Forget about Iran. In Washington, everyone’s speaking ISish
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Analysis

Forget about Iran. In Washington, everyone’s speaking ISish

Remember the danger posed by Tehran’s drive to the bomb, and Obama’s pledge to foil it? Well, nobody else in the US seems to

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Fighters from Islamic State seen marching in their stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, June 2014. (AP/Militant Website, File)
Fighters from Islamic State seen marching in their stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, June 2014. (AP/Militant Website, File)

WASHINGTON, DC — For several days now, American news networks have been intensively, almost obsessively, covering the Islamic State and the war declared on the terror group by US President Barack Obama.

Chilling clips produced by the jihadist group in order to deter the US are being aired over and over again. The terror group’s strategy appears to be paying off, at least in terms of the amount of media interest it has elicited in America.

If an alien were to land in Washington today and follow media reports on the Islamic State phenomenon — as well as witness the level of interest the group has created in the White House, Congress and the Senate — it might well conclude, mistakenly, that we are dealing with an evil empire the likes of which humanity has never seen, one which represents the only threat to the stability of the world in general, and to the Middle East in particular.

Some perspective may be in order.

The Islamic State does not present a significant, strategic threat to stable Mideast countries such as Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The group is successful in areas where there is a leadership vacuum. The Islamic State is not an army with significant power which can challenge an organized military force head on.

Its operatives, including subcontractors such as former Iraqi army soldiers who have joined the group out of economic interests, number some 30,000. That’s all. The most widespread weapon in its possession is an old Russian rifle. It has a few tanks and armored personnel carriers, but its chief vehicles in battle are old Toyota pick-up trucks – great cars, to be sure, but not machines that can go tire-to-tire with a well-ordered armored force, let alone not an air force. The Islamic State does pose a threat to Israel, Jordan and others (including the US), but mainly in the form of terror attacks — not in terms of conquests and takeovers.

US President Barack Obama delivers a statement from the White House in Washington, DC, September 18, 2014. (photo credit: Jim Watson/AFP)
US President Barack Obama delivers a statement from the White House in Washington, DC, September 18, 2014. (photo credit: Jim Watson/AFP)

So what is the secret of IS’s success? How did a relatively small organization become ostensibly the sole greatest threat to world peace in the eyes of the American government and media? How is it that even Obama has declared IS to be more dangerous to the region than Iran?

The number of people murdered by Tehran in recent years, including within Iran itself, far exceeds the number executed by IS. Iran’s potential threat to the Middle East, as noted two days ago by Israeli envoy to the US Ron Dermer, is a thousand-fold that of IS.

The answer to this conundrum is relatively straightforward: “good” PR. All you need are a few filmed executions, beheadings, some frightening people in masks — and presto, practically overnight all other terrorist organizations evaporate; all the other threats, like Iran, vanish.

And the big trap in which Western media and the US government now find themselves is that the more attention and interest IS receives, the more support it gains among its target audience: Islamists looking for an exceptionally radical doctrine to get behind. Suddenly al-Qaeda has lost it “sex appeal” for these jihadists; even IS’s competitor in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, is losing popularity.

As far as Israel is concerned, the exclusivity IS now enjoys on the American agenda is a substantial problem. In November, the deadline for Iran and the six world powers to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program will expire, and so far lots of diplomacy has produced no definitive result. It’s doubtful that Obama will significantly change his diplomatic approach to Tehran; it’s doubtful that we’ll see new (or old) sanctions levied against Iran if no deal is concluded.

Military action against Iran is entirely out of the question at this point. The notion has vanished from Washington’s agenda (and to be fair, from Jerusalem’s as well) and the Iranian nuclear drive simply does not interest the US media. Ambassador Dermer attempted to breathe some life into the issue in a speech at the official Rosh Hashana reception at his home, but at this point everyone in Washington is speaking nothing but ‘ISish’.

The problem is compounded by profound strain in ties between the White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The administration, and specifically its commander in chief, is exhibiting cold disinterest in anything Netanyahu, his envoy Dermer and other Jerusalem officials have to say. Even no-nonsense statements such as that made by the ambassador on the danger posed by Iran — accurate and true though they may be — are seen here as jabs at the White House and attempts to criticize or undermine Obama, who had made remarks to the opposite effect only two weeks ago.

Benjamin Netanyahu (right) hosts Mitt Romney in Jerusalem, July 29 (photo credit: Israel Sellem/GPO/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu (right) hosts Mitt Romney in Jerusalem, July 29, 2012 (photo credit: Israel Sellem/GPO/Flash90)

Netanyahu and Dermer can quite definitely blame themselves for these tensions and misperceptions. Their not-so-discreet attempts to interfere in the last presidential election, via support for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, came at a heavy price for Israel, and it’s now being paid with interest.

But Dermer and Netanyahu are not exclusively responsible for the current crisis with Washington. The president is culpable too. Obama seems to be persisting with his uncertain, meandering policies on the Middle East. Worse, he is almost entirely unwilling to listen to opinions outside those of two or three of his close advisers. Like other leaders after lengthy terms in office, Obama is overly confident in his leadership and policies and shows little interest in, or ability to, learn from his mistakes. This, even though he quite plainly does not have all the answers to the difficult challenges at hand.

For instance, who are the groups or organizations that the administration now wishes to arm in Syria? The president on Thursday registered a significant achievement in the Senate when his offer to arm moderate rebels in Syria was adopted 78 to 22. But it is doubtful that the administration can guarantee that the weapons transferred to these groups will not eventually reach IS or the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra.

For now at least, the president appears more resolved than ever to take the fight against IS. According to one report, Obama is insisting that only the White House authorize any airstrikes in Syria, not the military.

Iranian TV airs a program in February 2014 showing computerized shots of Tel Aviv being bombed by Iran in retaliation for an American or Israeli strike on Iran. (screen capture: YouTube)
Iranian TV airs a program in February 2014 showing computerized shots of Tel Aviv being bombed by Iran in retaliation for an American or Israeli strike on Iran. (screen capture: YouTube)

The problem is that, for reasons of his own, Obama has decided to ignore the larger beast to the east, Iran — which seems to be thoroughly enjoying its flirtations with Washington over dealing with IS.

Obama pledged many times that the US would use all means necessary and do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. At this point, with IS blotting out all other dangers in Washington’s sights, that repeated promise seems unrealistic and empty.

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