Obama, Netanyahu and the management of empire

Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on March 3. Netanyahu’s visit and the controversy surrounding it brings to sharp focus the divisions in the U.S. ruling class on its approach towards Iran, and more broadly its strategy on the Middle East.

Much of the media focus has been on the effect of the visit on partisan politics in the U.S. and the Israeli elections. Netanyahu will be visiting Washington in the lead up to the upcoming March 17 elections in Israel. By appearing strong on his opposition to Iran in taking his case to the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu hopes to gain an advantage in the Israeli elections.

Infighting between ruling class parties in U.S.

Within the U.S. political establishment, Netanyahu’s visit has sharpened the in-fighting between the two ruling-class parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. It is unprecedented for a foreign leader to be invited to address Congress without coordination and consent from the president, constitutionally in charge of conducting foreign policy. House Speaker John Boehner has invited Netanyahu precisely because he will attack President Obama’s policy of negotiations with Iran.

Obama has said that he would not meet with Netanyahu during his U.S. visit. Joe Biden, who as vice president is expected to preside over joint sessions of Congress, has said that he will be on a trip to Latin America – originally the announcement from his office was that he would be away on a trip to an undisclosed country.

An increasing number of Democratic members of Congress have stated that they would not be present at the session. Even some Republican members of Congress have expressed reservations about Netanyahu’s scheduled address. There have been many calls on Netanyahu, including calls within Israel, to cancel or postpone his U.S. visit.

Netanyahu is expected to call on Congress to introduce new sanctions on Iran. New sanctions, if passed by Congress and not vetoed by Obama, is sure to bring an end to negotiations, as Iran has announced repeatedly. Netanyahu has been an outspoken critic of the negotiations, ongoing between the P5+1, the five permanent UN Security Council member countries, the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia and China, along with Germany. Netanyahu does not want the U.S. to reach any sort of agreement with Iran.

U.S. and Israel’s foreign policies not identical

The fact that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East today is not identical to Israel’s is not a surprise. There are those who falsely claim that Israel and/or the Zionist lobby – e.g. AIPAC –dictate U.S. foreign policy. The current open conflict between Washington and Tel Aviv is proof that this is not the case. But even under the administration of George W. Bush, one of the most pro-Israel presidents, Washington steered clear from following Israel’s line, especially when it came to Iran.

However, the level of open conflict between the administrations of Obama and Netanyahu is unprecedented in relations between the U.S. and Israel in recent decades. Up to now, differences were kept behind closed doors. On Feb. 18, the Obama administration announced that it would no longer provide Israel with classified information on its negotiations with Iran.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest characterized Israel’s statements and leaks as motivated by an attempt to sabotage the negotiations:”There’s no question that some of the things that the Israelis have said in characterizing our negotiating position have not been accurate…We see that there is a continued practice of cherry-picking specific pieces of information and using them out of context to distort the negotiating position of the United States.”

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Israel has been strongly advocating for the U.S. to attack Iran militarily. Netanyahu has campaigned for the destruction of Iran, a country he claims presents to be “existential threat” to Israel. Israel has repeatedly threatened to take the initiative to bomb Iran itself. But not only did the Bush administration not follow this advice, it explicitly warned Israel against taking any action on its own. The Obama administration, as well as the leadership of other imperialist states, have not bought into Netanyahu’s hyperbole and, instead, have sought to use comprehensive sanctions to bring Iran under control.

From the perspective of Israel’s ruling class, bombing Iran would be a low-risk proposition. Once military action in any shape or form is launched, it will be the U.S., not Israel, that will bear the risks and the costs. Israel does not have the capability to invade Iran or launch an extended air campaign. But any reaction from Iran would force the U.S. to get involved.

What is the current division in U.S. ruling class?

Why the United States, under both the Bush II and Obama administrations, has refused to bomb or invade Iran goes to the heart of the current division within the U.S. ruling class. There is no question that all the factions of the U.S. ruling class would like nothing more than regime change in Iran.

Following the downfall of the Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism pursued the goal of removing the remaining independent states in the Middle East, at the time Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya (in North Africa). Since that time, the U.S. has overthrown the state in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. Syria is in the midst of a civil war that the U.S. has done much to foment. Whether or not Syria survives, it is unlikely to emerge as a strong state from the ravages of its catastrophic civil war. Post-occupation Iraq did not turn out to be a client state, which is what the U.S. hoped the occupation would achieve.

Still, Iraq is a weak state in a heavily fragmented country, much of it currently under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS). So there are no more strong independent states in the region that the U.S. needs to worry about, other than Iran.Today, in many ways Iran is the lynchpin of resistance to imperialist domination of the Middle East. It provides vital financial and military support to Syria. Iran’s support is key to the continued strength of Hezbollah, a Lebanese resistance force that delivered a crushing blow to Israel’s myth of invincibility in 2006. Iran also supports Palestinian resistance against Israel’s criminal state. Iran’s removal from the scene would be a most welcome development for the U.S. and Israel alike.

But, along with many establishment foreign policy analysts, the Obama administration has come to terms with the fact that regime change is not a realistic goal in the foreseeable future. An invasion and occupation of Iran is not feasible because, given Iran’s size and population, it would require more than double the troop numbers that were required for the occupation of Iraq.

An aerial bombing campaign, no matter how intense and extended, will not result in the downfall of the Islamic Republic and carries great risks for the U.S., its client Gulf states and Israel. And the right-wing Green Movement, that appeared to be a promising prospect for internal developments leading to regime change in 2009, has long since evaporated.

Two approaches to ‘managing’ Iran

Recognizing that regime change is not in the cards, the Obama administration is now working on engaging with and containing Iran through negotiations and agreements. This is in sharp contrast to the Bush administration, whose only engagement with Iran was issuing threats and ultimatums. An agreement with Iran would strengthen the more conciliatory faction of the Iranian political establishment, currently led by President Rouhani. Reaching a deal with Iran could potentially help the U.S. deal with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Facing a March 31 deadline, in the last week of February, Secretary of State John Kerry and other Western diplomats are scheduled to continue negotiations with Iran. In November 2013,an interim agreement was reached under which Iran would reduce its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium in exchange for limited sanctions relief, allowing Iran limited access to some of its own funds frozen in foreign banks.

It is not clear what the exact terms of the negotiations are. Nor is it clear whether or not an agreement will be ultimately reached. But it is clear that, unlike previous U.S. administrations, the Obama administration does in fact want to reach a deal.

The U.S. position used to be that Iran should essentially shut down its entire nuclear operations. Its precondition for negotiations used to be that Iran should halt uranium enrichment altogether. But now the main sticking point of the negotiations is whether or not Iran is allowed uranium enriched to 20 percent purity, and if so how much. Iran has forced the U.S. to concede to its demand that it continue its nuclear program under the watch of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

To keep an overall perspective, whatever conditions are imposed on Iran are unjust. Countries armed with thousands of nuclear bombs are imposing sanctions and severe restrictions on a country only now developing its nuclear program – a program that years of sanctions have not turned up a shred of evidence that it has a nuclear weapons component. Still, if an agreement is reached, it represents a major concession on the part of U.S. imperialism. It will be a recognition of Iran as a regional power, one that cannot be pushed around the same way that U.S. client states are.

Some factions of the U.S. ruling class are unwilling to accept this retreat. For them, stopping short of imposing the U.S. will on an independent state through threats, bombings or invasions, is an admission of imperialist weakness. The image of invincibility, the message to oppressed peoples that they should succumb to the power of empire or face annihilation, is important to maintaining the world order in the interests of the giant banks and corporations Washington serves.

Differences are real, may create an opportunity for progressives

The rift between Obama and Netanyahu is real and important. But Obama’s opposition to Netanyahu’s ultra-right wing cabinet, and the more militaristic factions of the U.S. ruling class, should not be confused with a progressive position. Obama and his wing of ruling-class politicians are pursuing a path they see as best serving imperialist interests.

Cracks in the ruling class often create openings for revolutionaries. Protests, movements and positions that would otherwise be shut out of the mainstream bourgeois media might get some exposure. The current conflict between Washington and Tel Aviv might open a discussion on the relations of the two countries. It might raise the question of why the U.S. gives billions of dollars of annual aid to Israel.

The ANSWER Coalition, of which the Party for Socialism and Liberation is a member organization, is joining with other forces to protest Netanyahu’s U.S. visit, not because he is undermining Obama but because of the crimes that he and his state commits against the Palestinians and other people in the region.



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