July 15, 2008
Here's what Israel thinks: Since Iran's regime is thoroughly radical and deeply committed to its destruction, Israel can't accept Tehran having nuclear weapons. Unless sanctions and pressures can stop this program Israel must attack in order to defend itself.
That's a correct strategy. But there are problems with it, as is always true of even the best policies.
We know the level of sanctions even under an optimistic scenario aren't sufficient to stop Iran.
That means violent confrontation is inevitable.
The United States isn't going to attack Iran and will not necessarily give Israel a "green light" to do so.
The combination of Iranian intransigence, European reluctance (and Russian-Chinese outright refusal) to make really tough sanctions, plus fear of war pushes the West toward talking with Iran, most likely without conditions and with more concessions--in other words, appeasement.
Is there an additional, realistic option to supplement this strategy? Let's try to find one.
The sanctions strategy combines wishful thinking with the need to exhaust all peaceful means first. Russia and China don't cooperate; some European states are actually increasing trade with Iran. The resulting pressure hurts Iran but not enough to make it stop.
Regime change is a dream. The Islamic government is too well-armed and deeply entrenched to be overthrown; no revolutionary movement is in sight. The opposition reform faction is too weak, divided, and demoralized even if it has great popular support.
The simplest and cheapest--therefore very popular--idea is to talk Iran out of making nuclear weapons. This is silly. The regime wants them, laughs at Western threats not backed by strength, and awaits the next American president (no prizes for guessing who it prefers) hoping he'll follow a surrender strategy.
Iran won't be bought off, it merely seeks to buy time.
As for an attack to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, it might one day be necessary but won't be easy. There's too much to destroy; Iran would have the knowledge and equipment to rebuild.
Then, there's the cost of such an attack which could include: Iranian missile attacks on Israel, rocket barrages from Hizballah and Hamas, heightened global terrorism, an Iranian campaign to destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, and far higher oil prices.
That list doesn't make the cost of an attack too high if Israeli leaders believe the country's very existence is at stake. (In fact, our research indicates the direct cost to Israel is quite sustainable.) Nevertheless, while an attack might be necessary it surely isn't preferable.
Moreover, if Barack Obama is elected, Iran will know itself safe not only from any U.S. assault, or even pressure, for four years, long enough to complete the nuclear project, but also guaranteed he'd never give Israel a green light to attack. Tehran wins.
So is there anything else that could be done, again leaving aside the possibility of an Israeli attack some day?
The answer is: yes. Instead of regime change, call it faction change. Let's be clear: all Iran's leaders are radical, all would like to see Israel destroyed. But the question is: how much risk and how high a cost would a given leader pay to try?
Ahmadinejad is so extreme, adventurous, demagogic, and seemingly irrational that his using nuclear weapons on Israel is credible, forcing Israel to attack. Others, like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; former president, now Expediency Council chief Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; or former presidential candidate, now parliament speaker Ali Larijani (who Ahmadinejad fired as nuclear negotiator) are bad guys but less mad guys.
Khamenei will use Ahmadinejad unless the price of his behavior becomes too high. But he and the rest also know Ahmadinejad uses demagoguery, including risking war with Israel and America, because he wants all power for himself and his increasingly powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' friends. In comparison, Rafsanjani wants nuclear weapons but also good commercial relations with the West. He'd like to see Israel wiped off the map but isn't going to be the one to do it.
A power struggle rages in Iran, with next year's presidential election a key battle. Ahmadinejad's critics use everything possible to discredit him, including his economic mismanagement and provocative deeds.
Help them. Pressure against Iran should be heightened and tightened; the possibility of military conflict should be kept before its eyes. Make it clear that Ahmadinejad and his allies are more dangerous to Iran's prosperity and the regime's survival than to Israel or the West.
That's why talk about direct negotiations or concessions is especially dangerous now. This strengthens Ahmadinejad and makes an eventual Israeli attack, with resulting confrontation, more likely. Now he's saying: I can get away with everything I do at little or no cost. America's president is ready to meet us because he's scared of me. We're winning. Why should we change our policy?
If you want to avoid war then isolate Iran and boycott Ahmadinejad. Make it clear he's leading Tehran toward disaster, but a more reasonable leadership can avoid this outcome. Say that if the right person wins the election, direct talks could happen.
There are dangers here for Israel if the West accepts a radical Iranian regime with nuclear weapons. But remember these points:
Israel may attack Iran's installations at some point without real Western support.
The West won't do much more than it is now to stop Iran from succeeding.
If the West doesn't like this outcome it better give Israel enough to avoid that happening. More thought should be given to "appeasing" Israel by meeting its security requirements.
An Israeli military campaign isn't going to stop Iran from continuing its effort no matter how much is destroyed.
So alongside this onrushing disaster, we need a realistic strategy to reduce the chance of an Iranian leader actually trying to use nuclear weapons against Israel.
In addition, the main issue is not Israel just defending itself but saving enemy Arab regimes and the industrialized world's vital interests.
Any Islamist government in Iran armed with nuclear weapons would be a disaster for the Middle East and for the West in general, not just Israel. For starters, Arab countries would make their own deal with Tehran; the West would be paralyzed from acting effectively in the region; Arab-Israeli peace would be delayed by many decades; oil prices would rise to higher triple digits; and revolutionary Islamist movements would grow, threatening every Arab regime.
No doubt, many foolish people seem to think, a small price to pay for high levels of trade with Iran and "avoiding" trouble in the short run.
Again, no illusions. A "moderately radical" leadership will still seek its ambitions and nuclear weapons, but more likely to be pushed and talked out of going to the brink either by slowing, abandoning, or at least never using such weapons. Better a Tehran regime less likely to fire nuclear-tipped missiles on Israel or pursue risky aggressive adventurism than a seemingly suicide bomber president inevitably forcing Israel to attack.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online.