The Iranian dilemma

by editor | 19th October 2010 6:47 am

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If Israel were to attack Iran it would be disastrous for the US; negotiations must be the first resort. MJ Rosenberg

US produced and supplied military hardware would inevitably play some role in an Israeli attack on Iran [EPA]

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at Brookings, wrote in the Nixon Centre’s “National Interest” last month that an Israeli attack on Iran would be catastrophic. Riedel, no reflexive dove – he is a former CIA officer and adviser on terrorism to three Presidents – explains why the United States has to respond with a “clear red light” to any proposed Israeli attack.
An Israeli attack on Iran is a disaster in the making. And it will directly impact key strategic American interests. Iran will see an attack as American supported if not American orchestrated. The aircraft in any strike will be American-produced, supplied and funded F-15s and F-16s, and most of the ordnance will be from American stocks. Washington’s $3 billion in assistance annually makes possible the IDF’s conventional superiority in the region.
Iran will almost certainly retaliate against both U.S. and Israeli targets…. Even if Iran chooses to retaliate in less risky ways, it could respond indirectly by encouraging Hezbollah attacks against Israel and Shia militia attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as terrorist attacks against American and Israeli targets in the Middle East and beyond.
America’s greatest vulnerability would be in Afghanistan. Iran could easily increase its assistance to the Taliban and make the already-difficult Afghan mission much more complicated. Western Afghanistan is especially vulnerable to Iranian mischief, and NATO has few troops there to cover a vast area. President Obama would have to send more, not fewer, troops to fight that war.
Making matters worse, considering the likely violent ramifications, even a successful Israeli raid would only delay Iran’s nuclear program…. Support for the existing sanctions on Iran after a strike would likely evaporate.

It is hard to imagine that anyone could argue with any of that.  How could an Israeli attack on Iran not be disastrous for the United States, the region, and Israel itself?
At the same time, it is not hard understanding why some Israelis believe their country has no alternative but to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  After all, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad  is pretty emphatic about wanting Israel to disappear.  Sure, he is not fully in charge of Iran (although he seems to have had his way in dealing with the stolen election and its aftermath).  And, sure, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini said in April that the use of nuclear weapons is strictly prohibited by Islamic law.
But it should be no surprise that Israelis are less than comforted by any of this. If the guy next door talks like a maniac and owns lots of guns, you have no choice but to worry — and consider doing something about it.  At the very least, you need an absolute assurance that he won’t do anything crazy.
Reidel makes two proposals designed to reduce Israeli fears.
The first is that the United States “should take another look at extending America’s nuclear umbrella” – either unilaterally or by making Israel a member of NATO. As a NATO member, Israel would have the security of knowing that an Iranian attack on it would be considered an attack on the whole alliance.
His other idea is to strengthen Israel’s second strike capacity by both enhancing its anti-missile defence system and providing it with F-22 stealth aircraft or “advanced cruise-missile technology or even nuclear powered submarines with missile capabilities to enhance its capacity to launch from platforms at sea.” (With second strike capacity, Israel, even if devastated by an Iranian attack, would still be able to destroy Iran. Logically, then, a second strike capability deters a first strike.)
Riedel believes that the sure knowledge that a strike on Israel would be suicidal would deter any attack — and any Israeli need to strike at Iran’s installations first.
That makes sense, except for one thing.  Israeli hawks (including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu) believe, or pretend to believe, that the Iranian leadership is self-destructive.  They say that they need to hit Iran because, unlike any other country in the history of mankind, Iran would happily commit suicide in exchange for the sheer joy of taking out its enemy.
It’s nonsense and, in my opinion, the Israelis don’t even believe it (their real fear of Iran is based on Israel’s determination to preserve regional hegemony, not fear of nuclear destruction).
Accordingly, the Riedel proposals would accomplish nothing, except the proliferation of more weapons in a volatile region.
The only way to address the issues raised by an Iranian nuclear arsenal is through negotiations.  I’m not talking about the kind of baby step talks both sides are inclined to propose, but real negotiations that put everything on the table: Iran’s nuclear development, Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT and allow inspection, Iran’s threats against Israel and its unremitting hostility, Iranian support for terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas, US attempts to overthrow the Iranian regime from the outside, and Iran’s roles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Only comprehensive negotiations will end the Iran crisis without plunging the region into war.  Only successful comprehensive negotiations can provide both Israel and Iran with the confidence to get off a course that could lead to mutual destruction.  Nothing else will work and everything else has been tried.  Why, in God’s name, should comprehensive negotiations be a last resort rather than a first step?
MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network.

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