Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Iran, the Bomb and the Western Legacy of Appeasement

The IAEA report is not a surprise to anyone. It has long been known that Iran has sought to establish a nuclear weapons program, and it has been long known that Iran views Israel as a nation that should be destroyed. It is also well known that since the United States' foolish intervention in Iraq in 2003, Iran has assuming more and more power in the Middle East, championing armed resistance to Israel by arming Hamas and Hizbullah and counterbalancing Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The power ambitions of Iran's revolutionary leadership under Ayatollah Khomenei were initially restrained by the costly eight year Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988. Saddam Hussein's government, weary of Iranian meddling with Iraq's Shi'ite minority, took an increasingly hard line and escalated low level conflict against Iran. Yet, when Hussein's regime collapsed in 2003 and Islamist elements began to infiltrate post-Hussein Iraq, the ambitious Ayatollah Khamenei say a chance for increased Iranian hegemony in the region, especially by painting their closest rival, Saudi Arabia, as allies of the oppressive United States. All he needed was a President who could be the public face of this campaign and carry the plan abroad, and found a perfect match in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While there have been unsurprising tensions between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, they had largely been on the same page. They have established a powerful message of anti-Western resistance, focusing largely on Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom as the primary agents of imperialism and the causes of the main problems of the world.

In this context, while nuclear weapons are a significant development, the more significant issue is how the West responds to it. Iran has laid down the gauntlet in the sense that the Iranian regime is feeling out how far it can go before provoking a response from the United States, Israel and the West. In the way that Neville Chamberlain's willingness to continue the policy of appeasement at the Munich Conference and while Hitler's forced marched into Czechoslovakia emboldened the Nazi regime, the Western reaction to Iran's actions and its threats against Israel will set the bar for how far the Iranian government is willing to go. While Chamberlain's capitulation on the Sudetenland issue was not, in itself, enough to throw the Europe into war, it was among the major catalysts (at least as to the European theater). Likewise, while the Western response to the IAEA report may not in itself be enough to throw the Middle East into war, if such war breaks out the lack of response to the IAEA report will be seen as a defining moment that emboldened the Iranians.

What the West is facing is an up and coming hegemon that has support from Russia and China as an anti-US counterbalance, which will prevent any UN sanctions from being enforced. Indeed, word has already come down that Russia and China will veto any new sanctions in the Security Council and the U.S. will not impose sanctions on Iran's central bank or its oil and gas sectors. The West has repeatedly backed down from the challenge and the leadership in the most powerful Western nations has proven unwilling to tackle the Iran problem for a host of reasons. Indeed, the United States was unwilling to intervene directly to help its allies in Europe until the Japanese dragged the U.S. into World War II.

There are, of course, other parallels. While Israel sits within missile range of Iran, the Israeli politicians and the Israeli public must feel a lot like the Czechoslovakians felt when the French and British refused to honor their defense pact. Israel is very much at the forefront of this conflict much in the way that Czechoslovakia was at the forefront of the German offensive. When microphones caught Presidents Sarkozy and Obama commenting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was a "liar," it was really just another moment in a long line of incidents that should make Israel very concerned about what happens when a confrontation really brews with Iran. Unlike the Czechoslovakians of the 1930s, Israel has independent military capacity to fight Iran on its own, but the economic and political pressure that Western governments (and of course its opponents) would bring to either prevent such an attack or punish Israel in the even of such an attack would be enormous. Indeed, Golda Meir herself resisted launching a preemptive strike against the Egyptians and Syrians in 1973 when she learned of their planned invasion 24 hours before Yom Kippur for fear of alienating the West if Israel was seen as the aggressor.

Because Israel is perceived as not relatively helpless against Iran the way that the Czechoslovakians were against Nazi Germany, many commentators and critics have said that the focus on Iran's nuclear program is misplaced. Indeed, many believe that it is Israel's ambiguous, though largely acknowledged nuclear program that is the primary source of conflict in the Middle East. While it is obviously true that Israel is the only nation in the Middle East possessing a nuclear arsenal, it also faces largely unique geopolitical circumstances. First, Israel is a nation whose neighbors have made war on it on several occasions within the last 60 years. Second, all but three of Israel's regional neighbors, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, refuse to acknowledge Israel's legitimacy and right to exist. Even those three nations have incredibly strained relations with Israel. Third, despite possessing nuclear weapons for around 40 years, Israel has never publicly established a nuclear strike policy and most scholars claim that Israel has only seriously contemplated the use of nuclear weapons twice: during the early stages of the Yom Kippur War and in 1991 when Iraq launched missiles into Israel during the Operation Desert Storm.

So while Israel does possess nuclear weapons, its well establish war record indicates its unwillingness to use them in the majority of its conflict, and certainly not to engage in first use. Israel has, indeed, never made any threats against Iran nor has it ever threatened to invade or attack Iran until the Iranian government initiated hostilities after the 1979 Revolution. Indeed, Iran under the Shah was one of Israel's few Middle Eastern allies and was one of Israel's main oil suppliers for many years. Despite Iran's overt hostility toward Iran both in its rhetoric and its significant financial support for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah, Israel has patiently waited for its allies to ratchet up pressure on Iran and prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons to further both its regional hegemonic and anti-Israel ambitions. However, the unique threat that Israel faces from Iran may require a significant rethinking of Israel's own nuclear policy. For example, Israel may have to release the genie from the bottle and establish a policy of calculated ambiguity, acknowledging its possession of nuclear weapons while making intentionally ambiguous statements about the circumstances under which it would use those weapons. While continued delay makes a surgical strike similar to the 1983 Osirak bombing highly unlikely (not least because Iran learned from that attack and spread its nuclear materials around and secured them much better than Iraq did), Israel possesses and has undertaken increasing campaigns of subterfuge and assassinations. Of course, operating in Iran undercover is extremely dangerous and risks unplanned escalation should spies be captured.

Unfortunately, the possibility of a military strike has to be weighed more and more heavily. Israel cannot sit like Czechoslovakia did, waiting for its more powerful allies to neutralize the regional menace. The U.S., France and U.K. can and will sell Israel down the river if they think it will improve their position vis-a-vis Iran. If selling Israel out can avert a direct confrontation, then I would not be surprised if the U.S. began to pressure Israel into significant concessions tied directly to avoiding conflict with Iran, such a quid pro quo agreements involving the Palestinians. But unlike the Czechoslovakians, Israel has the ability and the obligation to itself not to wait for its saviors. It has the power to save itself, but the longer it waits for the U.S. to realize what is going on, the less time it will have to take decisive action to save itself from Iran's deadly ambitions.

1 comment:

David said...

I've really enjoyed your recent posts, especially your last one regarding PLO hypocrisy.

However, I have to raise several criticisms of this one because I don't think it lives up to the analytical rigor of your others.

1. The analogy to WW2 is unnecessary and distorts the analysis. Yes, there are some analogies in the sense that there's an aggressive bad guy. But the number of ways it's not at all analogous are too many to count. Then, toss in nuclear weapons and the completely different military and demographic context. Also, I hardly think America's isolationism in the 1930s is analogous to an administration that lent massive military support in Libya, invaded Pakistan to take out Osama, and increased troops in Afghanistan. I think you have a point that the U.S. needs to take a strong stance on Iran, but I think that point is easily obscured by the impractical analogy to WW2.

2. I don't think you've assembled the evidence to establish that the "West" has proven unwilling to tackle the Iran problem. Again, I note the obfuscation caused when you discuss foreign policy of the West as a single unit, when it's anything but that. It's not like the "West" invaded Iraq. Obama has repeatedly said nothing is off the table. He's clearly focused on the issue. Of course Obama's strategy might be wrong, but it's completely inaccurate to characterize his strategy as isolationism or withdrawal from the problem. You may not like how he's trying to solve the problem, but it's wrong to say that Obama is unwilling to try to solve it.

3. While we're at it, Obama never called Netanyahu a liar. Obama just didn't stand up for Netanyahu. That's unacceptable. But it's very different from Obama saying Netanyahu is a liar.

4. What exactly is the strategic value to Israel admitting its nuclear status but adopting a policy of calculated ambiguity? Everyone knows Israel has nukes. Refusing to openly acknowledge what everyone already knows is already a policy of calculated ambiguity. Admitting they have nukes in response to Iran is a step AWAY from calculated ambiguity. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe not. But you're arguing opposites here.

5. Don't lump U.S., France, and U.K. together when discussing whether they'd make concessions to Iran based on Palestine. France has no power over Israel when it comes to Palestine and ceded any authority they had when they voted for Palestinian statehood. The U.S. wouldn't make concessions on Palestine in order to get Iran to do something because those two issues have absolutely nothing to do with each other and everyone in the U.S. knows that. Iran wants nukes for regional hegemony and to deter the U.S. They aren't getting nukes to protect Palestinians... the idea of that is laughable considering where the mushroom cloud would be. The idea that the U.S. would tie Iranian concessions on nuclear policy to QPQ's with Palestianians is entirely a product of your imagination -- and at the very least, if it's not, you should provide some evidence instead of pure speculation on such a controversial claim.