November 20, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
One major item that has dominated newspapers round the world from the international scene recently was the report of the IAEA on the extent of Iran’s nuclear programme. In the days leading to the publication of the report, there was strong hint coming out of Israel that an attack on Iran was imminent to take out its nuclear capabilities. Israel was also strongly urging the US for a pre-emptive attack.
The report, when it eventually came out, indicated that Iran had built a large explosives vessel to conduct hydrodynamic experiments which are “strong indicators of possible weapon development.” There are in the report strong hints that Iran is moving surreptitiously towards a possible weapons development programme. Nevertheless it does not provide definite proof that Iran is actually pursuing a weapons development programme.
The IAEA report has given those arguing against such a pre-emptive strike the chance to calm down Israel from taking a unilateral move for attacking Iran. For the time at least the need to engage Iran diplomatically has won although Israel has not stopped from making public utterances for a military strike.
US President Barak Obama, facing a tough re-election bid, is clearly faced with a difficult situation with the question of Iran and the bomb, under pressure from the Israeli lobby and the rather large anti-Iran sentiments in the country for touch action against Iran. So far the President has spoken of tougher sanctions but has fallen way short of going along with Israel and its small group of supporters in the USA for a pre-emptive strike against Iran.
The mood in the USA, after long winters in Afghanistan and Iraq, is most definitely against any more involvement abroad. But nevertheless, Americans are eager to see their country do something with Iran in order to stop it from owning the nuclear bomb. There is no question that world opinion is against any more country possessing nuclear weapons. In this context, everybody is concerned about the possibility of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons country.
This notwithstanding, world opinion is equally against Israel or the US attacking Iran. Understanding world opinion, Israel, while trying to build up opinion in favour of a pre-emptive strike against Iran, has said that it would be able to take out Iran’s nuclear programme as effortlessly as it had done in Iraq in 1983 and in Syria in 2007. Iran has cautioned Israel that any attempt at that would be met with force that Israel would regret.
Israel’s argument that it would be able to take out Iran’s nuclear programme effortlessly is of course a very weak one. There is just no comparison between Iraq in 1983 or Syria and Iran. Iraq was under a military dictator who ruled according to his whims. Syrian is a dictatorship where a minority is in government by power of the military. Iran has a system that, despite what the West and Israel says, is run by consensus where a number of institutions both secular and religious are involved. Further, Iran has a heritage and resources that should put it on equal footing to any country in the world. Attacking Iran would be a humungous mistake whose consequences are too nightmarish even to contemplate.
There are also serious issues involved in going after a nation like Iran simply on the assumption that it is building a bomb. A nuclear programme in itself is no proof that it is being undertaken to build a bomb given the fact that a nuclear programme can be carried out for nuclear energy. Then there is the instance of Iraq where the US went without provocation on false assumption that the country was building the nuclear bomb.
Then of course there is the question of one nation’s right to deter another nation from making the nuclear bomb where the one deterring is itself in possession of one. In case of Israel, it is not that it just has a bomb; it has a stockpile of nuclear weapons. For some mysterious reasons, there seems to be a taboo even to mention this in public. Yet it is Israel that is spearheading the move to attack Iran even when the proof of its alleged nuclear programme is not clear. The cliché that those living in glass houses should not throw stones at others applies in case of Israel more than perfectly.
The recent gaffe involving the US and the French President is very indicative about the truth surrounding the state of Israel. At the recent G20 Summit, the two were in a conversation about Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Bibi as he is also known. In a mood of frustration, President Nicholas Sarkozy said: “I can’t stand him. He is a liar.” President Obama joined with his frustration by telling President Sarkozy to imagine his predicament, having to deal with Bibi on a regular basis. Unfortunately for both, the speaker was on and the intimate conversation was heard by journalists!
Yet the reality is in public, the Israeli Prime Minister is one who gets the attention and support of both without any questions asked. After Bibi had torpedoed the US initiated Israel-Palestine talks on the issue of illegal settlements that the Netanyahu government would not stop, he was received like a hero in the White House and was given the highest honour at Capitol Hill when he addressed a Joint House of Congress. Israel has that magic power where despite whether its Prime Minister is a lair or difficult and irritating to deal with, both he and Israel always has and will have fullest support and attention in Washington and Paris. That is reality.
At this stage, Israel realizes that an attack on Iran would not have much support in Israel’s traditional base of support, the West. More importantly, inside USA just coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, with tremendous costs in terms of lives and money and in economic recession that is just not going away, Americans across the political divide are against any further US military involvement overseas. In fact, in the coming Presidential elections, such an involvement would most likely cost the candidate supporting it, a certain defeat.
Therefore, the IAEA report notwithstanding, in this round of international turmoil concerning Iran, the winner is diplomacy although the chances of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations remains very much on the cards. Hopes are being pinned on a possible move inside Iran between opposing political forces to stop building the bomb or that the intelligence forces of Israel, US and the West would be able to work together to deter Iran from building the bomb. A recent bomb blast at a weapons development installation that led to the death of one of Iran’s top commander in its ballistic missile programme has been credited to Israel’s intelligence.
At this stage, the IAEA report and the President’s gaffe over Benjamin Netanyahu have not gone by without a price. That price has been paid by the poor Palestinians, as always. A White House spokesman, when asked to explain the gaffe, said that US remains committed to the settlement of the Palestinian problem through negotiations and strongly opposes its move for statehood through the United Nations.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.