Tehran's Last Chance Israel, Iran and the Battle for the Bomb
Part 2: Rattling the Sabers
The Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, who is very well connected among senior Israeli politicians, believes that Israel's prime minister and defense minister have already reached an agreement on the need for military action.
Hardliner Netanyahu is unusually determined. Few things motivate the premier as much as the fear of what he calls a second Auschwitz. He has never believed Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad's claim that Iran's nuclear program is purely for civilian purposes, and he feels vindicated by the most recent IAEA reports. Netanyahu doesn't take Ahmadinejad's repeated threats against the existence of Israel as tactical rhetoric, but instead believes that the Iranian president is deadly serious. He draws parallels between Europe's appeasement of Adolf Hitler and the current situation, and has said: "It's 1938, and Iran is Germany." This time, however, says Netanyahu, the Jews will not allow themselves to be the "sacrificial lamb" being led to the slaughter.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak is generally not among the ranks of those who seriously believe in a suicidal attack by Ahmadinejad on Israel. But he is also seen as someone who, like Netanyahu, categorically wants an attack. A nuclear-armed Iran is also unacceptable to Barak, and he too believes that doing nothing is ultimately more dangerous than attacking. "The moment Iran goes nuclear, other countries in the region will feel compelled to do the same," he said. What happens, he asks, if Iran stretches a nuclear protective shield across Hezbollah in Lebanon, and what if terrorist groups get their hands on the bomb? "From our point of view, a nuclear state offers an entirely different kind of protection to its proxies. ( ) The bottom line is that we must deal with the problem now." Barak also claims that Iran could enter an "immunity zone" within the next nine months, which would mean that an Israeli attack would no longer be effective at that point.
Military exercises have been underway for some time. In November, elite pilots with the 117th squadron of the Israeli Air Force took off in 16 fighter bombers from an air base near Haifa for exercises over the Mediterranean, which included aerial refueling, low-altitude flight in formation and the simulated dropping of so-called "bunker buster" bombs. The Israeli military leadership also tested a technologically improved version of the Jericho III ballistic missile, which has a range of 6,500 kilometers (4,000 miles) and the capacity to carry a nuclear warhead.
Surrounded by Adversaries
In return, the Iranians threatened to retaliate against a possible attack with everything in their arsenal. At first, there was talk of a possible attack on Israel's nuclear reactor near Dimona, in southern Israel. Tehran is issuing such warnings because the balance of power in the region has shifted in the last few months, and because Iran suddenly sees itself surrounded by adversaries.
Only a year ago, Iran was seen as the true beneficiary of the US engagement in the Middle East. US troops had eliminated two of the Iranian regime's worst enemies, the al-Qaida terrorist network in Afghanistan, which had enjoyed the protection of the Taliban, and dictator Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who had despised the mullahs.
Today, however, the Taliban in Afghanistan are just waiting for the Americans to finally withdraw, and the revolutions that have erupted in the Arab world present a double threat to the regime in Tehran. First, they are a constant reminder to the Iranian opposition that its own revolt following the rigged 2009 election was a failure. Second, now that popular uprisings have brought about regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Iran's most important ally is also being shaken by unrest: the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The loss of Syria would be a triple calamity for Iran. Tehran would not only lose the Assad regime itself, but also its influence over the radical Islamic group Hamas, whose leadership has just withdrawn from Syria. It would also lose its supply route for Hezbollah, the strongest political force in Lebanon.
The winners of this shift are Iran's adversaries in the south, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
'Cut Off the Head'
Netanyahu and Barak can depend on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates granting flyover rights to Israeli fighter jets. The Arab states in the Persian Gulf fear Iranian dominance of the region, backed by nuclear weapons, almost as much as the Israelis. Secret talks on the issue are believed to have already taken place. According to a diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah told the US ambassador in Riyadh four years ago that it was time to "cut off the head of the (Iranian) snake."
So do all signs point to war? Aren't there other ways to convince the Iranian leaders to back down, or is every form of military and economic pressure on Tehran counterproductive? In fact, shouldn't the West learn to live with the possibility of an Iranian bomb, just as it once learned to live with the Soviet bomb?
No other problem, except perhaps the euro crisis, will affect international politics in 2012 as much as Iran and its presumed military nuclear program. Future decisions over war and peace will depend on Tehran's next steps, but even more so on whether Israeli Premier Netanyahu and US President Obama can come to an agreement.
By now, Obama is no longer fully in control over how Washington should deal with Iran. Even if he is personally opposed to an attack, he can hardly afford a public veto and the resulting severe damage it would do to relations with Israel, because several of the Republican presidential candidates advocate a much tougher stance on Iran.
With the tightening of sanctions against Iran starting in July, the Iranian oil embargo and Tehran's threat to block the Strait of Hormuz with mines, yet another escalation seems inevitable. European leaders discussed the possible consequences at last Thursday's EU summit. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the other 26 heads of state and government "against geopolitical stress" should the Iranians block the Strait of Hormuz. It could significantly drive up the price of oil and stoke inflation in Europe, Draghi said, with incalculable consequences for economic development in Europe. Germany, France and a few other European countries have already begun filling up their strategic oil reserves.
Monolithic Realm of Evil
The West paints a grim scenario of a nightmarish country that, proud of its history and self-confident to the point of arrogance, ignores international norms -- a combination of high-tech weapons and a religion that fosters 1,300-year-old martyr legends that emphasize suffering. A country that, with the exception of its ties to Iraq and Syria, has largely isolated itself internationally. A wounded civilization whose leaders have declared war on the depraved West, and who fund radical groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. A monolithic realm of evil. This is how the hawks in the West view Iran.
Or are the others right, the ones who describe Iran as a place with several centers of power, and the leadership in Tehran as cool and rational rather than unpredictable and trigger-happy?
Iran is a regional power, more than four times as large as Germany and with almost as many people. It has the world's fourth-largest oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Canada, and it is also considered the fourth-largest oil exporter. Tehran derives more than $50 billion (37 billion) in annual revenues from the sale of natural resources, although the money is distributed very unevenly. According to United Nations estimates, at least half of Iranians live below the poverty line.
Iran is a country of staggering contradictions. Formally, it has the institutions of a parliamentary democracy, and yet the "revolutionary leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded the country's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ultimately controls all elected bodies.
Ali Khamenei is worshipped and treated as virtually infallible by his supporters, of which there are still many. But by no means does this translate into absolute power in everyday politics. Khamenei is constantly forced to consult with councils consisting of clerics, representatives of the people and military leaders, and now he also faces a serious challenge from the extremely self-confident President Ahmadinejad.