Daylight over Iran

The more credible a military threat today, the greater the chance that a resort to force may not prove necessary.

November 11, 2010 23:10
4 minute read.
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Iran Bomb 311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In his speech before the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans on Monday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu focused on Iran. “Containment will not work,” Netanyahu warned, and he called to move beyond sanctions to mounting a “credible military threat” against the Islamic Republic.

Netanyahu’s comments, coming less than a week after US mid-term elections handed a major victory to Republicans, highlighted the growing daylight between Israel and the Republicans on one side, and the Democrats on the other, over Iran’s nuclear program.

While there is bipartisan support for “crippling sanctions,” and while Israel is emphatically publicly supportive of the sanctions effort, the sides are split over the fallback position in the event sanctions don’t work.

Roughly speaking, while many Republicans and Israel say containment must be “off the table,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) put it this week, and call to maintain a “credible military threat,” many Democrats have not rejected outright the possibility of containment, though they also continue to say that “all options are on the table.”

“Containment” is a term borrowed from the Cold War era when the US in the mid-1960s refrained from attacking China’s nuclear plants to prevent Mao from getting the bomb. In the Iranian context, containment implies that since it is impossible to stop Iran from attaining nuclear capability, all efforts should now be focused on deterring Iran from using it and preventing nuclear proliferation.

Undoubtedly, containment sounds much more attractive for citizens of a country located thousands of miles from the Middle East. However, 64 percent of Americans support military action against Iran after sanctions are exhausted, according to the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey of public opinion in the US and Europe. The survey, which was conducted in June and published in September with a three percent margin of error, found that 58% of French respondents felt the same, though only 32% of Brits did.

Most American and French citizens evidently understand the dubious efficacy of containment. There is no assurance that it would prevent the Islamic Republic from slipping a crude weapon or nuclear material to terrorists who could stage an attack anywhere. Reconciling to a nuclear Iran would also undermine the US’s deterrent capability and could result in an eruption of nuclear proliferation around the Middle East with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt embarking on their own nuclear programs.

THE MIDTERM trouncing, in which foreign policy is not widely regarded as having been a factor, has unsurprisingly prompted no sign that the Obama administration is rethinking its foreign policy vis-a-vis Iran. “We are prepared to do what is necessary,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates shortly after Netanyahu spoke at the GA, “but at this point we continue to believe that the political- economic approach that we are taking is in fact having an impact in Iran.”

With Israel on the front lines as a country that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said should be “wiped off the map,” a failed containment policy is an existential threat.

In fact, Iran, via its proxy Hamas in the Gaza Strip, is literally on Israel’s border. And as Middle East commentator Ehud Ya’ari pointed out in a recent article for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy entitled “Sunni Hamas and Shi’ite Iran Form a Common Political Theology,” a new phase of bridge-building has begun between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Hamas.

The Hamas leadership in Gaza is promoting partnership with Iran as a religious duty for the faithful. The painful fact that Sunni Muslims in Iran, who comprise more than 10% of the population, suffer from systematic discrimination, and that many of their leaders have been executed or imprisoned without legal justification is conveniently ignored. More important is their common hatred of the West and the fact that Iran and Hamas share a vision of reviving the caliphate and returning to a pristine form of Islam that utterly rejects existing “moderate” regimes in Egypt or Jordan, not to mention a Jewish state of any size in the Middle East.

‘CRIPPLING SANCTIONS’ against Iran are important. The hope remains that they will yet deter Teheran from pursuing its nuclear program, for fear that it will lose power in the quest.

But what happens if these sanctions are exhausted and the Islamic Republic remains undeterred in its hell-bent push for nuclear capability? For Israel, many in the Republican party and some Democrats, and the majority of Americans and French, the answer is clear. The more credible a military threat today, the greater the chance that a resort to force may not prove necessary.

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