AGREEMENT in the summer of 2015 on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action pertaining to Iran’s nuclear program marked much more than the end of long years of contention over this topic and the culmination of arduous negotiations between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, and the three leading European states.
The signing of this accord and, even more, the inability of its opponents to bring the U.S. Congress to repudiate it, also signified the resounding failure of a concerted political and media campaign that was orchestrated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (but that had originally been launched by his predecessors—see below). This campaign was intended to convince Americans and others that Iran’s regime was the greatest threat to world peace, that it was an “evil empire” which could only be confronted with force, and that it ultimately had to be brought down.
The implications of this failure are still being worked out. They may not be as comprehensive as some might have hoped. There has been no change in the ferocious enmity toward Iran either of Israel’s government or its U.S. enablers entrenched in the Republican Party and among neoconservatives and hawks across the U.S. political spectrum. Moreover, it does not appear that the cold war that has raged between the United States and Iran since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 will come to an end, or that the virulent Saudi-Iranian rivalry will diminish. In fact, indications are that all these persistent elements of regional conflict will continue to poison the Middle Eastern environment.
Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed with the signing of this accord in Vienna in July 2015. The antagonism between the two may go on, but Iran is now a country with which it is possible for the United States to have diplomatic exchanges and successfully negotiate, much as happened with the Soviet Union in the later stages of the Cold War. By itself this represents an enormous change and a grave reversal for the “war-on-Iran” party. Equally important, this evolution of the U.S.-Iranian relationship presages a discursive shift. It means a change from a time when not only the Israeli propaganda machine and its American echo chamber, but also the U.S. government, constantly made outrageous claims about Iran which were credulously received around Washington and in the U.S. media.
For well over a decade, and mainly out of the public eye, largely covert cooperation has been ongoing between midranking officials of the U.S. and Iranian governments in and over Iraq and Afghanistan, on the basis of a limited number of shared interests and objectives. These joint objectives include opposition to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and to the Taliban in Afghanistan. This cooperation will now continue with renewed legitimacy, albeit with significant limitations. It will continue notwithstanding the deep and persistent differences between the two countries over crucial questions relating to Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Palestine.
The impact of this accord for U.S. domestic politics is as far-reaching as it is for foreign policy. Importantly, Netanyahu’s risky decision to put all his eggs in the Republican basket where Iran was concerned has led, for the first time in living memory, to a state of affairs where support for a key Israeli position has become an overtly partisan issue in U.S. politics. This “politicization” of support for Israel has produced a stinging defeat for Netanyahu, taking place in the very U.S. Congress where he had twice basked in relentless standing ovations for his artfully deceptive platitudes. It remains to be seen whether this polarization along party lines will be lasting. Nevertheless, Netanyahu and his allies have done serious, perhaps irreparable, damage to the myth that it is impossible for elected officials in the United States to oppose whatever position Israel takes, however much this position may contradict vital U.S. interests.
The impact on Palestine of these seismic changes is likely to be limited. Notwithstanding President Obama’s apparent loathing of the Israeli premier for the barrage of slights and insults that Netanyahu and his officials have directed at the president, the U.S. administration appears intent on “compensating” Israel for the agreement with Iran. Why the United States should do so, after making a deal that was manifestly in line with its national interest, is a question that no one is willing to ask in Washington. Such compensation will apparently take the form of proffering even more U.S. weaponry, similar to that which in recent decades has been used primarily to kill Palestinian and Israeli civilians and thereby sustain Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese territory.
Thus, while the United States has ostentatiously separated itself from Israel over the nuclear deal with Iran, under this president, as well as any of his prospective successors in the 2016 presidential field, there will likely be no improvement in Washington’s dismal record of unwavering support for Israel’s oppression of the people of Palestine. There is, however, evidence of the beginning of a change in the attitudes of the U.S. public. Even while most Republicans faithfully echo the line of the most extremist government in Israel’s history, an increasing number of Americans are evincing disenchantment with the official U.S. position. A December 2014 Brookings Institution poll found that 39 percent of all Americans support imposing sanctions on Israel over its refusal to stop settlement construction. Moreover, according to a February 2015 Gallup poll, support for Israel among Democrats dropped by 10 percent in the course of the preceding year. It is clear that there is a growing demographic, which constitutes a large part of the base of the Democratic Party, that is being alienated by Israel’s brutal and repressive actions, and is beginning to be affected by the efforts of the Palestinian solidarity movement.
Even if such change does represent a trend, it will only become meaningful when the Palestinian people are able to unify their deeply divided ranks, develop new leadership, and enunciate a clear and winning strategy for liberation. These are prerequisites for the Palestinians themselves being able to provide a lead to those who are in solidarity with their cause. In the meantime, whether or not Americans and Israelis are momentarily forced to pay attention because of a spike in violence in Palestine, the situation there continues to worsen drastically, as illegal colonial settlements continue to metastasize, as brutal, racist repression of Palestinians in the occupied territories and inside Israel grows, and as threats to the Arab nature of occupied Jerusalem and to the sanctity of Haram al-Sharif as a Muslim place of worship intensify dramatically.
This issue of the Journal touches on many of these questions. Notably, Gareth Porter provides the essential context for understanding the Israeli government’s campaign to demonize Iran and convince the U.S. government to follow its lead on the Iranian nuclear issue. His eye-opening essay, “Israel’s Construction of Iran as an Existential Threat,” shows that the process of grossly inflating the threat represented by Iran’s nuclear program goes back to well before the premiership of Netanyahu, who was only the last, albeit the most vocal, in a series of Israeli leaders to cry wolf over this issue. It also makes it absolutely clear that the massive public relations campaign was built on spurious information, doctored intelligence, and outright lies, and that the gullibility of the media and official Washington in lapping up this witches’ brew of disinformation goes back at least two decades. Porter’s piece represents essential reading for understanding the evolution of the Iranian nuclear issue.
Several articles and essays analyze aspects of settler colonialism as it pertains to Palestine, and also the increasingly successful movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. In a perceptive essay titled “The South African Moment,” the distinguished scholar of African politics and society, Mahmood Mamdani, places the South African boycott movement against apartheid in its broader context. In addition to highlighting the differences and similarities with the BDS movement, the essay explains why the boycott movement in South Africa had such a powerful impact and hopefully provides food for thought to those concerned with the Palestinian liberation struggle. Similarly, Joshua Sperber, in his article “BDS, Israel, and the World System,” offers a critical perspective on the BDS movement’s aim to isolate Israel, arguing that the opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians should be directed at the larger systemic forces of which Israel is just a part. With “A Note on Settler Colonialism,” Darryl Li introduces an article on Bosnian Muslim immigrants to Palestine, which raises interesting questions about the concept of settler colonialism as an analytical lens through which to view the Zionist-Palestinian confrontation.
The issue also includes an article by Tilde Rosmer, chronicling the rise of Islamist student politics in Israel. Rosmer’s research shows that with this, as with so many other manifestations of Palestinian politics, student leaders have played a prominent role, in this case within the Islamic Movement inside Israel.