John Mearsheimer (of the University of Chicago, and co-author with Stephen Walt of the much-touted/much-reviled The Israel Lobby) has an important essay in the latest London Review of Books, in which he argues (as has Walt) that the Charles Freeman affair has exposed the Israel Lobby and created some new space for public debate about its excessive and harmful impact on the making of US foreign policy.
Intricately linked to all this are a couple of issues that are currently front and center:
- the constituting of Israel’s new government under Benjamin Netanyahu, who yesterday received a 2-week “extension” from Israeli president Shimon Peres. Peres is undoubtedly praying feverishly, as is Netanyahu, that Ehud Barak and the Labor party can somehow be convinced to join the Likud-led coalition. (Tzipi Livni’s supposedly “centrist” Kadima seems to be a lost cause.) Reportedly, at least half of Labor’s leadership have said no to that; the ideological gap, say they, is too wide, even though West Bank settlement expansion proceeded unabated under Labor PMs Yitzhak Rabin and Barak himself. Otherwise, Netanyahu has to try to move ahead with a narrow, far-right coalition that will be regarded as a rogue element across the Arab world as well as a significant element of the US public and policy establishment. That puts the Lobby in a difficult position: trying to promote within the US Congress the policies of a government whose leaders oppose a viable Palestinian state (and, by extension, the two-state solution that the Obama administration supports, and that has been the cornerstone of US policy in the Middle East for decades), have threatened Arab states like Egypt, and promote attitudes toward Arabs in general that reek of racism and, at times, almost genocidal intent.
- Obama’s outreach to Iran, which was blasted by Iran’s Supreme Guardian, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not so much in concept as for the absence of any US action that suggests that the outreach is sincere. And when that outreach is choreographed to accompany a similar message from the aforementioned Mr. Peres – whose government’s incoming prime minister is on the record as equating Iran’s counterpart to Mr. Peres with Adolph Hitler and Iran itself with the Nazi Germany of 1938 . . . well, can we really blame Mr. Khamenei for his reluctance, or even his defiance?
In their respective messages, both Obama and Peres profess their profound respect for the antiquity and greatness of Persia/Iran’s history. And well they should. Lest we forget (and untold thousands – even millions – in the West remain clueless to this; please, trust me on this – over the last 25+ years I have taught thousands of American undergraduates) between 550 BCE and 1258 CE, Persian/Iranian civilization and culture were either the underpinning of, or a major contributor to, a series of vast, multi-ethnic, mostly religious-diversity-tolerant empires, spanning more than a millennium from the rise of the Achaemenids of Cyrus the Great and his successors around 550 BCE to the Abbasids of Baghdad, whose Arab caliphs ruled until 1258, often bolstered by the policies of viziers who had been steeped in the traditions of the Sassanid Persian empire, which ruled much of the Middle East from the early 3rd century CE to the Arab conquest around 650. For about 600 years of that span, of course, the Western Europe from which Mr. Obama’s America and the West as a whole claim their cultural ancestry was wallowing in its “Dark Ages,” from which it emerged only after it began around 1000 to catch on to the prodigious enlightenment being shed by Arabic-writing scholars working with ancient Greek texts. Among those scholars – many of them, by the way, working in Baghdad – were many Persians, most notably ibn Sina (Avicenna), whose writings on medicine and human physiology became the cornerstone of the revival and progress of medical learning during the West’s Scientific Revolution. And centuries after the Mongol conquest of 1258, Persia and its now Islam-influenced culture once again dominated Iran and much of the Middle East under the Shiite Safavid shahs, who held sway from the early 16th century until the mid-18th, and whose capital, Isfahan, was – and still is – one of the architectural and artistic jewels of the planet (a status unfortunately imperilled by the presence there today of a nuclear installation, surely on the target list of the Israeli air force if Mr. Netanyahu gets the US go-ahead to launch the airstrike that he seems so desperately to want. And as their recent excursion into Gaza makes clear, today’s IDF has little compunction about blowing up stuff, or the people who live in it. ).
Yet, does no one see in those messages of outreach themselves more than a hint of condescension? The leaders of the United States (founded 1776) and Israel (founded 1948) reaching out to Iran, inviting them to take their “rightful place” in the community of “enlightened” nations?! This is the invitation – to a nation whose ancestors were “enlightened” long before western Europeans, whose religious traditions include not only one of the world’s great monotheisms, but also perhaps the world’s earliest? I refer to the monotheistic concepts preached by the Iranian teacher Zarathustra – known in the West as Zoroaster – whose ideas of one Supreme Deity and eternal reward or punishment in the afterlife after judgment of one’s life in this world arguably antedate – and were gifted to – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (And yes, I do include Judaism here. Many academic experts on the Bible assert that the Jews may not have completely given up elements of polytheism until several centuries after the semi-mythical era of David and Solomon.)
Has the Iranian regime established by the Ayatollah Khomeini spawned repressive policies and vitriolic rhetoric since 1979? Yes. And we can all hope that the reformist current in contemporary Iranian politics will someday soon – perhaps as soon as June’s elections – come to the fore and produce the more open democracy that so many of Iran’s people so desperately want and deserve. They include millions of young Iranians – many of them highly educated, sophisticated, internet-savvy – but also proud of their Iranian-ness, proud of their nation’s history and traditions, and not, I suspect, overly susceptible to the kind of pseudo-blandishment that Messrs. Obama and Peres have proffered. If Mr. Obama truly wants to reach out to Iran, with real purpose and effect, he might try to do so (a) not in lock-step with Mr. Peres, (b) not with ramped-up sanctions and the implied threat of military intervention holstered on his hips, and (c) not as a bouncer with the power to let Iran through – or bar entry to – the door of the “club” of “enlightened nations,” but as a partner, a genuinely respectful peer – indeed, a brother (as the great kings of the ancient Near East used to refer to each other) in the community of nations and great civilizations – with whom he might walk arm-in-arm through that portal.
John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.