For two decades, the world has been counting on diplomacy to stop Iran’s apparent quest for nuclear weapons – a diplomacy shot through, however, with the menace of ultimate recourse to the military alternative. Now, a more serious stage has been reached with the passing of the year-end deadline that President Obama had set for the mullahs to accept his “proffered hand” – along with the international negotiators’ latest compromise proposals for uranium enrichment outside Iran itself. So far they will have none of it, and there is talk, in response, of a drastic intensification of sanctions already long in place. But, even supposing it actually happens, this is widely expected to fail in its turn. All the while, the regime is reportedly getting steadily closer both to bombs and the means to deliver them.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gestures while speaking during the opening ceremony of the 2nd National Festival of Innovation and Prosperity in Tehran, February 8, 2010. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl
Yet the Obama administration and the U.S. military clearly harbor deep misgivings about that possibility. Already engaged in long, costly and inglorious wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can they seriously contemplate a third against what would be their most formidable foe yet? Iran repeatedly threatens a “devastating” response to any assault and, with all the assets and retaliatory options available to it, few can doubt that it would be. “A ball of fire” across the region, said former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, burning Americans, Israelis and Arabs alike.
But is there no diplomatic way out of this Hobson’s choice between the putative disaster of a nuclear Iran and the certain one of a military attempt to prevent it? There would certainly be a better chance of it if the West would attempt the kind of approach to this great Middle Eastern nuclear crisis that it would automatically adopt in a comparable situation anywhere else; that is, the simple, obvious act of taking into account all the relevant actors and factors contributing to it. Foremost among them, of course, are some 200 or so already existing Israeli nuclear warheads that are surely no less important than Iran’s mere nukes-in-embryo.
However, Western officialdom, it seems, just cannot entertain such an elementary notion. It is apparently incapable of being neutral between Iran and Israel; in fact, it probably does not even occur to Western officials that they might not be neutral, still less that this crisis might offer a striking illustration of their partisanship. Yet partisanship is what the West’s exclusive focus on the responsibility (and villainy) of Iran most patently and damagingly is. Morally, it skews its whole approach from the outset. This is at its most flagrant in the way it makes so much of the perils that a nuclear Iran would pose, but so little of what it very well knows to be the case: namely, that the clear and present danger lies not in Iran’s aggressing Israel, but Israel Iran.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem in this February 7, 2010 file picture. Netanyahu called for immediate and “crippling” sanctions against Iran on February 9, 2010, as it began making higher-grade nuclear fuel in defiance of international censure. REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool/Files
Not, of course, that Iran is blameless. Its nuclear arming would deal a major blow to an already fraying international non-proliferation regime. And, as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it would indeed be guilty of huge deceit and hypocrisy.
Iran is also a “rogue state.” True, that is essentially a subjective, U.S. definition, but, given U.S. primacy in nuclear diplomacy, it is inescapably relevant. Though never a very precise concept, a “rogue state” is likely to be an oppressive dictatorship, anti-American, religiously or nationalistically extreme, and to ally an aggressive nature with disproportionate military power that includes possession, actual or potential, of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, it poses an exceptional, continuous threat to any existing order. So, as America sees it, there could hardly be a greater menace to the Middle Eastern order than nuclear weapons in the hands of such “fanatical, irrational” rulers as President Ahmadinejad, who constantly proclaims his detestation of Israel and his desire that it should “disappear from the pages of time.” And even if the mullahs might not be “mad” enough to bomb Israel outright, they would surely profit from their “Islamic bomb” to underpin and embolden their hegemonic, Islamist ambitions in the region, and their support for “resistance” and jihad against Israel.
But is Israel any better? In the nuclear field, it, not Iran, was the original sinner in the Middle East. Never mind how long ago that might have been, it would forever bear a primary responsibility for whatever happened later. For it is axiomatic: non-proliferation must be universal or not at all, in line with the plain, equitable logic that if, in any zone of potential conflict, one party goes nuclear its adversaries can be expected to follow suit. So another Middle Eastern state was eventually bound to do this. But at least as alarming and reprehensible as the emergence of this second culprit would be the original one’s insistence on preserving its monopoly at any price. Just imagine if the U.S., the world’s first nuclear power, had announced, urbi et orbi, that it would go to war to ensure that the Soviet Union never became one too.
Outsized military power
Since Iran’s deceit is held against it, should there be any statute of limitation on Israel’s? True, there was no NPT at the time, and it was only America, strongly opposed to its nuclearization, that it deceived. But how! Even as its Foreign Minister Golda Meir was proclaiming Israel’s “special concern” to “remove the awful dangers [of nuclear weapons] to humanity,” it was insisting that its top-secret plant at Dimona was, variously, a textile factory, a pumping station or a desalinization plant. The CIA warned that, by greatly enhancing its sense of security, nuclear capacity would make Israel less, not more, conciliatory towards the Arabs, as it exploited its new “psychological advantages” to “intimidate” them.
And by just about every criterion except one, Israel ranks as the Middle Eastern “rogue state” par excellence. It came into being as a massive disrupter of the existing order, through war and ethnic cleansing. Subsequently, as the Jewish state, it may not oppress its Jewish citizens, but, as the colonial settler state which it also is, it oppresses the indigenous Arabs it rules over or displaced. To do that, it has become a vastly outsized military power, serial violator of international law and U.N. resolutions, and permanent source of regional conflict and disorder.
Moreover, ever since it acquired its nukes, it has been exploiting them for just the kind of “illegitimate”, non-military ends it says Iran would do. To be sure, in their basically defensive raison d’être, these constitute its “Samson Option”, or ultimate deterrent against enemies bent on its destruction. But, according to Shimon Peres, their godfather, as a “superior weapons system” they also serve the “compellent purpose” of “forcing the other side to accept Israeli political demands.” In other words – and amply vindicating that CIA forecast – they have helped furnish Israel with the will and means to hold out against the kind of peace settlement which virtually the whole world, the U.S. included, regards as just and reasonable. Beleaguered and detested, yet always invincible, it feels that it can defy its enemies with impunity.
The one exceptional thing about this Israeli “rogue state” is that, far from being an adversary of the U.S., it is its most indulged of friends – something which, of course, only enhances its sense of freedom to do as it pleases, even when that pleases no one else. The CIA foresaw that too. By “pursuing its objectives without regard for the consequences,” it reported, Israel was “endangering the strategic interests of the Western powers.” Of all the reasons why, in the past 60 years, the U.S. has become ever more unpopular throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, is targeted by their terrorists and flails around in spreading wars and other forms of combat against them, the chief reason is Israel and the extraordinary, counterproductive influence which it and its “friends” in the U.S. wield over American Middle East policymaking. It would currently be hard to imagine a greater blow to U.S. “strategic interests” than an all-out U.S.-Iran war. Yet “triggering” just such a war, as Washington-based Middle East analyst Helena Cobban recently put it, would be the “actual, though never openly stated, main goal” of any Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.
Dimona for Natanz?
Hardly, then, could the U.S. have a more pressing interest than to forestall it, and to do so through a diplomacy based on the one, essential principle of disarmament which it has so far ignored: reciprocity. It should begin by recognizing that, however wicked it finds the Iranian “rogue state,” any nuclear capability it might acquire would be serving exactly the same, defensive purpose as the vastly greater capability of the virtuous, Israeli one; after all, even a well-qualified Israeli (military historian Martin van Creveld) says that Iran would be “crazy” not to go nuclear. Then the U.S. should heed its Arab friends. Saudi Arabia or Egypt may be hardly less disturbed about a nuclear Iran than Israel, but they insist that the only realistic way to disarm it is to disarm Israel too, with the trade-off of “Dimona for Natanz” becoming the basis of a nuclear-free Middle East. Finally, it should realize that if, for once, it put its own interests ahead of Israel’s in a case where the two so massively and manifestly diverge, it would reap gains far beyond the nuclear, and lend real substance to all that Obama meant with his June 2009 Cairo Declaration and the call for a “new beginning between the U.S. and the Muslim world.”
None of this, of course, could possibly be described as easy. Iran’s renunciation of nuclear ambitions could probably only come as part of a “grand bargain,” in which the U.S. finally acknowledges the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, and it, in return, renounces or modifies hostile activities around the region that have been a staple of the 30-year feud between the two sides. That might seem especially unlikely with the regime’s hardliners now so monopolistically in charge. Yet it has long been said in Tehran that if anyone could ever strike a deal with the Great Satan it would be they, not their reformist rivals; and the fact is that, in 2003, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei did authorize what the moderate wing of the Bush administration called an “offer we cannot refuse,” so promising was it in various domains, including the nuclear. It was only struck down when Vice-President Cheney, aligned with the administration’s dominant, neo-conservative, pro-Israeli wing, said that “we don’t speak to evil.”
Securing Dimona for a nuclear-free Middle East would be even tougher than securing Natanz. Obama would have to brave Congress and the Israel lobby with much greater resolution than he has shown so far. And then, even if he did manage that, it would only be to increase the risk that Israel, sensing betrayal, inflicts on its greatest benefactor just what analysts like Helena Cobban have warned of.
That would be shocking, perhaps, but not all that surprising. For in a sense Israel’s nukes have always been meant for friends as well as enemies. The French, who helped set up Dimona, saw that long ago. “The Israeli bomb,” said their top official, “was aimed against America, not to launch against it, but to say ‘if you don’t want to help us in a critical situation, we’ll use our nuclear bomb’.” And attacking Iran would also be in perfect accord with Israel’s “going crazy” syndrome, its penchant for wild or irrational violence when politically or militarily crossed. Not that it would need its nukes for this; a single flight of F-16 fighter-bombers would do. Once they were off the ground the only way the U.S. could avoid being dragged into catastrophic war would probably be to shoot them down before they got to Iran. And that, says former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, is what it should do.