Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3 about the dangers posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
There had been much controversy in the run-up to the speech about the means by which it had come about, an invitation from Republican Speaker John Boehner. Despite much obfuscation, as even the New York Times (eventually) corrected itself, Netanyahu “accepted [the invitation to speak to Congress] after the administration had been informed of the invitation” (emphasis added), which meant that the claims Netanyahu had “breached diplomatic protocol” were spurious. What is even more worrying was that when in 2011 Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak, he only accepted the invitation again once the White House were aware, but the White House “never responded” to Netanyahu in 2011, nor did they express any outrage publically. This raises serious questions about the Obama administration’s response, which sought to undermine Prime Minister Netanyahu.
There are serious concerns for those who support a strong alliance between the United States and Israel that Netanyahu’s accepting this speech brings an unhelpful element of partisanship into the U.S.-Israel relationship; Israel’s relationship must be with all of America and not just the Republicans. The means by which the speech came about, in combination with the Israeli Elections today, make a strong argument that the speech should have been rescheduled, not least because the whiff of partisanship—fifty-six Democrats boycotted the speech—has probably now made it impossible to pass veto-proof sanctions that would be triggered if Iran does not sign a final deal in July.
However, as previously mentioned, the Obama White House did not pre-approve the invitation for Netanyahu to speak to Congress in 2011, and there was not this reaction from the White House four years ago. So why was there such a reaction this time?
We believe the answer to this question is that the Obama White House tried to make Netanyahu’s speech into a matter of personalities and protocol in order to avoid dealing with the actual contents of the speech, which showed a major strategic divergence between the United States and Israel, whilst also potentially spreading and allowing the spread of false information to undermine the arguments Netanyahu made.
We wish to be clear: in supporting the arguments made by Netanyahu here, we are not claiming that the Prime Minister has behaved perfectly and that all that has gone wrong between the U.S. and Israel in the last six years is Obama’s fault. We claim rather that this episode was a manufactured crisis caused by Obama’s selective use of protocol, and that the driving force of the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations is the strategic shift of the United States toward a partnership with Iran.
Netanyahu brought nothing new to the table, was Obama’s response to the Netanyahu speech, in a tone that reflected the fact the administration had won much of the public and media battle. We would largely agree: Netanyahu’s speech did not contain much he has not in some form said before. But Netanyahu brought a presentation of facts that evinced a strong understanding of the threat posed by Iran, an understanding that seems to be at best lacking in the Obama White House, and at worst being wished away on the fanciful idea that the U.S. and Iran can reach rapprochement based on common interests.
While many of the President’s closest allies and defenders lay the blame for the deterioration of U.S.- Israel relations on Netanyahu—saying that Netanyahu supported Obama’s opponent in the November 2012 Election, for example—the timeline does not bear out this claim.
President Obama sent two letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei before the contested presidential election in Iran in June 2009. After the blatant rigging of that election and the uprising that followed it, Obama stayed noticeably quiet, not offering any statements on the issue of Iran. In March 2011, a rebellion erupted in Syria that offered the chance for “the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years,” as then-CENTCOM commander James Mattis put it, if the fall of dictator Bashar al-Assad could be secured. The nationalists and moderates within the anti-Assad insurgency were powerful at this point and the dictator was reeling. Over the summer of 2012, Obama’s entire Cabinet recommended that he arm the rebellion, arguing that it would spare much bloodshed and check the growth of radicalism in Syria, not just by tilting the balance within the insurgency against the Salafists who were growing in power thanks to Gulf sponsorship, but by removing from Iran its one Arab ally and the lifeline to its only true revolutionary child, Hizballah. Obama refused.
This non-interventionist policy was a de facto pro-Iranian policy: it allowed Iran—and Russia—to continue their massive support for the Assad regime without the hindrance of American power.
This shift was felt in the region. And while this trend was visible in Obama’s first term, since his re-election, and especially over the last year, President Obama has moved more and more openly to consolidate a rapprochement with Iran—often at the expense of America’s traditional allies, who now feel increasingly isolated within the region. Obama went back to letter-writing to Khamenei soon after the 2012 Election, and had begun secret talks with Iran in July 2012—before his re-election—to reach the so-called Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the “interim” nuclear deal in November 2013. Obama’s decision not to launch airstrikes against Assad for the massive chemical weapons attack in August 2013 that murdered 1,400 people was partly due to these talks. In short, it is Obama’s pro-Iran tilt that has caused this rift with Israel—and that can be seen in the pattern of deteriorating relations between the U.S. and other traditional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
On the ground there is immense suffering because of Obama’s pro-Iran tilt: Assad has gone from a dictator who must be removed, to someone the U.S. is increasingly cooperating. Obama’s pro-Iranian tilt led to inaction in Syria, which has cost tens of thousands of lives and provided the time and space for a nearly-destroyed Islamic State (ISIS) to recover and invade Iraq.
It is for this reason that many of the Arab States were present at Netanyahu’s speech in spirit. While at least two Arab ambassadors refused to attend Netanyahu’s speech, a leak in the days leading up to the speech had let it be known how closely Israel and Saudi Arabia were co-operating, especially on intelligence matters related to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, and that the Saudis would have no objection to Israel using Saudi airspace if she decided to forcibly disarm the Iranian theocracy. It was also noticed that Saudi and Israeli ambassadors were conversing at the Munich Security conference in February.
Another story then appeared from the Kuwaiti press saying that Obama had threatened to shoot down Israeli jets if they tried to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. This is almost certainly not true, but, as with the endorsement of Netanyahu’s speech by the editor of the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya English, Faisal J. Abbas, and open statements in the Saudi press itself that Netanyahu was correct and Obama mistaken, it made clear which side the Gulf States were on in this U.S.-Israel spat.
It is therefore reasonable to see Netanyahu as having spoken for a large majority of the region when he attended Congress.
Netanyahu made some very hard-hitting statements on Iran’s nuclear program to which the Obama administration is going to have to find an answer. The deflection and ridicule of Netanyahu may work short term, but when serious concerns emerge about the Iranian nuclear negotiations in Switzerland, they cannot hide behind this forever. Probably the most dangerous point made by Netanyahu to the Obama administration is that the “sunset clause” that is being negotiated—the period after which a final deal would expire and all sanctions and other restraints would be removed from Iran—means that “Iran could get to the bomb by keeping the deal.”
Another simple, but very powerful, point made by Netanyahu was: “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.” As the debate over the Iranian nuclear deal heats up, this is going to be a point that resonates with the vast majority of people who are not ideologically or politically invested in securing a deal on any terms with Tehran.
The nuclear file, however, is but one part of the West’s problem with Iran. Iran’s regional subversion and global terrorism are the most immediate problems—both things Iran intends to support with nuclear weapons.
Prime Minister Netanyahu made this point at Congress:
[A]s States are collapsing across the Middle East, Iran is charging into the void … Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its Revolutionary Guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror. Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Backed by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits … that would give Iran a second choke-point on the world’s oil supply. … Iran now dominates four Arab capitals … [and] if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow. So, at a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations.
In doing all of these things, Iran has been effectively supported by the Obama administration. In his fourth letter to Ali Khamenei in October 2014, President Obama explicitly stated that progress on the nuclear question would lead to further U.S.-Iranian co-operation in the fight against ISIS. Despite protestations from White House officials that the administration is “not [pursuing] a broader rapprochement between the United States and Iran,” the administration has used the anti-ISIS war to do exactly that.
Further evidence that the Obama administration does see a link between a nuclear deal and regional order emerged before Netanyahu’s speech. Alarmed at the course the United States was on, “The Europeans have told the Israelis that these concessions”—such as allowing Iran 6,500 centrifuges—”were offered in exchange for Iranian promises to maintain regional stability.” Then the retired Israeli General and former national security advisor Yaakov Amidror went to Washington, disbelieving that anyone could be so irresponsible as to gamble Western interests on an alliance with the clerical autocracy in Iran, and found that there were indeed people “trying to sell Washington on the idea that a nuclear agreement with Iran will contribute to regional stability in the Middle East, and that future relations between Iran and the U.S. will advance U.S. interests”. This has already begun.
In Iraq, the U.S. is not only training the same army as Iran, but is providing air support for Baghdad’s forces—largely taken over by Shi’ite militias that answer directly to Iran—and passing intelligence to Baghdad that it must be known is going to Tehran. Iran is leading this effort in Iraq using the external branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), the Quds Force, and their leader, Qassem Suleimani, who is a twice-designated terrorist by the United States. Iran is now the predominant fighting force engaging ISIS in Iraq, training, equipping, and leading Iraqi troops, and spreading Iran’s influence.
Suleimani organised the rescue of Bashar al-Assad, commanding much of Shi’ite militia forces leading Assad’s offensives, and has also “coordinated attacks, trained militias, and set up an elaborate system to monitor rebel communications” to strengthen the regime position in Damascus. Suleimani directs Lebanese Hizballah and has also supported the creation of irregular militias in Syria that not only to ensure Assad stays in power for now, but will secure Iran’s interests and continue the fight even after if Assad departs by destabilising any new government.
Allowing Hajj Qassem the power to lead the resistance to ISIS in Iraq is a grievous mistake on the West’s part because, whilst he is fighting our enemy currently, we should be under no illusion that he is doing so with pro-Western agenda, and wishes only to extend the influence and the current image of a seemingly-benevolent Iran, whilst continuing to fuel sectarian divides that are currently damaging the region.
In Syria, Iran has orchestrated a full-fledged Shi’a jihad, moving thousands of Shi’ite militants into the country, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, and has become a virtual occupation force in the regime-held areas of Syria—both of the regime’s current offensives in Aleppo and Deraa are led by Iranian-controlled Shi’ite jihadist militias, for example. This has not stopped the U.S. effectively becoming the air force of Bashar al-Assad, especially in the east where both the U.S.-led Coalition and Assad operate aircraft in the same exact zones, but also allowing Assad to perform an “economy of force“: leaving ISIS in the east mostly to the Coalition while he attacks the nationalist rebels in the west and tries to ensure that the choice in Syria is between his regime and the takfiris. This is coordinated with Iran through third parties such as Iraqi Shi’a militias.
In Yemen, the U.S. is already providing air support and intelligence to the Iran-backed Houthis who seized control of the capital in September. Iran is now sending direct flights to Houthi-held areas of Yemen and treating the Houthis as a legitimate government, furthering the infrastructure of a regional Iranian Imperium already extending from Baghdad to Beirut.
Iran’s influence and attempted destabilisation isn’t only internal to the MENA region. We have seen Quds smuggle arms across the world, aiding regimes like Chavez in Venezuela via the secretive and elusive Unit 190, which has armed Hizballah in Lebanon, provided ammunition to the Assad regime in war-torn Syria, has given weapons to Shi’ite militias in Iraq, has aided groups like HAMAS and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza by providing rocket components, and it’s most recent endeavour is supplying the Houthi rebels controlling Yemen with equipment and weaponry. Unit 190 have been using shipments of allegedly innocent items, like medicine, food supplies and milk to ship RPG’s, night vision goggles and long range rockets to various locations via a number of companies and various associates.
This comes as concerns mount about Iran, via Hizballah, expanding its presence in West Africa, specifically Nigeria, where it is estimated that Hizballah and Iran raise hundreds of millions of dollars every year from drugs and weapons smuggling, and ISIS-style racketeering and extortion of the local Lebanese population.
Iran’s influence in Africa isn’t just spreading to Nigeria. Iran has shown increasing defiance of international law by arming the Sudanese regime with weaponry, despite United Nations Security Council Resolution 1747 prohibiting Iran trading or exporting arms, the government is recorded to have shipped “Iranian light machine guns, RPG launchers, mortar tubes, and landmines,” which also breaches the Ottawa treaty that the Sudan is obligated to observe and hence prohibited from purchasing landmines.
As Iran conquers State after State in the Middle East it is spreading destabilisation and terror. While Netanyahu may have little new to add to the debate on the Iranian regime, his speech raised worthwhile objections to Obama administration’s current policy of cooperation with a Tehran regime that is determined at every corner to defy international law, promote instability, and work against the West.