international analysis and commentary

Israel and the US facing the Iranian challenge

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The crisis between the West and Iran on the latter’s alleged nuclear weapon program has been escalating. The UN nuclear watchdog – the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – has indeed confirmed that Iran “has started the production of uranium enriched up to 20% using IR-1 centrifuges in the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant.” This lies well above the 4% which is needed for nuclear fuel, but also well below the 90% necessary to produce nuclear warheads. Nonetheless, the West perceives this as crossing a red line. The US imposed tougher sanctions and European states are expected to follow suit.

The concerted sanctions are aiming at Tehran’s oil exports and are expected to strangle an already weak economy. In Iran, the move was perceived as an outright attempt to topple the regime. This perception was strengthened by the fact that the country’s most important ally – Syria’s President Bashar Assad – is on the verge of falling. Tehran is increasingly suspicious of Western interference in this process. As a result, the spiral further accelerated with the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a 32-year-old Iranian nuclear scientist, and with Iran sentencing an alleged American spy to death. The scientist’s assassination took place just shortly after Israeli Defense Forces’ Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, stated that “unnatural” events will continue to happen in Iran. Several international newspapers have been reporting an Israeli “covert war” against Iran’s nuclear program: they cite cyberattacks such as the Stuxnet computer virus and targeted killings, which represent extrajudicial punishments based on an arbitrary assessment of “unlawful combatants”.

The current crisis took dramatic turns – episodes reminiscent of Cold War politics – when Iran threatened to close down the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world’s crude oil supply passes daily. The US responded that it would not tolerate such a closure and President Barack Obama sent a direct warning (through a secret letter) to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that such a closure would be a “red line.” Israel and the United States have now postponed a massive joint defense exercise, as Washington wants to avoid causing further tensions in the region at this most delicate time.

Presently, it seems that Iran is bending to the pressure and has agreed to allow further IAEA nuclear inspections by the end of January. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told an Australian newspaper that “for the first time, I see Iran wobbling […] under the sanctions that have been adopted and especially under the threat of strong sanctions on their central bank.” So far – as a 2011 survey conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute at Tel Aviv University showed – a majority of the Israeli public (51.6%, of which 52% Jews and 49.7% Arabs) believes that the Western countries’ proclaimed efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons “are not serious and not sincere efforts.”

Whether the new sanctions will have an effect in the long term is questionable. Sanctions aiming at the Iranian oil industry were already imposed by the Clinton administration, when, as Former National Security Council staffer Gary Sick suggested on CNN, Iran “had not a single centrifuge turning. After a decade and a half of sanctions, Iran has more than 8,000 centrifuges spinning and a substantial stock of low-enriched uranium.” Every new round of sanctions has only led to an intensification of the Iranian nuclear program over time. Especially after the Western invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Tehran – well aware that it does not have the conventional military capabilities to prevent an invasion of its territory – became even more determined to build a nuclear bomb. Diplomatic channels for solving this security dilemma in the Middle East and for alternative options for a civilian Iranian nuclear power program have remain unexplored by the West, as well as by Iran.

Iran’s long-standing rhetoric of “wiping Israel from the map” has reinforced Israeli threat perceptions; nevertheless, it remains highly unlikely that Iran should act on such threats – not least because Israel is home to some of the most important Islamic sites and to a sizable Muslim population. The majority of the current Israeli security establishment believes that – as Emily Landau from the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies put it – only the “credible threat of military force” might push Iran into negotiations with the West. According to a survey released on December 28, 2011 by the Truman Institute in Jerusalem, together with the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, 47% of Israelis support the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities, while 41% oppose it. The former chief of Mossad Meir Dagan, for one, has warned against a military attack on Iran, which he believes could lead to a regional war with a “high level of destruction, paralysis of every-day life, and unacceptable Israeli death toll.”

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the United States is increasingly concerned that an Israeli military strike will indeed take place, and is preparing for it. An attack in a region which is going through massive changes at present could lead to incalculable ramifications. As an alternative, the West might want to re-think its approach towards Iran. Firstly, the IAEA needs to regain its reputation as a neutral actor. Wikileaks divulged the head of the agency – Yukiya Amano – as “solidly in the US court.” In November, the IAEA released the names of Iranian nuclear scientists in what Tehran called a “clear violation of protocol”, exposing these scientists to threat of assassination. Secondly, the West might want to think about a package deal with Iran. As Gary Sick has pointed out, the West could offer 20% enriched fuel plates to Iran in exchange for Iranian enriched uranium.

Finally, the nuclear powers have to offer some degree of denuclearization on their part. The well-known Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling once noticed that “before threatening Iran, what humanity desperately needs is a process of denuclearization of all countries without exception. Only then will we have the moral basis to demand the denuclearization of Iran.” In other words, no nuclear weapons are “more legitimate” than others.