by Eric Margolis © 1998 Eric Margolis
SAN FRANCISCO - Last year, this column reported Israel was planning an attack on Iran's nuclear installations once it received new, long-ranged F-151 warplanes from the US.
The US $85 million F-151 is the world's deadliest strike aircraft: it can deliver a heavy weapon load at low level over very long distances, and with pinpoint accuracy. The 25 F-151's ordered by Israel will give it the capability to fly under radar and strike all the Arab states, and Iran. Refuelled by air, the F-151 can reach Pakistan, or deep into Russia.
Authoritative British military sources have just reported Israel now has a number of F-151's in squadron service, and is preparing to strike Iran's nuclear reactors. Iran has no nuclear weapons; its reactors are under international inspection, which Israel's are not. Even so, Israel is taking no chances its Mideast nuclear monopoly might eventually be challenged, and has repeatedly threatened to destroy Iran's modest nuclear program, just as it did Iraq's fledgling one in 1981.
The threat of an Israeli attack on Iran comes as two of America's most powerful lobbies are urging diametrically opposed policies towards Iran, with the Clinton Administration caught in the middle of this fierce debate.
The potent Israel lobby got its partisans in Congress to authorize sale of advanced F-151's to Israel right in the middle of Mideast peace talks, producing deep alarm among the Arabs and Iran. The lobby's Congressional allies and media spokesmen keep up a drumfire of warnings that Iran is a violently anti-American, terrorist state. Israel's strategy is to get its American lobby to either push the US into attacking Iran, or at least keeping it under economic and political siege by Washington.
But now, the powerful oil lobby has entered the fray on the opposite side. Big oil needs access to Central Asia's vast energy resources. Getting oil and gas out of the former Soviet republics requires building pipelines through either Afghanistan, Russia or Iran. The Afghan route is blocked by civil war. No one wants to give Russia control of Central Asia's resources. So the only practical route is south across Iran, to the Gulf.
As a result, the oil lobby is pushing hard for an end to the two-decade cold war between the US and Iran, and rapid improvement of relations. Washington responded by launching a diplomatic opening to Tehran, initiated by a CNN interview of Iran's new president, and a round of soccer diplomacy. Iran's new president, Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, eagerly responded in spite of furious opposition by Iran's reactionary clerical factions.
The "apertura" to Tehran was also motivated by the Clinton Administration's growing anger and frustration with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu for sabotaging the Oslo peace process, authorizing new Jewish settlements on Arab land, and mobilizing Israel's backers in Congress to thwart White House efforts to press Israel into meaningful negotiations.
Ironically, Clinton is the most pro-Israel president in history. Most of the senior Administration officials running Mideast policy are Jewish, and strong supporters of Israel - but also believe the Oslo accords are vital to US interests. Even they have run out of patience with Israel's right-wing government obstructing peace at every turn, and increasingly exposing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Hamas charges he is a US-Israeli stooge.
The far-right hawks and religious ayatollahs in Netanyahu's razor-thin coalition threaten to bring down his government if he makes any concessions. Israel's US lobby has blocked Administration efforts to press Israel into negotiations, depriving Netanyahu of the excuse he was forced to make peace by irresistible American pressure.
Last Monday, one of Israel's greatest heroes and strongest moral voices, President Ezer Weizman, made a stunning public appeal to Netanyahu to break this dangerous impasse by calling new elections. Weizman, whose position is strictly ceremonial, dropped a political bombshell by telling Israelis that Netanyahu was unable to make any progress towards peace, and should turn to the voters.
Meanwhile, plans are going ahead for a possible Israeli attack on Iran. Bombing Iran's nuclear installations would be wildly popular with Israelis, who have been deeply frightened by highly exaggerated warnings of Iran's threat, and would, of course, give the embattled Netanyahu a badly-needed political boost. It would also conveniently divert attention away from the foundering peace process.
In the duplicitous Mideast, however, things are never quite what they appear. Israel has adopted a two-track strategy towards Iran. While Israel considers bombing Iran, it is also pursuing secret contacts with Tehran which, before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, was a close ally of Israel. During the long Iran-Iraq War, Israel and Iran traded fulminations and threats - while Israel was secretly selling Tehran US $2.5 billion worth of arms. Israeli strategists see Iran as a major potential ally, arms customer, and energy source. Iranians, who despise Arabs, have always had a sneaking admiration for the Jewish state. Israel's militantly anti-Iranian supporters in North America have not yet understood these political arabesques.
So will it be bombs over Iran, or smiles? Will Hamas try to terminate the dying peace process by shooting off more bombs? No wonder nerves are more frayed than ever in the nervous Mideast.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]