The infernal U.S.-Iran-Israel triangle

Why does most of the world continue to lose respect for the United States and its conduct of foreign policy? Two developments in the past week shed some light on this, and – not surprisingly – they both relate to Washington’s relations with Iran and Israel, an arena in which American rationality, fairness, consistency and integrity go out the window, and hysteria takes over the controls.

Last Friday, President Barack Obama announced that his analysis of global oil trading led him to conclude that there were sufficient supplies of crude oil in the market for the U.S. to implement previously announced sanctions on countries that buy oil from Iran. If third countries do not reduce or stop their oil purchases and commercial dealings with the central bank of Iran, those countries would not be allowed to do any business with the United States.

Two rather extraordinary aspects of this decision deserve noting. The first is the presumptuous American attitude that Washington can decide on its own whether the global oil market is sufficiently robust to allow the U.S. to unilaterally issue orders to other sovereign countries about where they can or cannot buy oil from. This American sense of global arrogance already extends to several other domains in which lawmakers in Washington – most of whom are deeply ignorant of the world beyond their borders – presumptuously issue reports and rankings about the status of human rights, religious freedoms, press freedoms, democracy or other such issues around the world.

The United States does not see itself as a leading power among equally sovereign states around the world; it sees itself as the definer and guarantor of global behavior, and the enforcer of norms that it sets on its own. Most of the world rejects and resents this.

The second more problematic aspects of the oil sanctions and commercial trading decision is that the U.S. will now enforce a secondary boycott against countries that buy Iranian oil via transactions with Iran’s central bank.

My problem with this is not that the U.S. should not impose such a secondary boycott, which all countries are free to use. My problem is that the United States explicitly and vehemently opposed such a secondary boycott when the Arab countries did exactly the same thing in relation to third-country companies that invested in or appreciably assisted the Israeli economy because of the active state of war between Arabs and Israelis. Washington rejected this rationale and said that the Arab boycott had to be opposed and busted.

Now the United States applies exactly the same principle, totally abandoning the values that it summoned when it opposed the Arab boycott of Israel. The continuing insistence by Washington that its foreign policy should operate according to a different set of rules than the rest of the world – especially when Israel is concerned – is a major reason why so many people and governments around the world look at American foreign policy with disdain and disrespect.

The second noteworthy development last week helps explain why this kind of behavior occurs. It was an article in The Washington Post by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, titled, “The U.S. can meet Israel halfway on Iran.”

The article laid out reasons for why and how the U.S. and Israel should closely coordinate their diplomacy, negotiations, sanctions, threats and potential military attack on Iran. The authors noted, “Because Israel is the only country that Iran has repeatedly threatened to ‘wipe off the map,’ it is reasonable for it to have some input into the objectives of diplomacy and the timetable for progress in negotiations. The more Israelis feel their views are being taken into account, the more inclined they will be to give diplomacy a chance to work before resorting to force. Israel should also understand that if diplomacy fails and force proves necessary, the context in which force is used will be critical.”

This is not surprising coming from The Washington Institute, a highly effective pro-Israel think tank in the U.S. capital with exceptional influence among U.S. officials, as have most other such institutions that broadly reflect the positions of the Israeli government and the American pro-Israel lobby groups. What is surprising is the rather explicit call from the heart of Washington for U.S. policy on Iran to be so closely coordinated with Israeli views.

Coordination is a normal tool of diplomatic action, but many people in the U.S. and around the world feel that the line between cooperation and coercion has been badly blurred in U.S.-Israeli relations, as America’s Mideast policies seem increasingly subservient to Israeli concerns.

Dennis Ross was a central figure in formulating American policies on Arab-Israeli and, more recently, Iranian issues – policies that have failed in almost every respect. Is it perhaps due in part to the fact that American officials and lawmakers often confuse Israeli concerns with American interests? Are we seeing this principle in action again these days over Iran, where coordination and coercion seem especially confused?

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 04, 2012, on page 7.




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