Is Harper undermining Obama on Iran?

Is Harper undermining Obama on Iran?

It might be useful for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to read a U.S. state department cable from Israel released by Wikileaks. It reveals that talk of Iran's imminent production of nuclear weapons goes back to the early 1990s: "The head of the MFA's [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] strategic affairs division recalled that GOI [Government of Israel] assessments from 1993 predicted that Iran would possess an atomic bomb by 1998 at the latest."

The March 2005 cable to Washington cautioned that Israel's estimates of Iranian nuclear capability "...need to be taken with caution." While Harper recently reiterated the need for diplomacy and did not support military action, his emphasis that such action was "on the table" and his acceptance of Israel's declaration that Iran is seeking to build a weapon makes the call for diplomacy hollow. Harper seems immune not only to the facts surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue but to the consequences of adopting Israel's position as Canada's own.

One of those consequences is that it encourages Israel to consider a military attack on its own without U.S. support. Accepting Israel's declaration that Iran is seeking -- and would actually use -- nuclear weapons, threatens to keep the price of oil climbing and undermines any hope of global economic recovery. The other critical consequence is that Harper's carte blanche for Israel is directly at odds with the U.S. position and undermines President Barack Obama's efforts to prevent a catastrophic military adventure in the most volatile region in the world.

Harper is proud of his lock-step support of the U.S. on most foreign policy issues. But he has made it known that Canada will support Israel no matter what, which in effect means that Israel, not the United States, is Canada's de-facto closest ally on Middle East policy. That is a reckless foreign policy based not on Canada's interests but on Harper's domestic politics. While you would never know it from mainstream media coverage, the U.S. officially remains unconvinced that Iran is actually seeking to build a nuclear weapon. And no one in the U.S. military actually believes that Iran would ever adopt a first strike policy even if it did have a weapon. In short, the U.S. does not accept Israel's insistence that Iran is an "existential threat" to Israel as Harper clearly does.

Three developments on the Iran-Israel front should be of interest to a prime minister actually engaged in a rational foreign policy. The first is the recent parliamentary elections in Iran which severely weakened the political clout of the unpredictable and provocative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The elections resulted in a resounding victory for the supporters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme ruler, who in the past had supported Ahmadinejad. Khamenei's increased power is especially significant because before the election he made the clearest statement yet about Iran's intentions regarding nuclear weapons.

In a speech to nuclear scientists he stated: "The purpose of the uproar they [the West] cause is to stop us. They know that we are not after nuclear weapons. They already know this. I do not have any doubts that in the countries that are opposed to us, the organizations in charge of decision-making are fully aware that we are not after nuclear weapons.

"Nuclear weapons are not at all beneficial to us. Moreover, from an ideological and faqih [Islamic legal] perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big sin. We also believe that keeping such weapons is futile and dangerous, and we will never go after them. They know this, but they stress the issue in order to stop our movement."

One of the predicted outcomes of the election is that it will unify political power in the country -- a change from the factional infighting which has allowed the West to portray Iran as volatile and unpredictable and also played into the hands of those promoting the position that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons. There is increasing evidence that the U.S. and Israel are getting further apart on their positions on Iran, especially regarding the possibility of a military attack. In an interview in mid-February, Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "A strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn't achieve their long-term objectives. I wouldn't suggest, sitting here today, that we've persuaded them that our view is the correct view and that they are acting in an ill-advised fashion."

This is the context for Harper's position of supporting Israel no matter what. Yet he seems unaware that the U.S. could use Canada's help in persuading Israel to back away from the threat of military action. Or he is simply ignoring it.

More evidence of the growing divide between Israel and the U.S. was the reaction of Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu to Dempsey's interview. Netanyahu was furious and actually accused the top military commander of the U.S. of "serving Iranian interests."

What he meant was Dempsey was weakening the credibility of Netanyahu's carefully constructed propaganda that Israel and/or the U.S. would bomb Iran if it didn't comply with demands to abandon its nuclear program. For the first time it seems that Obama is confident enough to stand up to Israel and the awesome power of its lobby in the U.S. – AIPAC, the American Israel Political Action Committee. According to U.S. blogger Jim Lobe, Netanyahu and AIPAC were both pushing for the U.S. to drop the option of "containment" (through sanctions and other measures) and that stopping Iran from developing a weapon is a "vital national interest" of the U.S.

That would have left military action as the only real option if diplomacy didn't work. But Obama did not comply (though in his speech to AIPAC he denied that U.S. policy amounted to containment). It's not hard to see why Netanyahu was so furious. A recent poll in Israel shows lukewarm support for a go-it-alone Israeli attack on Iran's multitude of nuclear facilities. Just 19 per cent favoured such an attack while 42 per cent did so if the U.S. approved (and presumably helped). Thirty-four percent opposed an attack while 19 per cent thought it would have no effect on Iran's program.

One of the most telling responses of the comprehensive poll was the 68 per cent who believed that such an attack would unleash retaliation by Hezbollah, the well-armed and highly disciplined force that humiliated the Israel army in its invasion of Lebanon in 2006. What is probably worse for Netanyahu is that the Israeli military believes a strike by Israel alone would fail -- it is just not strong enough, has too few planes and effective armaments and would have to risk flying through other countries' air space to make a strike. Worse, this failed strike could unleash Iran's very effective and highly accurate Shahab-3 medium range ballistic missiles (flying time: 10 minutes) on dozens of targets in Israel.

According to Nahum Barnea, a journalist with the Israel's largest Hebrew newspaper Yedihot Ahahronot "... the IDF [Israeli Defence Force] Head of Staff Beni Gantz, Mossad Director Tamir Pardo, Head of Aman (IDF Military Intelligence Corps) Aviv Cochabi, and the Head of Shin Beth Yoram Cohen -- in other words, Israel's leading generals -- oppose an attack on Iran."

So a rogue Israeli attack on Iran is extremely unlikely, especially in this U.S. election year. Last time around Barack Obama received 78 per cent of the Jewish vote. He is totally confident that he can repeat that in November and will not back an Israeli attack. But he must be very anxious about another consequence of Israeli hysteria over Iran -- the rise in gas prices, something the Republican candidates are already attacking him for. Not only will high prices anger American voters, it will have a chilling effect on the now-growing U.S. economy (227,00 new jobs in February).

Does Stephen Harper even know these facts about the Israeli-Iran situation, and if he does, does he care? It's impossible to determine for sure, though given his contempt for the expertise in the foreign affairs department, we can expect the worst. Harper might want to reconsider contributing to the Iran hysteria and higher oil prices. Canada lost 2,800 jobs in February -- it needs a robust U.S. economy to help recover those lost jobs.

Murray Dobbin is an author, activist, and blogger. This column originally appeared in the Tyee. Reprinted with permission from the author.