America, Israel, Iran: war in focus

The argument in America for war against Iran is often couched in religious-apocalyptic terms. But the decisive element in the end will be strategic and political calculation.

The tensions over Iran's presumed nuclear ambitions continue in the last weeks of 2011. A number of events, and public interventions by influential figures, have raised the level of concern. In the first category are the huge explosion at a missile facility in Iran, which fuels suspicions that a covert war has already started; the loss of a CIA surveillance-drone flying over Iran, no doubt part of a major programme of United States intelligence-gathering; and the ongoing violence in Syria, whose ruling and now threatened regime is an important regional ally of Tehran.

In the second category are the hardline views of the rising frontrunner in the race for the Republican candidacy in the 2012 presidential election, Newt Gingrich, including the observation that Palestinians are an "invented" people (see Trip Gabriel, "Gingrich's Foreign Policy Words Summon The Cold War, But Enemy Is Iran", New York Times, 14 December 2011); and the more significant revelation by Dennis Ross, the former middle-east aide to Barack Obama, that the administration is leaving the door open to the use of force against Iran. Ross, one of the US's most experienced diplomatic negotiators in the region, told the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy on 13 December 2011: "President Obama has said all options are on the table. Force is not the first choice, but it is on the table, and time remains for diplomacy and pressure" (see Mitchell Plitnik, "Ex-top US aide offers insight into Iran", Asia Times, 14 December 2011).

This mix of caution and clarity offers a key to the current debate in both the United States and Israel about what course either or both these states should pursue with regard to Iran. There is a spectrum of judgments, with the starkest propounded by those who believe that there is no alternative to military action against Tehran and that it must come soon. Against this, many - including some senior military - argue that this would be disastrous. A further category holds that sanctions and persuasion must be employed until the time (if it arrives) that Iran is on the nuclear brink, and only then should war be contemplated. At the end of the spectrum is the position that Iran cannot be stopped from developing nuclear weapons; the world must just recognise this and live with the consequences, much as it is doing with North Korea.

Some who envisage a nuclear-armed Iran further contend that this must at some stage entail a move towards a nuclear-free middle east, including Israel. The case may seem ambitious to the point of naivety, but it has the merit of being long-term and region-wide. It holds that just as a nuclear-armed Iran is inevitable, so is the consequence - a regional nuclear arms-race that could also involve Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. Only at that stage will everyone, even the Israelis, see the need for a nuclear-free region to avoid a descent into instability and probable catastrophe (see "Israel's security complex", 28 July 2011).

The theological case

The most powerful and combative voices in the United States and Israel remain impervious to such an argument. The sense that the two countries' security is intertwined, and requires at present the adoption of a confrontational posture towards Iran, is heavily promoted in Washington. But the advocacy of Israel's perceived interests in the US - traditionally reliant on American Jews, many of whom are Democrats and liberals in domestic terms - increasingly looks to "Christian Zionists", who number at least 30 million and tend to be strongly Republican (as well as being among those most likely to vote) (see "Christian Zionists and neocons: a heavenly marriage", 3 February 2005).

Christian Zionists see Israel as part of God's plan, and Jews as the repository of a theological dispensation to prepare Israel for its central role when the "end days" come (which many think is very soon). This worldview was supercharged by the six-day war of 1967, when Israel extended its territory to the West Bank and thus over what the mindset regarded as "biblical" lands. Today, celebration at this supposed fulfilment of a prophecy has given way to intense concern at the rise of Israel's enemies, of which Iran and its surrogates are the most evil.

The adherents of this apocalyptic outlook have no doubt that once Iran has the bomb it will act as an agent of Satan and destroy Israel. Such a course would exceed even an existential threat to actually challenge God's ultimate plan for humankind. This cannot be allowed: Iran must be attacked and its nuclear potential destroyed, whatever it takes.

Such ideas, fusing as they do many potent fears and longings, are widely disseminated across many religious forums and media channels in the United States. Yet although growing they still represent a definite minority, and remain less influential than more rational views within the senior military and elsewhere.

The regional prospect

The political-strategic debate within the United States is sharpening, but it remains open-ended. A crucial factor in helping to shape it is the reading of Iran's own motives. There is a widepread belief that most groups within Tehran's elite support Iran's acquisition, now or later, of a nuclear capability. But the justification for this aim tends to divide the elite into three strands.

The first believes that nuclear weapons are both necessary and usable (a mirror-image of the "end days" vision of the Christian Zionists). A second, and larger, group sees nuclear weapons as a symbol of power which would enable Iran to occupy a much more significant regional position. The third, and strongest of all, regards a nuclear capability (either actual or virtual) as a deterrent against conventional attack; it is reinforced by the experience of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, eliminated after it gave up its WMD programme.

In current circumstances it is the middle group - the one seeking greater regional influence - that is most relevant. The overriding reason is the United States's failure in Iraq. The accelerating withdrawal, hailed by President Obama in a notably non-triumphal "homecoming" speech on 14 December 2011, is taking place in a context where any strategic gains for the US are hard to see. The autocratic character of Nouri al-Maliki's government, and its resistance to Washington's directives, suggest that American influence may turn out to be far lower than even the most pessimistic "beltway" analysts expected.

A discomfiting scenario can be glimpsed here: of an authoritarian and semi-theocratic Iraq able to shelter under an Iranian nuclear umbrella, creating in the process a powerful regional axis which the United States would find it difficult if not impossible to counter (see "America and Iraq-Iran a new balance", 10 June 2011).

The scale of the American disaster in Iraq makes this possible if far from certain. Such a prospect is part of Washington and Jerusalem's worried calculations over Iran. The theological arguments for war and in defence of Israel will continue to be made; but this, the raw politics of regional power, will in the end be decisive.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers on sustainable security, delivered to the Quaker yearly meeting on 3 August 2011, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. It is available in two parts and can be accessed from here

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Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers