An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program will neither completely stop Teheran’s nuclear march, nor bring down the ayatollahs’ regime, according to former Swiss ambassador to Iran Tim Guldimann.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on the sidelines of this week’s Herzliya Conference, Guldimann, who knows the Iranian way of thinking well, expressed – as a personal opinion – his deep concern about the military option against Iran.
Guldimann was Swiss ambassador to Iran and Afghanistan from 1999 to 2004. As ambassador to Teheran, Guldimann – now senior adviser and head of the Middle East Project at the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, Geneva – represented US interests in Iran, acting as a go-between. He gained notoriety for a memorandum he transmitted to the US in 2003, which posited an alleged Iranian proposal for a broad dialogue with the US, with everything on the table – including full cooperation on nuclear programs, acceptance of Israel and the termination of Iranian support for Palestinian armed groups. The proposal was rejected by the Bush administration.
According to Guldimann, the position that unless the international community stops Iran’s nuclear program, Israel would have to do it alone is based on the unproven assumption that Iran will actually go down the road of having a nuclear weapon at its disposal.
“My understanding is that they will not go as far as that. If you say that there is [in Iran] a clear policy of achieving a nuclear capability, I would fully agree. You can define that as a breakout period. But will they make a political decision to produce a bomb? Such a breakout is an absolutely different question,” he says.
So what options does Israel have?
“The old stick-and-carrot approach hasn’t helped at all. You can speak about sanctions, but they have not changed Iran’s position. Sanctions often seem to have more the purpose of, in the West, an argument to Israel [that things are moving],” he notes. “The counter-argument is force. If Israel goes for a military option, I’m really, deeply concerned that there is this assumption that it will help.
“Let’s use the security of Israel as the only yardstick for assessing the situation. A military attack can damage [the Iranian nuclear program] but you can’t stop it. It is an industry with tens of thousands of people in it. You can damage and you can delay. You can even argue that you can bash it once, twice, maybe three times. And you can come back and do it again, if you think it’s like a little boy that keeps on coming out and you bash him every time. But the world might be a totally different place [after a first attack],” Guldimann says.
Guldimann – again in his personal opinion – contends that even in a situation of civil unrest and popular opposition to the regime in Iran, an outside attack would not bring down the regime.
“That’s not the Iranian way. It has to be kept in mind that if there is an outside attack on the regime, internal opposition within the regime, and opposition to the regime in general, will all fall in line with the regime. They will close ranks. On the nuclear issue, [opposition figure Mir Hossein] Mousavi is more hard-line than [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. If there is an outside attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Iranian people would feel tremendously humiliated. And if Israel today has got a regime against it, it will then not only have a regime against it, but also a country against it. An attack on Iran would be very good for Ahmadinejad. He will get the foreign enemy he is always talking about.
“For the Iranian population, being bombed will bring back memories of their war with Iraq. Before the US invasion of Iraq, there were those in Iran who called for the Americans to topple the regime in Teheran, too. But the first day that Iranians saw how Iraq was bombed, those calls largely disappeared. Now, if Iranians saw Israeli bombs, and not only on Natanz – how far would a bombing campaign go? – this would not topple Ahmadinejad. If the regime doesn’t do anything [to outwardly provoke an attack] and all of a sudden Iran is attacked, the people will rally around the regime and the regime will be safe,” he says, adding that it is still too early to determine where the Iranian political development is heading.
“We also can assume that outside political interference will only serve the regime to solidify its hold on power. All the fuss about regime change from the outside is very dangerous,” he argues.
According to Guldimann, Israel’s security in the long term would not be enhanced by an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s reaction to such an attack would likely be multi-layered and long-lasting, he says.
Assessments in Israel are that Iran is inflating its military power to deter any attack, creating a perception that a military strike on its nuclear program would elicit a devastating response – not only on Israel, but on US forces in the region, as well as US allies in the Gulf. While such a response is expected to be painful, assessments in Jerusalem are that it would not actually be as harsh as Teheran would like the international community to believe.
Guldimann believes Iran may retaliate in other, non-direct ways. It may act in the Straits of Hormuz to raise the price of oil, he says.
“It could also be that immediately they don’t do anything, but instead go to the UN and work on the sympathy it would garner. But they will make sure that oil prices go up. If you have a far higher oil price for a long period of time, this would affect the fragile world economic environment. Then you could have, all of a sudden, public opinion to factor in. Western governments are with Israel, but what will the people in Europe think? In the Middle East, the backlash could have more immediate consequences,” Guldimann says.
“The Iranians like to play on the sentiments of the Arab masses,” he explains. “In the event of an Israeli attack on Iran, Arab regimes might be quietly welcoming, but it is not known what will happen on the Arab street – what will happen in Egypt for example. On the Arab street, Ahmadinejad is a hero, and he will play that card.”
Guldimann’s contends that the best way for Israel to solve its Iran problem is to solve the Palestinian issue.
“The whole region will remain a problem unless the Palestinian issue is solved. For the Iranians, the Palestinian issue is a bargaining chip. They know that Israel is a reality in the region. Their positions are not more radical than those of Hamas. Hamas is starting to speak about the ’67 borders,” he says.
Guldimann further expresses his opinion that if Israel were to attack
Iran, no one in the region would believe it was done without the
consent of the US.
“It’s just not credible. Even if America
gives Israel the red light, and Israel still does it, nobody would
believe that a red light was really given. The military option could
lead to a disaster. If, however, the international community is ready
to accept Iran with a nuclear capacity as an interlocutor, there is a
chance that the breakout can be avoided,” he suggests.
not deny the risks involved [in] living with a nuclear industry in
Iran,” he says. “But I prefer this second-best solution to
confrontation, which leads nowhere.”To read Amir Mizroch's blog, click here.