War clouds gather in the Middle East

Dark clouds are gathering ominously in the Middle East as two bitter enemies, Israel and Iran, escalate their war of words and sabre-rattling over Tehran’s budding nuclear program.

The upsurge in tension has occurred against a drumbeat of reports that Iran is making steady progress in developing a nuclear bomb – Israel’s worst nightmare – and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, are pushing for a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the autumn.

The spectre of a nuclear-armed Iran is a source of angst in Israel in light of Iran’s incessant calls for its destruction.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has described Israel as “a cancerous tumour in the heart of the Islamic world” that must be excised. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called Israel “an insult to all humanity.” The speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, has declared that the time has come for Israel’s disappearance. Iranian Vice-President Mohammed-Reza Rahimi, in an antisemitic blast typical of the regime, has claimed that the Talmud sanctions the illegal international drug trade.

As if to confirm Iran’s malevolent intentions toward Israel, Walid Sakariya, a Lebanese parliamentarian and a member of Hezbollah, which is aligned with Iran, has declared that Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is motivated by a desire “to finish off the Zionist enterprise.”

Israeli media speculation that a war with Iran is imminent may be substantive, since Israel has let it be known that it will not tolerate an Iranian nuclear arsenal. But the increasingly vocal public debate in Israel about the possibility of a unilateral Israeli attack could be part of an Israeli tactic to pressure the United States to bomb Iran or to drastically tighten existing economic sanctions to which Iran has been subjected by the global community.

It is not a coincidence that rumours of war began to bubble to the surface following disclosures that three rounds of high-level negotiations between Iran and six world powers on the nuclear issue were essentially unsuccessful. The talks – which took place in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow in April, May and June turned on Iran’s enrichment of uranium.

At these sessions, the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany called on Iran to abide by three United Nations resolutions to suspend all enrichment, ship its stock of 20 per cent enriched uranium out of the country and close an underground enrichment plant.

Despite a flurry of optimistic reports that Iran was ready to sign a historic deal that would satisfy the six powers, Iran’s negotiator, Saeed Jalili, disappointed his interlocutors by reiterating the well-worn Iranian position that its enrichment program is for peaceful purposes and is non-negotiable.

In fact, the negotiations unfolded against a backdrop of mounting tension as Iran, smarting from its failure to persuade the six powers to ease sanctions, threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital Persian Gulf route through which one-fifth of the world’s oil is transported.

Israel, from the outset, was skeptical that the talks would succeed.

Asserting that Iran was merely playing for time in a campaign of cynical deception, Netanyahu demanded that Iran freeze all enrichment activities above three per cent, ship enriched uranium to a trusted third-party country and dismantle an enrichment factory near the city of Qum, a course of action that Iran sharply rejected.

Barak was just as emphatic, casting doubt on the prospect that Iran could be induced to change its policy.

On a trip to Israel in mid-July, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton basically confirmed Israel’s suspicions and fears, acknowledging that Iran “has yet to make a strategic decision to address the international community’s concerns.”

Spurred on by Clinton’s comment, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon urged the six powers to officially declare diplomacy a failure.

U.S. President Barack Obama, however, believes that there is “time and space” for a diplomatic resolution of the problem, the most severe one Israel has faced since the Six Day War.

The Obama administration, which is committed to stopping rather than containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, claims that sanctions should be given a chance to work. Sanctions, designed to sever Iran from the oil market, have indubitably hurt Iran, having reduced its oil exports by 30 per cent and devalued its currency by 40 per cent. 

Ahmadinejad, who in the past contemptuously dismissed the sanctions as ineffective, admitted recently they are “the most severe and strictest sanctions ever imposed on a country.”

But Netanyahu argues that sanctions have not basically altered Iran’s behaviour and have given Tehran yet more time to enrich its growing stockpile of uranium.

Iran has reportedly made steady progress in weaponizing its nuclear program, but is not yet on the brink of actually building a bomb, experts believe. Iran has admitted that it has significantly increased the number of active centrifuges enriching uranium.

With Iran apparently well on its way toward becoming a nuclear power, like Israel, Pakistan and India, the Israeli government has dropped broad hints that it may have no choice but to resort to brute military force to deal with what some say is an existential threat.

 “I am fully aware of the difficulties of preventive action,” said Barak in July. “But it is clear to me that coping with the threat will be many times more complex, dangerous and costly, both in terms of human life and in terms of resources, than a preventive strike.” Barak elaborated on this theme last month, saying that a war with a nuclear-armed Iran would be “incomparably” more dangerous and costly to Israel than a conflict with a conventionally armed Iran.

On July 31, Netanyahu said he has yet to decide whether to order a strike on Iran, but the chief of staff, Gen. Benny Gantz, noted that the Israeli armed forces are “prepared and ready to act.”

Since then, the Israeli media has published and broadcast reports suggesting that Netanyahu and Barak want to hit Iran before its nuclear program reaches the point of no return, the so-called “zone of immunity,” as Barak has described it.

At this juncture, all visible signs point to a war, but there is fierce resistance to it in Israel. Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s opposition leader and a former defence minister, has charged that Netanyahu and Barak are leading Israel toward a potentially “disastrous” war with Iran. Mofaz says that an Israeli strike would, at best, set back Iran by only a few months or a year and spark a regional war, an appraisal shared by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. But Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, holds that a strike, however effective, would be worth the effort and Iran’s vengeance.

Oren’s view is disputed by leading Israeli politicians and security officials, past and present, who argue that a solo Israeli strike would embroil Israel in a protracted period of warfare, claim the lives of many Israelis and cost the Israeli economy a whopping $42 billion.

Israel should think very carefully before plunging into the cauldron.

This article appears in the September 6 print issue of The CJN