Tuesday, March 03, 2009

obama's ear on iran

The National | A week is a long time in Washington, especially for the influential Israel lobby. Last Monday it had cause to celebrate the appointment of one of its favourite sons, Dennis Ross, as the State Department’s point-man on Iran. But on Friday came the announcement that Charles Freeman is to be President Obama’s National Intelligence Council chairman – the superspook who distils the gleanings of America’s 16 different intelligence agencies into the authoritative National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) that guide US policy.

NIEs were key to the Bush administration’s case for war with Iraq, and the Iran NIE has become a fierce battleground between the traditional intelligence establishment and the neoconservatives and Israel lobby, who were furious when the 2007 NIE suggested that Iran was not currently engaged in nuclear weapons work. Israel and its supporters peddle alarmist views of Iran’s nuclear activities, not bothering to distinguish between developments that would give Iran the means to pursue nuclear weapons and the actual pursuit of such weapons (the international and US intelligence consensus is that Iran has not yet taken a decision to build nuclear weapons; the concern is its nuclear energy infrastructure puts such weapons within reach).

If Israel and its backers are to persuade the Obama administration to accept their views on Iran, it is a less than helpful for the NIE be the province of a sceptical, independent thinker who believes that Israel’s interests are not necessarily those of the US. Renowned as a brilliant diplomat and analyst, even-handed in his assessments of the Middle East and not bound by the Israel-first consensus that the Israel lobby has fought so hard to establish in US Middle East policy, Mr Freeman was denounced by Steve Rosen, a former top American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) official, as “a profoundly disturbing appointment”.

Last October Mr Freeman castigated President Bush for “writing blank cheques to Israel, which harms it by depriving Israelis of any immediate incentive to make the hard choices they must make to achieve long-term security for themselves and their state… it benefits no one for the United States to continue to underwrite the injustices, indignities, and humiliations of the occupation”.

His appointment was all the more remarkable given such statements, and the ire they provoked among Israel’s traditionally influential backers.