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-If there are no intrinsic factors dictating implacable hostility between Iran and the U.S., how does one account for its persistence? What promotes, what feeds it?
There was, of course, the sad history of 1953 when the CIA and British intelligence engineered the overthrow of Iran's first democratically elected government, and the outrage of Iran's holding 52 American hostages for 444 days at the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency.
But aside from those incidents, could the mutual hostility today have anything to do with Israel and its ability to enlist the U.S. behind Israeli strategic objectives?
-Do the Iranian leaders see as contrived the oft-expressed concern that Iran might eventually obtain a nuclear weapon, when American officials do nothing about Israel's actual nuclear weapons, or for that matter, those of Pakistan and India?
-Is the real objective of Israel and, by extension, the U.S. the same as it was with respect to Iraq seven years ago -- that is, "regime change"? (How I dislike using the euphemism in vogue for what we used to call overthrowing governments!)
Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let drop last month that, even if Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon, this does not "directly" threaten the United States.
-Is it true, as one of the panelists asserted, that "No one believes that the Green (opposition) movement in Iran is supported by outside forces; that rather it is clearly an entirely indigenous, spontaneous movement?"
Into the memory hole went past news reports about the Bush administration earmarking $400 million to support covert operations designed to frustrate Iran's nuclear program and to destabilize its political system. Also unmentionable were troubling reports that the United States has helped "good" terrorist organizations, like Jundullah, to strike violent blows against Iran's regime.
-Is it a given, as one afternoon panelist suggested, that "Everyone knows that the Israelis would not use their considerable nuclear arsenal except in self-defense"? It seems that when Israel is mentioned in these affairs, commentary must be only in the most positive light; there can be no suggestion that Israel might use, say, bunker-busting tactical nukes to destroy hardened Iranian targets.
-Does the Israeli government honestly perceive an "existential threat" in Iran's possible acquisition of a few nuclear weapons against the 200-300 devices already in Israel's arsenal? If so, is Israel prepared to "defend itself" by attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, using the preventive-war justification which has long been a staple of Israeli policy, and was adopted kit and caboodle by Bush and Cheney?
-Are the Israelis counting on U.S. logistical support for such a preventive attack -- intelligence and operational planning support of the kind that enabled its surgical strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981? Are they expecting the kind of political support the United States provided in the wake of Israel's September 2007 attack on a suspect nuclear-related facility being built in Syria?
-Why is it that former Ambassador Robert Hunter, now an adviser to RAND and himself a passionate opponent of nuclear proliferation, can endorse the idea of a "nuclear-free Middle East," and then with a wan smile simply throw up his hands lamenting that that's never going to happen. Why must this proposal be banned from the category of "everything imaginable," simply because "everyone is sure" that Israel would never go along?
-If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels he can thumb his nose at the U.S. President (and Vice President) on the signal issue of Israeli settlements, is there reason to believe that Netanyahu is inclined to take into account repeated "please pleas" from the likes of Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, who has warned the Israelis publicly that an attack on Iran would be a "big, big, big problem for all of us?"
-Was this week's chutzpah-laden Israeli announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem -- in the midst of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden -- a case of what one might call "practice mouse trapping," to test whether the Obama administration really has the toughness to push back in a meaningful way?
Ambassador Hunter was accompanied on the afternoon panel by prolific writer, Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, and Robert Malley, who served in senior positions at President Bill Clinton's National Security Council and is now Program Director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C.
All three have a wealth of experience on the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this gave rise to eventually dashed expectations of a more candid discussion of several related issues as they impinge on Iranian interests.