There are numerous ways of describing the situation in which Israel now finds itself. According to many of the country’s own media commentators, the state is facing the greatest threat to its survival since it was established sixty years ago. But whether or not there is any foundation to this sentiment, there is no imminent or foreseeable threat to Israel’s survival.
Israel remains by far the most powerful military state in the Middle East. It has somewhere between 200 and 500 nuclear weapons and an estimated 50 Jericho-II long-range missiles capable of carrying them across the Middle East (or into the heart of Western Europe, for that matter). It is acquiring new weapons all the time, most recently two more nuclear-armed Dolphin submarines (bringing its total to five) and ninety F16I fighter aircraft capable of reaching Iran without needing to be refuelled in mid-air. Its surveillance and early warning network includes its own Ofek-3 military satellite and data provided from the US satellite network. Its Arrow anti-ballistic missile system is the most advanced in the world. By contrast, Iran has a small number of short- and medium-range missiles (actual range and capacity to reach Israel uncertain) and an obsolete air force. While it is developing nuclear energy it does not have nuclear weapons, and neither is there any evidence that it is developing them.
The Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Dr Mohamed el Baradei, has been under sustained pressure from the United States, exercised directly and through the UN Security Council, and has criticised Iran for failing to implement transparency measures connected with the ‘one remaining major issue, namely clarification of the cluster of allegations and Secretariat questions relevant to possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programs’. The allegations have been made largely on the basis of ‘documents’ stored in a laptop computer obtained by the CIA from the Iranian opposition group Mujahidin-i Khalq (MEK). The veracity of any documents coming from such a source is obviously questionable: there is a clear parallel between these ‘documents’ and the ‘intelligence’ provided by the Iraqi National Congress purporting to prove that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Iran claims the ‘documents’ are forgeries and is being asked to prove that they are without being allowed to see them. According to Dr Baradei, ‘the agency received much of the information concerning the alleged studies only in electronic form and it was unfortunately not authorised to provide copies to Iran’.
However, the IAEA head has concluded time and time again that there is no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. In the report he presented to the IAEA Board of Governors on 2 June this year, he noted that ‘the agency has been able to continue to verify the nondiversion of declared nuclear material in Iran’. In the context of the allegations made by the United States, he emphasised that ‘the agency currently has no information — apart from the uranium metal document — on the actual design or manufacture by Iran of nuclear material components or of other key components of a nuclear weapon. Likewise, the agency has not seen indications of the actual use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies’. The ‘uranium metal document’ was passed on to Iran in a bundle of documents on centrifuges made available by the Pakistan nuclear scientist Dr A. Q. Khan. According to the former UN weapons inspector in Iraq Scott Ritter:
Far from being a ‘top secret’ document protected by Iran’s security services it was discarded in a file of old material that Iran provided to the IAEA inspectors. When the IAEA found the document Iran allowed it to be fully examined by the inspectors and answered every question posed by the IAEA about how the document came to be in Iran.
In a report issued in November 2007, the National Intelligence Council (NIC), representing all US intelligence bodies, asserted that Iran had a nuclear weapons program until late 2003. This itself is questionable, but what is relevant to the current situation is the NIC’s main conclusions: ‘we assert with moderate confidence [that] Tehran has not restarted its nuclear program as of mid- 2007’ and ‘we continue to assert with moderate to high confidence that Iran currently does not have a nuclear weapon’. Furthermore, even if Iran did want to produce a weapon, ‘we judge with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015’. This compares to the claim by Israel that Iran would be capable of producing a nuclear weapon some time in 2009.
None of these very salient facts and findings have made any difference to the campaign being directed against Iran by the United States and Israel. Unilaterally and through the UN Security Council, the United States is threatening Iran with even more punitive economic sanctions and possibly the use of force (‘all options remain on the table’) unless it abandons its uranium enrichment program in return for political and economic ‘incentives’. Against this background, some more salient points need to be emphasised:
1. The current crisis was initiated by the United States and Israel. They began threatening Iran with military attack in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. Iran has warned in response that if it is attacked it will strike back, in accordance, of course, with its right under international law to defend itself.
2. The demand that Iran abandon its uranium enrichment program has no basis in any treaty, convention or law. The IAEA is striving to establish a regime for the multilateral supervision of uranium enrichment but has not yet been able to put it together. All countries with a nuclear development program remain free to enrich their own uranium.
3. Iran’s nuclear program dates back to 1957. It acquired its first reactor (from the United States) in 1967 and signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. It allows IAEA inspections of all its nuclear facilities. Israel is not a signatory to the NPT, ignoring nineteen resolutions passed by the IAEA or the UN General Assembly since 1987 calling on it to put its nuclear installations under IAEA supervision. All Arab states have signed up to the NPT and have shown their readiness on numerous occasions to turn the Middle East into a nuclear free zone. Israel has not responded positively to any of these initiatives. It has reportedly threatened to use nuclear weapons at least once (in the first week of the October War in 1973, when Israeli positions in the occupied Sinai were overwhelmed by Egyptian forces). It has launched at least one military attack on a nuclear installation (Iraq’s Osirak reactor, destroyed in 1981. In September 2007 Israeli aircraft bombed a site in northern Syria which Israel claims was a nuclear ‘facility’. This was denied by Syria. The IAEA inspected the site in June this year but has not yet issued a report on what might have been there).
4. Whatever criticism might be made of its abuses of the human rights of its own people, Iran has no record of external aggression to justify the accusation that it is a standing menace to regional and possibly world order. Since the Islamic revolution of 1979 it has attacked no other country. It does not occupy the land of any other state or people. Israel, by contrast, has invaded Lebanon twice (1982 and 2006), occupying the southern part of the country from 1978 until driven out by Hizbullah in 2000. It has ignored all UN resolutions demanding that it withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights and the Palestinian territories seized in 1967. Its policies in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank (that part of it not swept up into ‘greater Jerusalem’) have been characterised by numerous international human rights organisations as racist and inhumane. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in its attacks on Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank since the 1967 War.
The military preparations for an attack on Iran have been completed, but serious divisions within the US administration, and opposition from senior military commanders, have increasingly thrown the focus on to what Israel will do. Writing in The New York Times on 18 July, the Israeli historian Benny Morris asserted that Israel ‘will almost surely attack Iran’s nuclear sites in the next four to seven months’. If the attack fails ‘an Israeli nuclear strike to prevent the Iranians from taking the final steps toward getting the bomb is probable’, turning Iran into a ‘nuclear wasteland’. The idea is apocalyptic madness, but the view that Iran must be forced to abandon nuclear development whatever the cost is being expressed virtually every other day by senior figures in the Israeli military, intelligence and political establishment.
While Israel naturally wants to preserve its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, it is clear that hysteria over Iran’s nuclear development is being deliberately whipped up to justify an attack which both the United States and Israel want anyway. Through economic sanctions and clandestine surveillance and sabotage operations, it might even be said that the United States is already at war with Iran. It declared a trade embargo in 1979 and has tightened sanctions several times in recent years, orchestrating its actions through the UN Security Council. The EU has been fully supportive. A particular target has been Iran’s national bank (Bank Melli), which withdrew US$75 billion in deposits from European financial institutions just ahead of a freeze on Iranian assets ordered by European governments. Undoubtedly Iran has been damaged by the sanctions, but to a degree the withdrawal of European companies from Iran under US threats has simply opened up opportunities for Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Arab investors. Since 2005 the volume of China’s trade with Iran is estimated to have nearly doubled (from US$10 billion to $18.5 billion).
In an attempt to tighten the screws even further, a resolution was introduced into the US House of Representatives in May calling on the President not just to tighten financial and commercial sanctions but to impose ‘stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains and cargo entering or departing Iran [and] prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program’. The resolution has not yet been put to the vote but clearly such a blockade would be no less than an overt act of war.
US policies towards Iran in terms of the ‘national interest’ would seem to be both contradictory and counterproductive. Through sanctions, the United States has cut itself off from the rich prizes of Iran’s privatisation program, which now allows 100 per cent foreign ownership of Iranian corporations (including those presently owned by the state) and the transfer out of the country of all profits. Indeed, just as one motive for the invasion of Iraq might have been to short-circuit the redevelopment of the oil industry by Chinese, Algerian, French and Russian concerns, so it might be said that sanctions against Iran are not so much connected with nuclear development as intended to cut off the flow of Iranian state assets into other hands until the achievement of ‘regime change’ opens them up to the United States. While seeking broad support for sanctions, the United States has aroused the deep suspicion of both Russia and China by its aggressive policies in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Central Europe. Military bases, oil resources and existing or projected pipelines are the dots that need to be connected in the matrix of US interests across this vast region. Russia and China are going along with the demands being made of Iran for the time being, but behind the facade of concerted UN Security Council action they both maintain a strong relationship with the Iranian government. They have no reason to weaken it for the sake of the United States and Israel.
Israel’s determination to block Iran is more likely to arise from its central place in the strategic alliance with Syria and Hizbullah than from its nuclear development. In the past decade Hizbullah has inflicted a string of defeats on Israel and the United States; firstly, by forcing Israel out of occupied southern Lebanon in 2000; secondly, by forcing Israel to call off its attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006; thirdly, by successful diplomacy inside Lebanon which has ended in the formation of a government declaring in a cabinet communique ‘the right of Lebanon’s people, the army and the resistance to liberate all its territories in the Sheba’a farms, Kfar Shuba Hill and Ghajar [a town on the armistice line]’; fourthly, by compelling Israel to negotiate to secure the return of the remains of captured Israeli soldiers. The reported installation of missiles in the Lebanese mountains now gives Hizbullah the capacity to shoot down Israeli aircraft violating Lebanese air space. The organisation already has anti-ship missiles which could be used against the Israeli warships inside Lebanon’s territorial waters in the event of another crisis.
While planning for the next war with Hizbullah, Israel has simultaneously sought to isolate Syria and engage with it through Turkish mediation. The prize dangled before Bashar al Assad is the possibility that Israel might be willing to return the Golan Heights. Neither approach seems to have worked. President Assad was warmly received on his recent visit to Paris and signalled through a visit to Tehran not long afterwards that he has no intention of abandoning the strategic alliance with Iran and Hizbullah for the sake of negotiations with a collapsing Israeli government. Whether the corrupt Olmert actually had the power to hand back the Golan, whether any of his successors would even be willing to relinquish it, are other questions.
The central arch of what Israel regards as a multilayered threat to its existence is Iran. The fact that there is no evidence showing Iran is moving in the direction of nuclear weapons development has been smothered in the flow of war propaganda. By asserting that Iran’s nuclear program is a ‘danger to peace’ (Angela Merkel), that ‘I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon’ (Barack Obama), that Iran must ‘suspend its nuclear program and accept our offer of negotiations or face growing isolation and the collective response not of one nation but many nations’ (Gordon Brown), that ‘an Iran with nuclear weapons is unacceptable to my country’ (Nicolas Sarkozy), numerous heads of governments and contenders for high office are playing into the hands of those calling for war. So does Condoleezza Rice’s remark that ‘we don’t say yes or no to Israeli military operations’. Given the influence the United States could wield to prevent an Israeli attack, her statement is tantamount to yet another green light being flashed in Israel’s direction.
Numerous other signals are pointing in the direction of an attack some time before George Bush leaves office in January, unless Iran accepts the package of ‘incentives’ being offered in return for the abandonment of its uranium enrichment program. But so far it has made it plain it will not back down. There is almost no talk in the media of civilian casualties or the contamination of the environment arising from a military attack on a nuclear installation. It is surreal that we should even have to think about such a nightmare, but the nightmare is the reality the world is now facing.
Jeremy Salt teaches in the Department of Political Science at the University of Bilkent, Ankara.