Nothing has stirred up so much controversy in the US as Obama’s U -turn on Iran . The following article explains some of the important causes behind it. There were also, doubtless, other considerations,but these are less well knwn.
GLOBAL POLITICS AT A TURNING POINT
The nuclear agreement announced in Lausanne on April 2, has made history but the wolves have begun to gather. Israel’s Prime minister , Binyamin Netanyahu has called it a ‘historic mistake” that threatens the survival of Iran and could lead to a ‘horrific war’. He has been joined by Saudi Arabia and, less vocally, by other sunni sheikhdoms in the Gulf.
Their opposition stems from their thwarted ambitions, for the most cursory examination shows that the agreement is too tightly constructed to leave any loophole for Iran to crawl through into nuclear weapons status. So if Iran entered the negotiations with the intention of keeping open cracks in it that would permit it to produce nuclear weapons in the future, it has already lost.
President Obama has been at pains to point out that the agreement is based on technology, not trust, but he would not even have started down the diplomatic road had he not been at least half-way satisfied when he and Rouhani first met at the UN in September 2013 that Iran did not want to become a nuclear weapons power.
Iran’s Foreign Minister explained why in a widely attended talk in Delhi in January last year. The big powers, he said, remain trapped in a zero sum paradigm, in which if one party to a dispute gained, the other had to have lost. But in the tautly interdependent world of today there are no more zero-sum outcomes, for the damage any conflict does inevitably far exceeds the benefits it was expected to bestow on the initiators. The way to resolve disputes is to find common ground that leaves both sides net gainers. This could be found in allowing Iran to develop nuclear technology but not nuclear weapons.
This argument resonated with Obama because he was acutely aware of how badly the succession of preemptive military interventions since the end of the Cold War had weakened the US and stripped it of its moral authority. “Why is it,” he asked reporters while on a tour of Asia in April 2014 “that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and our budget?”[i]
But what had completed his disillusionment was the way in which some of the US’ closest allies had abused its trust and manipulated its policies to serve their purposes without sparing a thought for how that affected the US’ security. At the head of this list were Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Obama got his first shock on November 28, 2012 when a Jabhat al Nusra unit north of Aleppo brought down a Syrian army helicopter with a Russian SA-7, a man-portable Surface-to-Air missile. A day that the west had been dreading had finally arrived: heavy weapons that the US and EU had expressly proscribed because they could bring down civilian aircraft anywhere in the world, had somehow reached Al Qaeda’s hands.
The White House tried to pretend that that rebels had obtained a single missile from a captured Syrian air base but, fed up with the suppression and distortion of the intelligence they were providing, intelligence agencies leaked it to the Washington Post that no fewer than 40 SAM missile batteries with launchers, along with hundreds of tonnes of other heavy weapons had been bought from the supposedly US- friendly government in Libya, by Qatar and transported to the rebels via Turkey. Saudi Arabia had done the same through Jordan.
He received his second shock at the next ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting in Marrakesh three weeks later when not only the ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels that the US had grouped under a newly formed Syrian Military Council three months earlier, but all its Sunni Muslim allies, including Turkey, condemned a ban the US had put on the Jabhat Al Nusra, while Britain and France remained silent.
But Obama received his third, and worst, shock nine months later when, two days before the US was scheduled to bomb Syria the British informed him that soil samples collected from the site of the Ghouta gas attack on Augut 21 2013, and analyzed at their CBW research laboratories at Porton Down, had shown that the Sarin used in the attack could not possibly have been prepared by the Syrian army. Had Obama gone through with the attack it would have made him ten times worse than George Bush in history’s eyes.
Only then did Obama fully realize the scale of the conspiracy that had been hatched to pull the US into a direct attack on Syria. The first piece was put in place at the end of August when the highly reputed German magazine Der Speigel, reported, “quoting several eyewitnesses”, that Syria had tested delivery systems for chemical warheads at a chemical weapons research centre near Aleppo in August, in the presence of Iranian experts.[ii]
The wealth of detail in a report from an area where no western newspaper has a correspondent suggested that the story, while not necessarily untrue, was planted by an intelligence agency. But one person who took it very seriously was Israel’s Prime minister, Netanyahu, who sent emissaries to Amman twice, in October and November, to request Jordan’s permission to overfly its territory to bomb Syria’s chemical weapons facilities[iii].
This was followed by another serious allegation that the Syrian army had used Sarin gas on March 19, 2013 at Khan al Assal, north of Aleppo, and in a suburb of Damascus against its opponents. Two more allegations of smaller attacks in April followed.
In May 2013, Turkish Prime minister Erdogan visited Obama, accompanied by his Intelligence chief, and pressed him almost rudely to live up to his “red line” commitment to punish Syria if it used chemical weapons. But by then US intelligence knew, and had conveyed to Obama, that it was Turkey’s secret service, MIT, that had been working with the Nusra front to set up facilities to manufacture Sarin, and had obtained two kilograms of the deadly gas for it from eastern Europe, with funds provided by Qatar[iv]. Obama therefore remained unmoved.
Israel had also launched a vigorous campaign to persuade US lawmakers that the vast majority of the Free Syrian Army were moderate Sunnis who had risen in desperation against Assad’s dictatorial Shia’a regime. Jihadis made up only a fraction, and even the few who were there had been drawn to Syria by a desire to protect its people from Assad’s brutal excesses.
But who these ‘moderate’ FSA were came to light on May 13, 2013 when Senator John McCain paid a secret visit to Idlib on the Syrian-Turkish border to meet them. Photos and videos posted on the web, and resurrected after the rise of ISIS, showed that two of the five leaders whom he met were Mohammed Nour and Ammar al Dadhiki, aka Abu Ibrahim, spokesman and a key member respectively of ‘Northern Storm’ an offshoot of the Jabhat Al Nusra[v]. The third was none other than Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, self-appointed Caliph of ISIS.
The visit had been organized by a Washington-based organisation, the Syria Emergency Task Force that proudly claimed to have lobbied two thirds of the members of the US Congress in less than two years ( and published an article in the Wall Street Journal without informing it that the author was an employee of a lobbying organization) to persuade them that the FSA were moderate Sunnis.
When journalists began to investigate its antecedents after the McCain videos went viral on the internet, they found a deep connection between it and AIPAC. When Kerry announced the decision to bomb Syria, Israeli officials could no longer conceal their satisfaction. On August 27, alongside Kerry’s denunciation of the Ghouta gas attack the right wing daily, Times Of Israel, published three stories quoting Defence officials, titled “Israeli Intelligence seen as central to US case against Syria” [vi]; ‘IDF intercepted Syrian regime chatter on chemical attack’;[vii] and significantly, “ For Israel US response on Syria may be a harbinger for Iran” [viii].
The hard “information” that had tilted the balance was contained in the second story: A retired Mossad agent who refused to be named, told another German magazine, Focus, that a squad specializing in wire-tapping within the IDF’s elite 8200 intelligence unit had intercepted a conversation between high-ranking regime officials discussing the use of chemical agents at the time of the attack.
Obama unveiled his decision to reverse the Bush doctrine in his graduation day speech at West point on May 28, 2014. “Here’s my bottom line”, he said: “America must always lead on the world stage. … But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”His choice of venue was not accidental, for it was here that George Bush had announced the US’ first strike security doctrine 12 years earlier.
The Nuclear deal with Iran is the first tangible outcome of the volte face. If no new hitches arise during the drafting of the agreement, the world will begin to retreat from the spreading chaos into which it has descended in the past two decades. But to secure its future Obama needs to demonstrate the benefits that will flow from it well before June 30, if not earlier.
The place where he can do this almost immediately is in the battle against ISIS, for the agreement has opened the way for involving not only Iran but Syria fully in the war against it. But Netanyahu knows this, and believes that success there will hasten Iran’s acceptance as the pre-eminent power in the region.
He has therefore thrown caution to the winds and put Israel’s entire relationship with its patron, the US, on the line in an all-out attempt to scuttle the agreement with Iran in the US Congress. In their 2006 book The Israel Lobby in American Foreign Policy, Mearsheimer and Walt have described in painstaking detail how Israel has manipulated US policy in the middle east through AIPAC and other Zionist think tanks and foundations with an utter disregard for its interests and security. Those who have read the book know how slender is the thread on which the future of the middle east and, tangentially, of South Asia hangs.
[ii] Reported in the Israeli daily Haaretz On September 17, 2012. http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/report-syria-tested-chemical-weapons-delivery-systems-in-august-1.465402
[iii] Reported by Haaretz on December 3, 2012.
[iv] Hersh was told this by two sources, one of whom claimed he had been told by Tom Donilon then Obama’s National Security Adviser , after he left his job. The second was a Turkish official who corroborated the story to a US official. London Review of books 8-17 April. Pp 21-24.
[v] Abu Ibrahim was recognized in one of the photos of the meeting posted by Beirut’s main English and Arabic newspaper the Daily Star.