• 7 April 2009
  • Posted By Trita Parsi
  • Diplomacy, Israel, Nuclear file, Persian Gulf, US-Iran War

cross posted from HuffingtonPost.com:

In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed to have told President Barack Obama that either America stops Iran or Israel will. Not surprisingly, the interview sparked quite a controversy and only a day later, General David Petreus told the Senate Arms Services Committee that “the Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it.”

So once again, in spite of President Obama’s best efforts, the military option was put back on the table and the atmosphere for dealing with Iran was turned into “Do as we say – or else…” Even if the President wants to give diplomacy a chance, disbelievers have been quick to limit Obama’s options by seeking to set arbitrary deadlines for negotiations – or by threatening Israeli military action if America doesn’t act with its military might.

Reality is, however, that talk of an Israeli military option is more of a bluff than a threat – but it is a bluff that never seems to stop giving.

Israel does not have the military capability to successfully eliminate Iran’s nuclear program. Even the most successful bombing campaign would only set back the known program for a few years – without affecting any potential clandestine program. This is not classified information. Military experts are well aware of Israel’s capabilities – and its limits.

Yet, the threat of military action, or rather the bluff, serves a purpose: Threats of military action militarizes the atmosphere. It creates an environment that renders diplomacy less likely to succeed – it may even prevent diplomacy from being pursued in the first place.

In the Iranian case, Netanyahu’s tough talk undermines the Obama administration’s prospects for diplomacy in the following ways.

Getting to the negotiating table has proven an arduous task for the US and Iran. Both sides are currently testing each other’s intentions, asking themselves if the other side is serious about diplomacy or if the perceived desire for talks is merely a tactical maneuver to either buy time or build greater international support for more confrontational policies down the road. From Tehran’s perspective, uncertainty about Washington’s intentions during the Bush administration was partly fueled by the insistence of the military option remaining on the table. Tehran seemed to fear entering negotiations that could have been designed to fail, since that could strengthen the case for military action against Iran.

Today, talk of Israeli strikes has similar effects. Tehran has repeatedly failed to appreciate the policy differences between Washington and Tel Aviv, oftentimes seeing them as either a perfectly coordinated team or as a single entity. Consequently, explicit or implicit threats of Israeli military action reduce Tehran’s confidence in Washington’s intentions.

Furthermore, Iran’s sense of a threat from the US (and in extension Israel) is believed to be one of the driving forces of Iran’s nuclear program. Whether Iran seeks a weapon or a civilian program that provides Iran with a weapons capability, the program’s existence provides Tehran with a level of deterrence against the perceived US threat. The Obama administration’s approach seems to have been to reduce Iran’s sense of threat in order to kick-start negotiations. The threat of Israeli military action does the opposite – it fuels Iranian insecurity and closes the window for diplomacy.

Moreover, Israel uses this threat to pressure Washington and the EU to act tough. This has been a cornerstone of Israeli policy towards Iran since the mid-1990s. Even though Israel is reluctant to put itself on the frontline against Iran, fearing that this would counter its message that Iran is the world’s and not just Israel’s problem, it also fears that the absence of Israeli pressure would cause the West to go soft on Iran. Hence, Israel keeps the pressure on the West – by threatening military action – in order for the West to keep pressuring Iran. However, under the current circumstances, Israeli pressure may compel the Obama administration to adopt a confrontational approach that is incompatible with the diplomatic strategy President Obama seems to prefer.

Finally, Netanyahu – as well as hawks in Washington – are using the threat of Israeli military action to create arbitrary deadlines for negotiations with Tehran combined with exaggerated expectations of what diplomacy must achieve. The message of Israeli hawks has been that it can only afford to give diplomacy “a few months,” meaning that whatever sanctions and confrontation has failed to achieve with Iran in the past 30 years, must miraculously be obtained after only a few months of negotiations – otherwise Israel will take military action.

This logic does two things. First, it brings us back to the foreign policy approach of the Bush administration in which diplomacy was treated with suspicion and skepticism, and military confrontation was viewed as a policy option with guaranteed success. Second, it ensures that diplomacy fails by denying it the time and space it needs to succeed and by setting the bar too high.

This does not mean that Israel does not have legitimate reasons to fear Iran’s nuclear advances – on the contrary. But what lies at the heart of Israel’s maneuvers is not necessarily the fear of a nuclear clash, but the regional and strategic consequences nuclear technology in Iranian hands will have for Israel.

In spite of its rhetoric, Israel views the regime in Tehran as rational, calculating and risk-averse. Even those Israeli officials who believe that Iran is hell-bent on destroying the Jewish state recognize that Tehran is unlikely to attack Israel with nuclear weapons due to the destruction Israel would inflict on Iran through its second-strike capability.

The real danger a nuclear-capable Iran brings with it for Israel is twofold. First, an Iran with nuclear capability will significantly damage Israel’s ability to deter militant Palestinian and Lebanese organizations. Gone would be the days when Israel’s military supremacy would enable it to dictate the parameters of peace and pursue unilateral peace plans.

This could force Israel to accept territorial compromises with its neighbors in order to deprive Iran of points of hostility that it could use against the Jewish state. Israel simply would not be able to afford a nuclear rivalry with Iran and continued territorial disputes with the Arabs at the same time.

Second, the deterrence and power Iran would gain by mastering the fuel cycle could compel Washington to cut a deal with Tehran in which Iran would be recognized as a regional power and gain strategic significance in the Middle East at the expense of Israel. This has been a major Israeli fear since the end of the Cold War, when Israel’s strategic utility to Washington lost considerable justification due to the absence of a Soviet threat. Under these circumstances, US-Iran negotiations could damage Israel’s strategic standing, since common interests shared by Iran and the US would overshadow Israel’s concerns with Tehran and leave Israel alone in facing its Iranian rival. The Great Satan will eventually make up with the ayatollahs and forget about the Jewish state, Israeli officials fear.

Netanyahu’s threat of stopping Iran if Obama doesn’t should be seen in light of the Israeli rights’s fear of a US-Iran deal. Talk of Israeli military action has not coincided with major advances in Iran’s nuclear program, but rather with hints of an American preparedness to strike a compromise with Tehran that would grant it the dreaded know-how and limit Israel’s strategic maneuverability.

The flaw in the Netanyahu’s approach, however, is its underestimation of how US-Iran diplomacy can significantly alter Iran’s posture towards the Jewish state and reduce the threat it faces from Tehran. Therein lies the opening for Israel’s new prime minister that carries far greater promise for Israel’s security than efforts to complicate Washington’s path towards diplomacy.

Posted By Trita Parsi

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Sign the Petition


7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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