Iran, Israel, and the risk of war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
28 July 2008

The prospect of war over Iran's nuclear plans seemed to recede in mid-July 2008 after a marked change in United States attitudes to the country. This was signalled by the decision to hold direct talks with the Islamic Republic for the first time since the revolution of 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis that did so much to embitter relations between the two countries. The outcome of the discussions held in Geneva on 19 July was disappointing to western hopes of concessions from Iran over its uranium-enrichment plans, but the fact of the meeting has been hailed as a positive step that diminishes what had seemed to be the escalating risk of armed confrontation.

Between this hope and a stony reality, however, falls a shadow. For even if the momentum in Washington has moved away from the planning for a military strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities, the option of an attack by Israel is very much alive. In the complex strategic calculations of the three main state actors, therefore, the mild and provisional rapprochement between the US and Iran is only one counter that in itself does not eliminate the possibility of war (see "Israel, the United States and Iran: the tipping-point", 13 March 2008).

A static momentum

The shift in Washington's approach to Iran seems to have been the result of pressure from two branches of government: the state department, where influential policy-makers have sought to revive a diplomatic path over Iran; and the defence department, where there has been real concern over the possible consequences of a military confrontation. This has been voiced by a number of senior military commanders, most recently Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the joint chiefs-of-staff (see "Top US admiral says strike on Iran means turmoil", Reuters, 20 July 2008). Mullen has conveyed a pithy scepticism about the fallout of war with Iran ("This is a very unstable part of the world and I don't need it to be more unstable") with a sharp awareness of the limits imposed by the US's own military overstretch ("Right now I'm fighting two wars and I don't need a third one"). At the same time, he is emphatic that Iran has to be "deterred" in its ostensible ambition of achieving a nuclear-weapon capacity (see "U.S. admiral calls for global pressure on Iran", Xinhua, 21 July 2008)

This element of ambiguity was reflected too at the 19 July meeting (which included representatives from China, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany). Although the US was represented by under-secretary of state William Burns, the highest ranking US official to be in dialogue with Iran for many years, the sense of a process almost immediately stalled was palpable. The secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was critical of the Iranian delegation immediately after the meeting (see Matthew Lee, "U.S. says Iran not serious at nuclear talks", Baltimore Sun, 21 July 2008). Members of other delegations that took part were scornful of Iran's preparation and input, including the paper distributed at the meeting which outlined Tehran's core positions (see Elaine Sciolino, "Iran offers 2 pages and no ground in nuclear talks", International Herald Tribune, 22 July 2008).

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001.

A vengeful disillusion

The Geneva dialogue may nonetheless have confirmed that the balance within the George W Bush administration has moved away from planning for war with Iran. This would be a cruel disappointment to those inside (vice-president Dick Cheney and his team) and outside (neo-conservative and other hawkish voices) the administration who have long sought to match action against Iran to the "axis of evil" rhetoric.

Indeed, the reaction of the analysts who have promoted a hardline agenda on Iran to Washington's change of approach is instructive. For many, it has evidently been a bad dream which has confirmed their sourness towards Condoleezza Rice and the state department but also introduced a new note of disillusioned disgust against the George W Bush administration as a whole.

The hardliners' unsettled mood is compounded by Barack Obama's lead in the opinion polls, amid a more general positive coverage of the Democratic candidate's campaign reflected in the blanket coverage of his overseas tour to Afghanistan, the Middle East and western Europe (see Dan Balz, "Obama Going Abroad With World Watching", Washington Post, 19 July 2008).

In addition, the agreement of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki with Obama's call for a major US troop withdrawal from Iraq is a serious embarrassment for the Republican candidate, John McCain, who has been making much of Obama's inexperience in foreign affairs (see Jim Lobe, "McCain knee-capped by Maliki", Asia Times, 23 July 2008). The widespread frustration of Republicans and conservatives at the Obama summer festival is reinforced by the apparent media sidelining of the campaign of the Republican candidate, John McCain (see Linda Feldmann, "McCain camp cries foul", Christian Science Monitor, 24 July 2008).

Yet the neocon focus on Iran remains central, with a rising sense of aggravation that Iran has been rewarded with serious diplomatic attention from Washington even though it has made no effort (and has expressed no intention) to cease its uranium-enrichment activities. Such a cessation had long been a pre-requisite for any change in the US's attitude; its abandonment opens the administration to that toxic charge: appeasement, only one step from betrayal.

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 most recent book is 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.

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute described Bush's reversal as "diplomatic malpractice on a Carter-esque level that is breathing new life into a failing regime" (see Michael Rubin, "Now Bush is Appeasing Iran", Wall Street Journal, 21 July 2008). Indeed, Rubin contends: "As Ahmadinejad begins his re-election campaign, he can say he has successfully brought Washington to its knees through blunt defiance, murder of US troops, and Holocaust denial."

This is strong stuff, but others are even harsher on the Bush administration. Stephen F Hayes, a regular commentator in the neocon journal the Weekly Standard, makes a direct connection with the Bush about-turn on North Korea (which included, on 26 June 2008, removing Pyongyang from the United States's list of state sponsors of terrorism). After North Korea's nuclear test in October 2006, Bush initially rejected calls for negotiations; yet in a matter of weeks he allowed the state department's Christopher R Hill to meet a North Korean delegation, with a further meeting in Berlin in early 2007. This rapprochement notwithstanding, Stephen F Hayes notes that North Korea assisted Syria in developing the nuclear reactor that was (on 6 September 2007) to be bombed by Israel.

Hayes goes on to argue:

"Despite all of this - despite North Korean nuclear aid to one of the world's leading terrorist regimes and despite its subsequent failure to account for its nuclear programs - in June the Bush administration volunteered to lift sanctions on North Korea under the Trading with the Enemy Act and, over the objection of our close ally Japan, decided to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of State Sponsors of Terror" (see Stephen F Hayes, "'Stunningly Shameful': The Bush administration flip-flops on Iran", Weekly Standard, 28 July 2008).

Another stern reproach for the administration's u-turn on Iran comes from the former under-secretary of state for arms control and United Nations ambassador in the Bush administration, John Bolton. Bolton focuses too on Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear plans, and is straightforward in arguing that the Bush policy towards Iran has failed, and that it is reasonable to expect Israel to take military action. Moreover, he argues:"we should be intensively considering what cooperation the U.S. will extend to Israel before, during and after a strike on Iran. We will be blamed for the strike anyway, and certainly feel whatever negative consequences result, so there is a compelling logic to make it as successful as possible" (see John Bolton, "Israel, Iran and the bomb", Wall Street Journal, 15 July 2008).

A spreading unease

Meanwhile, Israeli sources report that Iran is about to get the first shipments of the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile system which can track multiple incoming aircraft simultaneously and can attack up to twelve at a time (see Yaakov Katz, "Officials: Advanced S-300 on way to Iran", Jerusalem Post, 23 July 2008). Some sources indicate that a number of the missiles could be deployed around nuclear sites later in 2008 or very early in 2009, making any Israel attack far more costly (see Dan Williams, "Iran to get new Russian air defences by '09 - Israel", Reuters, 23 July 2008).

In Israel itself, there is now far more talk of the need to take action before the US presidential election comes to a climax on 4 November 2008, or at latest before the new president is inaugurated 20 January 2009. The Israeli academic Benny Morris is among those arguing that an Israeli attack is highly likely:

"Israel will almost surely attack Iran's nuclear sites in the next four to seven months - and the leaders in Washington and even Tehran should hope that the attack will be successful enough to cause at least a significant delay in the Iranian production schedule, if not complete destruction, of that country's nuclear program" (see Benny Morris, "Using Bombs to Stave Off War", New York Times, 18 July 2008).

For their part, the western European countries may have been buoyed by the US's leaning towards dialogue with Iran, but the overall mood in at least some capitals has otherwise darkened notably in recent weeks. In contrast to the relief engendered by Washington's cautious reach-out to Tehran, there is mounting unease at the chances of dissuading the Israelis from using their perceived window of opportunity.

A conflict involving Iran is not inevitable, but the blunt fact is that it is more likely in the next few months than at any time in the last five years. Alongside the incalculable - but almost certainly very grave, and possibly catastrophic - security and economic consequences, at least one likely political effect is not what the conflict's architects would wish. This is that a singularly hardline presidential candidate would gain a much needed boost in a forthcoming election as his country falls into line behind him at a time of crisis; thus might Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in mid-2009 help ensure himself four more years in power.

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