Leaks out of the US and UK are coming thick and fast about an attack on Iran
On the surface of it, the hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is serious about striking Iran's nuclear facilities regardless of any devastating repercussions. If reports are true, he and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak are attempting to twist the arms of their fellow Cabinet members to back the plan, even though Israel's intelligence services are against it. Evidence pointing to Netanyahu's intent includes Israel's recent testing of “Jericho 3” — a new nuclear-capable missile with a 7,000 kilometer range followed by a “Home Front” civilian drill simulating a missile attack on Israeli cities. Israel's IDF has also recently been carrying out joint exercises with the Italian Air Force and those of “other NATO countries” to become familiarized with NATO's operational style. Simultaneously, leaks out of the US and Britain are coming thick and fast.
According to Britain's Guardian newspaper, the US has put an Iran attack high on its agenda while the UK is studying where best to position its Royal Navy warships and submarines to back up a potential American air and sea campaign against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.
Ratcheting up the ante is an about-to-be-published IAEA report announcing that Iran has the technological knowhow — thanks to Russian, Pakistani and North Korean scientists — and sufficient natural resources (uranium) to assemble a nuclear bomb within months, which Iran's foreign minister denies.
Where the White House stands isn't clear. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are sounding more and more gung-ho against Tehran but, at the same time, US officials are said to be concerned that Israel may go it alone without first coordinating its military action with the Pentagon leaving America's bases in the region unprepared and exposed.
During his visit to Israel last month, US secretary of defense failed to extract a commitment from Netanyahu that he would alert the US in advance of any Israeli airstrike on Iran although the idea that Israel would go out on a limb is extremely far-fetched given its reliance on US aid and weapons. In the event the threats against Iran are for real, this leak could be a US-hatched ploy to avoid being painted as the aggressor. I've always believed that any pre-emptive war with Iran would be initiated by Israel in the knowledge that America, its unconditional benefactor, would be forced on side. In this way, Washington would be in a position to defend itself in the UN Security Council and, of course, Tel Aviv doesn't care how many toothless UN Security Council resolutions are churned out against it because they are all ignored anyway. The question is just how serious are Israel's threats? The Israeli peace activist and columnist Uri Avnery thinks they're nothing more than pie in the sky citing leaks to newspapers that would normally be blocked from being published by military censors.
He says categorically that Israel will NOT strike Iran and is prepared to put his credibility on the line with that statement.
I can certainly see where Avnery is coming from. Israel has the most to lose from such aggression when it's Tehran's NO.1 enemy and is in range not only of Iranian missiles but also those of Hezbollah and Hamas which will likely throw their weight behind Tehran for their own financial and military survival. It's true that Israel has a missile defense system dubbed “Iron Dome” but it's proved to be only partially effective. Moreover, some analysts believe Iran already has a stock of bought-in nuclear weapons purchased from former Soviet Union countries. That said, according to a Ha'aretz-Dialog poll, some 41 percent of Israelis support strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities as opposed to 39 percent against with 20 percent undecided.
Their eagerness for conflict probably derives from their existential fears; many Israelis view Iran as a major threat to the Jewish state's very existence and are ready to make sacrifices to eliminate that threat once and for all on the principle “no pain, no gain.” As for the Americans, the public has a visceral historic hatred for President Ahmadinejad and Iran's ruling ayatollahs and would likely be cajoled by Republican presidential runners and the right-wing media into falling into line. War with Iran would certainly boost Obama's re-election hopes; Americans always rally around a war president as the once unpopular George W. Bush discovered post-9-11.
Congress would, of course, prostrate itself before Israel's interests and, indeed, Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, are already falling over themselves to pledge their allegiance to Israel and show their support for knocking out Iran's nuclear capability.
Unknown quantities are China and Russia which have major trade agreements with Tehran. Russia lost out following the US-led invasion of Iraq big time; whether it would be prepared to stand aside as the US and Israel erode its influence in Iran and the greater region is moot. Without doubt, a nuclear-armed Iran is a bad idea. Nobody wants that, least of all Arab states. If Iran's nuclear capability could magically disappear just about everyone would be celebrating. But the fact is it can't. Any strike on Iran would not be able to knock out all Iran's nuclear sites because they are spread around the country; some are deep underground while others are secretly located. Once the nuclear genii gets out of the bottle there's no going back.
Tehran will emerge battered and bruised, yes, but will be even more determined to pursue a nuclear bomb. Anyone who compares Iran's military prowess to that of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi is delusional. Besides ever more sophisticated weapons, the Iranians have suicide squads and are believed to have sleeper cells in Western capitals. Moreover, yet another Western attack on a Muslim country is guaranteed to inflame the Arab Street and gift new recruits to militant organizations.
The effect war with Iran would have on regional economies is painful to imagine. In response Tehran has long threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz to shipping which will translate to sky high oil prices. It has also warned it will set Gulf oil wells ablaze and target US bases. A war will have affect on the struggling American and European economies that could make the global downturn look like a picnic. Investors, business visitors, tourists and expat workers may flee the region.
Are they bluffing, as Avnery believes, or do they have serious intent? Belligerent rhetoric can have unintended consequences as Jamal Abdul Nasser discovered when the Israelis took his threats seriously in 1967 and launched a surprise airstrike to take out Egypt's war planes.
If they are bluffing, what do they hope to achieve when the ayatollahs aren't the kind of people to roll over and surrender their nuclear ambitions? Could it be that Israel and the US aren't so much bluffing as provoking? Should Tehran feel cornered into striking first the real aggressors would be vindicated and free to do their worst with the international community's blessing.
For me, war with Iran is unthinkable but the problem is that history is littered with the unthinkable, so I'm fastening my seatbelt just in case.
(The writer is a prominent columnist at Arab News. The article was first published on Nov. 7, 2011.)