Echoes of China Opening in Iran Detente: It's the Interests, Stupid!

For years the expectations among many American foreign policy pundits has been that tensions over Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, including the continuing buildup of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, would ignite an explosive crisis in the relationship between the two governments that could force Washington to distance itself from Jerusalem.

Under that scenario, Israeli annexationist policies and the evolution of an Apartheid-like system in Greater Israel would eventually produce some sort of American disengagement from Israel along the lines of the collapse of the U.S. partnership with the white-minority government in South Africa.

But that kind of thinking disregarded some basic facts in the reality of U.S.-Israeli relationship, including massive American public support for Israel and very minimal concern about the plight of the Palestinians.

Hence, according to results of a Gallup opinion poll published in March 2013 before President Barack Obama's visit to Israel, Americans' sympathies leaned heavily toward the Israelis over the Palestinians, 64 percent vs. 12 percent. Americans' partiality for Israel has consistently exceeded 60 percent since 2010, noted Gallup pollsters. But today's 64 percent "ties the highest Gallup has recorded in a quarter century, last seen in 1991 during the Gulf War."

The same Gallup poll as well as other studies do show a major gap between the attitudes of Republicans, conservatives, and older white Americans whose support for Israel runs above 70 percent and those of belong to what could be described as the Obama Coalition, including Democrats, liberals, younger Americans, African-Americans and Latinos whose sympathies towards Israel lie in the low 50 percent. But even in their case, the less enthusiastic attitudes toward Israel have not translated into a more favorable approach vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

So while disagreements between Washington and an Israeli right-wing government over the buildup Jewish settlements could have an impact on the relationship between the two countries, it is unlikely that they would produce a major crisis during which large segments of the American public would rally behind a call to punish Israel for its policies towards the Palestinians, and force the White House to downgrade the ties with Israel.

But while the Israelis may have less to be concerned about the way a transformation of the American political-cultural zeitgeist could affect their ties with the United States, they should consider that the possibility that changes in U.S. geo-strategic interests could be more powerful in their impact on U.S.-Israeli relationship, and could over-ride the high level of sympathy that Americans continue to feel towards Israel. Just ask Taiwanese.

It's important to recall that the U.S. opening to China, including President Nixon's historic visit in 1962, didn't reflect any major changes in American public opinion vis-a-vis the communist regime in Beijing or its pro-American nemesis in Taiwan (then Formosa). In fact, China was still in the midst of the Cultural Revolution with no major reformist political movement in sight and the powerful pro-Taiwan China Lobby was still playing a dominant role in affecting the attitudes of Congress and elite opinion.

What led to the dramatic changes in U.S. policy instigated by President Richard Nixon, himself a once proud member of the China Lobby, had to do with the geo-strategic challenges facing the United States at the time, including the efforts to extricate itself from the Vietnam War and the need respond to the split in the Communist Bloc. The Americans hoped that the opening to China would increase U.S. diplomatic leverage over Moscow and provide incentives to Beijing to press its ally in Hanoi to make a deal with the Americans that would create the conditions for the end of the war in Southeast Asia.

But establishing diplomatic ties with China was almost by definition a diplomatic betrayal of America's traditional ally, Taiwan, and a major shock to other partners in East Asia, including Japan and South Korea (think about Saudi Arabia's reaction to reports about U.S.-Iran rapprochement today). Yet the move was seen as advancing American national interests, an argument that President Nixon was able to sell to a skeptical Congress and public that was programmed to believe that Taiwan was a friend of America and Red China was its leading global ideological and strategic foe, a view that seemed to be supported by China's stream of anti-American invective.

From that historical perspective, the evolving detente between Washington and Tehran, coming after the American decision not to launch a military strike against Iran's partner, Syria, and the Israeli angry response sound echoes of the opening to China of the 1960s.

Like in the case of Red China, the main concern driving American policies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran are not whether President Hassan Rouhani is a "moderate" or not (although his alleged reformist tendencies could help market a detente with Iran to the American media and public). After all, Zhou Enlai, the leading Chinese negotiator may have been a pragmatist, but was never considered a "reformer."

What are central to the calculations of the Obama administration are strategic interests, and in particular, to need to readjust American policies in the Middle East in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Iran and the Arab Spring, and against the backdrop of a fiscal crisis that requires major defense cuts and an effort to shift more U.S. resources and attention from the Middle East to East Asia.

In that context, there is a recognition that any serious strategy aimed at restructuring U.S. policy in the Middle East and maintaining American influence in the region would require cooperation with Iran, a regional power with its axis of Shiite partners in the Levant, the Persian Gulf and South Asia.

To put it in concrete terms, no agreements to end the civil war in Syria and avert one in Lebanon, to stabilize post-war Iraq and Afghanistan could be achieved without Iranian support. And without such agreements Washington would not be able to extricate itself from the political and military mess it is finding itself in the Middle East, where it is being drawn to one crisis after another, while China continues to strengthen its position in East Asia.

That isn't to say that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would not continue to be a central U.S. goal, but it does suggest that President Obama is more willing than the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to adopt a more flexible approach that would allow the Iranians to maintain the capacity to pursue a nuclear program. A deal along these lines would not be accepted by Netanyahu and is bound to cause tensions if President Obama is able to win the support of the war-weary American public and a even get divided Congress behind a new Iran policy.

In a way, an American deal with Iran that is seen as advancing U.S. interests shouldn't be seen as "anti-Israeli" but as an indication that American and Israeli interests are not always compatible. While Netanyahu and many Israelis are committed to a strict adherence to the goal of preserving Israel's nuclear hegemony in the Middle East, Washington has other more urgent strategic priorities in the region. Adjusting to these new realities could prove to be a traumatic experience for Israel. Just ask Taiwan.