As the wild ride known as the Bush Administration careens toward its end, the only question remaining is whether the president will order an attack on Iran. Mired in the endless quagmire of Iraq, desperate for some military success, Bush might try to salvage his wounded sense of mastery with one great roll of the dice.
Iran presents a real quandary for American Jews and for Israel. Israel considers Iran the Middle East's major threat to its survival. Iran's leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has denied the Holocaust and has called for Israel's destruction. A nuclear-armed Iran is a frightening thought for friends of Israel.
Israel and Bush clearly agree that Iran must be stopped from obtaining nuclear weapons, and it is not just Republicans. When Democrats took control of the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the second ranking Democrat, said that a nuclear-armed Iran was unacceptable.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) has been attacking the Bush administration for being too easy on Iran. Other Jewish members of Congress, and Israel's supporters, have been highly critical of the Iranian regime. There is clearly a Jewish constituency for a tough line with Iran, and the Bush administration knows that the Israel card is a powerful motivator. The neoconservatives, some of whom are Jewish hawks, seem hopeful that they can salvage their Iraq disaster with an Iran success.
Despite the apparent congruence between Bush's desire to isolate Iran and the stance taken by Israel and the American Jewish community -- and even many Democrats -- it's not a sure thing that they are on the same page. Nobody wants Iran to have nuclear weapons.
But Democrats are more likely to see Iran policy as a mixture of carrot and stick and to see the threat of conflict as a means to an end. Bush, by contrast, may see the nuclear issue as a means to justify conflict in his program to fight the "axis of evil."
Democrats might be inclined to cite the limited powers held by Ahmadinejad and try to strengthen moderate Iranian opposition to his leadership. Bush finds Ahmadinejad to be a convenient symbol and is invested in building up the impression of the Iranian president's power.
Meanwhile, Israel has to continue to live in its neighborhood after the Bush adventures in writing a new Middle East map are the stuff of historians and has to make extremely difficult assessments of whether Iran can be constructively engaged. For Israel, there is little margin for error.
This three-cornered mix of perceptions was illustrated when the Iraq Study Group report was released last year. Democrats embraced it. Bush disliked the report's call for him to talk to Iran and Syria and to change course in Iraq. The Israelis were less pleased than Democrats with the Iraq Study Group report but for different reasons than Bush. Already distrustful of the report's co-author, James Baker, Israel resented the report's implication that the Israel-Palestinian conflict was blocking resolution of the Iraq situation.
The Israelis themselves have to decide how much to follow the direction of the Bush administration in its waning days. Like Britain, Israel deeply values its reliability to the United States. These two small but influential nations have a "special relationship" with Washington.
Bush has been seen as strongly pro-Israel and is well-regarded there. If Bush were a smarter, less rigid and more competent president, that would be the end of the debate. After all, Richard Nixon came to Israel's aid in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, even though he was weakened by the Watergate scandal. Despite his profound political problems, Nixon worked intelligently and effectively to protect Israel in its hour of need.
With the Democratic victory in the congressional elections, Israel may have to navigate between the isolated and dogmatic Bush and the rest of American government. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert annoyed Democrats back in November, when he lavishly praised the Iraq War as having created a more stable Middle East. On the other hand, Israel has been taking steps that Bush considers out of line.
Israel seems inclined to talk to Syria. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice demanded that Israel break off its contacts with Syria, because the administration has decided that it does not talk to its enemies. It is hard to remember any American president who has discouraged Israel from talking to its adversaries.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) went to Syria, Bush blasted her. There is an Israel subtheme to the Pelosi visit. Whether apocryphal or not, the story got out that Pelosi carried a message from Israel to Syria's leader. When that was discussed publicly, Israel denied any such message.
The Iran situation is further destabilized by the political weakness and radical nature of both Bush and Ahmadinejad. Each leads an embattled radical faction within their own nation. In late 2006, both suffered stunning electoral defeats by more moderate political forces. Ahmadinejad is even weaker than Bush, because his office has vastly less power within the Iranian system than the American president possesses.
But by their verbal jousting and threats and bluster, each has served the interests of the other. Their conflict has given each the hope that they can surmount their political difficulties by enlarging the threat posed by the other.
What is worrisome is that the Iranians may not be very astute about judging American politics, and that the Bush administration has no real interest in understanding the dynamics of the Iranian power struggle between moderates and radicals. From such roots, wars sometimes spring.
Friends of Israel, whether Democrats or Republicans, have to hope that Iran will not obtain nuclear weapons. How to reach that goal is likely to become a central issue in American foreign policy.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.
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