Critical Currents: Iranian follies

Nothing much can be gained and a tremendous amount may be lost by pursuing a military option

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
Israel and Iran are on a collision course. There is just too much talk of an impending Israeli assault on Iran; recent diplomatic and military activities magnify its probability. Yet strikingly absent is any serious domestic discussion of the prudence of such action, let alone a detailed analysis of its possible implications. Most Israelis appear resigned to this eventuality. They shouldn't be. There is no good reason for Israel to take the lead in dealing with a threat that affects the entire region and may further destabilize the global order. It makes even less sense to do so by crude military means. Now is definitely not the time for Israel to engage in an aerial escapade with uncertain consequences. Restraint, far from being an act of appeasement, is in this case the better part of wisdom. There is no question that Iran under Ahmedinejad poses a real and tangible danger. It provides ideological, financial and logistical support to militant extremists - most notably Hamas and Hizbullah - bent on asserting their hegemony in the name of radical Islam. Its systematic development of weapons of mass destruction, and especially its nuclear program, is proceeding at a truly alarming pace. These moves justifiably send shivers throughout the Middle East and beyond. Israel is not unique in this regard. But its concerns differ in two important respects. First, if the verbal outpouring from Teheran is any indication, Israel stands as the prime - if not the only - target of Iranian policy. And second, Israel, by name, is singled out for destruction. Iran is at the forefront of those who deny its right to exist and embellish this delegitimation with a new, and particularly virile, brand of anti-Semitism. The ferocity of the Iranian vilification of Israel cannot be exaggerated. The Israeli body politic has been united for quite some time on the severity of the Iranian threat; until very recently it was divided on how it should be tackled. Official government circles walked a thin line between international consultation (especially with the United States and Europe) and preparation for a preemptive strike. The opposition on the Right, spearheaded by Binyamin Netanyahu, has persistently advocated a full-scale Israeli assault on Iran's nuclear plants. It has been balanced, at least to some extent, by voices on the Left calling for increased diplomatic cooperation in an effort to contain, and ultimately defuse, the threat. Public opinion, poorly informed on the details and the intricacies of the matter, has remained largely passive. NOT SURPRISINGLY, these varying perceptions mirror the country's long-standing political fault lines. Those who refuse accommodation with the Palestinians highlight the immediacy of the Iranian menace; those who support a political settlement claim that it would mitigate the danger by creating a buffer against the further expansion of militant Islam. Behind these differences lie fundamental disagreements over whether Israel should continue to act in concert with external actors or whether it must forever go it alone. In the past few weeks, however, these debates have diminished as the government has adopted an increasingly aggressive stance. Some of the reasons for this shift are all too transparent. A weak government shamelessly groping for a political lifeline is prone to further demonize the enemy, accentuate imminent threats and promote that temporary consensus which accompanies daring military operations. This is especially true when the Palestinian track is floundering and a diversion is sorely needed to mollify the opposition on the Right and subdue discontent on the Left. The IDF, too, eager to rehabilitate its deterrent capabilities - badly tarnished in the Second Lebanon War - is anxious to prove itself once again. Nothing would be more convincing than a successful assault on Iran's nuclear facilities. The Bush administration and its backers also play a role. In its waning months, the present government in Washington is content to allow Israel to proceed unimpeded. Whether Israel should serve as a Bush-Cheney surrogate despite rising American voices to the contrary is another question. ISRAEL'S APPARENT willingness to act unilaterally at this juncture, however difficult to digest, is not hard to explain. It is much more complicated to account for the ease with which it is falling back on the military option in its attempt to deal with a complex strategic reality. Surely nobody really believes that even a successful bombing of Iranian targets would leave it without some nuclear capabilities. Nor will such a raid miraculously unseat the ruling clergy. Quite the opposite: In all likelihood an Israeli assault will most surely weaken reformists within Iran and strengthen the hands of the hardliners. Even the contemplation of such a move has sent oil prices skyrocketing (ironically enriching Iranian coffers). Its implementation would be nothing short of calamitous economically, and catastrophic in human terms. More destruction and death cannot quell violence. If a military attack is launched against Iran, it has promised a "fierce" response. A vengeful Iran would be far more dangerous for Israel and the region than it is today (and the actual extent of this threat has yet to be accurately assessed). Nothing much can be gained and a tremendous amount may be lost by pursuing a military option in these circumstances. It is not as if there are no alternatives. The close ties nurtured in the past are a timely reminder of the fact that Israelis and Iranians are not born to be enemies. But to alter the lethal standoff in which they are currently locked, they must both look beyond military solutions. The way out of the Israeli-Iranian conflict is not through the exchange of bombs and missiles, but through an internationally coordinated, patient, multi-faceted policy aimed at achieving mutual recognition by guaranteeing minimal security. It requires dialogue rather than confrontation (the cases of Libya and North Korea are instructive). This cannot be achieved without ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which enhances Iran's regional presence, just as an agreement with Syria can stem its expansion. Nor can it be cemented as long as the specter of nuclear proliferation precludes the establishment of a durable regional order. Attacking Iran is neither a preferred nor a desirable course for Israel. The dormant public has both the right and the duty to demand information, clarification and discussion. Such an open debate cannot but highlight the follies of engaging in a military operation; it can also help to pinpoint constructive and life-saving alternatives.