The Iran nuclear debate: preserving regimes vs. destroying peoples

Debate has raged in recent days over an article in Foreign Affairs in which Matthew Kroenig of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the United States should not flinch from launching a military operation, and soon, to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran achieves nuclear weapons capability. In “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option”, Kroenig writes that: “…skeptics of military action fail to appreciate the true danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond. And their grim forecasts assume that the cure would be worse than the disease – that is, that the consequences of a U.S. assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. But that is a faulty assumption. The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.”

A number of people stepped up to challenge Kroenig’s argument, notably Stephen Walt who engaged in a back-and-forth with Kroenig. One of the more interesting points that came up in the debate provoked by the article was that preemptive war – contrary to what you’d imagine after the disaster of Iraq – retains respectability in polite political discussion. Paul Pillar wrote in his response: “Perhaps we are seeing yet another untoward effect of the Bush administration’s tradition-breaking war of aggression against Iraq. Although that experience should have taught us not to listen to people who propose such wars, maybe it has instead inured Americans to such ideas” (“Worst-Casing and Best-Casing Iran“). Indeed, it seems that the pre-war crowd have the upper hand, with Kroenig’s article only the latest exhibit.

Kroenig’s talk of the “danger to U.S. interests in the region” exposes the position that the U.S. policy-makers have found themselves in: with no convincing argument of any nature whatsoever that Tehran whether nuclear armed or otherwise represents a threat to the United States itself, they are dealing with cases for Iran challenging U.S. allies of nearer proximity, but the possibility there for manipulation and exaggeration is immense. It is not only, then, Israel’s government which has an interest in persuading the United States of the threat it faces if no action is taken, it is Saudi Arabia’s too. The resurrection of  Cold War scenarios about how conflicts between two forces such as the United States and the Soviet Union could play out is a useful academic and practical exercise, which Kroenig’s entry into the discussion has provoked a fair amount of, but it seems to me that more focus could usefully be applied to the regional dynamics involved: Who is pushing Washington to invade Iran and why? What could be the motives behind an Iranian desire to have nuclear weapons capability?

More than one Israeli government has said that a nuclear armed Iran would be an existential threat. The oratory is high rhetoric, pushes a certain set of  buttons and is designed to leave the listener in terror of the consequences of inaction. To quote current prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his speech to Congress in May 2011: “the greatest danger facing humanity could soon be upon us: A militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons”; “a nuclear-armed Iran would ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It would give terrorists a nuclear umbrella”; “less than seven decades after six million Jews were murdered, Iran’s leaders deny the Holocaust of the Jewish people, while calling for the annihilation of the Jewish state”; “President Obama has said that the United States is determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons”.

However, the Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has veered on occasion from the line, and ventured into the territory of why Iran would seek the nuclear option. Asked if he would desire nuclear capability were he an Iranian minister, Barak told the “Charlie Rose” show in November 2011: “Probably, probably. I know it’s not – I mean I don’t delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel. They look around, they see the Indians are nuclear, the Chinese are nuclear, Pakistan is nuclear, not to mention the Russians.” The Iranian attitude from the evidence available suggests that Iran does not see why it should not join this club of nations and does not see why a small, parvenu and contested state of 8 million like Israel should be calling the shots as “superpower” in the region with a nuclear arsenal at its disposal for decades. I imagine it also sees acquiring such a capability as an achievement for an ancient polity and protection for its future as Shi’ite Islamic republic.

Where is the threat to Israel? Ahmadinejad has sought repeatedly to diminish and question the Nazi attempt to murder Europe’s Jews. The comments are ridiculous and offensive and he seems to think he is being intellectual to appeal to a particular crowd. But such comments do not a deathwish to destroy another nation make. One might argue that his infamous statement that Israel should be erased from the map amount to that. It’s worth looking in more detail at what he actually said, as some tried to do when he spoke at a conference against Zionism in 2005 but were shouted down in public discussion (Christopher Hitchens wasn’t interested in the details at all). Firstly, Ahmadinejad was quoting a well-known phrase from Ayatollah Khomeini, and he even began his line saying “the Imam said”; he went on to refer to “this regime occupying Jerusalem” and not “Israel”; and he said this regime should be “erased from the page of time”, not “off the map”. The important point is that he was talking about the political entity, not the people. The man may be a moron, but the Farsi was clear. He made similar comments in 2010 which were placed clearly in the context of deterrence against a U.S./Israeli attack. “Any measure against Iran would be tantamount to the elimination of the Zionist regime from the political geography (of the region),” he said in Doha.

The basic rule of deterrence raises basic questions about the idea that Iran is hellbent on acquiring a nuclear weapon in order to carry out a nuclar attack on Israel. A nuclear attack would not only “destroy” – to use the biblical language used in media and political discussion of the issue – Israeli Jews, it would ruin Israeli Palestinians, as well as Palestinians in Gaza, south West Bank, north West Bank and East Jerusalem, and probably too Palestinians in Jordan and Lebanese (and Palestinian refugees) in south Lebanon. It would also destroy the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Ahmadinejad and Iran are not rational, the War Crowd in the United States respond, and Iran’s Shi’ite religious-political system is not democratic. Similar arguments were made regarding Saddam Hussein as the idea of war gained ground after the 9/11 attacks. At the end of the day most political systems, whether they are transparent to us or not, involve one person taking the final decision on higher issues of state, no matter what degree of debate in various circles there has been beforehand. Thus Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq on the advice of advisors in 2003, and thus Israel did not launch a nuclear attack on Syria in 1973 despite the advice of Moshe Dayan. In any case, the individual in question in Iran is not Ahmadinejad, its the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who for what it’s worth has actually said on a number of occasions that he considers use of nuclear weapons immoral. Iran has its policy debates like any other political culture; the form and the content are just less well understood abroad, for obvious reasons.

What an Iranian nuclear capability does do is contribute to the shift in the regional balance of power which puts Zionism at a disadvantage it has not known since 1948. The real existential threat to Israel lies in Palestinian demographic strength, Palestinian national consciousness and Palestinian demands for equality and other rights. It is to a large degree a question of psychology, the confidence quotient of Zionism where status as sole atomic weapon possessor in the neighbourhood played a role. Israel projects itself as a state for Jews alone and denies Palestinians rights of movement in historical Palestine, both on its territory and in the occupied parts where statelessness reigns. Opinion polls are cited to dismiss the argument that Israel should assume full responsibility for all Palestinians within the entire territory, although it has become increasingly obvious that settlement activity in the occupied part has rendered realising the goal of the Palestinian national movement in that space almost impossible to achieve. At the same time, Israelis live under the threat of missile attacks to the north from Hizbullah and to the south from Hamas and others, and the notion of a role for the nuclear option in security calculations has become rather irrelevant and demode, a remnant of the era of Dr Strangelove: conventional warfare has long been the modus of this conflict. The Israeli state’s attractiveness to the Jewish migrant has decreased in time. Twice before Israel was saved dealing with these issues: in the 1950s with the influx of Middle East Jews and in the 1990s with the influx of Russians. Some Israel advocates might think the psychological factor is sufficient to warrant an attack on Iran, others might conclude that military confrontation simply worsens these dilemmas facing the Israeli state.

The other major country keen to wag the dog over Iran is Saudi Arabia. Power is monopolised in Saudi Arabia by the Al Saud family but they allow certain prerogatives to a few sectors of society, most notably the religious establishment which is given wide powers of control over society, education, mosques, courts in return for legitimatization of the Saudi state project. The state conceives of itself as a successor to the Medinan state of the Prophet and the early caliphs who were his compaions. One key concept for the Wahhabi ulama is that they are right and the Shia are wrong. The Shi’ite abomination Iran gaining nuclear weapon status and prestige would severely strain their patience with Al Saud. It would be seen as a major failure for the ruling family. It would encourage the conservative wing of ulama to question their allegiance to the family and the more activist ulama and Islamists would press their case further for a say in government and a change in foreign policy that serves Western interests. Al Saud do not want the headache of acquiring even nuclear energy – their hand has simply been forced – because it raises these questions about what and who the Saudi state is for, how it projects itself, whether the Islamic Utopia run by clerics on the inside in return for compromised foreign policy managed by Al Saud on the outside is a compact that can survive.

Thanks to the WikiLeaks diplomatic documents we know that Saudi Arabia has been prodding the U.S. government since the Hizbullah-Israel war in 2006 to take action against Iran. It is not the first time the Saudi rulers have championed American intervention from the sidelines. Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and other books made clear that Saudi Arabia was gunning for the invasion of Iraq to finish off the Baathist upstart and permathreat Saddam Hussein. Saudi propagandists have tried to sell the line that this was the work of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the then Saudi ambassador to Washington, rather than crown prince and now king Abdullah (see the latest books by Robert Lacey and David Ottoway, where sources have clearly tried to sell this line). However, the WikiLeaks revelations exposed these manipulations because we see it is the king himself who is haranguing American diplomats and officials over the Iranian threat. What worries the Saudi regime is that Iran will be able to rearrange the political map of alliances in the region, including with the United States itself. Some of the smaller Gulf Arab states have been careful to maintain cordial ties with Iran, just in case. 

In fact, Kroenig’s breezy reference to dangers faced by “U.S. interests” suggests that it is neither the existential threats that trouble the War Crowd, nor the bizarre suggestion that Iran would be a threat to world peace never mind the region, but the health of American proxies. In other words, we should be clear about the possibility that the United States is being asked to intervene for the preservation of regimes rather than threats to peoples.