Our World: A war on whose terms?

Iran’s domestic troubles and the Arab world’s fear of a nuclear Iran provide Israel with an opportunity to radically shift the region's balance of power.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (photo credit: AP)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
(photo credit: AP)
We are entering troubling times. The conviction that war is upon us grows with each passing day. What remains to be determined is who will dictate the terms of that war – Iran or Israel.
Iran has good reason to go to war today. The regime is teetering on the brink of collapse. Last week, the bellwether of Iranian politics and the commercial center of the country – the bazaar – abandoned the regime. In 1979, it was only after the bazaar merchants abandoned the shah that the ayatollahs gained the necessary momentum to overthrow the regime.
Last Tuesday the merchants at the all-important Teheran bazaar closed their shops to protest the government’s plan to raise their taxes by 70 percent. Merchants in Tabriz and Isfahan quickly joined the protest. According to the Associated Press, the regime caved in to the merchants demands and cancelled the tax hike. And yet the strike continued.
According to The Los Angeles Times, to hide the fact that the merchants remain on strike, on Sunday the regime announced that the bazaar was officially closed due to the excessive heat. The Times also reported that the head of the fabric traders union in the Teheran bazaar was arrested for organizing an anti-regime protest. The protest was joined by students. Regime goons attacked the protesters with tear gas and arrested and beat a student caught recording the event.
Crucially, the Times reported that by last Thursday the bazaar strike had in many cases become openly revolutionary. Citing an opposition activist, it claimed, “By Thursday, hundreds of students and merchants had gathered in the shoemakers’ quarter of the old bazaar, chanting slogans [such] as, “Death to Ahmadinejad,” “Victory is God’s,” “Victory is near” and “Death to this deceptive government.”
The merchants’ strike is just one indication of the regime’s economic woes. According to AP, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under pressure to carry out his pledge to cut government subsidies for food and fuel. Although he supports the move, he fears the mass protests that would certainly follow its implementation.
FrontPage Magazine’s Ryan Mauro noted earlier this week that there is growing disaffection with the regime in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps itself. A recent documentary produced by the Guardian featured four IRGC defectors speaking of the discord in the ranks. The regime is so frightened of defection among the IRGC that it has removed many older members and replaced them with poor young men from the countryside.
The regime’s fear of its opposition has caused it to crack down on domestic liberties. Last week the regime issued hairstyle guidelines for men. Spiked hair and ponytails are officially banned as decadent.
On Sunday Mohammed Boniadi, the deputy head of Teheran’s school system, announced that starting in the fall, a thousand clerics will descend on the schools to purge Western influence from the halls of learning. As he put it, the clerics’ job will be to make students aware of “opposition plots and arrogance.”
These moves to weaken Western influence on Iranian society are of a piece with the regime’s new boycott against “Zionist” products. Late last month Ahmadinejad signed a law outlawing the use of products from such Zionist companies as Intel, Coca Cola, Nestle and IBM.
ALL OF these moves expose a hysterical fear of the Iranian people on the part of their unelected leaders. Regime strongmen themselves acknowledge that they have never faced a greater threat. For instance, the Guardian quoted IRGC commander Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari saying recently, “Although last year’s sedition did not last more than around eight months, it was much more dangerous than the [Iran-Iraq] war.” As is its wont, the regime has chosen to defend itself against this threat by repressing its internal enemies and attacking its external enemies. In an article last month in Forbes, Reza Kahlili, a former CIA spy in the IRGC who maintains connections inside the regime, claimed that the IRGC has set up concentration camps throughout the country in anticipation of mass arrests in any future opposition campaign against the regime.
As for the outside world, Iran is ratcheting up both its nuclear brinksmanship and its preparations for yet another round of regional war. In an announcement on Sunday, Iran’s atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi told the Iranian news agency ISNA that Iran has produced 20 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Salehi also said that Iran is building fuel plates to operate a nuclear reactor.
Iran’s nuclear progress has frightened the Arab world so much that for the first time, Arab leaders are giving public voice to the concerns they have expressed behind closed doors. In public remarks last week, UAE Ambassador to the US Youssef al-Otaiba made a series of statements whose bluntness was unprecedented. Otaiba said that the Arab states of the Persian Gulf cannot live with a nuclear Iran, that he supports military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities and that if the US fails to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, the Arab states of the Gulf will abandon their alliances with the US in order to appease Iran. Otaiba rejected the notion that a nuclear-armed Iran can be contained stating, “Talk of containment and deterrence really concerns me and makes me very nervous.”
Otaiba’s concerns were echoed last Friday by Kahlili in a public lecture at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He asserted that if Iran develops a nuclear arsenal it will use it to attack Israel, the Gulf states and Europe.
IRAN IS seeking to divert international attention away from its internal troubles and limit the possibility of a strike against its nuclear installations by inciting war with Israel. On Sunday the regime announced that Ahmadinejad will soon visit Beirut. Recent activities by Iran’s Hizbullah proxy in Lebanon indicate that if his visit goes through – and even if it doesn’t – the announcement signals that Iran intends to fight another proxy war against Israel through Hizbullah.
As the IDF announced in a press briefing last Wednesday, Iran has tightened its control over Hizbullah forces. It recently sent Hossein Mahadavi, commander of the IRGC’s Jerusalem Force, to Beirut to take over Hizbullah’s operations.
As for Hizbullah, it is poised to launch a witch-hunt against its domestic opponents.
Hizbullah MP Muhammad Ra’ad said earlier this month that the proxy army will “hunt down,” collaborators. As MP Sami Gemayel noted in an interview with LBC translated by MEMRI, this that means is that Hizbullah is poised to conduct mass extrajudicial arrests and wholesale terrorization of Lebanese civilians.
Likewise, Hizbullah-allied former Lebanese minister Wiam Wahhab effectively called for armed attacks against UNIFIL forces in south Lebanon in a recent television interview translated by MEMRI. His remarks followed some 20 Hizbullahordered assaults on UNIFIL forces in Shi’ite villages in recent days. French forces were the victim of two of those assaults and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri travelled to Paris last week in the hopes of convincing the French government not to remove French forces from the country.
And of course, all of these provocations are being carried out as Hizbullah deploys its forces south of the Litani River.
According to the IDF briefing last week, those forces have some 40,000 short- and medium-range missiles at their disposal.
Those missiles have been augmented by hundreds of guided long-range missiles north of the Litani with warheads capable of bringing down skyscrapers in Tel Aviv.
Moreover, they are further augmented by Syria’s massive Scud missile and artillery arsenals and by a frightening potential fifth column among Israeli Arabs in the Galilee. Sunday’s assault on police forces operating in the Syrian-allied Druse village of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights is a mild indicator of what is liable to transpire in Israeli Arab villages in the North in the next war.
For its part, the IDF is seeking to deter such an attack. Wednesday’s briefing, in which the IDF made clear that it knows where Hizbullah has hidden its missiles, was aimed at deterring war.
Unfortunately, the IDF’s warnings will likely have no effect on Hizbullah. If Hizbullah goes to war, it will do so not to advance its own interests, but to protect Iran. Here of course, there is nothing new.
Four years ago this week Hizbullah launched its war against Israel and not because doing so served its interests.
Hizbullah launched its war against Israel because Iran ordered it to do so. Then as now, Iran sought a war with Israel in Lebanon to divert international attention from its nuclear weapons program. And now, with the Iranian regime besieged by its own people as never before, and with just a short period required for it to cross the nuclear threshold, Iran has more reason than ever to seek a distraction in Lebanon to buy time for itself.
Four years ago, Israel was taken in by Iran’s Lebanese proxy war. Rather than keeping its eye on Teheran, it swallowed Hizbullah’s bait and waged a war against hapless Lebanon while leaving Iran and its Syrian toady immune from attack. The results were predictably poor and strategically disastrous.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has given Iran every reason to believe that Israel will respond in an identical manner if Hizbullah strikes again today. In repeated statements over the past several months, he has maintained that Israel will blame Lebanon – not Iran or Syria – for any Hizbullah action against it.
Four years ago, Israel was reined in by the Bush administration. Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice ordered Israel not to attack Syria despite the fact that without Syrian support for Hizbullah, there could have been no war. Israel obliged her both because its leaders lacked the strategic sense to recognize the folly of Rice’s demands and because the Bush administration was Israel’s firm ally.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just returned from yet another visit with US President Barack Obama. Although the background music was cheerful, from statements by both men it is clear that Obama is not a credible ally. He does not understand or accept the strategic logic behind the US alliance with Israel and will not support Israel in future armed conflicts.
Indeed, in the face of the growing Iranian menace, Obama insists on limiting his interests to the irrelevant faux peace process with Fatah while allowing Iran and its proxies to run wild.
What this means is that for better or for worse, under Obama the US is far less relevant than it was four years ago. And this frees Netanyahu to fight the coming war on Israel’s terms. Iran’s domestic troubles and the Arab world’s genuine fear of a nuclear armed Iran provide Israel with a rare opportunity to radically shift the balance of power in the region for the better. It is time for Netanyahu to lead.