The Americans would be foolish to commit themselves to an attack on Iran based on Israeli intelligence, for the latter’s claims about a nuclear threat from Tehran go back almost twenty years; the threat has yet to manifest itself. Official documents leaked by Wikileaks, media interviews and published statements made by Israelis, including incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are full of such allegations. In his latest performance in Washington, Netanyahu invoked the Nazi Holocaust in his attempt to persuade President Barak Obama that an attack on Iran is in America’s interest. He claimed that the US did not respond to Jewish calls for help when most needed (manifestly untrue, as history illustrates). The ploy failed and Netanyahu returned from whence he came, empty-handed. The world is still relatively safe, at least for now.
Viewed from both sides, it is clear that the Iranians and Israelis are equally determined to maximise their political gains over the nuclear issue. For the Israelis, it serves as a convenient distraction from their illegal settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, and their discriminatory Judaisation policies. Predictably, the so-called Middle East peace process didn’t feature in the talks between Obama and Netanyahu. This is a far cry from their previous meetings, which were poisoned, from the Israeli perspective, by Obama’s demand for an end to the settlement programme.
Iran, meanwhile, has also benefited. It has managed to project its geo-political interest in the Gulf and create a sphere of influence that runs all the way from Baghdad through Damascus to Beirut. As if to goad their critics, some Iranian officials openly brag that their country is a de facto nuclear power. Persistent affirmations that its nuclear programme is intended purely for peaceful purposes have done nothing to assuage anxieties in the small Gulf States; some actually believe Iran now poses a threat. More than any other, the main beneficiary from the nuclear scare is America’s military industrial complex, which in recent years has secured massive contracts to supply “defensive” hardware to the Gulf States.
However, there is an important difference between the two states. While Israel has been a serial aggressor against its neighbours, and has often threatened to use its nuclear weapons against them, Iran has never attacked any of its neighbours. Accordingly, President Obama was right when he pointed out to his largely Jewish audience at AIPAC that “loose talk” about war could be dangerous. Tensions are already high, with accusations and counter-accusations about Israel’s assassination of Iranian scientists and Tehran’s alleged attacks on Israeli diplomats.
Although the Iranians should have learnt from the experience of Iraq and how Saddam Hussien talked himself into a war he was not capable of winning, they seem to be determined to make the same mistake. The threat to close the straits of Hormuz is a case in point. That no doubt went down well with the domestic audience, but it was viewed as hostile regionally and internationally. One explanation for this brinkmanship could be to avoid the “wait and see” tactic which Saddam Hussein adopted to his cost. His fatal error, it has been said, is that he allowed the Americans and their allies to determine the time and manner of their attack.
Still, some Iranian analysts acknowledge that if and when the Israelis or Americans attack, it will have to be a total surprise move, and not in line with the dates currently being bandied about in the media. Surprise, they say, is the key factor in any military offensive. As it stands, Iranian officials believe, perhaps rightly so, that America is not in a position to launch another war after the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq.
No one questions the ability of Washington to use its high-tech war machine to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme, at least for a short while. Nobody is suggesting that the US is preparing to invade Iran as it did with Iraq. In the event of a missile attack, therefore, what would come next? This is the unknown factor. Such an attack would most likely be from one or more of the US aircraft carriers stationed in the Gulf. If car bombs then start going off in the capitals of the Gulf States in retaliation, and the flow of oil to the West is halted, can the western economies, including America’s, withstand the shock?
At the moment, the containment policy of sanctions and diplomacy seem to be working. There may not be an amicable peace but there is certainly no war. Whatever may be said of the Iranians, there is no denying that they are skilled pragmatists. When the time came to move against Saddam Hussein, they ignored ideology and cooperated with the ‘Great Satan’ to topple him. They did the same in Afghanistan against the Taliban.
It is not impossible, therefore, for the Americans and Iranians to come to an agreement over Tehran’s nuclear programme. After all it is perfectly feasible to have a peaceful nuclear programme. There will, of course, be a price to pay for such a deal. The Iranians would want guarantees for their geo-political interests in the Persian Gulf. Meeting this demand would require diplomatic ingenuity, not simply because the Arabs see the Gulf as theirs, but also because Israel would be extremely wary of any American deal with Tehran. Tel Aviv’s ambition is to remain America’s sole attack dog in the region.
There is clearly no appetite for war in Washington. For now, the Pentagon will continue to make ritualistic threats while all options will remain on the table, but Obama knows that in this election year the question of war is off the agenda. The latest national survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre showed that about half of Americans (51%) say the United States should remain neutral if Israel takes action to stop Iran’s nuclear programme. So what options does Obama have? He could sit tight and hope that the Arab Spring moves eastward and develops a Persian strain; the current regime could fall and the nuclear programme would be halted. But such a scenario is wishful thinking because for most Iranians the nuclear issue is a matter of national pride and not a pet project of any political faction.
That leaves the option of trying to defuse Israel’s threat to go it alone. Logic dictates that as Israel’s main sponsor the US should have the upper hand, but the pro-Israel Lobby in Washington ensures the opposite. Nevertheless, Obama could appeal over Netanyahu’s head direct to the Israeli people. As one Israeli commentator argued this week, if Iran’s President Ahmedinajad is as unstable as Netanyahu and the warmongers claim, then a pre-emptive strike is undoubtedly going to provoke a massive response. How, then, does such a strike make Israel and Israelis safer? That is the question that Obama must wrestle with as he seeks to calm the hawks in Tel Aviv and on Capitol Hill. He really is caught between a rock and a hard place; Israeli demands and Iranian baiting.