By Barry Rubin
Much written and said about the Middle East has always been fantasy. But nowadays the proportion of fantasy to reality is higher than ever. And number one on that list is the war hysteria with Iran.
Israel may have to attack Iran some day. But not this week, month, or even year. That's true for very good reasons.
Iran doesn’t have deliverable nuclear weapons. It is not about to have deliverable nuclear weapons. Israel is not about to attack Iran. The United States is certainly not about to attack Iran. The whole idea that the leaders of Iran are crazed suicide-oriented people who expect the twelfth imam to arrive next Thursday is simply not true.
Yes, the Iranian regime is radical and yes it throws threats in all directions and yes, too, it is the world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism. Yet after 32 years in power the Islamist regime in Tehran has yet to do something really adventurous abroad. This regime wants to stay in power and it has shown restraint. And when it committed terrorist attacks against Americans in Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia it did so with the correct calculation that it could get away without paying any price.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn’t run Iran and many of his statements are intended for domestic consumption to boost his claim to leadership. I don’t want to say that Iran’s leaders are calm pragmatists but they are power-hungry people intent on the survival of themselves and their regime. Iran’s government is bad enough but the caricatures we are seeing go far beyond the reality.
Does this mean that we know that Iran will never ever use nuclear weapons? Of course not. But this merely tells us that there is not a 100 percent or anywhere near it certainty that they will do so. To start a war with Iran by attacking its nuclear facilities means that a full and open war exists that will be far more likely to escalate to a nuclear level in the future. In other words, an attack makes a future Iranian use of nuclear weapons far more likely than it is already.
Iran’s main goal, like that of Pakistan, is to make itself immune to any reprisals for terrorism and subversion by having nuclear weapon. In part, the rationale for the nuclear program is outdated, though that certainly won’t stop Tehran from pursuing it. The project was launched to make Iran into the leader of the Middle East and even of the whole Muslim world.
Yet the rise of Sunni Arab Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, has sharply reduced Iran’s potential sphere of influence. Tehran’s broader ambitions have been shrunk to include only Lebanon, Syria (where its ally is facing major problems), southwest Afghanistan, and Iraq (where its clients are proportionately small in size). Throw in some ambitions toward Bahrain and the ability to scare the Persian Gulf Arabs and that’s about it. Turkey has its own ambitions; the newly empowered Sunni Arab Islamists hate Iran and don’t think they need Tehran at all.
That doesn’t mean Iran might not some day attack Israel if and when it has nuclear weapons. Obviously a mixture of containment, defensive measures, and the ability plus willingness to stage a preemptive attack if necessary is vital for Israel which isn’t going to depend on Iran’s good will or assume that Tehran will never attack.
At the same time, though, the chances of avoiding a nuclear war are quite positive. What is Iran going to do, put two to six missiles on launching pads to shoot at Israel without being detected beforehand and having no second wave that can be used once devastating Israeli attacks start? Is Iran going to attack Israel purely out of spite, from blind fanaticism, knowing not only that Iran will be devastated but that Israel has a high likelihood of preempting and destroying them on the launching pad or shooting them down?
To start a war with Iran now doesn’t make any sense. It will not stop that country from getting nuclear weapons and it would make a nuclear war in the coming years more rather than less likely. Israel has no international support. Russia is practically threatening a war against Israel if it does launch such an operation.
The logistics of an attack are difficult, though not impossible. A lot can go wrong. You don’t want to try such an operation unless you really have to do so. The bottom line is that an Israeli attack on Iran at present is simply not necessary. A lot of the Israeli rhetoric is clearly intended to press the West toward greater activism and tougher sanctions.
Indeed, all of the reasons why Israel is not about to attack Iran are just plain ignored in the media. Defense Minister Ehud Barak explains that no decision is made and that Israeli policy is only to attack if Iran is about to get deliverable nuclear weapons. He suggests that this won’t happen in the next year. The biggest Israeli critic of launching an attack states that Israel decided not to do so and his worst complaint against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is that he wants to keep discussing the possibility, not that he has decided on an attack.
President Barack Obama—a man who would never attack Iran or support an Israeli action—has publicly state that Israel isn’t about to do so. The president of the United States, whatever his other faults, would not say such a thing unless he has been clearly promised by Netanyahu that it isn’t going to happen. If Israel were to break that promise the entire bilateral relationship would blow up in a way that would make recent tiffs seem like a picnic.
In short, the whole idea is nonsense. Numerous reasons can be given to explain why it is not on the agenda for this year. But the media and various analysts—many of them self-proclaimed experts—simply ignore all the evidence. Some want to get Israel into a war with Iran to please their own ideological agenda; others want to claim Israel is going to attack in order to prove their thesis that Israel is the evil cause of all regional—or even world--problems.
This hysteria really should stop. Israel isn’t going to get into a long, bloody, and avoidable war because bloggers and op-ed writers are screaming for it.
Briefly here are some other myths that deserve to be abandoned as soon as possible.
Unless there is some real understanding of what’s going on in the Middle East any hope for useful analysis, much less predicting the most likely future scenarios or charting a successful Western policy, is out of reach.
- There is an Israel-Palestinian peace process. That’s probably dead for decades because the Palestinian side doesn’t want a compromise deal. Obama’s mistakes, the Palestinian Authority-Hamas coalition, the Islamist “spring,” and the UN unilateral independence bid all makes it even more obviously deceased.
- The Muslim Brotherhood is moderate. Wake up and smell the jihad.
- The Syrian regime is about to fall. The opposition knows that without international intervention—which isn’t going to happen—they can’t win.
- Turkey is the very model of a moderate Islamic democracy. Actually, it’s a repressive Islamist dictatorship in training. Look at the massive arrests, the trumped-up treason charges, the trampling on free speech, and the assault on the country’ armed forces.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, to be published by Yale University Press in January 2012. You can read more of Barry Rubin's posts at Rubin Reports, and now on his new blog, Rubin Reports, on Pajamas Media
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