Israel vs Iran: rumours of war

Iran is again at the centre of international politics. Its diplomats are discussing their nuclear plans. Its nuclear specialists are being targeted in Tehran. Its Saudi neighbours are pleading with the Americans to bomb it. But most serious of all, the momentum behind an Israeli military assault on its nuclear facilities continues to refuel.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
2 December 2010

A recent article in this series noted that a number of political developments in late 2010 were increasing the prospect of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. These included the results of the mid-term elections in Congress, which favoured Republicans committed to unstinting support for Israel and will constrain the Barack Obama administration’s ability to respond critically in the event of an attack; and a rising Israeli concern with Iran's missile developments as well as its presumed nuclear-weapon programme (see “Israel vs. Iran: the Washington factor”, 18 November 2010).

The subsequent pattern of events, including information contained in the latest batch of documents released on 28 November 2010 by the WikiLeaks project, reinforces this argument in compelling ways.

The new WikiLeaks material provides a trove of United States diplomatic communications from its embassies around the world. Among the most prominent themes of the accompanying media coverage is the reporting by diplomats of several Arab leaders’ antipathy to Iran; the most striking example being the plea from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that Washington should "cut off the head of the snake".

This revelation may be interesting more for the explicitness of such remarks than for the actual sentiment, which is hardly a surprise. But far less publicised - until it was picked up by the Weekly Standard, the most prominent journal of Washington's neo-conservatives - was a Saudi claim that Iran was harbouring a network of al-Qaida associates, including one of Osama bin Laden's lesser-known sons, Ibrahim (see Thomas Joscelyn, “WikiLeaks: The Iran-al Qaeda Connection", Weekly Standard, 1 December 2010). This detail feeds a wider view gaining strength in Washington, that Iran increasingly represents an even more pressing danger than had been understood (see Ali Gharib & Jim Lobe, “War cries ringing in Obama's ears”, Asia Times, 1 December 2010).

Any connection between Iran and the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks - however remote it appears to be - is welcome to those in the United States (mainly though not exclusively on the Republican right) already committed to the belief that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are but the latest example of an enduring perfidy, and further justification for attacking the regime; or at least supporting Israel in a similar operation. The logic is plain: Iran supports al-Qaida and is developing nuclear weapons, a process that will end with a nuclear-armed al-Qaida and an even more catastrophic assault on America.

The mindset

The political topicality of this argument in the Weekly Standard is reinforced by two current events. The first is the coordinated assassination attempts in Tehran on 29 November 2010 against two Iranian nuclear scientists: Majid Shahriari (who was killed) and Fereydoon Abbasi (who was injured). They were targeted in an identical way, by the attachment of bombs to their car-windows as they drove to work through the morning traffic by assailants on motor-cycles. The explosions follow a similar incident on 12 January 2010 when Masoud Ali Mohammadi, a specialist in quantum mechanics, was killed in Tehran by a booby-trapped motor-cycle (a case made even more opaque by suggestions that Mohammadi was sympathetic to Iran’s opposition green movement).

The perpetrators of all three attacks are as yet unknown. But it may be significant that some of Iran's nuclear facilities have also been targeted in sabotage efforts in 2010. Perhaps the most serious of these was a sustained cyber-assault which, for example, is likely to have interfered with uranium-enrichment at the Natanz plant.

The second event is the agreement by Iran and the international community to conduct a fresh round of talks on the nuclear issue in Geneva on 6-7 December, the first high-level discussions between the parties since October 2009. The Iranian side will be led by Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili; the European Union’s high representative for foreign and security policy Catherine Ashton will head the “3+3” delegation (Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, the United States).

The revival of the stalled dialogue between the EU and Iran could plausibly be read in terms of a welcome easing of tensions. It could also be seen as indicating a certain weakness on the Iranian side: either as a result of the impact of the current round of economic sanctions, or of difficulties in Iran’s civil-nuclear programme (or both).

The problem is that the other key player in this multi-sided drama, the Israeli governmental and security elite, sees Iran very differently. Israel views any diplomatic move of any kind by Iran as an evasive and delaying tactic which it uses to proceed with its as-rapid-as-possible development of a nuclear arsenal. The façade of negotiations is just that. Iran is a danger tout court, and must be confronted (see "Israel vs Iran: fallout of a war", 15 July 2010).

The threat

The depth of this suspicion of Iran among Israel’s political and military leadership - shared by many in Washington - is well conveyed in an analysis by a prominent Israeli professor in the respected United States defence journal, Defense News (see Efraim Inbar, “Halt Nuclear Iran: Military Action May Be Only Recourse”, Defense News, 15 November 2010). Professor Inbar’s establishment credentials are impeccable: he is the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, lectures at several leading American and British universities, and is current president of the Israeli Association of International Studies. This status gives his views influence and reach among leading Israeli politicians.

Efraim Inbar’s overall judgment is stark: “Unfortunately, diplomacy has run its course, while economic sanctions are generally futile. Only military action can stop Iran's race for nuclear arms”. This is backed by the familiar case that a nuclear-armed Iran will threaten regional stability in general as well as Israel in particular, not least by encouraging Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to go nuclear. But an Iran with nuclear weapons will also be far bolder in seeking to destabilise Turkey and Egypt, says Inbar, who also strongly rejects the notion that regional nuclearisation could underwrite stable deterrence.

The dangers of Iran’s nuclear-weapons acquisition go even wider, Inbar argues. It will lead the west to lose influence in oil-and-gas-rich central Asian states, which will gravitate towards a nuclear Iran or seek closer security ties with Russia or China; Pakistan too will “adjust its nuclear posture” in response to the new reality of a nuclear-armed neighbour to the west, and India in turn will do the same - “possibly creating an even more sensitive nuclear balance”.

Moreover, the reverberations of a nuclear-armed Iran include two direct threats to stability in Europe: “Iran is allied with Syria, another radical state with an anti-American predisposition, and seeks to create a radical Shiite corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea via south Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Such a corridor will facilitate Iranian ability to project power into the Balkans, where it has a presence in the three Muslim states of Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo. A nuclear Iran could also encourage the radicalization of Muslims in Europe”.

The impact of Tehran’s successful development of a nuclear weapon on a number of Iranian-supported terrorist organisations in the region - such as Hamas, Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad - must also be considered. Inbar says that they “will feel more secure and confident with the backing of a nuclear Iran”.

This article in a leading US defence publication, which identifies the Iranian nuclear challenge as a major threat across the wider region and on to western Europe as well to Israel, is a valuable exposition of elite thinking in Israel. The subsequent Weekly Standard piece - which goes as far as linking Iran directly to 9/11, al-Qaida and the continued peril of attacks (which may now also be nuclear) against the United States - complements this assessment well.

The precedent

The appeal of Efraim Inbar’s view that “(at) this late stage, only military action can prevent the descent of the greater Mid-east into a very brutish region” - especially among those with the ability to act on its recommendations - is considerable. After all, there is a strong precedent for an analysis of this type. A military assault on Iraq to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime had been advocated in Washington for at least four years before it happened; it should not then have been so surprising that 9/11 offered a pretext for a near-instant “framing” of Iraq alongside Taliban-hosting Afghanistan (see Nick Ritchie & Paul Rogers, The Political Road to War: Iraq, Bush and 9/11, Routledge, 2007).

The echoes, with Iran now in place of Iraq, are potent. True, it will take far more to persuade a United States administration led by Barack Obama to engage in direct military action against America’s principal adversary in the middle east. But Israel’s leadership is weighing the options, planning the scenarios, calculating the advantages and considering the outcomes. This time, there will be even less excuse for surprise.

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