- Feb 23, 2009
Bombing Iran won't work – this might
Israel could pull the carpet from underneath the Tehran regime by backing the Arab Peace Initiative
To begin with a riddle: at which Middle Eastern government was the following accusation levelled: "This is a regime that has systematically lied about its nuclear programme for a quarter of a century and has managed to dissemble and sidestep any and all international supervision".
The answer is – the Iranian government. The statement was made – without a hint of irony – by Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, in an interview with Newsweek last October. So if you guessed the answer was the Israeli government,you were wrong. But you could be forgiven your mistake. To be fair, however, Ambassador Oren is not the only senior diplomatic or political figure – Israeli or otherwise – to display such an extraordinary lack of self-awareness.
The Iranian regime is anything but pleasant. It tells people what they must wear, it locks up and sometimes beats up and sometimes rapes and kills its dissidents, it hangs its gay citizens, it discriminates against other minority groups such as the Baha'i community, it freely derides the apocalyptic Jewish tragedy and it appears to threaten other countries, most notably the state of Israel.
Following the recent disputed presidential election and the continuing mass protests, there is also a question about its legitimacy. But, despite all these flaws, is it irrational in its strategic thinking, does it have legitimate national security interests that guide its foreign policy, and is its apparent – although as yet unconfirmed – quest to acquire nuclear weapons necessarily an existential threat to other states, including Israel?
To view the question of Iran simplistically through the prism of the wider "terrorist" menace – a tendency common to some commentators in the west – is essentially one-dimensional, frequently self-serving and fundamentally misleading, which is not to say the Iranian regime has not been shy about supporting terror tactics when it serves its purpose. We might, though, learn more if, for a moment, we look at the picture through Iranian eyes.
A large country with more than 70 million people and an ancient, proud history, Iran finds itself today encircled by US military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf, and dwells in the vicinity of the nuclear-armed states of Pakistan, India, Russia and China, to say nothing of Israel which, on its part, threatens Iran with a possible military strike. One of Iran's neighbours, Iraq, a non-nuclear state, was invaded by powers intent on regime change. By contrast, one of its allies, the nuclear-capable North Korea – also a candidate for regime change – has not been invaded. So, while Iran's ostensible nuclear ambitions may be a cause of international concern, might there not be a certain logic to its fears and aspirations?
Iran is politically a divided country but there is a national consensus, endorsed by all the losing presidential candidates in the June 2009 election, on proceeding with a nuclear programme, at least for civilian energy purposes, a right permitted under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to which Iran is a signatory – unlike India, Pakistan and Israel.
The main hope, realistically, of bringing about durable long-term change in Iran is through the continuing evolution of the domestic political situation. The impact on this process should be the principal yardstick with which to measure and assess any proposed international action. If any outside power wanted to quash the Iranian dissident movement and bring the internal developments to an abrupt halt, they could do no better than unleash their bombers on Iranian soil. Nothing could be more perfectly designed to unite the people behind the government.
On a broader scale, the fallout from such a strike – or rather strikes, as they would need to continue for several days – would send unlimited shockwaves around the world and unleash widespread retaliatory actions all over the place, in the Gulf, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, from over the Israeli borders in Lebanon and Gaza, in the UK, the US and in allied countries in Europe, the Middle East and around the world. There is little doubt about this. If the attack were to be launched by Israel – necessarily with the compliance of the United States – and openly supported by organised Jewish communities around the world, I fear the global unpopularity of Jews, already ominously on the rise, will reach new heights.
What, one may ask, is the point of Israel possessing a nuclear deterrent, albeit never officially admitted, if not to face down a potential nuclear threat? Indeed, this is its only practical function. For decades, it served its purpose between the US, the Soviet Union and China. And nowadays it performs a similar role between the neighbouring states of India and Pakistan. None of this is by any means ideal – nuclear disarmament for everyone, as President Obama has recently proposed, would by far be a preferable aim – but meanwhile a nuclear standoff is probably better than igniting world war three.
Today, Israel is estimated to have between 200 and 400 warheads, plus a second-strike capacity, to Iran's current total of none. Despite its president's inflammatory rhetoric and confrontational style, we should avoid getting the Iranian threat out of proportion. Israel could obliterate Tehran overnight in the far-fetched event that the Iranians launched a future nuclear war – a scenario that would incidentally annihilate the Palestinians and other Arab and Muslim neighbours alongside the Israelis. All concerned parties know this, including the Iranian leadership. It is not stupid.
This said, Iran is today a far more formidable force than a decade ago for the simple reason that the gung-ho western invasion of Iraq took out the Iranian regime's principal foe and decisively transformed the balance of power in the region in its favour. The world right now does not need further foolhardy military adventures, with another dose of unintended, although hardly unpredictable, consequences. At best, this might win a little more time, while hardening Iran's longer-term determination to go nuclear.
Tightening financial sanctions, as an alternative, may have some limited potential if targeted at the regime and its sycophants. Comprehensive trade sanctions, on the other hand, to be effective, would need the full participation of Pakistan and China, which is most unlikely. Russia and India may also demur. They might also prompt Iranian retaliation, which could include mining the Strait of Hormuz, sending the price of oil into orbit and seriously destabilising the world economy.
Sometimes, in international relations, there is no quick fix, and precipitous intervention might do a lot more harm than holding fire, maintaining a cold peace, containing the wayward government and engaging in patient and prudent diplomacy while internal developments unfold.
Fortunately, in this case, there is something else that can be done. The Iranian leadership, fearful of regional isolation, knows that by parading as the chief defender of Palestinian rights, and making a show of threatening Israel, it makes it difficult for pro-western Arab states, who in varying degrees share Israel's concern about Iranian intentions, to form any sort of alliance with the Jewish state. The best way for Israel to combat the perceived Iranian threat is to pull the carpet from under the Iranian regime by smartly embracing the Arab Peace Initiative, doing the two-state bargain with the Palestinians and concluding a deal with Syria. No one would suggest this would solve every problem but it would lance a huge boil and potentially be a lot more effective than any alternative.
But that would require Israel to halt and reverse its invasive and self-destructive colonisation programme in the West Bank. This would be a good time for the Israeli leadership – in the best interests of its own people – to seize this chance and for the international comnmunity to leave it to the Iranian people to do what they alone are uniquely qualified to do.
For more reasons than one, with the massive firepower available to contending parties, our fragile planet can no longer afford major military conflagrations. There is an ever greater need for calmer counsel to prevail in situations of conflict, including where Iran is involved. A good start would be for western powers – as well as all other parties – to undertake thorough-going reviews of their global policies for the 21st century if humankind is to be given a sporting chance of surviving into the 22nd.
• This article is based on the writer's opening statement at a panel on Iran at the Limmud conference held at Warwick University on 30 December 2009. A print version will appear in the next issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal
Bombing Iran won't work ? this might | Tony Klug | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk