Chasing Dennis Ross, the Israeli advocate
The recent tumult between United States and Israel has once again revived the debate over Israel, its lobby and how they influence US policy in the Middle East. Laura Rozen wrote in Politico that a “fierce debate on Israel is underway inside Obama administration”. White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross’s loyalty was questioned and he was denounced as the point person for advocating Israeli interests in the White House. Rozen was allegedly told by a US official that “He [Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests.”
Stephan Walt, an ardent critic of Israeli influence on US foreign policy published an articleand raised concerns about Ross’s loyalty and the legitimacy of his presence inside the Obama administration. He criticized AIPAC for “pushing an agenda that is not in America's interest.”
The debate over the Israeli “grips” and “burden” on US foreign policy intensified during George Bush administration and his missteps in the region, but ever since Obama took office, this debate has reached unprecedented levels. At every defining moment that the administration was to make a choice in regard to the Middle East, the question of Israeli pressure to undermine US interests has been raised. The most heated episode was the failed selection of Charles Freeman in March 2009 to chair the National Intelligence Council. He withdrew from consideration for the job and issued a statementin which he described himself as the victim of a shadowy and sinister "Lobby" whose "tactics plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency" and which is "intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government." Freeman was referring to the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC.
Following Freeman’s virulent statement, Steve Clemons who runs the weblog “Washington Note” declared that “Freeman has been the first big victim in this struggle for the soul of American foreign policy”. He wrote:
“I just got word that Chas Freeman has resigned as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, yielding to the attacks on him. This is unfortunate news as it is going to yield a new, long-running battle over what "patriotism" to US national interests means. Is loyalty to Israeli preferences and interests a litmus test for a political appointment?
This will be a big battle and while Freeman has been the first big victim in this struggle for the soul of American foreign policy, I suspect that there will be a slew of similar battles ahead and any Congressman or Senator who regularly puts Israel's interests before American interests could be in for some rough times.”
But, this description of the battle to “save” US foreign policy is inaccurate and misleading; at least when it comes to US policy with Iran, because it masks the existence and importance of another lobby that also tries to influence US policy and in many cases triumphs over AIPAC. This is precisely the lobby that launched the campaign to discredit Ross.
The campaign against Dennis Ross
On December 17, 2008, shortly after Obama’s election, representatives of some 20 groups held their monthly meeting to discuss their lobby efforts to influence US policy on Iran. The coordinator of this coalition declaredthat the group is now the “center of gravity on Iran issue” in the Congress.
This coalition is the “Campaign for a new American policy on Iran” (CNAPI) that for the past several years has been lobbying for engagement with Iran. American foreign policy project is a coalition’s political website. The December 2008 meeting brought together representatives from USA*Engage (pro-trade lobby), Open Society, peace and religious groups. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) has been coordinating this coalition and its lobby.
The governmental press in Tehran has referred to NIAC as the “Iranian lobby in US” and Senator Jon Kyl has sent an inquiry to the US Attorney general asking to investigate the group’s ties with the Iranian regime. (See also “Iran’s oil Mafia)
With Obama in the White House, CNAPI partners felt that the moment has come to be the determining force in shaping US policy towards Iran but they heard the news that State Department would select Dennis Ross to be its “Iran envoy”, a choice that might undermine CNAPI’s agenda. NIAC took the leadership to block this nomination. The “anti-Ross campaign” was launched to discredit him and eventually pave the road for the nomination of a new diplomat with more friendly views toward Iran.
On January 7, 2009 that is before Obama entered the White House, Patrick Disney (a NIAC employee) who coordinates CNAPI lobby emailed to his partners and wrote:
“As the rumors appear to be more substantiated by the hour, I think we should start a conversation about what our response will be if Dennis Ross is named Iran envoy… NIAC is obviously still formulating a plan, but we're exploring the idea of coming out publicly, and relatively strongly, against Ross.”
A few hours later, Parsi entered the discussion and wrote:
“Just to add to Patrick's points: Coming out strongly against him will likely also make it more difficult for him to go the neo-con way. The pressure should be on him. He is so obviously conflicting with Obama's views so we could make that very clear - criticize him, without criticizing Obama. Also, by being on record now, we protect ourselves for the time when Ross does screw up - then our criticism will be consistent with what we've said all along, and will be able to defend ourselves against any attacks that our views on Ross may resemble Tehran's.”
Two days later, Disney recapped the partners’ conference call on how to block Ross’s nomination and wrote:
“It’s not necessary that we all act with one voice on this--in fact it may be more useful to have a “division of labor.” Those groups that feel comfortable being more aggressive in opposing Ross publicly (possibly Voters for Peace, FCNL, Physicians for Social Responsibility, others) will do so, while others who may have less latitude on the matter will declare their preference for a more agreeable envoy (Dobbins or Pickering).”
Strategy: Create a media controversy. Press releases, op-eds, letters to the editor, blog posts, articles, etc. should be distributed to make this a very public controversy. Reach out to media contacts. Also explore option of submitting questions for confirmation hearings. (Clinton: 1/13 and 1/15. Susan Rice possibly 1/16).”
On January 21, Disney reported:
“Rumors abound that George Mitchell might be MidEast envoy instead of Ross. Still no official word that there even will be an envoy to Iran, but this is encouraging. Ross has become a controversial pick--we should continue this line of discussion and sow the seeds of doubt in Ross’ appointment for Iran envoy”.
On January 23, he reiterated his demand to maintain the anti-Ross campaign:
“I think it’s important that we not let up on our campaign to raise concerns about Ross serving in any capacity involving Iran in the Obama administration. There is still time to prevent his appointment.”
Finally, Ross was not appointed as Iran envoy and was given a low profile job at the State Department before joining Obama in the White House. Meanwhile, few months later, another man took office as the senior Iran official at the State Department. He is John Limbert, who till then served on advisory board of NIAC, the same organization that orchestrated the anti-Ross campaign.
The pro-engagement lobby
CNAPI coalition was formed in 2005-6 after Ahmadinejad became president. Officially, these groups came together to fight Bush’s policy on the Middle East and prevent a war between US and Iran but NIAC’s internal documents suggest that it joined this coalition and gradually shifted its focus toward fighting the sanctions on Iran. In 2007 Parsi sent a report to his partner in Tehran and explained the activities of this coalition and how it should be morphed to an anti-sanction lobby. The report is titled the “lobby groups”:
“As of early 2005, Washington’s heated rhetoric over Iran has attracted the attention of a variety of interest groups eager to prevent the escalation of tensions in the Middle East and the prospects of a war between the US and Iran. These groups have managed to build unprecedented support in Congress in favor of dialogue and against military action among progressive Democrats as well as conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill.
This coalition of pro-dialogue and anti-war entities consists of a diverse group of organizations ranging from arms control organizations, to Iranian American organizations, to religious groups. Key players in this coalition are the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, which coordinates a coalition of approximately 50 organizations, MoveOn and the National Iranian American Council.
While these groups have focused extensively on passing measures to reduce the risk for war with Iran, little attention has been paid to efforts to intensify sanctions against Iran. Furthermore, while a momentum exists for anti-war measures, no comparable opportunity exists currently for an anti-sanctions campaign. Nor is the coalition of disarmament, religious and progressive groups best suited to take on this issue. Here, the absence of pro-business interests on Capitol Hill active constitutes a key point of advantage for AIPAC.”
In his report, Parsi explained the importance of bringing in the pro-trade lobby group and notably USA*Engage:
With the exception of USA Engage, American businesses and oil companies have after September 11 next to eliminated their efforts on Capitol Hill in favor of greater trade and contacts with Iran.
USA Engage is a coalition of approximately 500 major US companies which has retained a distant interest in the Iran issue, though the coalition has devoted little resources towards promoting trade or preventing new sanctions from being imposed. In particular, the recently imposed UN sanctions have granted the sanctions track with Iran new legitimacy and made efforts to oppose such measures on trade grounds more difficult.
However, initial efforts are currently being made to make align the trade groups with the pro-dialogue coalition and frame sanctions an initial step that invariably will lead to war. If such a coalition of pro-trade and pro-dialogue groups can be formed, the current momentum for sanctions may be significantly hampered.
The balance of power on Capitol Hill is currently shifted in favor of sanctions on Iran but against military action. AIPAC continues to seek both military strikes against Iran and draconian sanctions and has benefited from the absence of active lobbying by pro-trade groups. A change in heart by pro-trade coalitions may significantly hamper efforts to have Congress impose new draconian sanctions on Iran. This is great significance since Congressional sanctions are far more difficult to undo than those imposed by the Executive Branch.”
A year later in 2008, NIAC became the coordinator of this coalition, USA*Engage joined the group and their focus turned toward lobbying against sanctions. Some of the coalition meeting notes and relevant documents has been posted hereand the review of these documents could give a basic understanding about the coalition’s work and its agenda.
CNAPI has three pillars: Trade lobby that has been active in Iran issue for the past thirty years and created the USA*Engage in 1997 with the goal of removing sanctions against Iran. Then, there are peace and left organizations that grew strong during George Bush administration. Finally, CNAPI gathers pro-Iran advocacy individuals or organizations with ties to different factions of the Iranian regime.
Israel depicted as the root cause of problems
On January 23, 2009, Patrick Disney of NIAC wroteto his lobby partners that: “I think it’s important that we not let up on our campaign to raise concerns about Ross serving in any capacity involving Iran in the Obama administration.” This intransigence over Ross has its roots in NIAC’s view about Israel. For Parsi, Israel is simply the spoiler of good relation between Iran and US, two countries that could live together, share the Middle East and bring peace and prosperity to the region.
Since he started his political career in 1997, Parsi has always depicted the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC as his primary targets. Consequently, his doctoral dissertation and his only book “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States” are about Israel. In Parsi’s vision, both Iran and the US are victims of Israel since she prevents any rapprochement between the two countries because “From the Israeli perspective, every step Washington takes toward Tehran is a step away from Tel Aviv.” (CC 2001)
According to Parsi, the Israeli lobby is“the sole force behind the lobby efforts to impose and extend the sanctions” against Iran. Parsi wrote that AIPAC is “forcing Congress to pursue a policy that contradicts US interest.” He urged US to “stop following the commands of the Israeli lobby”.
Parsi asserts that the US attitude toward Iran is dictated by Tel Aviv: “By October 1994, Washington started to adopt the Israeli line on Iran. In response to Israeli pressure—and not to Iranian actions—Washington’s rhetoric on Iran began to mirror Israel’s talking points… Washington’s turnaround was a direct result of Israel’s pressure.” (Parsi’s book, P. 185)
Why would be Israel so afraid of an Iran-US friendship? Parsi responds: “During the Cold War, Israel played a key strategic role as a pro-Western outpost in a Middle East threatened by Soviet penetration. But with the Soviet Union gone, and U.S.-Arab relations at a peak, the Israeli alliance risked becoming obsolete to Washington… With U.S.-Arab relations already warming, a breakthrough in U.S.- Iranian ties could wipe out what little strategic significance Israel retained.” (Book, P. 148-149)
Parsi believesthat Israel fears that the US will eventually befriend with the rising Iran and forget its “obsolete and old ally:
“The deterrence and power Iran would gain by mastering the fuel cycle could compel Washington to cut a deal with Tehran in which Iran would be recognized as a regional power and gain strategic significance in the Middle East at the expense of Israel. This has been a major Israeli fear since the end of the Cold War, when Israel's strategic utility to Washington lost considerable justification due to the absence of a Soviet threat. Under these circumstances, US-Iran negotiations could damage Israel's strategic standing, since common interests shared by Iran and the US would overshadow Israel's concerns with Tehran and leave Israel alone in facing its Iranian rival. The Great Satan will eventually make up with the ayatollahs and forget about the Jewish state, Israeli officials fear.”
Parsi wrotethat Israel has compelled Washington to adopt Israeli red lines and confront the Iranian nuclear program:
"For more than 14 years, Israel has been the primary force countering Iran's nuclear advances. Though Israel presents the prospect of a nuclear Iran as a global rather than an Israeli problem, it has compelled Washington to adopt its own red lines and not those of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT)"
Washington is not sole victim of Israel’s bullying; the Europe and the UN have also bowed to the pressure. Parsi wrote:
“While operating in the background, Israel convinced the United States and the European Union to take the lead against Iran and bring it to the Security Council. Israel’s argument has been adopted by the West: Iran’s nuclear program is seen as an international — and not an Israeli — problem.
With the issue of Iran's nuclear program being taken up by the U.N. Security Council, Israel's hawkish policy and AIPAC's support for Bush administration hard-liners would appear to be paying dividends."
NIAC versus AIPAC - David versus Goliath
Parsi has always tried to present himself as the heroic champion of fighting the Israeli lobby in the US. For example, in June 2008, NIAC and its partners in CNAPI were successful to defeat the sanction resolution H.R.362 against Iran. For NIAC, this was a victory over the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC. NIAC’s chief lobbyist sent an emailand defined how this victory should be presented to the public:
“Good news! We’re making headway on the blockade resolution. Per your conversation with Babak, it would be great if you could do an op-ed geared to the Iranian American community. It could frame our crusade against H Con Res 362 as a “David and Goliath” type deal with NIAC taking on the big boys (AIPAC) and making warmongers nervous.”
Later, NIAC’s article was published and it portrayed an epical battle in Washington, a battle between the Iran lobby and the Israeli lobby:
“NIAC beats AIPAC”
“It was David versus Goliath: the classic underdog matchup. In the battle over a Congressional resolution calling for war with Iran, the lines were drawn between the smaller grassroots Iranian-American movement (NIAC) on one side and the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) mega-lobby on the other. No one expected the Iranian Americans and their coalition partners to be able to stand up to the belligerent giant intent on amplifying hostility with Iran.
But with the Congressional session expiring this week, our proverbial David in Washington has delivered the knock-out blow to the pro-war forces' Goliath. The Iran war resolution is down for the count. Yes, you read that right - NIAC beat AIPAC.”
On the other hand, when NIAC is under criticism, the blame is on Israel, AIPAC and Neoconservative warmongers. For example, when in April 2007 this author published a report about NIAC, several government-related newspapers in Tehran came out to defend Parsi and wrote that AIPAC has attacked NIAC. Similarly, the same line of defense has been adopted by NIAC in Washington to depict its critics as warmongers who serve the pro-Israeli neoconservatives.
The debate over Israeli influence on US foreign policy will be shortsighted and incomplete without taking into consideration other forces and lobbies involved in shaping such policies. Parsi and his partners try to “utilize” this legitimate debate for their own lobby agenda. They use the Israeli decoy to portray or depict the Iranian regime as a victim rather than partly responsible for the Middle East turmoil and hostilities toward United State. The anti-Israeli crusade is yet another argument to demand the continuation of failed engagement policy with Iran.
In their stretch of imagination to acquit the Iranian regime, Parsi and his lobby partners signed a deceptive statementin 2007 declaring that "the US has refused to start a dialogue with Iran for the past 26 years." This statement by itself illustrates the depth of misinformation campaign to manipulate US policy. The reality is that the US has always sought friendship with Tehran and has eventually failed.
In September 2008, the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech in Washingtonand explained the dominant aspect of US policy toward Iran in the past three decades: (official transcript)
“I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years. (Laughter.) I was in the first meeting that took place between a senior U.S. government official and the leadership of the Iranian government in Algiers at the end of October, 1979… Every administration since then has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed”
Israel or AIPAC are not to be blamed for such failure. Blame should be put on the Iranian regime.