Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February/March 1996, Pages 88, 91-92
Middle East History—It Happened in February
Israel Lurks Behind Harsh U.S. Policy Aimed Against Iran
By Donald Neff
It was three years ago—less than a month after Bill Clinton was sworn in as president—that the media in Israel and Israel's supporters in the United States began a coordinated campaign to enlist America into an alliance against Iran. The effort was so successful that today Secretary of State Warren Christopher publicly considers Iran "public enemy No. 1," according to theWashington Post,1 and the Clinton administration has imposed a total trade ban against the country and is considering even more draconian measures.
What is interesting about this evolution of U.S. policy is that Israel's motives and intentions were largely played out in the media as it drew Washington into its strategic web. The Israeli campaign began in February 1993 when Israeli academic Israel Shahak alerted readers of theWashington Report on Middle East Affairs, that various Israeli newspapers had begun warning about the potential threat to Israel from Iran. They urged that the United States be "persuaded" to contain Iran by adopting a tougher policy.2
Shahak cited several news stories in the Hebrew press that clearly laid out the Israeli position. One especially revealing article was an interview with former intelligence official Daniel Leshem in the leftist Al Hamishmar on Feb. 19, 1993. He was quoted as saying that Israel alone could not deter Iran so it should try to "create the situation so that it will appear similar to that of Iraq before the Gulf crisis...We should hope that, emulating Iraq, Iran will...start a war [with its Arab neighbors]...This prospect is, in my view, quite likely, because the Iranians lack patience. But if, nevertheless, they should refrain from starting a war, we then should take advantage of their involvement in the Islamic terror which already troubles the entire world...We should take advantage of this by explaining persistently to the world at large that, by virtue of its involvement in terrorism, no other state is as dangerous as Iran." 3
An article in the right-wing Ma'ariv had sounded a similar theme a week earlier, urging that Israel "persuade the United States" to enforce an embargo on exports of weaponry and other industrial goods to Iran from any source.4
Although the New York Times failed to note this emerging campaign, the Washington Post did and it reported in mid-March that "Israel is attempting to convince the United States that Iranian-inspired Islamic extremism and Iran's military rearmament drive have become a major threat to the stability of the Middle East and the interests of the West." The story also pointed out that both the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the American Jewish Committee had recently released studies warning of the Iranian threat, with the latter asserting that "we cannot run away or avoid" the possibility that Iran by the end of the decade may become the "dominant force in the Middle East." 5
News stories in the Hebrew press clearly laid out the Israeli position.
By the end of that month, on March 30, just over two months after the coming to power of the pro-Israel Clinton administration, Secretary of State Christopher publicly called Iran "a dangerous country" and an "international outlaw" because of what he claimed was its support for international terrorism and its efforts to develop nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.6
Two weeks later another Israeli, Professor Shlomo Aharonson, further elaborated Israel's strategic thinking. He wrote that Israel classified its enemies as those nearby and those more remote, among the latter being Iran, Iraq and Libya, with Iran the most threatening. "Israel cannot mobilize its entire army to fight a ground war in Iran, in line with its doctrine of a pre-emptive first strike," he explained. Likewise, Israel's air force is not capable of devastating Iran with conventional weapons. So Aharonson concluded that "against its distant enemies Israel will have to rely not so much on conventional components of the Israeli army as on nuclear deterrence, long-range missiles and improved cooperation with the U.S. and some neighboring states like Egypt or Turkey."7
By April 30 the State Department's annual report on terrorism cited Iran as "the most dangerous sponsor of terrorism in 1992, with over twenty acts in 1992 attributable to it or its surrogates." It blamed Iran for 1992's most dramatic attack, the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina which killed 29 people and wounded 242, although the report offered no evidence.8
In another two weeks, the National Security Council's Middle East expert, Martin Indyk, a former employee of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel's principal Washington, DC lobby, and currently the U.S. ambassador to Israel, outlined the Clinton administration's new policy toward the Persian Gulf. It was, he said, "dual containment" of both Iran and Iraq.
"'Dual containment' derives from an assessment that the current Iraqi and Iranian regimes are both hostile to American interests in the region," Indyk explained. "Accordingly, we do not accept the argument that we should pursue the old balance of power game, building up one to balance the other...As long as we are able to maintain our military presence in the region; as long as we succeed in restricting the military ambitions of both Iraq and Iran; and as long as we can rely on our regional allies—Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], and Turkey—to preserve the balance of power in our favor in the wide Middle East region, we will have the means to counter both the Iraqi and Iranian regimes."
He added: "When we assess Iranian intentions and capabilities, we see a dangerous combination for Western interests...The necessity to act now derives from the fact that Iran's threatening intentions for the moment outstrip its capabilities...If we fail in our efforts to modify Iranian behavior, five years from now Iran will be much more capable of posing a real threat to Israel, the Arab world, and Western interests in the Middle East."9
Secretary of State Christopher followed Indyk on June 9 by urging Western nations to curb technology sales that would help Iran develop nuclear and other advanced weapons. Christopher, referring to Iran as "the most worrisome" of countries engaged in secret weapons development, said at a meeting of the European Community in Luxembourg: "We need to adopt a collective policy of containment. Iran must be persuaded to abandon its nuclear, chemical-biological and missile programs."10
Thus, after being in office less than five months, the Clinton administration had already echoed all of Israel's charges against Iran and, on the basis of them, embarked on a harsh anti-Iran policy. It was a policy that made little sense in terms of finding a viable balance of power in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. It was unlikely to add to regional stability or allay suspicions of U.S. motives. The one thing it did do, however, was totally align U.S. policy in support of the perceived interests of Israel.
As Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, publisher and former Ambassador Andrew I. Killgore recently wrote:
"The simplest explanation of Washington's anti-Iranian policy is domestic politics. Bill Clinton believes that he cannot be re-elected without overwhelming media and financial support from the Israel lobby and those who take their cues from it. Thus he and Warren Christopher are ready to 'buy' Israeli exaggerations of the dangers emanating from Iran, whether they really believe them or not."11
Whatever its motives, and the Killgore thesis seems the most likely, the administration has continued to ratchet up its anti-Iran policy. When Iran did not cower before the new U.S. policy by halting its efforts to purchase nuclear technology or withdrawing its support of Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, Washington's anti-Iran measures became dramatically harsher.
Starting in February 1995—exactly two years after Israel launched its anti-Iran campaign—Washington began leveling a number of provocative charges against Tehran. It claimed Iran had placed Hawk antiaircraft missile launchers on the island of Abu Musa near the Strait of Hormuz and recently had put missiles on them. The U.S. also claimed that Iran had put Chinese-made Seersucker ground-to-ground missiles on the island of Greater Tunb while artillery was emplaced on Lesser Tunb. In addition, it was reported that there had been an increase of Iranian troops to nearly 4,000 from 700 the previous October.12
So suspect were the administration's policy and motives, however, that several top U.S. military men anonymously told the Washington Times that they feared the Clinton administration was manufacturing a crisis with Iran, by using "inflated" figures about Iranian deployments. One army officer said: "I think the Iranians have taken action purely as a defensive countermeasure to what we've been trying to do. They're afraid of what we might do." 13
The next month, on March 22, Defense Secretary William Perry said Iran had installed near the Strait of Hormuz 6,000 men as well as poison gas that could threaten the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.14 He said other weapons included two Russian-made Kilo-class submarines, cruise missiles with a 60-mile range and five Chinese-made Houdong missile boats. Half of the world's oil supplies go through the strait.15
Not to be left out of the Iran-bashing, Christopher authorized his spokesman to assure the press that "there's nobody more of a hawk on Iran than Secretary of State Warren Christopher."16
It was not only the White House, Pentagon, State Department and CIA that were consumed by hatred of Iran. The Congress, where Israel exercises overwhelming influence, became rabid on the subject, in part because AIPAC worked hard on the Hill during early 1995 preaching against Iran. Among AIPAC's activities was the compilation and distribution to congressmen of a 74-page booklet outlining Israel's case against Tehran and calling for a complete halt to all trade with Iran.17
By early spring of 1995 the subject had become so hot that there was what the Washington Post described as an "anti-Iran fever" in Congress, where bills were introduced in both houses not only banning any U.S. business with Iran, but also banning Americans from doing business with any company worldwide that conducts business with Iran. 18
On April 11, the Central Intelligence Agency let it be known that it was seeking $19 million from Congress to continue covert operations to undermine Iran and Iraq and to curb what the administration called Iran's expansionist ambitions.19
Then, on April 30, President Clinton, wearing a skullcap, announced at a meeting of the World Jewish Congress that he was taking an action long advocated by Israel—the banning of all trade with Iran. The reasons, he said, were those that Israel had been citing all along: Iran was a major exporter of terrorism, a threat to the Middle East peace process and was seeking nuclear weapons. The ban essentially hurt only American workers and businessmen.
It ended all U.S. oil purchases from Iran, then about $4 billion annually for resale overseas, and Iranian purchases of U.S. products, which in 1994 equaled $326 million, mainly in oil service equipment and corn and rice. About 3,000 U.S. jobs were lost in the oil services industry. Moreover, Iran owed U.S. firms about $500 million and it became questionable whether they would be paid.20
Since Clinton cited no new information to justify his action, it was no surprise that many questioned the wisdom of the new policy.21 Even Alexander Haig, who had been a strong supporter of Israel when he was Ronald Reagan's first secretary of state, said he knew of no recent terrorist activity sponsored by Iran, adding: "In fact, all the evidence points to a major change of heart in Tehran about state-sponsored terrorism." 22
Not surprisingly, America's major allies rejected the embargo and happily picked up the extra business. They contended a better way to influence Iran was through diplomatic dialogue. The European Union, including members Britain, France and Germany, called for a "critical political dialogue." They complained that the United States had not bothered informing them before imposing its embargo.23
But that was missing the point, which was that Clinton was acting to please Israel, not America's European allies. The New York Times, no longer able to ignore the story, noted with understatement: "Mr. Clinton's new announcement brings the United States policy on Iran more into line with Israel's."24
In fact, the Washington Post had already reported how Israel was behind Washington's claims about Iran's nuclear efforts. It said the CIA had confirmed that Israel was the original source of information that Iran was seeking the capacity to make nuclear weapons fuel and that the United States had acted only after receiving this Israeli-supplied information. 25
Nor is the anti-Iran campaign over yet. The administration is working with Congress to fashion a bill that will further strike at Iran's economy and Christopher has let it be known that he plans to harm Tehran in any way he can. According to the Washington Post:
"Christopher has concluded that Iran's behavior—what Washington views as its support for terrorism and quest for nuclear weapons—is not only outside the bounds of acceptability but also a direct threat to many vital interests of the United States and its allies...In Iran, according to friends and colleagues, Christopher sees not a diplomatic abstraction but a living menace, a terrorist state that if left to its own devices will soon have nuclear weapons and use them to bully its neighbors, subvert Israel and dominate oil transport routes essential to global commerce."26
With Israel calling the shots and Washington only too happy to comply, there can be no hope that America's relations with the strongest power in the Persian Gulf will improve while Bill Clinton remains in the White House.
Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, The Israeli Connection, New York, Pantheon Books, 1987.
*Bill, James A., The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1988.
Keddie, Nikki, Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1981.
Roosevelt, Kermit, Counter Coup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran, New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1979.
Segev, Samuel, The Iranian Triangle, New York, Free Press, 1988.
Stewart, Richard A., Sunrise at Abadan: The British and Soviet Invasion of Iran, 1941, New York, Praeger, 1988.
1Thomas W. Lippman, Washington Post, May 8, 1995.
2Israel Shahak, "With Iraq Neutralized, Israelis Seek Catalyst for War with Iran," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , April/May 1993.
3Yo'av Kaspi, Al Hamishmar, Feb. 19, 1993.
4Ya'akov Erez, Ma'ariv, Feb. 12, 1993.
5David Hoffman, Washington Post, March 13, 1993.
6 Elaine Sciolino, New York Times, March 31, 1993.
7Israel Shahak, "Israel Seeks to Build a Coalition Against Iran," Middle East International, Aug. 6, 1993.
8New York Times, May 1, 1993. The text is in U.S. State Department, "Patterns of Global Terrorism 1992," April 1993.
9The text is in National Security Council release, May 18, 1993, and "Documents and Source Material," Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 1994, pp. 159-61. Also see John Law, "Martin Indyk Lays Out the Clinton Approach," Middle East International, June 11, 1993; excerpts in "Special Report #84," Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 21, 1993. Also see Douglas Jehl, New York Times, May 27, 1993.
10John M. Goshko, Washington Post, April 10, 1993.
11 Andrew I. Killgore, "Israeli-Inspired U.S. Pressure May Backfire in Iran," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1995.
12Eric Schmitt, New York Times, March 1, 1995.
13 Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times, March 27, 1995.
14Associated Press, Boston Globe, March 23, 1995.
15Reuters, Boston Globe, March 22, 1995.
16Thomas W. Lippman, Washington Post, April 2, 1995.
17Elaine Sciolino, New York Times, April 5, 1995.
18Thomas W. Lippman, Washington Post, April 2, 1995.
19Elaine Sciolino, New York Times , April 12, 1995.
20Barnaby J. Feder, New York Times, May 2, 1995.
21Ann Devroy, Washington Post, May 1, 1995; Todd S. Purdum, New York Times, May 1, 1995.
22 Arnaud de Borchgrave, Washington Times, May 3, 1995.
23Martin Sieff, Washington Times, May 3, 1995.
24Todd S. Purdum, New York Times, May 1, 1995.
25Thomas W. Lippman, Washington Post, April 17, 1995.
26Thomas W. Lippman, Washington Post, May 8, 1995.
*Available through the AET Book Club.
Donald Neff is author of the Warriors trilogy and of the recently published Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Toward Palestine and Israel since 1945. All of his books are available through the AET Book Club .