In the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanayhu's complaints about US and Western appeasement of Iran, the Obama Administration dialed up a dramatic reaction to recent threatening rhetoric. A pair of B-52 bombers flew directly over a potential military target.
In the East China Sea.
But wait, you say, that's about 4500 miles away from the Persian Gulf, where Israel insists that Iran is absolutely intent on becoming the Middle East's second nuclear weapons power, Israel being the first. What does this have to do with Netanyahu's near 20-year insistence that Iran is just on the verge of having the Bomb, thus creating an "existential crisis" for Israel?
Maybe just about everything.
While the US, European allies Britain, France, and Germany, and the other two permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China, concluded agreement with Iran on the first phase of a pull-back from the long-simmering crisis over Iran's development of potential nuclear weapons capability, the US responded very differently to China's sudden weekend assertion of an "air defense zone" over the East ChinaSea, where the putative People's Republic already regularly asserts sovereignty over the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands with regular forays of patrol ships.
Netanyahu's deeper problem may be that time is running out on his ability to influence America's geostrategic focus, his ability in keeping it coincident with his own and Israel's. Because it's not just the East China Sea. As longtime readers know, it's also the South China Sea, one of the world's most strategic bodies of water, where China asserts a breathtaking claim of sovereignty over over virtually the entire sea, to the great dismay of most of its overawed neighbors.
After more than a dozen years of frequently off-target and counter-productive response, real and putative, to 9/11, American leaders are realizing that they may just have bigger fish to fry elsewhere. China is a surging would-be superpower with designs on hegemony in various part of the Asia-Pacific, the largest and arguably most economically consequential mega-region in the world, where America has been a principal guarantor of stability since World War II.
Watching the Asia-Pacific slide into chaos, or become a vast Chinese lake, while remaining fatefully fixated on highly questionable Middle Eastern agendas could be disastrous. It would certainly be foolhardy.
In 2002, as a former Israeli prime minister and new foreign minister, Netanyahu was among those who successfully urged the US on to invade Iraq, taking out Israeli enemy Saddam Hussein (who in reality also served a critical counter-weight to Iran's regional aspirations). Just a few months ago, he was among those who came rather close to convincing Obama to launch a sustained campaign of air and missile strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.
But, although he and his allies in Israel and the US have succeeded in blocking talk of containing Iran -- the normal course of action with a rising and potentially very threatening power -- in favor of pre-emptively preventing Iran from developing full nuclear weapons capability, the effort to block diplomatic dialogue with Iran has failed.
Which means that, despite its success in putting talk of containing Iran off the table on grounds that Iran is not a rational state actor that can be deterred from using nuclear weapons, Israel has actually failed in convincing the American government that Iran is fundamentally an irrational religious fundamentalist state that would rather suffer its own destruction in order to destroy Israel.
Because that is what Netanyahu's insistence on Iran's existential threat to Israel means, at least on the surface. That, having secured nuclear weapons, its Islamist theocratic leaders would damn the consequences to themselves and their own country in order to destroy what it views as the Jewish interloper.
Of course, if Netanyahu and his allies -- whose conceptual allies outside Israel include such Sunni Muslim powers as Saudi Arabia -- really believe that Shiite Muslim Iran is a non-rational state actor, and if Netanyahu really believes that, as he has repeatedly stated, in unfortunate boy-who-cried-wolf mode, for two decades that Iran is just about to have the Bomb, then one can argue that he should already have attacked Iran.
That he hasn't indicates at least one of several other things. That Netanyahu is determined to force the US into striking on Israel's behalf, in the process taking much of the brunt for the action. Or that other key Israeli figures in the military and intel/security apparats don't agree with Netanyahu's view that war with Iran may be preferable.
Or, perhaps, that the "existential threat" to Israel is much more indirect. That it is not a matter of Israel being directly attacked and destroyed by an Iran which at last has the Bomb and then hauls off and uses it, but that it is a matter of another regional power having the dissuasive power that a nuclear hole card provides.
Today Israel, which has no defensive depth to speak of in the relatively tiny scope in which the Middle Eastern drama plays out, has not only tremendously superior conventional forces with which to stave off an attempt to overrun it but also the credible threat of nuclear retaliation if conventional defeat seems imminent. A hostile, nuclear-ready Iran might upset that balance of power equation, not to mention the Gulf stand-off between Shiite Iran and Sunni powers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states.
Or it might not. But Israel, as Netanyahu knows, is perhaps the planet's ultimate rainspout nation, a post-Holocaust phoenix founded upon ancient religious claims and the collective guilt of the West in unsurprisingly hostile territory. So anything which seriously diminishes whatever edge Israel has gained through a painstaking series of moves constitutes an existential threat. Hence the development of absolutist attitudes among those for whom life has become synonymous with the siege mentality.
Nearly two weeks ago, I wondered here if whatever hyped momentum peace talks between Iran and the US and other international powers had achieved had evaporated with the sudden end of high-level talks in Geneva.
It had not. Over the weekend, we learned that the high-level talks were not only back on but bearing fruit. Because of something that had not been clear; namely, that the US and Iran had already undertaken months of secret high-level talks.
The Obama Administration-led Iranian deal that the conservative governments of Britain and Germany and the socialist government France, the Western powers, have agreed to along with Russia and China -- whose ideological bent in such matters is the avoidance of regime change in countries the West dislikes -- does not so much eliminate Iran's ability to create a nuclear weapon as it pushes it back. But the relief it provides from the elaborate sanctions regime is similarly limited.
Iran retains its basic nuclear infrastructure -- which Israel, in absolutist, final solution-oriented fashion, wants eliminated -- but key elements of it are limited, perhaps even hamstrung, even as the Islamic republic agrees to open previously secret facilities to nuclear inspectors.
It can all go very wrong, of course, but it seems likely that, at the least, the day on which Iran can roll out an actual nuclear weapon is now farther off than it was last Friday.
Which is only bad if one believes that this will diminish the Western will to keep on imposing harsh economic sanctions, as crisis seemingly dissipates and the new Iranian leadership appears reasonable and even friendly.
But that, in turn, is only a problem if one is committed to not just containing a nuclear Iran but preventing one from ever existing.
Does the Obama Administration, do the Western powers as a whole, really share Netanyahu's absolutist anti-containment sentiments? Or are they engaged in lip service to head off domestic political pressure? You may be able to guess, but it's still speculation.
But this much seems certain.
Had the US not spent much of the past dozen years careening down the garden path urged on it by the neoconservative and Israeli enemies of Iran, it would be both less exhausted by Middle Eastern melodrama and more responsive to Netanyahu and company's latest theories of threat. And if China were not bidding fair to upset the apple carts of America and key allies, old and new, across some of the most vast and strategically significant land and seascapes in the world, Jerusalem and Riyadh's insistence that the US remain fixated on the Middle East's endlessly lethal games might continue to dominate.