There is a growing consensus among the U.S. foreign policy elite that the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict is the result of a broader Iranian offensive against the United States. Troublingly, this overly simplified belief boosts the likelihood of U.S. military action against Tehran, say many observers.
While it is the neoconservatives who have been the loudest proponents of the theory that Hezbollah’s July 12, 2006 cross-border attack on Israel was carried out with Iran’s approval, this view has been largely accepted and echoed by the mainstream media, as well as by other key political factions, including liberal internationalists identified with the Democratic Party.
“In my reading, this is the beginning of what was a very similar process in the period between [the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks] and the Iraq War,” according to Gregory Gause, an associate professor of political science who teaches Middle East politics at the University of Vermont.
“While neocons took the lead in opinion formation then, eventually there was something approaching consensus in the American political class that war with Iraq was a necessary part of remaking the Middle East to prevent future 9/11s,” he said.
“That strong majority opinion was bipartisan [and] crossed ideological lines-neocons supported the war, but so did lots of prominent liberal intellectuals,” he went on. “I think it is very possible that a similar consensus could develop over the next few years, if not the next few months, about the necessity to confront Iran.”
Evidence of this consensus came last Tuesday, when the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to approve a resolution that not only endorsed Israel’s military actions in Gaza and Lebanon without calling on it to exercise any restraint, but also urged President George W. Bush to impose across-the-board diplomatic and economic sanctions on Tehran and Damascus.
To Gause and other analysts, Tehran, even before the current crisis, offered a tempting target of blame for Washington’s many frustrations in the region.
In addition to its long-standing support for Hezbollah, whose political power has, in Washington’s view, stalled the progress of last year’s so-called Cedar Revolution, Iran has backed both Hamas (including the Damascus-based military wing that in June precipitated the current round of violence by abducting an Israeli soldier outside Gaza) and Shiite militias that have helped push Iraq to the brink of a sectarian civil war.
“The world needs to understand what is going on here,” wrote the influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last week as Israel launched its military counteroffensive against Hezbollah.
“The little flowers of democracy that were planted in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories are being crushed by the boots of Syrian-backed Islamist militias who are desperate to keep real democracy from taking hold in this region and Iranian-backed Islamist militias desperate to keep modernism from taking hold,” Friedman wrote.
But Iran can be blamed for other ills, as well. By allegedly promoting instability throughout the region, as well as fears of an eventual military confrontation with Washington, Iran can also be blamed for the rise of oil prices, from which it is profiting handsomely, to record levels.
And its repeated rejection of U.S. demands that it respond to the pending proposal for a deal on its nuclear program adds to the thesis that Iran is engaged in its own form of asymmetric warfare against Washington. Indeed, it has become accepted wisdom in Washington that Iran encouraged Hezbollah’s July 12 raid as a way to divert attention from growing international concern over its nuclear program.
“There has been a lot of connecting of the dots back to Iran,” according to retired Col. August Richard Norton, who teaches international relations at Boston University. “This goes well beyond the Weekly Standard crowd; we’ve seen the major newspapers all accept the premise that what happened July 12 was engineered in some way by Iran as a way of undermining efforts to impede its nuclear program.”
According to Graham Fuller, a former top Central Intelligence Agency officer and Rand Middle East expert, there has been a “buildup of domestic forces that now see Iran as inexorably at the center of the entire regional spiderweb.” He adds: “The mainstream is unfortunately grasping for coherent explanations, [and] the neocon/hard-right offers a fairly simple, self-serving vision on the cause of the problems and their solution.”
In much the same way that Saddam Hussein was depicted, particularly by neoconservatives, as the strategic domino whose fall would unleash a process of democratization, de-radicalization, moderation, and modernization throughout the Middle East, so now Iran is portrayed as the “Gordian Knot” whose cutting would not only redress many of Washington’s recent setbacks, but also renew prospects for regional “transformation” in the way that it was originally intended.
The notion that Iran-as the puppet master behind Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Shiite militias in Iraq-is the source of Washington’s many problems has the added virtue of relieving the policy establishment of responsibility for the predicament in which Washington finds itself or of the necessity for “painful self-examination, or serious policy revision,” according to Fuller.
“Full speed ahead-no revision of fundamental premises is required. And, even though we revel in being the sole global superpower, God forbid that anything the United States has done in the region might have at least contributed to the present disaster scene,” he said.
As was the case with Iraq, the only dissenters among the policy elite are the foreign policy “realists,” who argue that the Bush administration has made a series of disastrous policy errors in the Middle East, especially by providing virtually unconditional support for Israel and by invading Iraq.
Such realists, like Norton, maintain, for example, that the depiction of Hezbollah as a mere proxy for Iran-let alone the notion that Tehran was behind the July 12 attack-is a dangerous misreading of a much more complex reality. Realists have been arguing for some time that Washington should engage Iran directly on a full range of hot-button issues-from Tehran’s nuclear program to regional security. But the current crisis, and Israel and the neoconservatives’ success in blaming Iran for it, is likely to make this argument a more difficult sell.
Jim Lobe is the Washington, DC bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a Right Web contributing writer.