Israel vs Iran: the risk of war

Iran is at the centre of a global storm: targeted by new sanctions, suspected by Washington, defended by Brazil and Turkey. But the complex diplomacy around its nuclear programme could be ended by decisions made not in the United States but in Israel.

Iran has returned to the centre of international diplomacy, and with a vengeance. A week after the crisis over Israel’s assault on an aid-flotilla bound for Gaza, the United Nations Security Council on 9 June 2010 adopted a resolution imposing another tranche of sanctions on the Tehran regime over its contested nuclear programme. The response - from Iran’s ambassador at the UN to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at home - was characteristically vigorous. In the anniversary week of Ahmadinejad’s victory in Iran’s disputed presidential election on 12 June 2010, Iran’s leadership is as determined as ever to withstand what it sees as unjust interference in its internal affairs.

But this is more than just another episode in an endless cycle of confrontation between Iran and the west in general and the United States in particular. The Tehran-Washington polarisation remains one of the principal faultlines of global politics, but two additional elements in the current situation make it both more complex and more perilous than ever:

* the emergence of rising powers onto the global stage (see Mariano Aguirre, “Brazil-Turkey and Iran: a new global balance”, 2 June 2010)

* the deep concern in Israel about Iran’s nuclear plans, and its influence over the Hizbollah movement in Lebanon (see Robert G Rabil, “Hizbollah vs Israel: the coming clash”, 9 March 2010).

A cascade of pressure

The Security Council Resolution 1929, which imposes new restrictions on trade with Iran, was welcomed by Washington as a signal of the international-community’s determination to take a tough line with Tehran. The reality is more prosaic: after a lengthy process of negotiation among the council’s permanent members, the content of the resolution was gutted in order to accommodate the concerns of Russia and China before they could vote for it.

Even then, it was opposed by two key non-permanent members of the council with influence in their region and in the majority-world, Turkey and Brazil (see Leslie Bethell, “Brazil: regional power, global power”, 8 June 2010). The leaders of these two states, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Lula, had agreed a uranium-exchange deal in Tehran on 17 May 2010 in an attempt to defuse the crisis; this reflects both their ambition to play a more prominent role in the “multipolar world” and, more immediately, their deep concern about the possibility of an escalation of the crisis over Iran.

Turkey’s active and confident regional diplomacy, not least the critical stance its government has adopted towards Israel (before and after the assault on the Mavi Marmara, in which nine of its citizens were killed), has given the country a new profile across the middle east (see “Israel-Turkey-United States: Gaza’s global moment”, 3 June 2010). The challenge to leading Arab states that pursue a more conservative path, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt in particular, is evident (see Sami Moubayed, “Turkey's Erdogan: Never a 'yes' man”, Asia Times, 10 June 2010).

The sanctions issue is only one aspect of these evolving regional dynamics. In themselves, the new measures will have little impact on a near-moribund Iranian economy; and far from posing a threat to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s position, they may even (as the Iranian analyst Ali Ansari suggests) prove counterproductive by fuelling his regime’s defiance of perceived western bullying. A year after the eruption of street-protests following Ahmadinejad’s contested election victory, a state that continues to work hard to suppress internal dissent can find a ready domestic audience by portraying the latest sanctions as part of an “imperial” agenda. 

But three aspects of the sanctions package and their diplomatic context do have implications for Iran. The first is that Russia is now unlikely to supply Iran with the S-300 anti-aircraft/anti-missile system, as had earlier been agreed (see "Russia to freeze missile sale to Iran, Putin tells Sarkozy", Ha'aretz, 11 June 2010). The largely obsolete Iranian air-defence system would have gained great military benefits from acquiring the long-range S-300 system; the end of the deal will be a significant loss for Tehran.

The second is that Tehran may (according to official Iranian media sources) now revise its relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The strong indication here is that Iran’s government will limit the IAEA’s access to Iran's nuclear-energy facilities. The cold rationale of this position is: if the UN Security Council is determined to sanction Iran more, even at a time when the Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal was on offer (and even encouraged at one stage by the United States), why should Iran work with the United Nations?

The third aspect is that the Barack Obama administration (according to a report from Washington) is preparing to shift the position on Iran's nuclear ambitions that was elaborated in the national-intelligence estimate (NIE) published during George W Bush’s presidency in December 2007 (see David E Singer, "U.S. presses its case against Iran ahead of sanctions vote”, New York Times, 8 June 2010). 

That NIE assessment - Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities - reached the conclusion (surprising to many, given Washington’s confrontational public stance towards Iran at the time) that Iran’s civil-nuclear-power programme was indeed developing rapidly, but that specific work on weapons-systems had largely ceased in 2003 (see Jan De Pauw, “Iran, the United States and Europe: the nuclear complex”, 5 December 2007). The briefings now underway suggest that the the forthcoming NIE, while not directly contradicting the 2007 report, will find that Iran is (possibly under the aegis of the Revolutionary Guards [IRGC]) conducting applied-research programmes on matters such as the construction of nuclear-triggers.

The combination of these three factors amounts to a tightening of pressure on Iran. At the same time, they do not portend any real prospect of United States military action against Iran. Barack Obama’s outreach to Iran during his first year in office, symbolised by his nowrooz (new-year) greeting in March 2009, may have delivered little; but his administration still maintains that it would prefer dialogue with Tehran leading to a negotiated solution.

But what applies to the United States most definitely does not apply to Israel.

A view to the north

Israel’s plans and intentions towards Iran are a vital if uncertain component of the regional strategic landscape (see “Israel’s shadow over Iran”, 14 January 2010). It cannot be said with any certainty that Israel is moving towards an early assault on Iran’s nuclear- and missile-complexes. What can be said is the view held by the current Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu - and shared to a great extent across the Israeli political spectrum - is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would represent an existential threat to Israel that must be prevented at all costs.

Binyamin Netanyahu outlined the three greatest strategic challenges to Israel in an important speech at the Sabin Forum in November 2008. In his view these are: Iran’s nuclear ambitions; missiles from Iran, Hamas (in Gaza) and Hizbollah (in Lebanon); and a pervasive international denial of Israel's right to self-defence. 

The attack on the Mavi Marmara on 31 May 2010 is part of the response to the last of these threats (see Thomas Keenan & Eyal Weizman, “Israel: the third strategic threat”, 7 June 2010). The crisis over this event has received huge media attention, which to an extent has overshadowed an even more significant development in recent days: news in Israel both of the deployment of Scud missiles in Lebanon and of detailed Israeli military plans for a massive assault against Hizbollah.  

The well-informed and reliable Defense News reports that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have, since the failed war of July-August 2006, fundamentally rethought its strategy and tactics. The IDF is now ready for an even more intense - and, it is hoped, decisive - war with Hizbollah (see Barbara Opall-Rome, “Israel's New Hard Line on Hizbollah”, Defense News, 31 May 2010).

At present, it seems that the planning for such a war does not envisage that it would be launched “out of the blue” but rather that it might arise from a provocation, a crisis with Iran - or sheer military miscalculation. This “known unknown” notwithstanding, the details of the proposed operation are worth quoting at length:

“…a new fight against Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbollah would see an all-out assault on the party's arsenals, command centres, commercial assets and strongholds throughout the country. But it would also include attacks on national infrastructure; a total maritime blockade; and interdiction strikes on bridges, highways and other smuggling routes along the Lebanese border with Syria. Meanwhile land forces would extend a ferocious land grab well beyond the Litani River that Israeli brigades belatedly hobbled towards but failed to reach in the last war. Finally, Israel would consider the kind of targeted killings that it now executes only in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip”.

The Hizbollah movement which fought Israel to a standstill in the 2006 war - thus claiming victory in the aftermath - is now a senior partner in the Beirut government headed by Saad Hariri; a third of Hariri's cabinet are Hizbollah representatives (see Zaid Al-Ali, “Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide”, 20 May 2009). IDF planners view this domestic political compromise, the outcome of an extended and bitter post-war standoff, in terms of the Lebanese government’s failure to control Hizbollah. They draw the conclusion that Lebanon’s national assets - including even the Lebanese army - are now legitimate targets.

Israeli claims that Hizbollah has now added Scud missiles to its already extensive arsenal - and may even intend to deploy them in northern Lebanon where they are difficult to counter - may or may not be correct. But there is evidence that Hizbollah has greatly increased its arsenal of shorter-range weapons; and its Iranian ally has steadily developed versatile solid-fuel medium-range ballistic-missiles that could reach deep into Israel and leave no part of the country immune (see Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, “The Hizbollah project: last war, next war”, 13 August 2009).

A last throw

The Israeli plans for a definitive war in Lebanon are part of a core military outlook that sees the demonstration of overwhelming military power against intransigent opponents who are resolutely against peace as the only route to security. Before and after such armed confrontations, strong deterrence is needed (see Avi Shlaim, “Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall’ revisited”, 8 May 2008).

An interview in Defense News with Israel's deputy chief-of-staff, Major-General Benjamin Gantz, offers an unusually revealing insight into this mindset. The journal paraphrases his warning “that it could take repeated rounds of high-intensity wars to remove the Iranian-trained and financed threat from the north. The aim, he said, is to prolong the periods of relative quiet between war fighting.”

Major-General Gantz is then quoted directly:

“Israel cannot exist with protracted peaks of warfare. Therefore we have to reduce them to reasonable levels - similar to the way we drove down terror in the aftermath of Defensive Shield [the IDF's operation in the West Bank in 2002]. That way we allow our people to live reasonably under a protracted emergency situation until we fix it, and then we go back to square one.”

“I doubt there will be peace afterwards, but at least we'll be able to extend the time between peaks… Through strategic attrition - one round then another round - we'll create a situation where each new round brings worse results than the last. And that, in and of itself, brings a formidable deterrent.”

Israel's deputy chief-of-staff here exposes Israel's security predicament (see “Hizbollah’s warning flight”, 4 May 2005). Israel is essentially impervious to any serious military attack by land or sea; but the modern experience of rocket-assault - the Scud-attacks launched by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991, the hundreds of rockets fired by Hizbollah in 2006, and even the crude devices launched from Gaza since the withdrawal of Israeli forces in 2005 - means that Israel is now living with a form of insecurity as (or even more) serious as anything since the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war of October 1973.

The Binyamin Netanyahu government and much of Israel’s military establishment think that peace is not now possible; Israel can only be secure by being a fortress that periodically strikes out at its enemies to massive effect. There are many dangers in this view (see “After Gaza: Israel’s last chance”, 17 January 2009). But its logic is also clear: that there is a real risk of another war before too long - and that this will be a double war, against both Iran and Hizbollah.

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 has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Bradford’s peace-studies department now broadcasts regular podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch here

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers’s books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed; and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010)