“If each Muslim throws a bucket of water on Israel,” said the late Ayatollah Khomeini, “Israel will be erased.” This immortal sentiment, and surreal image, captures the essence of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s public diplomacy campaign these last four years, one of the most effective uses of “soft power” in recent memory.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to destroy Israel have so captured the hearts and minds of the Arab masses that they are too distracted to understand that the Persians are primarily coming after them. And the princes and presidents-for-life who rule the Arabs dare not speak the truth since they have promised for sixty years now to rectify the historical error that led to the establishment of the Zionist entity. With the reflexive Arab humiliation at the failure to annihilate a UN member state, the Khomeinists offer at least hope: if you can’t throw Israel into the sea, then take the sea to Israel — and bring your bucket.
So, while Ahmadinejad — the regime’s dark sorcerer, carny barker, and bearded lady rolled into one — has talked of making Israel disappear, he has effectively dropped his cloak over the rest of the Middle East to hide it from view. Even Washington doesn’t seem to have noticed that Iran has pulled a three-card monte trick with a vital American interest — the Persian Gulf.
To be sure, Ahmadinejad is a messianic obscurantist whose vicious threats should not be taken lightly. But Israel is not the main issue here, nor for that matter is the regime’s nascent nuclear program. For these are merely aspects, albeit important ones, of Iran’s project for the entire Middle East, a revolutionary putsch against the established order. And since Washington for over half a century has underwritten that order, from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, which Martin Kramer has called an “American lake,” the Iranian project by definition means to drive the U.S. from the region. And that’s the main event: not Israel, which has a nuclear deterrent, but the Gulf Arabs, who don’t, and their oil, a vital American interest.
Just as it would be ignoble for the world’s superpower to assign an attack on Iran’s nuclear program to the Israelis, neither should Washington leave it up to Israel to counter Ahmadinejad’s rhetorical onslaught. It is the prerogative of a superpower to formulate strategy, tasks that Washington has so far botched. Consider Annapolis, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s redundant effort to convince the Arabs and Israelis of the obvious — that they have a common foe in Iran — and then reward Arab inaction by demanding concessions from Israel on the peace process.
Not surprisingly, the Israelis are confused and frustrated and the Arabs are hardly more impressed. Indeed Arab regime confidence in Washington’s ability to stop the Iranians seems to be at an all-time low. Four years ago U.S. ally King Abdullah of Jordan was stirring up the sectarian hornet’s nest by warning of a Shia crescent; today Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is hosting unprecedentedly Shia-friendly interfaith conferences in order to pave the way for an accommodation between the Sunnis and those who are awaiting the return of the twelfth imam, a comity that does not need Washington as a guarantor.
And there is no American clarity on the horizon either, for so far neither U.S. presidential candidate has indicated that he will be any more effective than the Bush administration.
Senator Obama says that he’s the man who would speak with the Iranians — apparently ignorant of the fact that every man who has sat in the Oval Office since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran has tried to engage the IRI. While this puerile boast richly merits the derision of his opponents, the fact is that Senator McCain has not shown that his Iran policy consists of much more than proving that he is a steadfast friend of Israel. Is it possible that the two men running for this country’s highest office do not know what is at stake?