A dangerous escalation of tensions in the Middle East could produce a devastating new war there if diplomatic steps are not taken to head it off. The United States and Israel, with the cooperation of some European countries, have been stoking a climate of fear to justify a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. At the very least, they seem determined to refer the matter of Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council as a step toward imposing sanctions.
There has been a tsunami of dramatic public statements by prominent leaders. Vice President Cheney has been darkly hinting for months that a military attack may be in the offing, either by Israel or the United States. In January Jacques Chirac made a highly irresponsible statement that France might resort to nuclear weapons to retaliate for acts of state-sponsored terrorism, a posture that could only persuade Iran to deter such nuclear trash-talk by attempting to get the bomb. On January 22 Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told a Jerusalem audience that "Israel will not be able to accept an Iranian nuclear capability, and it must have the capability to defend itself with all that this implies, and we are preparing." This thinly veiled threat recalls Israel's 1981 airstrike that destroyed the Osirak reactor in Iraq, then the core of the Iraqi program. International reactions to that attack were not very damaging to Israel and there were no serious regional repercussions–factors that could encourage Israel, either alone or via the United States, to consider a strike on Iran.
Iran's recent actions lend the attack scenario added plausibility. In January it ordered the removal of the International Atomic Energy Agency's seals on its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, an indication that Tehran will proceed with its nuclear energy program in such a way as to retain the possibility of developing weapons. Reassurances of purely peaceful intentions regarding nuclear energy have never been reliable. Israel, India and Pakistan all repeatedly made the same promises before they developed nuclear weapons. Israel has never officially acknowledged its nuclear capability and has never been called to international account, although it is generally understood to have an arsenal of somewhere between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads, along with advanced delivery systems capable of targeting any country in the Middle East, including Iran. In such circumstances, it should not surprise us that Iranian leaders may be considering acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.
The atmosphere has been further inflamed by the outrageous fulminations of Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Such hostility would agitate the security concerns of any state, especially one that has faced threats throughout its history, as has Israel. Both Israel and the United States have claimed pre-emptive rights when it comes to the pursuit of their strategic interests. Israel initiated pre-emptive wars against its Arab neighbors in 1956 (with Britain and France), 1967 and 1982, and has frequently struck across its borders to destroy or punish adversaries. So when Ahmadinejad insists that the Holocaust is a "myth," and that Israel should be "wiped off the map" or perhaps relocated to Europe, he almost seems to be taunting Israel to respond militarily, certainly a reckless gambit.
And then there is the American dimension. The United States, bogged down ever more hopelessly in Iraq, seems to welcome a showdown with Iran as an opportunity for diversionary diplomacy. Iran, as an original member of the "axis of evil," was always in the cross hairs of neoconservative grand strategy for the region, and rather than be daunted by failure in Iraq, Administration hard-liners are clearly tempted to shift attention to Iran.
Despite these worrisome concerns, there are many reasons to counteract this drift toward more violence in the Middle East.
§ First, the Iranian threat is remote; according to most predictions, should Tehran decide to go nuclear, it would not have weapons before 2008 at the earliest.
§ Second, the United States, and even Israel, will continue to have such overwhelming military superiority as to dissuade Iran from aggressive action unless its leaders are ready to commit national suicide.
§ Third, unlike Iraq in 1981, Iran's multiple nuclear facilities are geographically dispersed and much better defended, with many of them located in underground bunkers, making their destruction, especially by Israel acting alone, far more difficult.
§ Fourth, Iran has the means to launch a devastating retaliation with conventional weapons, including its Shahab-3 missiles, which can reach targets in Israel with reasonable accuracy. And Iran has other military options, including intervention on the Shiite side in Iraq, which could turn the disastrous US occupation there into a worse nightmare, with skyrocketing casualties. Iran could also vastly increase its support to Islamist resistance forces in the Palestinian territories and to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
§ Fifth, as the world's fourth-largest oil producer, Iran could plunge the world into an immediate deep recession by embargoing its oil if it is attacked, or if an attack appears imminent.
§ Sixth, an Israeli or US attack on Iran would almost certainly strengthen Islamist tendencies throughout the region as well as put intense pressure on Arab governments to react much more strongly against the United States and Israel. And heightened threats against Iran would only strengthen the hard-liners there. By all accounts, Iranians–even those who detest the mullahs–overwhelmingly support their country's nuclear ambitions.
We can assume that Israel, at least, is well aware of these problems, which suggests that its policy is not so much to foment an immediate attack as to foster increased US hostility toward Iran. With Washington we can't be so sure. After all, one of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's notorious rules for policy-makers is that if a problem (in this case, Iraq) proves insoluble, one should enlarge it. If so, Israel may be able to push Washington to take the lead in confronting Iran. In this vein, Israel seems to be using its remarkable influence in Congress and with the Bush Administration to encourage a harder line. Hillary Clinton and other leading Democrats seem to be playing along, openly criticizing the Administration for not exerting enough pressure on Tehran.
The uncertainties are great. Saber-rattling on all sides could set off a chain reaction culminating in a truly intercivilizational war. There is no Iranian threat that justifies consideration of such a conflict. To initiate war under these conditions would further weaken both the UN and international law, which have already been badly damaged by the unilateral, unprovoked invasion and occupation of Iraq.
There are also wider issues at stake. Should the Middle East, or for that matter the world, regard as normal a system of nuclear apartheid–in which a select group of nations are entitled to such weapons while others seeking to acquire them are treated as "rogue states"? What these multiple incendiary trends suggest, above all, is the practical wisdom of seeking multilateral nuclear disarmament–the only course that has any prospect of halting proliferation. So long as sovereign states are the main actors and conflict among them persists, it is disastrous folly to suppose that some will agree to live forever beneath a nuclear sword of Damocles without trying to obtain such weapons themselves. The Iran confrontation is best regarded as one more wakeup call for the nuclear weapons states.