“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?
Perhaps, but it seems likely that policymakers won’t talk about Gulf energy resources because it is one place where the Republicans are as vulnerable as the Democrats are to the inanities of the left. What can the slogan “no blood for oil” possibly mean in the real world? That we won’t lift a finger to ensure that foodstuffs and other essential items are moved in a timely and inexpensive manner from one part of this large country to another? That we’ll just roll over and play dead if our geographic and therefore our social mobility is circumscribed by fuel prices set by Iran? That we won’t fight at all since the fact that all of American life, society, culture, and commerce is organized around the free flow of the affordable energy resources that also sustain global markets is of absolutely no consequence to those of pure conscience?
The question then is not what the next president of the United States intends to do about Iran, but which candidate will treat the American electorate like adults and speak plainly, maybe something like this:
“We have been at war for over five years now with one goal of our fight being to bring freedom to other nations and peoples around the world. But now it is time to speak of our freedoms and our way of life, and how we intend to preserve them.
“I would not be running for this office if I did not have full faith and confidence not only in the strength and resilience of the American people but also in our native genius and creative energy, a living tradition that you and I must stand in awe of as it reaches from Bill Gates back to Benjamin Franklin and thus ties us to our roots in our forefathers, the founders of our great nation. This is our vivid legacy and thus I have no doubt that in due course we will develop a reliable and affordable substitute for fossil fuels. Who knows but that inventors are not already on the verge of a breakthrough? But perhaps we are not so close; maybe the talent who will usher in a new age of cheap and clean energy has just gone off to summer camp with her friends — in a school bus consuming diesel fuel at more than $5 a gallon. That is to say, there are yet harder times ahead for all of us, and surely some will only find warm consolation in the prospect of our children reaping the great benefits of their parents’ courageous sacrifice in relinquishing our position in the Persian Gulf.
“That, my fellow Americans, is one option before us. The other is to do whatever it takes to secure and sustain the privilege won and bargained for by President Franklin D. Roosevelt some sixty years ago and asserted and exercised by every American government since that time — our position in the Persian Gulf. This hard choice will almost certainly mean some form of military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Losing the Persian Gulf to a fanatical, terror-supporting regime that threatens all its neighbors, Israeli and Arab alike, would do untold damage to the U.S. economy and world markets; and by paving the way for nuclear proliferation in an extremely volatile part of the world where states typically use terrorist organizations to advance their strategic goals, our exit would entail a major threat to U.S. national security. The costs of relinquishing our position in the Gulf would be virtually indistinguishable from losing a world war.