Monday, 17 September 2012

Israel, Iran and the Bomb

There has been a lot of talk lately about Israel, Iran, and nuclear weapons.  Obviously this is not a new story, but it is getting ratcheted-up in its news profile and in its intensity.  This is happening for at least a couple of reasons.  One would be that the Israeli political leaders who are keen on an airstrike to destroy or at least set back the Iranian nuclear programme - Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak - maintain that the time remaining before Iran manages to locate its most important nuclear facilities in hardened - un-bomb-able - locations is shrinking quickly.  Whether this is true or not is hard to determine. 

The other reason why this issue has attained prominence in the last two weeks is because of a speech by Netanyahu arguing that the United States has no 'moral' right to hinder Israeli action when it is slow or reluctant to take action against Iran.  Most of the media coverage of this has focussed on Netanyahu's 'unprecedented' attack on Obama, or on his seeming intervention in the US presidential race.  Fewer commentators note how revolting it is to hear Netanyahu discuss politics in moral terms: Israel, after all, has a nuclear arsenal but never officially acknowledges its existence, is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, yet seeks to attack Iran which has no nuclear weapons and is a NPT signatory still operating within its rights.  Yet these are mostly trivial matters: Israel has always been prepared to go it alone in aggressive foreign policy, and the question is more whether this occurs with explicit or tacit American support.  The real issues at stake lie elsewhere.

For we must remind ourselves that the whole Iranian nuclear weapons scare is largely a red herring, albeit one which Israel is very keen to pull out every so often.  The fact is that the only significant nuclear arsenal in the Middle East is that of Israel itself, which possesses an estimated 200-300 nuclear warheads, and has ample means to deliver them.  Furthermore, Israel is one of the few countries on the planet that has threatened to use its nuclear weapons since 1945:  in the early days of the Yom Kippur War, when it looked like there might be a Syrian breakthrough in the Golan Heights and down into the Galilee, and both the Syrian and Egyptian armies were knocking Israeli planes out of the sky with modern Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles at an exceptional rate, one of the ways that the Israelis extorted more and faster resupply from the United States was by threatening to use nuclear weapons in Syria, possibly even on Damascus itself. Very quickly the United States was resupplying the Israeli Defence Forces with combat aircraft simply requisitioned from US Air Force service, and repainted in IDF colours, and flown straight to Israel.

There are indications, however, that the tectonic plates of foreign policy consensus in Washington regarding Iran might be shifting.  Travelling from Montreal to Dublin a month ago, I was browsing the current issue of Foreign Affairs in the Dorval airport newsagent.  Foreign Affairs is a solidly mainstream American foreign policy journal, published by the Council for Foreign Relations. Yet there as the lead article was a piece by Kenneth Waltz, the great doyen of International Relations 'realism', advocating that Iran should have the bomb, in order to balance Israel. This is the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction - maybe not altogether so mad as Stanley Kubrick wished to argue all those years ago.

People like Waltz, and his greatest contemporary inheritor John J Mearsheimer (author of one of the best, and most pessimistic, discussions of post-9/11, post-Cold War interstate relations, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics), make the point that the whole Iran scare is predicated on an idea that the Iranian leadership is itself bent on suicide, that it is irrational, and that it has no concern either for its allies or its own people. But this is wrong; in fact it's an ignorant and racist assumption. Any Iranian nuclear strike on Israel would have the following consequences: 1) a massive and catastrophic nuclear counterstrike by Israel, which could kill millions of Iranians, which would wipe out Iran's economy and shatter the state apparatus, and prostrate the country for decades to come; 2) a massive and maybe nuclear counterstrike by the United States; 3) very likely enormous 'collateral damage' - due to clouds of fall-out -  in casualties in the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon i.e. amongst the allies Iran would purport to aid; the disastrous consequences could be maybe even the collapse of some of those states; 4) diplomatic and political ostracism for decades to come; 5) enormous economic turmoil in the region more generally; 6) massive and unpredictable social and political turmoil in the region also, much of which might not necessarily redound to Iranian political advantage.  In other words, the crudest cost-benefit analysis shows that Iran has much more to lose by the use of nuclear weapons than to gain.  Accordingly, we can say that no Iranian leadership is going to use the bomb.

Furthermore, just to the east of Iran sits Pakistan, which does possess a nuclear arsenal.  Yet Pakistan is a state in a perpetual condition of near-collapse, and which houses many radical Salafi or other Sunni guerrilla groups of the most virulent anti-American and anti-Israel disposition, a state which supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and which offered some kind of succour to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.  This is a regime and political milieu vastly more dangerous to the region, to Israel, and to the world than Iran, and yet we hear no talk of disarming Pakistan.  The reason for this is partly that Pakistan already has the bomb, but also that Pakistan is held (extraordinarily) to be an ally of the West.  Accordingly, we hear no blather from Israel about 'taking out' the Pakistani nuclear programme.

It is, of course, the political significance of a military nuclear capacity that would be useful to Iran.  Possession of nuclear weapons would confirm Iran's status as the major power in the Persian Gulf, and as the only power in the region capable of standing up to Israel and its American ally and occasional proxy.  Possession of nuclear weapons would also compel other regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, to be much more circumspect in their approach to Iran, and to reform their repressive policies vis-a-vis their own local Shia populations.  

Israel, however, is the regional superpower, and wishes to retain the strategic, qualitative and symbolic edge that possession of the bomb, while not admittting it officially, confers.  This is why Israel is keen to destroy Iran's nuclear capacity.  It has nothing to do with 'morality' - a term soiled in Netanyahu's mouth - or the threatened new 'holocaust' which Bibi says he is trying to prevent.


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