minded pressure groups have tended to steer legislation and Congressional resolutions regarding Iran toward a more hawkish direction than they might otherwise be. That’s very different, though, from forcing the United States to launch a war against Iran. I think enough people in both Congress and the administration realize that this would be such a serious enough step that they would take it only if they genuinely believed that it would be in the best interest of the United States. They would not simply do it for Israel or because AIPAC pressured them to do so. It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be stupid enough to try something like that anyway, but it would be because of a sincere — if tragically misguided — belief that it would be the best thing for American national security.
FKh: The accusations of Iran and Hezbollah being behind the Argentinean-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) bombings of 1994 have now resurfaced, as they do periodically. Where does that case stand currently and is there actual evidence for Iran’s involvement?
SZ: The investigations in Argentina, including a major trial, were inconclusive, so I’m not sure what new evidence the Argentine government has now come up with. I do know that within the professional intelligence and diplomatic community in the United States as well as the Jewish community in Argentina, people have been split down the middle over the question of whether Hezbollah and/or Iran being behind the bombings, or if it was the work of a domestic far right-wing group. There’s a faction within the Argentine military that is well-known for its notorious anti-Semitism which has carried out terrorist attacks in the past. The size of the explosions were such that it would have been very hard to smuggle that much explosives from the outside, leading some to speculate that it came from an Argentine military stockpile somewhere.
In fact a number of Argentine military officers were initially indicted for the crime. They ended up dropping the charges for what they call “lack of evidence” which is often the term they use when prosecutors find themselves under political pressure.
Also, if it was Hezbollah, it would be very out of character. While Hezbollah agents have been responsible for the assassinating some Iranian dissidents in Europe, there have been no other credible charges of Hezbollah engaging in large-scale terrorism outside of Lebanon.
FKh: They’ve never taken credit for it either.
SZ: Yes, that’s the other thing. Also, Carlos Menem, the civilian president whom the Argentine military was trying to undermine in hopes of returning to power, is of a Syrian-Muslim background (though he converted to Catholicism formally when he got married and decided to pursue a political career). Some speculate that blaming Hezbollah might in some way discredit him.
FKh: Interesting, these other tidbits are not usually mentioned in the US media.
SZ: Yes, you can understand why the United States, Israel and Argentina would all have motivation in trying to blame Iran and Hezbollah rather than a domestic far right-wing Argentine group. One certainly cannot rule out the possibility that Hezbollah and/or Iran were responsible, but a healthy degree of skepticism may be warranted.
FKh: OK, back to Bob Gates. This guy was involved in the Iran-Contra, or at least he knew about what was going on. In 2004 when he was the co-chair of the Council of Foreign Relations taskforce on Iran, his report called for Iran to abandon its nuclear ambition and to stop its support for terrorists. But he was also quoted as saying “these demands should not constitute pre-conditions on dialogue.” So maybe they are serious about dialogue with Iran.
SZ: Remember that even under Bush, even at a time where the neocons were at the height of their influence, the United States came to a negotiated agreement with Libya on their nuclear program. If the U.S. can deal with Khaddafi, surely they can deal with Ahmadinejad. One need not be a naÃ¯ve idealistic liberal to recognize that sometimes you have to negotiate with regimes that you ideally would rather not exist.
FKh: Lastly on the John Bolton nomination, it seems that Bush is still trying to get that through the Senate. I would like to get your reaction on that if you have any.
SZ: I would assume that his nomination is pretty dead at this point.
FKh: Wouldn’t they take advantage of the lame-duck session to pass him through? Because Lincoln Chafee lost reelection…
SZ: Yes, but he would still be there in the lame duck session.
FKh: I know, but now he has no incentive to vote with the Democrats.
SZ: Conversely, he has no incentive to appease the party leadership and President Bush. Chafee might be more inclined to act on his conscience. Frankly, whether or not he voted for John Bolton wasn’t going to make that big a difference in terms of his reelection prospects. I think senators who opposed Bolton did so because they thought it was genuinely not a good idea for somebody like that to represent the United States in the United Nations.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project. He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003.) Links to his articles can be found at www.stephenzunes.org.