Pressures mount on Bush to bomb Iran

The Daily Star
Date: 09-16-06

President George W Bush is coming under enormous pressure from Israel - and from Israel's neoconservative friends inside and outside the US administration - to harden still further his stance toward Iran. They want the American president to commit himself to bombing Iran if it does not give up its program of uranium enrichment - and to issue a clear ultimatum to Tehran that he is prepared to do so. They argue that mere rhetoric - such as Bush's recent diatribe, in which he compared Iran to al-Qaeda - is not enough, and might even be counter-productive, as it might encourage the Iranians to think that America's bark is worse than its bite.

Hard-liners in Israel and the United States believe that only military action, or the credible threat of it, will now prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with all that this would mean in terms of Israel's security and the balance of power in the strategically vital Middle East.

Fears that Bush might succumb to this Israeli and neoconservative pressure is beginning to cause serious alarm in Moscow, Beijing, Berlin, Paris, Rome and other world capitals where, as if to urge caution on Washington, political leaders are increasingly speaking out in favor of dialogue with Tehran and against the use of military force.

The quickening international debate over Iran's nuclear activities comes at a difficult time for Israel, where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fighting for his political life and for that of his ruling Kadima-Labor coalition.

The Iran problem is causing particular concern because it raises fundamental questions about the continued validity of the security doctrine Israel has forged over the past half century. A central plank of this doctrine is that, to be safe, Israel must dominate the region militarily and be stronger than any possible Arab or Muslim coalition.

The doctrine received a severe knock from Israel's inconclusive war in Lebanon, which demonstrated the country's vulnerability to Hizbullah's missiles and to the challenge of "asymmetric" guerrilla warfare. Israelis - especially those living in the more exposed north of the country where up to a million people took refuge in shelters - were shocked to discover that the war was being waged on Israel's home territory. All previous wars had been waged on Arab territory alone, and this had become something of an axiom for the Israeli military.

Another cause of anxiety for Israel's right wing - the settler movement, the nationalist-religious parties, the Likud and the right-dominated Kadima - is that Israel is coming under increasing international pressure to negotiate with the Palestinians, with a view to the creation of a Palestinian state. Influential voices are calling for an international conference - a sort of Madrid II - to re-launch the peace process.

Overcoming the crippling conflict between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinians themselves are forming a national unity government, which will make it more difficult for Israel to claim that it has "no partner" with whom to negotiate.

Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom the Israelis believed had been firmly co-opted into the US-Israeli camp, has recently called for the economic boycott of the Palestinians to be lifted once the unity government is in place.

This is all very bad news for right-wingers in Israel and their American supporters. They had hoped that the "land-for-peace" formula of UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 had been finally buried. They want to break the Palestinian national movement - hence Olmert's unremitting assault on Gaza and the West Bank - rather than negotiate a political compromise with it. They want to seize more Palestinian land, not to withdraw to anything like the 1967 borders.

Such is the background to the outcry over Iran's nuclear activities. An Iranian bomb would end Israel's regional monopoly of nuclear weapons. It would force Israel to accept something like a balance of power, or at least a balance of deterrence.

Israelis claim vociferously that an Iranian bomb would pose an "existential threat" to their state. It is not clear whether they really believe that Iran might attack them and risk national suicide - an Armageddon scenario - or simply that they cannot contemplate a Middle East in which they would no longer be overwhelmingly strong, and in which their freedom to attack their neighbors and crush the Palestinians might be circumscribed.

When it destroyed Iraq's French-built nuclear reactor in 1981, Israel made clear that it would strike pre-emptively against the nuclear program of any hostile state in the region. The message which it and its friends are now addressing to President Bush is that if the US does not bomb Iran, Israel will have to do so.

This was put unambiguously in an article last week by Efraim Inbar, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and a well-known right-wing Israeli analyst. "Israel," he wrote, "can undertake a limited pre-emptive strike. Israel certainly commands the weaponry, the manpower, and the guts to effectively take out key Iranian nuclear facilities ... While less suited to do the job than the United States, the Israeli military is capable of reaching the appropriate targets in Iran. With more to lose than the US if Iran becomes nuclear, Israel has more incentive to strike."

These views are echoed by pro-Israeli writers in the United States, such as Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute. "Offers of dialogue with Iran are a waste of time," she wrote. "Iran has pursued ruthless oppression at home, terrorism abroad and weapons proliferation, largely with impunity ... We have talked about talking for long enough, there must be other options." Ominously she warned Iran: "It is not wise to force American into a choice between doing nothing and doing everything. But it may come to that."

Commentators like Inbar and Pletka, and many others in America and Israel who share their hard-line views, are deeply suspicious of what they see as Iran's duplicity, which they fear has seduced the Europeans. They are outraged by the negotiations which Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, is pursuing with Ali Larijani, Iran's principal nuclear negotiator.

The reported suggestion that Iran might suspend uranium enrichment for a month or two is seen as a trick to divide the Security Council and remove the threat of sanctions. They suspect that the international community is edging toward a position of allowing Iran to produce nuclear fuel under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. For the hard-liners, this would be one step away from tolerating an Iranian bomb in the not too distant future.

The real fear of the hard-liners is that the United States might agree to direct talks with Iran which would legitimize the theocratic regime, vastly increase Iran's stature as the dominant power in the Gulf, and eventually downgrade Israel as America's exclusive regional ally.

For Washington's neoconservatives, the battle to shape US policy toward Iran is a crucial test of their dwindling influence. They played a decisive role in persuading the US to make war on Iraq. They clamored for the destruction of the Hamas government in the Palestinian territories. They gave fervent support to Israel's war on Hizbullah, relentlessly portrayed as a "terrorist movement" and as the armed outpost of Iran.

But the neoconservatives have lost ground in Washington. The war in Iraq has turned into a strategic catastrophe, with another disaster looming in Afghanistan. Anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim worlds is at record levels. Leading neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Lewis Libby have left the administration. For the remaining neoconservatives - and their standard-bearer, William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, losing the argument over Iran could be a terminal blow.

Their ultimate nightmare is that the United States may have to come to rely on Iran to help stabilize the dangerously chaotic situation in both Afghanistan and Iran. The visit to Tehran this week of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is, from their point of view, a ghastly pointer in that direction.

Patrick Seale, a veteran Middle East correspondent, wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.


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