Mitt Romney’s foreign policy speech to the Jerusalem Foundation in Israel on Sunday qualified him to be President—of Israel. His observations were as remarkable for what he didn’t say as for what he did. They could have been written by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, for they parallel his thinking almost exactly, and they were sharply at odds with current U.S. policy toward the region.
Mr. Romney didn’t mention the Palestinians (although he later made an invidious comparison of Palestinians to Israelis that was deemed racist by Palestinian officials), nor did he offer any remarks on the settlements in the West Bank—arguably Israel’s most pressing problem. Indeed, he explicitly called for Americans not to engage in any criticism of Israel at all, since Israelis seemed to be capable of self-critique.
What Mr. Romney did do in his talk was primarily to lambaste Iran.
He trotted out a laundry list of accusations against Iran, virtually all of which have been discredited fabrications or shown to be wildly exaggerated caricatures of Iranian thought and behavior. Among these was the hoary old accusation that Iranians had threatened to “wipe Israel off the map”—a fabrication so well known that it has its own Wikipedia page. He also repeated the old saw that Iran is the “chief State supporter of terrorism,” an unsupported assertion left over from the Bush administration. He also cited the discredited claims that the Iranian government supplied weapons used to attack Americans in Iraq—something the U.S. military tried desperately to prove with absolutely no success.
He said, “When Iran’s leaders deny the Holocaust . . .” branding them as Holocaust deniers. Iran’s leaders, in fact, have never denied the Holocaust. To be sure, they have questioned its causes and results in ways that are inaccurate, but they never denied that it happened. There was even a widely applauded popular film in Iran dealing with the Holocaust and an Iranian historical figure who saved Jews from being killed.
Of course, no one denies Iran’s dismal domestic human rights record—something that should be of concern to the whole world—but Mr. Romney barely touched on this one legitimate accusation of wrongdoing on the part of the Iranian government.
These broad swipes at Iran would be just garden-variety neoconservative palaver if it weren’t for the additional steps Mr. Romney took in advancing a case for armed conflict against the Islamic Republic—steps that were both reckless and ignorant. The case is based on the favorite neoconservative hobby-horse: Iran’s nuclear program.
Mr. Romney hinted broadly that the United States would support a military strike against Iran. This would not be to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon as is current U.S. policy, but rather to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity. This is code for shutting down or destroying Iran’s entire nuclear development program.
Mr. Romney seems unaware of the complexities of the Iranian case. Iran is signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) along with all other states with nuclear development, except for Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. The treaty grants all signatories the inalienable right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Iran is engaged in uranium enrichment to provide fuel for nuclear generation of electricity. However, Iran is not alone in doing this. Nineteen other world states who are signatories to the NPT do so as well, and at least two, Japan and Brazil, have stated openly that they are prepared to manufacture nuclear weapons if the need arises. Even if there were any proof that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, they are far from producing even nuclear reactor fuel. Mr. Romney said, cagily, they are “five years closer” to producing a nuclear weapon—but those attacking Iran have been saying this every year since 1990, and Iran is no closer.
The history of nuclear development in Iran also involves the United States directly. The U.S. government urged the Iranians to start their program in 1970 as a move toward modernization. The nuclear facilities they are now developing are a direct outgrowth of those mutually approved plans.
The complexity of this issue is apparent to the Obama administration, which is why diplomacy has been urged by every foreign policy adviser as a means of creating confidence and settling misunderstandings and differences between Iran, the United States and its allies. Brute force designed to damage Iran’s nuclear facilities has been decried as dangerous and useless by American and Israeli military and intelligence officials.
The most ironic part of Mr. Romney’s speech came toward the end when he stated: “If you want to hear some very sharp criticisms of Israel and its policies, you don’t have to cross any borders. All you have to do is walk down the street and into a café, where you’ll hear people reasoning, arguing, and speaking their mind. Or pick up an Israeli newspaper – you’ll find some of the toughest criticism of Israel you’ll read anywhere. Your nation, like ours, is stronger for this energetic exchange of ideas and opinions.”
If Mr. Romney had taken this observation to heart and showed even a modicum of nuance in his remarks, he might have appeared statesmanlike. As it was, his speech was little more than a screed of right-wing slogans designed to please his Israeli host, and the Americans who support the most extreme right-wing policies of the Israeli government. His need to pander may go even further. Part of his live audience in Jerusalem was Israeli-supporter, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is bankrolling Mr. Romney’s campaign with unlimited amounts of money.
William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for over 40 years. He visited Iran last November, and Israel in June of this year. He is the author of The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. (University of Chicago Press, 2008).
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