What is the role of Iran in the Middle East? In a viewpoint Tuesday, the American Movement for Israel answered that question, claiming that Iran “jeopardized what little political stability exists in the Middle East” (Understanding the Iranian threat, 10/28/2008). This is interesting, given that last war Iran directly fought was in 1988 — the last war Israel fought against one of its neighbors was in 2006, against Lebanon.

In a broader sense, however, the instigative nature of the viewpoint made me wonder, why should Americans support Israel in the first place?

According to a July 2006 article in The Washington Post, the American-Israeli alliance costs the United States around $3 billion each year. But what do we get in return? There are no Israeli troops in Iraq, and none in Afghanistan. Even the tiny nation of El Salvador has sent more troops to Iraq than Israel, and it doesn’t get nearly as much aid. Given the possible problems associated with sending Israeli troops sent to an Arab country this would make sense — but why isn’t Israel topping the list of countries sending support staff or funding? Saudi Arabia footed a large bill during the first Gulf War, and even Japan sent staff to assist in the second.

We don’t even have military bases on Israeli soil (apart form a single missile facility with a small crew). For those, we turn to the Saudis and Turks. Our bases in these countries are a major point of contention among the local populations, and their presence breeds resentment. Osama bin Laden himself has cited American bases in Saudi Arabia as one of the key reasons behind terrorist acts. Israel is our ally, so why do we have to turn to other countries, when it only creates future problems for us?

More to the point, why even send Israel money in the first place? It’s not exactly a poor country.

For one thing Israel has a powerful lobby. That’s right: Just like corn farmers and big oil companies, supporters of Israel spend massive amounts of money trying to influence American politicians. In fact, in 2006, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had an annual budget of $47 million.

In 2005, two high-ranking AIPAC employees were indicted for involvement in espionage committed against the United States. The two employees had met with Lawrence Franklin, a former Defense Department employee, and received classified military information from him. In turn, the two AIPAC officers passed the information on to an Israeli diplomat. Although AIPAC and Israel both denied the allegations, Franklin was found guilty on multiple counts of espionage-related conspiracy after admitting to leaking the information, while the trial of the two lobbyists has yet to be concluded.

Given that the United States and Israel are already allies, why did Israel attempt to spy on us? Sure, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but that doesn’t excuse espionage.

Sadly, it doesn’t end there. In 1999, and perhaps even earlier, the United States learned that Israel was attempting to sell military aircraft to China. In 2007, the Israeli arms industry recorded more than $4.3 billion in sales, making it the world’s fourth-largest exporter. Weapons are, by definition, not intended for peaceful purposes. In the 1980s, Israeli weapons were being shipped to apartheid South Africa, and to death squads in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Are such sales, some of them contrary to U.S. interests, not destabilizing?

And then come the nuclear weapons. When we speak of Iran, we’ve been taught to fear nuclear weapons. But for those of you who don’t know, Israel has had them for decades. To begin with, Iran has stated it wants nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Whether or not this is the case is debatable, but let’s assume that Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. Is it really such an unreasonable goal? Iran is virtually surrounded by U.S. troops — to the east in Afghanistan, and to the west in Iraq. What country wouldn’t want such a deterrent?

Besides, lets use common sense. Iran’s leaders are not stupid — given that Israel and the United States both have nuclear weapons, it would be foolish to even consider using them.

Sure, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad likes to make outrageous statements. At the end of the day, however, he is a politician and has to appeal to his base. When he makes an offensive statement, the world reacted predictably: with a resounding condemnation. Such a response has a way of isolating Iranians, and could very well play into his hands.

The bottom line is, many of the organizations that dislike the United States take issue with our exceptional treatment of Israel. This exceptional treatment couldn’t be clearer than on the issue of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. By spying on us and selling weapons in ways that undermine our interests, it is clear that Israel doesn’t hold the United States in the same esteem — so is this costly relationship really worth it?

Ibrahim Kakwan can be reached at ijameel@umich.edu.

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