A ccompanying its verbal escalations over the Iranian nuclear project, Israel ventured on an extraordinary air force exercise in early June. According to the New York Times, this included more than 100 F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, which flew west 900 miles and returned—the same distance that would be required for an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz.
Israelis like to claim that they will be the main victim of Iranian nuclear development. They hark back to the scuds of Saddam Hussein, which fell on Tel Aviv in the first Gulf War when they had no direct part in the conflict. So too, this time—Israelis say—they will be in the crosshairs, and this justifies pre-emptive action.
Yet three major obstacles impede an Israeli attack.
1. The biggest is America. We are no longer in the heady days of George W. Bush’s first term as president, when Veep Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove all pushed the theory of “preventive war.” Today’s White House licks the wounds it continues to suffer in Afghanistan and Iraq. Robert Gates, Rumsfeld’s replacement, together with Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs, and many others in the Pentagon, vehemently oppose an attack on Iran. In their view America must pull forces out, not sink ever deeper in Middle Eastern mud.
The US got itself into Iraq in a fit of wishful thinking. The new democracy that was supposed to spring from the grave of Saddam, according to the neo-cons, would deliver a mortal blow to Iran, spurring pro-Western oppositionaries there. The contrary happened. Iraq plunged into a civil war that enormously boosted the status of Iran, not just in the Gulf but throughout the Arab world. The US, mired in distant Iraq, is mired at home in unsustainable debt amid rocketing oil prices. From Washington’s point of view, an attack on Iran would enflame the region—and more. This brings us to the second obstacle.
2. Iran’s likely response to an attack by Israel would be felt at once by everyone except a few tribes in the Amazon basin. The world is gasping under a present oil price that threatens to paralyze economies, raising the transportation costs of food and other basic goods. A few weeks ago oil stood at $146 per barrel. The price dropped to $136 when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad downplayed the chances of war with America. Following a private meeting between Bush and Olmert in May, however, Israeli Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz let it out that an attack on Iran was “unavoidable.” This spiked the price of oil by $11, the highest single-day rise in history.
Iran, it must be remembered, possesses the largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia. An Israeli attack would be considered an American attack as well. Muhammad Jafari, who heads the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), talks about reprisals such as mining the Straits of Hormuz, a step that would prevent oil tankers from leaving the Persian Gulf. Iran would have other options as well, like rocketing the oil fields of America’s ally, Saudi Arabia. It is not hard to imagine what would happen to the world’s economies then. And who would have caused the new Great Depression?
3. The third obstacle to an attack by Israel concerns this nation’s political limitations. Since the first Gulf War, Israel has coordinated its moves not only with the US but also with its moderate Arab neighbors. This was evident in the second Lebanon War, when the anti-Hezbollah-Iranian front included Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Lebanese government itself. Israel needs such cooperation. It is wary of unilateral steps. Some see its recent talks with Syria as undertaken not for the sake of peace but rather for isolating Iran and Hezbollah.
If Israel were to attack Iran, Saudi Arabia—which stands to be the chief target of reprisals—would have to approve this in advance. Otherwise, Israel will again be isolated. The Saudis are very concerned, indeed, about Iran’s growing power in the region. They earlier opposed the American attack on Iraq, foreseeing that Saddam’s demise would raise Iran’s status, and they were right. From Iran’s point of view, in fact, Saudi Arabia is a greater strategic threat than Israel. It’s enough to recall the 1980’s, when the Saudis backed Saddam’s attack on Khomeini’s Iran. That war lasted eight years, severely damaging Iran. We may note, by the way, that Iran itself does not have a history of attacking its neighbors. Therefore, when Iran insists that its nuclear development is intended for peaceful uses, there is no historical basis for disbelief.
Why then does Israel occupy so central a place in the hostile pronouncements of Ahmadinejad and other Iranians? The reason has to do with Iran’s internal difficulties: underdevelopment, poverty, unemployment, oppression and religious compulsion. In order to channel the frustration of the masses away from these problems, Iran uses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The latter has also served it in southern Lebanon, where it has built an advance front with Hezbollah. The development of nuclear capability is aimed, therefore, toward domestic concerns. Iran has adopted nuclear power, like Pakistan before it, as a means of boosting national pride.
The hysteria that Israel attempts to arouse against the prospect of an Iranian bomb is on a par with the cries of a robbed pirate. Israel itself has nuclear bombs (say foreign sources), and it rejects international supervision, refusing to sign the non-proliferation treaty. Its nuclear capability makes the Arab world edgy. For example, Egypt claims that Israeli superiority in both conventional and nonconventional terms is precisely what motivates countries like Iran toward building doomsday weapons.
If Israel would make the necessary moves toward solving its conflict with the Palestinians, the regional nuclear arms race would be defused. Hezbollah would lose its importance and Hamas would shrink. But as long as the conflict persists and deepens, nations like Iran will exploit it as a distraction from internal troubles. Meanwhile, we’re sitting on a barrel of very volatile material.