The most recent round of missile tests and saber-rattling around the Strait of
Hormuz strongly suggest that sanctions now targeting Iran’s central bank and
crude exports are really starting to hurt for a change. With the Rial sharply
plummeting against the greenback and parliamentary elections in Iran looming
into view, some also think it possible that economics may in due course call
Tehran’s bluff and reignite the 2009 mass protests.
Still, there is
little indication of just how much these sanctions will be able to achieve in
the longer term, let alone any unintended consequences they may have, and the
importance of stable energy markets as the US moves into election year is reason
enough for the international community not to hold its breath.
elements comprising the current response cocktail, including diplomatic
isolation, cyber and psychological warfare, sabotage and a credible strike
option have also been pushing Iran steadily toward armed confrontation, an
outcome most would rather avoid.
Yet amid all this, there is another
often disregarded “soft measure” that in tandem with the rest may well prove to
be that elusive game-changer, but only the Israelis and Palestinians can bring
this about together: mustering the political will to resolve their conflict,
thereby depleting one of the current Iranian regime’s last reserves of
In Israel, the military-security complex still
massively overrides every other public sector. Although the principle wars in
the first few decades of Israel’s existence were fought on existential grounds,
today, demagoguery from certain quarters notwithstanding, Israel’s existence as
polity and nation reconstituted has become a recognized fact.
importantly, like the unassailable fact of the Palestinian people’s existence,
historical dialectics will not argue it away.
ISRAEL’S REGIONAL military
superiority is not in question; what should be is the entrenched perception that
its external threats remain conclusively military in character. The 2006 war in
Lebanon – what some argue to be in effect an Iranian-Israeli war – and Operation
Cast Lead consecutively exposed the inadequacies of military superiority in
decisively achieving political, or even military, objectives. On the contrary,
the waning threat of direct conventional military warfare is matched by the
threat of warfare increasingly waged on multiple fronts, of which the military
is often only an ancillary component.
This includes at least three issues
of consequence, the first two demonstrably drawing strength from the third: the
campaign of political delegitimization being directed against Israel from
countries even across the familiar West; a potentially nuclear Iran and its
network of proxies; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
political and security brass generally contend that its multiple conflict
theatres should be disaggregated and dealt with on this same basis; many also
argue that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not lead to a
more stable Middle East precisely because it is not the wellspring of the
region’s sundry problems. While these are by and large analytically astute
premises, an opportunity of scale is also in the offing that should be seriously
The political, military, economic, demographic and moral costs
of maintaining the status quo in the West Bank will inexorably hyperinflate over
time, almost as surely as the occasional lull will be interpreted as vindication
for “managing the conflict” instead. On the other hand, a sustainable package of
solutions to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, combined with the
political will and daring to implement it, clearly carries a profound intrinsic
value that will far outstrip the cost in the longer run.
And then there
is that powerful but often dismissed corollary, namely a reversal of political
delegitimization which, in the current zero-sum state of affairs viewed from
Tehran, would mean delegitimizing the Iran-led alliance and further weakening
and isolating its component parts.
Unlike its non-state allies, the
Islamic Republic of Iran commands a highly restive demographic depth that could
still respond surprisingly well to such a scenario, particularly in conjunction
with the simmering domestic legitimacy crisis. Resolution would also destabilize
Hezbollah by diluting its reason for being and reinvigorating the disarmament
debate in Lebanon, a sticking point no less potent than Israel’s violation of
its airspace, the status of Palestinian refugees and Hariri’s
NOT LEAST, this would undermine links to rejectionist
Palestinian factions for which Shi’ite Iranian patronage offered compelling, if
conspicuously opportunistic, political tailwind. To add to all this, the
blowback from Iranian support in quelling Assad’s opponents (including the
Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ mother organization) has generated a parallel
momentum which, if used right, could see this reverse form of delegitimization
going very far indeed as part of a combined response to a nuclearizing
The Iranian leadership is incurring considerable cost and risk in
its nuclear drive for a far from otherworldly endgame: to secure primacy and
leverage in the Persian gulf and the wider region (and parity vis-à-vis Israel);
interdict unremitting foreign meddling; guarantee full control over its natural
resources; preserve the present regime; and propagate its revolutionary ideals
to bring about like-minded though preferably deferent allies. The long history
of foreign interference in Iranian affairs sheds crucial light on its current
To this end, threatening Israel serves a totemic and hence
strategic purpose by amplifying Iran’s desired stature as the Islamic world’s
preferred standard bearer.
This however only works so long as the Israeli
“threat” exists and there are allies to rally.
Iranian bellicosity toward
Israel is therefore clearly not a function of the latter’s ongoing “occupation”
of the Palestinians; on the contrary, a successful two-state solution would
severely impair its current posturing, interests and rhetoric.
delegitimization by denying the Iran-led alliance the single most potent
rallying banner in the pan- Islamic world will not offer any standalone solution
to its nuclear ambitions.
Indeed, some have also pointed out that the
Gulf Cooperation Council countries led by Saudi Arabia do not even require a
development of this significance to move towards openly countering Iran,
whatever form that may assume.
Still, in concert with the current palette
of measures and Iran’s own thickening economic malaise, leadership rifts and
dwindling domestic legitimacy, an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough would push
Iran’s elite-grassroots compact closer to fracture point against the backdrop of
the Arab uprisings, further isolate the Iranian regime in its own neighborhood,
consolidate regional if not international consensus against a nuclearizing Iran
and, only if diplomacy fails, smooth the way toward neutralization of its
non-civilian nuclear facilities, though this latter could also work in the
regime’s favor by uniting domestic support.
Israel will unfortunately
find it increasingly difficult to both have its cake and eat it too. The
numinous pull of retaining east Jerusalem, “Judea and Samaria,” regarded
primarily but not exclusively by the religious Right as a non-negotiable
spiritual injunction, may yet carry the day by justifying an indefinite,
low-intensity conflict over peace. This is likewise conceivable if the
unconditionally “special relationship” with the US continues to palliate
Israel’s apprehensions on the global stage. But if Israelis themselves believe
that longer-term existential security and a Jewish democratic identity take
priority, the choice is obvious.
As tensions continue to rise, a willed
breakthrough on the home front may just be what it takes for a game-changer on
that other major front.
The writer is a Middle East observer.