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Curiouser and Curiouser

Israel and Iran’s Nuclear Program

by MOHAMMED AYOOB

Leading Israeli figures including Prime Minister Netenyahu and Defense Minister Barak have once again begun to make loud noises about Iran’s nuclear program and the inevitability of an Israeli strike against Iran to destroy its capacity to enrich uranium. Whether the Israelis are serious this time or merely crying wolf as usual is anyone’s guess. However, it is clear that the politics surrounding Iran’s nuclear enrichment program – totally civilian according to Tehran, ambiguous according to the IAEA, and military according to Israel and the United States – is getting “curiouser and curiouser” to the extent that it has almost begun to resemble Alice’s experience in Wonderland. This is the case for a number of reasons.

First, the charge against the Iranian nuclear program is led by Israel, which is the sole nuclear weapons power in the Middle East. This defies any logic except the logic of Israeli exceptionalism. Israel’s current rhetoric would have made sense had Israel put its own nuclear weapons on the table, accepted the idea of a NWFZ in all of the Middle East including Israel and Iran, and offered to sign the NPT and then made the point that it had the right to attack Iran if the latter did not accept this offer. But, denying Iran’s right to go nuclear (assuming that that is what Tehran desires) while holding on to its own nuclear arsenal and delivery systems makes Israel appear self-righteous and devious at the same time. The argument that Israel needs nuclear weapons because enemies surround it makes little sense in light of the fact that Israel is the dominant military power in its neighborhood and perpetuating this dominance is an integral part of American policy toward the Middle East.

Second, the case gets even curiouser if one scrutinizes the argument that an Iran in possession of rudimentary nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to Israel which is in possession of several hundred nuclear weapons of varying sophistication and size plus multiple, some of them state of the art, delivery
systems. Iran’s rulers would have to be desperate morons, which by all accounts they are not, if they decide to launch a first strike against Israel in the context of this nuclear reality. Iran’s mullahs, however unpalatable their rule may appear to be to many in the West, are not in the business of committing national suicide.

Third, the argument that Iran will be able to enhance its political influence in the Middle East especially in the Persian Gulf by acquiring nuclear weapons capability also makes little sense. Nuclear weapons may have deterrent capacity but are of little use as instruments of influence or of warfare. In fact, as current reports about the Gulf states acquiring anti-missile defense capability from the West testify, a nuclear Iran is likely to drive Iran’s Arab neighbors further into the arms of the United States thus increasing its isolation.

Moreover, of late Iran’s political stock has been falling among the neighboring countries both because of its ruthless suppression of the democratic movement in the country in 2009 and because of its current support to the Assad regime engaged in suppressing the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people. Adding a few rudimentary nuclear weapons to its arsenal is not going to buy Iran political influence in this context and may, in fact, turn out to be counterproductive politically.

Fourth, and the “curiousest” of them all is the fact that one member of the United Nations – Israel – is repeatedly threatening a military attack on another – Iran – without any fear of negative repercussions from the members of that august body for threatening international peace and security. Such repeated aggressive rhetoric by any other member of the UN would have led the Security Council go into overdrive and pass resolutions threatening the state expressing such aggressive intent with action, including military action, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

In this case, on the contrary, every escalation in the aggressive Israeli rhetoric has led to senior American officials rushing to Jerusalem not to warn it of dire consequences if it attacked Iran but to plead with the Israeli government to give the P5+1 more time through economic sanctions and by other means to prevent Iran from going nuclear. The curious thing about these episodes is that they take place while the American intelligence is nearly unanimous that Iran is not about to go nuclear any time soon.

Israel’s rhetoric makes much about the fact that Iran is in violation of UN Security Council resolutions by continuing with its uranium enrichment plan and that this justifies an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. If this logic goes unchallenged it would allow member states to appropriate the powers of the UN Security Council and determine what actions individual states or groups of states can take to implement Security Council resolutions that they find desirable. This is a recipe for mayhem and anarchy in the international system.

Just imagine if Iran or Egypt made the case that Israel is in violation of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 by not withdrawing from occupied Palestinian territories and that this gives them the right to bomb Tel Aviv. Would Defense Secretary Leon Panetta be rushing to Tehran or Cairo to plead with Khamenei or Morsi to give the US and its allies more time to force Israel to withdraw by imposing ever more stringent economic sanctions on it? Or would the United States immediately convene a meeting of the UN Security Council to undertake harsh measures under Chapter VII of the Charter against Iran or Egypt for threatening international peace and security? One can reasonably assume that the latter would be the course of action followed by Washington and other members of the P5+1. If this conclusion is correct, then should the same logic not apply to Israeli threats against Iran’s nuclear facilities?

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Michigan State University and  Adjunct Scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is the author of The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World.