Avi Bram argues that Iran is a rational actor who does not seek a nuclear showdown.
Recent attacks on Israeli diplomatic targets in Georgia, India and Thailand – widely believed to be orchestrated by Iran – have raised the temperature on already fraught relations between the two countries. Israel has made no secret of the fact that it will consider using force if Iran does not abandon its quest for a nuclear weapon.
Such an action should not be taken lightly. Iran has never been to war with Israel, nor do the two sides have any territorial disputes. This is not to say that Israel should condone the recent assassination attempts, or the support Iran has given to Hizbullah’s rocket attacks in the past. However, for political, diplomatic and legal reasons it would be preferable if Israel did not initiate direct military action against Iran unless it was absolutely necessary in order to avert a nuclear conflict.
Military intervention might be more tempting if it was possible to end or hugely delay the Iranian nuclear programme through a single airstrike, as happened with the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. More recently, Israel bombed a facility in Dair Alzhour, Syria; a follow-up IAEA investigation was inconclusive, but found the site had facilities “similar to what may be found in connection with a reactor site”.
However, the Iranian nuclear programme is far more advanced, and the main facilities that would be targeted are far better defended, than in the Iraqi and Syrian cases. The Fordo uranium enrichment plant, for example, is built inside a mountain. In an interview with CNN broadcast on Sunday, US chief of staff General Martin Dempsey said that an Israeli strike could delay Iran’s nuclear programme “probably for a couple of years. But some of the targets are probably beyond their reach.”
At a conference on ‘Israel and the Changing Middle East’ that I attended last week, Prof Shai Feldman (chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University and an expert on proliferation) spoke on the complexities of dealing with Iran. He sketched out the contours of the policy debate, including whether Iran can be deterred, what the consequences of nuclear armament would be, and what options were available to Israel. Due to his occasional government advisory role he avoided stating his own judgements, but he did hint at one point that Iran’s leadership is not impermeable to deterrence. Those who focus on the leaders’ rhetoric consider them to be ‘fanatical’ and even ‘insensitive to the costs of nuclear retaliation’. However, Prof Feldman pointed out that looking at the track record of the present regime should make one ‘sceptical’ of this view.
The costs of nuclear war are so damaging for all concerned that it would be irrational for any country to launch an aggressive nuclear strike. In this case it would be even more irrational, as Israel does not pose a threat to the Ayatollahs’ regime, and a nuclear strike against Israel would inevitably cause the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. Some say the Ayatollahs have a fundamentalist desire to bring about the end of the world as this will hasten the arrival of paradise, and therefore an apocalyptic showdown with Israel is exactly what they are aiming for. However, this does not accord with the regime’s foreign policy track record, which has been fairly restrained (certainly compared to its neighbour, Iraq, under the secular Saddam Hussein).
Perhaps the best hope for peace is for regime change from within. Another speaker at the Israel and the Changing Middle East conference, Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, told us that the Green Movement (which demonstrated against fraudulent results from the 2009 Iranian presidential election) is still very much alive. A desire for more accountable government is widespread, and this to a great extent explains the regime’s attempts to invoke citizens’ patriotic sentiments by grandstanding on the world stage. The current round of Western-backed sanctions could help the Green Movement by reducing the funds the regime can spend on repression and buying off public support, but there needs to be humanitarian exemptions made. Mr Bahari gave the example of a friend of his – a staunch feminist and opposed to the present regime – who complained that the sanctions made it impossible for her to find cancer drugs for her sister. The sanctions do not prevent the export of pharmaceuticals, but the restrictions on banking have made it hard for Iranian importers to get finance. Ensuring that essential medicines and other humanitarian supplies get through to Iran will prevent the sanctions from goading the Iranian people into rallying round their national leaders.