A Dent in the ‘Special Relationship’
The agreement between the US and Iran is the best news coming out of the Middle East for some time. As Iran is not developing nuclear weapons it is not giving away too much, although it still went a long way to meeting US demands. Israel is furious. Netanyahu has done his best to prevent this point being reached and will be striving hard to make sure it goes no further. He will be appealing to Congress over the head of the president, the traditional tactic of Israeli prime ministers when they can’t get their own way. Israel’s lobbyists will be fully mobilizing for what is being represented as the greatest challenge to Israel in its history.
This is a major blow to Israel and a well-deserved slap in the face for Netanyahu. He has lost no opportunity to humiliate the US president so there is probably a personal element in all of this amidst the grander strategic considerations. But the outcome is good for the Middle East and good for the US. The agreement sets up the development of a relationship which will reconfigure geostrategic realities. By signing it the US is implicitly accepting Iran’s right to maintain its own special relationship with Syria and Hizbullah. The Syria experience has clearly been a sharp learning curve. In the name of political transition the so-called ‘Friends of the Syrian People’ have unleashed the hounds of hell at the geographic heart of the Middle East. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is only the worst of the pack. The US administration has been backing away from its involvement and now clearly accepts that Bashar staying in power is the best option.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are dismayed at the refusal of their erstwhile allies to push the assault on Syria any further. Now they have the agreement with Iran to contend with and they are furious. Some of the commentary in the Israeli media is nothing short of demented. These two states have now formed their own axis of resistance – resistance to change, resistance to peace, resistance to the end of occupation, resistance to the White House and resistance to common sense. The recent bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut can safely be regarded as the work of one of them if not involving both. The Saudis are completely obsessed with destroying Shi’ism and Shia across the region. If they keep going like this their own special relationship with the US is going to suffer as well but they have already dropped hints that they don’t care.
Now that the Americans are talking to Iran they might start wondering what all the fuss was about. They are getting on with the Iranian negotiators, who are far more civilized and sophisticated than shills like Netanyahu and louts like Avigdor Lieberman. Furthermore, while Israel is an occupying state that has repeatedly gone to war to defend its ill-gotten gains, Iran, as commentators are pointing out, has not launched an aggressive war for more than two centuries, so which country shapes up as the most stable ally for the US in the region?
Saudi Arabia is another story. It is one of the most reactionary states in the world. It buys people, politicians, entire governments and newspaper editors. Money is its true god. Much of the revenue from its oil has gone into arms purchases from the US and European governments, all of which know that if they want this bonanza to continue they have to remain silent in the face of Saudi Arabia’s flagrant abuses of human rights. If there ever was a case for ‘regime change’ it is surely smack bang in the middle of Riyadh.
The agreement with Iran opens the way to significant commercial, political and strategic benefits for the US. It may well not be to Russia’s liking. By comparison, Israel is a dead weight around America’s neck from any perspective. It bleeds the US Treasury of more than $3 billion in arms and economic aid every year. It spies on the US and regularly defies the US. It has killed US servicemen in pursuit of its own strategic ends. It opens no doors and is of no commercial or economic benefit to the US and the days when it might have served some purpose as an armory during US military actions in the Middle East have probably gone for good. The American people have made it perfectly clear they do not want their government to be involved in any more wars in the Middle East and peace certainly offers the US far greater rewards than war.
The nuclear issue always was a distraction. The real issue for Israel is Iran’s growing influence across the region and its refusal to back away from its strategic alliance with Syria and Hizbullah despite economic sanctions and regular threats of war. The ruins of Gaza are testimony to Israel’s determination to destroy anyone and any thing standing in its way. Palestine is the wellspring but dig deep enough into the ruins of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and you will find Israel at the bottom. It will see the whole Middle East flattened rather than retreat from the territory it has seized through its wars of aggression. Since the war of conquest of 1948 it has launched six other wars against Egypt, Syria, Gaza and Lebanon, apart from shorter incursions, assassinations and aerial attacks such as those launched on Syria this year. By comparison the only war involving the Islamic republic of Iran is the one launched by Saddam Hussein in 1980.
Israel cannot afford to alienate the US. It needs American economic aid and weapons and it will need US support if it ever gets into a war which it can’t win. Israel’s defeats at the hands of Hizbullah confirm a picture of relative military decline over the past three decades. Even Gaza with its miniscule defences has been able to withstand the fury of Israeli assaults. The fortress state is beginning to crumble at its foundations and if Israel continues to alienate even its friends the day will come when it finds itself alone with its nuclear bombs.
This is an existential moment for Israel. It refuses to change, expecting its friends endlessly to accommodate its outrageous behavior. The White House is sending signals that it has had enough and indeed the agreement with Iran may even mark the beginning of the setting of the sun on the US-Israel ‘special relationship.’
- Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.