The Wall Street Journal caused a ripple in the waters of US media and pundits on Tuesday night, when it declared: “U.S., Iran Relations Move to Détente — Interests Align Over Fight Against Islamic State, Other Policies”:
The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials.
If true, this détente would indeed be a major development, with implications across the Middle East and beyond. A comprehensive Iranian nuclear deal with the 5+1 Powers, including the US, would remove an obstacle to cooperation between Washington and Tehran on interventions in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. In turn, those interventions could mean a US accommodation with Syria’s Assad regime, which has been propped up by Iran during the 43-month uprising, and support for President Rouhani’s pursuit of “engagement” with Saudi Arabia.
Only problem — there is not a single “senior US official”, or indeed a substantive piece of evidence, in the entire article supporting the dramatic claim.
Leave aside for a moment the tenuous state of the nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 Powers — unexamined by the Journal, except for an innocuous sentence for lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman and sniping from an “Administration” critic — with a deal highly unlikely before a November 24 deadline.
Consider the exaggeration of specific incidents into grand signs of US-Iran cooperation.
The Obama administration also has markedly softened its confrontational stance toward Iran’s most important nonstate allies, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese militant and political organization, Hezbollah. American diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, negotiated with Hamas leaders through Turkish and Qatari intermediaries during cease-fire talks in July that were aimed at ending the Palestinian group’s rocket attacks on Israel, according to senior U.S. officials.
U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly tipped off Lebanese law-enforcement bodies close to Hezbollah about threats posed to Beirut’s government by Sunni extremist groups, including al Qaeda and its affiliate Nusra Front in Syria, Lebanese and U.S. officials said.
Yes, Secretary of State Kerry communicated indirectly with the Gazan leadership of Hamas during this summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Gaza. He did so because it is impossible to pursue a ceasefire if you only speak with one side — the Israelis — in a conflict. The US maintained its bar on any direct contact with Hamas. It supported a final ceasefire in which Hamas was forced to make concessions to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt.
And none of this had anything to do with a “US-Iran detente”: Gaza was not on the agenda of any contacts between Washington and Tehran.
Similarly, the claimed indirect communication with Hezbollah, via Lebanese security organizations, was never part of a wider initiative involving Iran. In the context of the Syrian crisis, Washington was concerned that car bombings could spark widespread conflict throughout Lebanon, with the involvement of the Islamic State and the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra.
Since the U.S. resumed military operations inside Iraq in August, however, [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guard, or IRGC, has explicitly ordered its local proxies not to target American military personnel conducting and coordinating attacks against Islamic State from bases around Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurdish region, according to U.S. officials who have tracked Iranian communications.
In August, as the US launched aerial operations in northwest Iraq against the Islamic State, it wanted to ensure that there was no clash — accidental or intentional — with Iranian units or Shia militias who were supporting Iraqi forces. So it gave a general summary of the operations, but not the details, to Tehran. Beyond that, there has been no coordination between Washington and Tehran of any initiative in Iraq.
And here, as it converts cases of limited communication to avoid wider conflict into the “detente”, is what the Journal does not consider — since it does not include a single statement from any Iranian official:
1. The Supreme Leader has rejected any cooperation with the US on regional matters, including the Iraq and Syria crises.
2. The Supreme Leader and other officials vetoed President Rouhani’s attempt to establish cooperation with the US over Iraq in the days after the Islamic State’s offensive in June.
3. The Supreme Leader and other officials have signalled an escalation of their involvement in Palestinian “resistance” to Israel — not through talks with Hamas, whose relations are strained with Iran, but with Islamic Jihad.
4. The Supreme Leader and other officials have denounced the US aerial intervention in Syria.
5. The Supreme Leader and other officials have gone as far as to accuse the US of creating the Islamic State.
But who needs to consider what the Iranians say when that might undermine a grand declaration of “detente”?
Especially when that grand declaration can be used for speculation about apparently unrelated issues — for example, the sudden “crisis” in US-Israeli relations with a “senior Obama Administration official” announcing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “chickenshit”.
Here’s Dan Drezner, a prominent analyst in Washington circles, on Wednesday:
The one thing this kind of trash-talking does is send a signal to Iran about the U.S. commitment to a nuclear deal….
These observations are partly intended to tell Netanyahu that this gambit [by Israel] won’t constrain U.S. negotiators. In part, however, they might also serve to tell Iran that any fears they have of an Israeli strike are exaggerated. And if that has been holding the Iranians back, it would potentially eliminate this as a roadblock to further negotiations.
In short, insult Netanyahu and the Iranians will suddenly close the “large gaps” that remain on key issues in the nuclear talks, such as the number and level of their centrifuges for uranium enrichment.
A cursory glance at the US strategy on the nuclear talks — or a word with one of the “unnamed US officials” who permeate other articles — would reveal that Washington has tried to seal off the discussions from any other issues such as the Syrian and Iraqi situations and the Islamic State, let alone the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian tension.
And even if the US did try this tactic, it has a snowball’s chance in nuclear hell. Iranian officials are not concerned about an imminent Israeli airstrike — because they believe it will never happen — if the talks break through.
Their primary concern, at least for President Rouhani and his inner circle, is the impact on the Iranian economy: but of course, because that has nothing to do with US-Israel relations, it does not make for provocative punditry.
Yet Drezner’s whipping-up of a speculative theory is far from the worst effect of any analysis.
Instead, that is the act of omission. With all attention given to US-Iran “detente”, Drezner does not have to given the actual reasons for the US broadside against Netanyahu.
Like the expansion of Israeli Jewish settlement in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem or the West Bank. Or the Israeli Government’s sabotage of Secretary of State Kerry’s efforts for a Gaza ceasefire this summer. Or its resistance to any meaningful renewal of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
These real conflicts are ongoing and deadly. They will not be resolved. Indeed, the violence is likely to worsen in the forthcoming weeks.
The actual significance of the unsupported headlines about “US-Iran detente” is that they will add a bit more fuel to those conflicts. In the next few days, expect the Israeli Government — and probably the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal — to declare that the Obama Administration’s bad-mouthing of Netanyahu was because the Israeli Prime Minister is “strong”, and Obama is “weak”, over Iran.
And so it goes….