Iran, Israel Ratchet up Tensions

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

With so much talk of "red October" promising more fireworks instead of peace in the troubled Middle East, the world leaders gathering at the United Nations headquarters in New York would be excused for focusing on war prevention and peaceful settlement of Middle East conflicts, seemingly spiraling out of control on all fronts, particularly between Iran and Israel.

Trading barbs at last Friday's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Israelis have once again accused Iran of telling lies about its nuclear program, with Iranian officials calling on the IAEA to dispatch inspectors to Israel, which remains a clandestine nuclear-weapons state beyond the purview of any international scrutiny of its program.

Israel's powerful friends in the US have exploited the controversy surrounding President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's request to lay a wreath at New York's Ground Zero to launch a virulent public campaign against him, with various dailies in the US bandwagoning together to attack Iran's president as a "lunatic" and "madman", among other names.

At the same time, France and the US have announced common cause against Iran, but not so Germany, which has distanced itself from Paris by stating that it will only back UN sanctions, and not any European Union sanctions, on Iran. This is definitely a setback for President Nicolas Sarkozy and his outspoken Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the latter using his White House visit last week to wipe out any memory of once-proud French diplomatic independence from the United States.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino has lambasted Iran's latest statements against Israel, calling Tehran's pledge to strike back at Israel if attacked by the Jewish state as "totally unprovoked". Perino said, "I can't tell you why someone in Iran would say something like that about Israel. It's totally unprovoked and unnecessary."

One must wonder about the closed universe that White House officials such as Perino inhabit, since even a cursory look at the nearly daily threat of attacks on Iran by Israeli officials and pundits leaves no doubt that Iran's reaction has, indeed, been provoked by such threats.

Israel's threats against Iran
What is remarkable about this issue is the depth, extensiveness and consistent recycling of military threats against Iran, both veiled and unveiled, by the Israelis. Having convinced themselves, and a good part of the Western world, that Iran is about to reach the "point of no return" in its nuclear program, Israeli civilian and military leaders and their allies in the Israeli and US media have ratcheted up the threat of a military strike on Iran as a rational and feasible option.

This is in complete disregard for international law and the principles of the UN Charter, which forbids member states "from using the threat or use of force" against each other. (Incidentally, even a liberal paper such as Ha'aretz, on April 21, 2006, explicitly endorsed the idea of Ahmadinejad's assassination, arguing that "his elimination is likely to contribute more to stability than to detract from it".)

On June 9, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Saul Mofaz stated that "the military option is on the table". On January 21, 2006, Mofaz had stated publicly: "We are preparing for military action to stop Iran's nuclear program." His boss, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told the press in April that "nobody is ruling out" a military strike on Iran by Israel, adding: "It is impossible perhaps to destroy the entire nuclear program, but it would be possible to damage it in such a way that it would be set back years ... it would take 10 days and involve the firing of 1,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles."

Olmert's foreign-policy speeches are increasingly filled with blunt threats against Iran, continuing a trend. Last October 19, Olmert was quoted by the Israeli press as stating that Iran will have a "price to pay" for its nuclear program and Iran's leaders "have to be afraid" of the actions that Israel might undertake against Iran's nuclear program.

Regarding the latter, a clue was given by Moshe Ya'alon, former Israeli chief of military staff, in an address to the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, in which he spelled out some of the details of the "Israeli military option" on Iran. These include extensive use of "bunker busting" bombs purchased from the US for the specific purpose of demolishing Iran's nuclear targets.

The Israeli attitude makes some sense in the context of a report in the US magazine Newsweek on Monday that US Vice President Dick Cheney had considered provoking an exchange of military strikes between Iran and Israel to give the US a pretext to attack Iran.

The magazine said that David Wurmser, who had served since 2003 as Cheney's Middle East adviser before leaving recently, said Cheney had mulled the idea of pushing for limited Israeli missile strikes against the Iranian nuclear site at Natanz to provoke Tehran into striking back. The Iranian reaction would then give Washington a pretext to launch strikes against military and nuclear targets in Iran, Newsweek reported.

Iran's stern reaction to Israel's blunt military threats can hardly be dismissed as "totally unprovoked and unjustified". Following the same perverse logic, any Iranian missile fired at Israel in response to Israeli carpet-bombing of Iran's facilities would also be deemed "outrageous" or "unprovoked".

This is a recipe for disaster, particularly if right-wing presidential hopefuls such as former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has called for Israel's inclusion as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, get their wishes. There would be potential dire ramifications for NATO in the event of Israel joining and dragging the Western alliance into an unwanted conflict in the Middle East, in light of Israel's tensions with its Arab neighbors and the collective security provisions of NATO.

NATO is already in sufficient trouble, seeing how its eastward expansion has caused a backlash on the part of China and Russia, who have banded together to thwart its expansion through their military pact within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Israel's membership in NATO would only translate into much greater hostility against NATO in any part of the Muslim world, such as Afghanistan, where NATO has gained a foothold. One thing is sure, any NATO siding with Israel in its Middle East conflicts with a Muslim state will further alienate the sizable Muslim population of Europe, which yearns for an even-handed European Union policy toward the Middle East.

But instead of a balanced approach, the victory of right-wing, staunchly pro-Israel Sarkozy in France has heralded a new anti-Arab, anti-Muslim drift in European politics that ironically goes against the wealth of interdependencies between Europe and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' Middle East.

Concerning the latter, the US has called on Turkey to seek alternative sources of energy instead of importing gas from Iran, which is then funneled to other parts of Europe. Turkey's leaders have rebuffed the call. It remains to be seen whether India, which is also under pressure to forfeit the "peace" pipeline (from Iran to Afghanistan and then on to Pakistan and India), will do the same, or cave in to Washington's pressure and make a mockery of its post-independence political identity and membership in Non-Aligned Movement. Indian leaders who are currently entertaining the United States' request to back away from economic deals with Iran must be asking why Europe is not exerting the same pressure on Turkey.

But Iran is the "enemy", as this tense moment in international politics shows.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.