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Israel’s war of nerves with Iran escalates

Tags: Columnists Sheldon Kirshner
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Reports emanating from Israel suggest that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have tried to muster a majority in cabinet for a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

These accounts, augmented by a chilling warning from Israeli President Shimon Peres that Israel may soon take military action against Iran, came to light about a week before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a damning report on Nov. 8 accusing Iran of working to build a nuclear bomb.

Despite assertions that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, Iran has itself fed speculation about its intentions.

Last June, Iran declared it is planning to triple the production of nuclear fuel, thereby bringing it ever closer to a technical ability to manufacture enriched weapons-grade uranium. And for years now, Iran has declined to answer questions from the IAEA about its weapons design capabilities. Further, in two rounds of fruitless talks with six world powers sponsored by the United Nations, Iran has steadfastly refused to discuss a suspension of its nuclear enrichment activities, saying that neither sanctions nor the threat of a military attack will deter it.

By all accounts, Iran is building a militarized nuclear program with the objective of achieving dominance in the Middle East. With an eye on its glorious past, Iran has imperial ambitions in the region, striving to surpass Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria in terms of influence.

But since Iran categorically rejects Israel’s very existence, regularly calls for and predicts its destruction and fervently supports militant groups – Hezbollah and Hamas – at war with Israel, one must at least wonder whether the Iranian leadership would consider using a nuclear device to destroy the Jewish state.

Reports out of Israel suggesting that Netanyahu and Barak are in favour of hitting Iran’s nuclear installations should be viewed within the context of Iran’s hostility toward Israel and Israel’s escalating war of nerves with Iran.

In these reports, Israel is not necessarily signalling its intentions to bomb these sites, though this could happen one day under the most extreme of circumstances. Israeli sabre-rattling notwithstanding, Israel knows that an attack on Iran carries profound risks and would probably not succeed in attaining all its objectives.

Iran’s possession of thousands of homemade long-range missiles means that an Israeli attack would invite immediate and furious Iranian retaliation, as Iran’s chief of staff warned recently.

The Iranian response would dwarf previous Iraqi, Hezbollah and Hamas missile attacks on Israel. Property damage would be devastating and the death toll would be fearsome. Israel would likely respond, setting off a long and ruinous regional war with unforeseen consequences.

In all probability, Hezbollah, if not Hamas, would be dragged into the conflict, sooner rather than later.

Though some Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia, would secretly welcome an Israeli bombing campaign, it would seriously isolate Israel in the region and might even prompt pivotal countries – Egypt, Jordan and Turkey – to sever their existing diplomatic relations with Israel.

The bombing of Iran, which would doubtless increase the price of oil by a hefty margin, would not go down well in the United States – Israel’s chief ally – the European Union or Russia or China, and would damage Israel’s global standing.

At best, Israel could inflict only some damage on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, since it is spread out widely in a huge country and lies deep underground. Within about two years, Iran could regroup and recover, experts believe.

And finally, foreign intervention in Iran – a country that has been subjected to colonial machinations – would indubitably rally Iranian nationalist opinion around an Islamic regime that had no compunctions in crushing a popular uprising in 2009.

So why, in light of these compelling theoretical factors, have Netanyahu and Barak reportedly attempted to achieve a consensus in cabinet that Israel should reduce Iran’s nuclear facilities to rubble?

Netanyahu – who has compared Iran to Nazi Germany and promised to eliminate Iran’s nuclear arsenal – presumably realizes that attacking Iran would be akin to ripping open a hornet’s nest. Indeed, the former director of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, has said it would be a “stupid thing” to do.

Israel has bombed Arab nuclear reactors in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007), but they were relatively easy, cost-free targets to obliterate. One must assume that Netanyahu is using the threat of military action to bring pressure to bear on the international community to upgrade economic sanctions against Iran, or to induce the United States to do the job.

Two weeks ago, as Israeli pundits reported on Netanyahu’s supposed plans, he declared that Iran should be the object of yet more “diplomatic pressure and sanctions.” Last January, in a still more revealing comment that may be indicative of his thinking, Netanyahu said that while sanctions have hurt Iran, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will not bend to global pressure “without a credible military option.”

In other words, while Netanyahu wants to keep the potentially destabilizing military option on the table, he might be satisfied with tougher sanctions, which Israel’s former Israeli chief of staff, Gen. Gadi Ashkenazi, recommended as the best possible outcome for now .

Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state, agrees with that assessment. Last week, she said that only continuous sanctions would dissuade Israel from attacking Iran, echoing an earlier remark by U.S. President Barack Obama of the need to maintain “unprecedented pressure on Iran.” The United Nations has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran in an attempt to induce it to halt the production of enriched nuclear fuel. The European Union, the United States, Canada and other countries have followed suit.

According to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the former American chief of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, sanctions have had a discernible effect, having slowed down Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions have apparently cut into Iran’s oil exports, squeezed Iran’s access to financial markets and excluded Iran’s shipping line from some foreign ports

Ahmadinejad claims that Iran’s economy has not been affected by sanctions. True or not, Iran has used dummy companies, murky financial transactions and concealed shipping methods to circumvent the bite of sanctions. Apart from the regimen of sanctions, Iran’s nuclear aspirations have been hobbled by other means.

The Stuxnet computer virus, a joint U.S.-Israeli venture, wiped out a fifth of Iran’s centrifuges and set back its nuclear program by up to two years. Dagan believes that Iran will not be able to assemble an atomic device until 2015 at the earliest.  

Assassins, perhaps Mossad operatives, have killed several Iranian nuclear scientists in broad daylight in Tehran. This, too, has had an impact.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, however, has apparently not yet decided whether Iran should proceed with the next momentous step: manufacturing a deliverable bomb.

Although Iran is methodically working on this project, years may elapse before it becomes a nuclear power, like Israel.

But Israel does not want to wake up to learn that Iran has already acquired the atomic bomb.

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