Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Iran? Hardly Israel's Problem Alone

Amir Taheri, The Jerusalem Post:
As the world ponders what to do about Iran's nuclear ambitions some talking heads claim they have found the perfect solution. This "perfect solution" is simple: Israel attacks the Islamic Republic, destroys as much of its nuclear infrastructure as possible, and sets the Iranian bomb project back by a decade during which a more responsible regime emerges in Teheran.

This perfect solution would please the Europeans because it would remove the spotlight from their appeasement policy which is, at least in part, responsible for the crisis. They would be able to shake their heads in an "I-told-you-so" gesture toward the mullahs, recall the beauties of "soft power" and feel glum about their ability to stand above dirty games played by "immature powers" such as the Islamic Republic and Israel.

The Americans would also be happy.

It is clear that, not only they do not have a policy on Iran but are also unable to agree to diagnose the problem. With Iraq still a "work in progress," the Bush administration is loath to suggest another regime change, especially in a mid-term election year.

The club of the happy will also include the Arab states which, although shaking in their sandals at the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, are practicing kitman (dissimulation) to hide their true feelings or, worse still, are throwing in a red herring in the shape of proposals for "a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction."

Who else will be happy? Well, Russia will certainly not be unhappy. By the middle of this century Iran will have a larger population than Russia. Iran also harbors a deep-felt hostility, generated by bitter wars with Russia and loss of territory to the Tsars, toward its neighbor across the Caspian Sea. A nuclear-armed Islamic Iran would emerge as an even stronger player in the new version of "The Great Game" in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

In the words of Hassan Abbasi, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's strategic guru, Russia is a "fading power" while the Islamic Republic is a "rising" one.

THE LIST could continue. All this means that a great many countries have a direct interest in preventing Iran from going nuclear. It also means that none is prepared to dirty their hands to ensure that Iran doesn't get the Bomb. Hence all the talk about Israel taking "surgical action" on behalf of the "international community."

The truth, however, is that in any list of countries that might be subjected to Iranian nuclear bullying, if not attack, Israel would not appear in the top slot.

The reason for this is simple. Israel has a small air space to defend and is well-equipped, partly thanks to its Arrow 2 missile-killers, to destroy missiles launched from Iran.

Teheran could, of course, supply a nuclear device to its terrorist agents in Lebanon and the West Bank. But the nature of the terrain and the fact that most Palestinians and Lebanese live in close proximity with the Israelis would mean killing large numbers of people in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories as well.

Ever since the mullahs seized power 27 years ago, they have developed an anti-Israeli discourse as virulent as that of Hamas and other Palestinian radical groups. That discourse, however, is partly prompted by the regime's desire to hide its Shi'ite identity so that it can claim the leadership of radical Islam, both Shi'ite and Sunni.

IN FACT, Israel and Iran, regardless of who rules in Teheran, have common strategic interests. Imagine if Israel had not appeared on the map in 1947-48. The energy generated by the pan-Arab nationalist movement, which dominated Arab politics in the post-war era, would have been directed against two other neighbors: Turkey and Iran. READ MORE

To a certain extent, that did, actually happen, despite the fact that Israel became the principal target of Arab nationalistic rage. Even today the Arab League claims that the Turkish province of Iskanderun is, in fact, "usurped Arab territory." The league also regards the Iranian province of Khuzestan as "occupied Arab land," and insists on re-labeling the Persian Gulf as "Arabian Gulf."

League members are also committed to "liberating" three Iranian islands, located in the Strait of Hormuz, that are claimed by the United Arab Emirates.

PAN-ARAB nationalism is not the only threat Iran faces. A more deadly threat - an existential one - to use a fashionable term, comes from Arab Sunni Islamism. It was Arab Sunni Islamism that destroyed the Shi'ite holy shrines in Iraq in 1802, and returned last month to do so again in Samarra. The same movement is behind the murder in cold blood of several thousand Iraqi Shi'ite men, women and children since 2004.

To Arab Sunni Islamists, Iranians are gabrs (Zoroastrians) while Shi'ites, including Arab ones, are rafidis (heretics) who must be "re-converted" or put to death.

Both pan-Arab nationalism and pan-Arab Sunni Islamism are as much mortal foes for Iran as they are for Israel. Neither Israel nor Iran will be safe unless the twin monsters are defeated and the Arab states democratized.

Were Iran to "destroy" Israel, at a huge human cost to itself, it would only be realizing the dream of its own mortal enemies.

Many in Israel might not quite appreciate all this.

In Iran, however, there is a deep understanding of the nature of regional historical and religious rivalries and enmities. This is why there is virtually no popular support in Iran for an anti-Israeli policy that goes beyond rhetoric or limited support for Iran's clients in Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

There is no reason why Israel should assume a responsibility that others, including far stronger powers, do not wish to face.

In fact, part of Israel's problems stem from the failure of its successive leaders to steer the country clear of other people's quarrels.

In 1956 Israel was dragged into the Suez War because Britain and France lacked the will to conduct it alone. And when London and Paris caved in under pressure from Washington, they didn't even show the decency of taking into account Israel's interests.

During the Cold War, Israel took the flak for its alliance with the United States, and, in successive wars, destroyed arsenals built by the Soviet bloc in several Arab countries. That helped protect Washington's Arab allies against aggression by pro-Soviet Arab powers. And that, in turn, meant that the Soviets could not seize control of the region's vital oil resources through proxies.

Israel, however, was rewarded by not being allowed to translate its military victories into a political settlement that reflected its national interests.

In 1980 Israel knocked out the French-made Iraqi nuclear weapons center, even though the bomb that Saddam Hussein was making was to be dropped on Teheran.

The Israeli action helped the major powers, including the United States, avoid a catastrophic situation in a region vital to their interests. Israel's reward was being described by Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, as "a criminal state."

To be sure, Israel should make it clear, through the channels it has always maintained with Teheran, that if attacked it would retaliate with double force. But it should also remind those urging it to act that the Islamic Republic's policies, including its quest for nuclear weapons, represent a threat not only to Israel but to many other nations in the Middle East and beyond.