The chess-masters of Tehran have played a single combination for the past five years: threaten America’s flanks in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to gain control of the center of the board, that is, by pushing on with a nuclear program that many suspect is designed to acquire nuclear weapons.

Iran has sufficient assets in the territory of its troubled neighbors to make a shambles of America’s Potemkin village. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may be able to govern Iraq with a third of the seats contested in the March 7 parliamentary elections, provided that Iran’s allies such as Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr permit him to do so. And the appearance of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Kabul on March 10 to declare his solidarity with Afghanistan’s beleaguered President Hamid Karzai planted Iran’s flag in the midst of Afghan politics.

Iran will succeed, unless another player kicks over the chessboard. Israeli officials report that American officials are visiting Jerusalem – including Vice President Joseph Biden last week – to warn Israel against launching an attack on Iran. “They’re not talking about the Palestinians, they’re only talking about Iran,” commented the head of one Israeli political party.

That explains the exceptionally harsh, even adversarial tone that Washington has taken towards Israel, supposedly in response to last week’s go-ahead for 1,600 apartments in East Jerusalem, but evidently in anticipation of an Israeli attack on Iran.

Reuters quoted an unnamed American official warning that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position was “perilous” because of alleged divisions in his government over negotiating with the Palestinians. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s March 12 statement seemed disproportionate that the East Jerusalem construction was “a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the vice president’s trip.” And the Israeli news site, which frequently carries intelligence community leaks, reports that Washington is threatening to withhold weapons from the Israelis.

Considering that Obama faces congressional elections in five months and well may lose control of both houses, the lady may protest too much. Obama may be in a lot more trouble than Netanyahu.

The Obama administration’s shrill tone towards Israel reflects its domestic political weakness as much as its strategic problems. According to a March 7 poll by The Israel Project, Americans take the Israeli side against the Palestinians by a margin of 57% to 7%, with the rest neutral. A Gallup Poll released February 28 gives the margin at 63% to 15%, with 23% neutral. Only 30% of respondents told Gallup that they expect a peace agreement between Israel and the Arab states.

More to the point, 60% of respondents in a March 2 Fox News poll said they believed force would be required to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, while only 25% believe that diplomacy and sanctions will work. Fifty-one percent of Democrats and 75% of Republicans polled favored the use of force. Obama’s job approval for handling Iran was at only 41%, with 42% disapproving.
An Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would polarize American opinion. And if the Obama administration attempted to punish Israel for doing what most Americans seemingly want to do in any event, the balance of American sentiment – if available polling data are any guide – would shift away from Obama and to Israel. Obama’s party would pay at the polls in November.

No one cares about the Palestinians; to the extent that the charade of Israeli negotiations with the weak and divided Palestine Authority comes into consideration, it is because Washington still hopes that a show of progress might be helpful in addressing more urgent concerns in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Obama’s investment in rapprochement with Iran is not a sentimental gesture: it is the pillar on which American regional policy rests.

Despite the enormous difference in outlook between the last administration and the present one, there is an underlying continuity in Washington’s stance towards Iran, due to the facts on the ground put in place by Iran itself. I wrote on this site in October 2005, shortly after Ahmadinejad came to power:

I do not believe any formal understanding is in place, but the probable outcome is that Washington will refrain from military action to forestall any Iranian nuclear arms developments, while Tehran will refrain from disrupting Washington’s constitutional Potemkin Village in Iraq. Tehran thinks strategically, as befits a country with a government newly elected by an overwhelming majority, while Washington thinks politically. President George W Bush is struggling to persuade the American public of the wisdom of his nation-building scheme in Iraq, and badly wants the Iranians to keep their hands in their pockets. Iran is prepared to do so as long as America keeps its opposition to its nuclear program within the confines of the diplomatic cul-de-sac defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency. (See A Syriajevo in the making?, Asia Times Online, October 25, 2005)

Nation-building in Iraq is the tar baby that has entrapped American foreign policy. The notion that the United States should take responsibility for the political evolution of a country cooked up by British cartographers with the explicit purpose of keeping Sunni Arabs, Shi’ite Arabs and Kurds at each others’ throats, ranks as one of the great political delusions of the past century. Since the American invasion in 2003, it always has been in Iran’s power to make the country ungovernable. More important to Iran, though, is the potential acquisition of nuclear weapons. Should it become a nuclear power, Iran could set its cats’ paws in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan to whatever task it chose with far less fear of American retribution.

The Obama administration’s abortive opening to Iran always aimed at obtaining Iranian help in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, among other things by soliciting Tehran’s good offices with the Shi’ite Hazara minority in Afghanistan. Iran has ties both to the Hazara as well as to their mortal enemies, the Sunni Taliban, and keeps its options open. Its prospective influence in Afghanistan is potent enough to panic the US – Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived in Kabul unannounced on March 8, the same day that Ahmadinejad was expected in the Afghan capital, prompting the Iranian president to postpone his trip by two days. Gates’ unexpected trip was interpreted as a pre-emptive action against Iranian influence. Karzai embraced his Iranian counterpart as a friend and ally.

As Asia Times Online’s M K Bhadrakumar wrote on March 13: “Karzai can hope to tap into Iran’s influence with various Afghan groups, which traditionally focused on the Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazara Shi’ites but today also extends to segments of the Pashtun population. Significantly, Ahmedinejad was received on Wednesday at Kabul airport by the Northern Alliance leader Mohammed Fahim, who has become the first vice president in Karzai’s new government despite strong opposition from the US and Britain.” (See A titanic power struggle in Kabul, Asia Times Online, March 13)

The United States responded to Ahmadinejad’s Afghan visit by paying obeisance to Iran’s influence. “The future of Afghanistan has a regional dimension and we hope that Iran will play a more constructive role in Afghanistan in the future,” said US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley. He added in the past, the US and Iran have “cooperated constructively” and hoped that they would do so again, given that Iran has “a legitimate interest in the future of Afghanistan.”

The answer to the question: “What is Obama’s exit strategy from Afghanistan?” – is a Great Gamelet in which Iran and Pakistan work out a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan and establish a miniature balance of power between Sunnis and Shi’ites. All that is missing is Johnny Depp in Mad Hatter makeup replacing Richard Holbrooke as AfPak czar, distributing 3-D glasses to the diplomatic corps.

Just as delusional is the idea that an Iraqi government formed by either of the two front-runners in the March 7 elections, Maliki or Iyad Allawi, would free Iraq of Iranian influence. That is the conventional wisdom in Washington, however. The Washington Post editorialized March 13:

A government headed by either Mr Maliki or Mr Allawi would offer the Obama administration an opportunity to forge a vital strategic relationship with Iraq even as US troops depart in the next two years. Mr Maliki signed a strategic framework with the Bush administration and has already demonstrated his capacity to resist Iranian influence. Mr Allawi is even more interested in an alliance with Washington and has good relations with Arab Sunni governments that have shunned Mr Maliki’s administration.

The precise opposite is the case: Iraq’s elections took place without crippling violence because Tehran understands well the chess maxim: “The threat is mightier than the execution.” Iran is content to allow America to keep its Potemkin village in place for a while longer, and push on with its nuclear program which carries with it possibility of a nuclear weapon.

What the Bush administration might have done under present circumstances is a hypothetical question. But the fact is that Bush built the Potemkin village in Iraq, and Obama inherited it. The difference lies in the Bush administration’s desire to project American power, and the Obama administration’s desire to diminish it.

One might speculate that a Republican administration – at least one headed by Senator John McCain – would have encouraged Israel to extricate the US from its present Zugzwang (imperative to move when any move is damaging) by attacking Iran’s nuclear program. That, after all, is what allies are for. There is no Obama administration as such; there is only Obama, who appears to run the entire show out of his Blackberry. As David Rothkopf wrote in his Foreign Policy blog March 12, Obama’s is “an administration in which seeking the favor of the president has taken on an importance that is in fact, much more reminiscent of the historical czars than is the role being played by anyone with this now devalued moniker.”

As I wrote on this space February 18: “Israel has a strategic problem broader than the immediate issue of Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons: it is an American ally at a moment when America has effectively withdrawn from strategic leadership. That leaves Israel at a crossroads. It can act like an American client state, or a regional superpower. Either decision would have substantial costs.”(See The case for an Israeli strike against Iran, Asia Times Online, February 18)

The best thing that Israel can do for the United States in its time of befuddlement is pursue its own interests, for American and Israeli security concerns have one overriding commonality: the need to prevent rogue states in the region from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the the present test of wills between Washington and Jerusalem, the smart money is on David rather than Goliath.

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