Global security concerns continued, in early April 2012, to be geared around the possibility of armed conflict between Iran and Israel, an issue hedged by a range of other conflicts and issues. The actual prospect of such a conflict, however, remained extremely low, for a variety of reasons, despite the near hysteria of media, and even poorly-reasoned reporting from “professional” intelligence agencies.
The ostensible cause of the potential conflict remained the nominal determination of key Western states to ensure that Iran did not acquire the capacity to build nuclear weapons, although even Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has reportedly acknowledged that Israel understood that Iran had at least two nuclear weapons already deployed on medium-range ballistic missiles. These were weapons, how-ever, acquired from foreign suppliers, not from domestic manufacture.
In reality, the issue is far more complex, and is particularly compounded by:
1. The fact that the United States is in a Presidential election year, which traditionally inhibits and distorts Administration decision making, and yet allows for opposition candidates to exercise strenuous — and often ill-informed and inflammatory — rhetorical positions;
2. The fact that the Iranian domestic political situation is clouded, as a result of recent first round of the Majlis elections (March 2, 2012; run-off round for the remaining 65 seats on May 4, 2012) which have already severely crimped the influence of incumbent Pres. Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad, who may, in any event, soon be eclipsed from power with the end of his term. However, even the present “Supreme Leader”, “Ayatollah” Ali Khamene’i, did not gain as much ground in domestic politics as he would have wished vis-à-vis Ahmadi-Nejad. This leaves power — insofar as it is concentrated at all — largely in the hands of the leader of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pásdárán), Brig. Qassem Suleimani. In any event, all talk of “reformists” in the Iranian clerical scene has evaporated.
3. The reality that Iran’s strategic reach to dominate the Persian Gulf and the Northern Tier has been extremely successful, and this is compounded by the US/Coalition withdrawal from Iraq, and the de facto strategic withdrawal (certainly du jure in a political sense) from Afghanistan. Iran has successfully used its influence over Shi’a populations — often regionally in a minority — to effectively control situations. The use by the Iranian clerics of the “anti-Israel” jihadist rhetoric to win support from the vast Arab and Muslim populations has, however, failed: the Sunni populations, while buying the anti-Israel line, have not coalesced in support for Iranian leadership. And the Sunni leaderships of Sunni-dominated Muslim states have reacted sharply to Iran’s rhetoric as much as to Iran’s real strategic grasp on, for example, Iraq and Syria. As a result, the real pressure for action against Iran — to cur-tail Iran’s nuclear weapons and to overthrow Iran’s ‘Alawite ally in Syria, the Bashar al-Assad Government — comes from those who most fear Tehran: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. Significantly, this is not working, except at a public relations level. In Syria, despite pressures from the Sunni-dominated Arab League (which excludes non-Arab Iran), Pres. Assad seems set to continue to dominate the Islamist-led Sunni uprising.
4. The fact that Turkey is now flailing in its attempts to curtail the growth of Iranian strategic reach. Turkey is also now itself becoming isolated at a time when its leader — and the real architect of Turkish strategic “revival” — Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdo?an, is in rapidly-failing health. He is likely to be replaced either by Pres. Abdullah Gül or by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu, both of whom are radical, but neither of whom has domestic political strength of Erdo?an. Meanwhile, the ruling Islamists still have not mended their fences with the Turkish Armed Forces, and Turkey continues to suffer from an inability to address domestic Kurdish insurgency. If Turkey alienates Iran, then Iran has made it clear that it has the capacity to stimulate activity in Turkey by that country’s very large (20-million) Shi’a population, as well as stepping aside while Kurds gain more support from abroad.
5. The fact that the core of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and the Israeli Intelligence Community are totally opposed to a military strike against Iran’s “nuclear facilities” because they recognize that:
(a) They cannot identify or reach all of Iran’s nuclear facilities;
(b) Iran already has deployed nuclear weapons [probably more than the two known to be deployed on al-Shahab IRBMs] which may have a chance of surviving Israel’s extensive anti-ballistic missile (ABM) network;
(c) There are few real options to follow-up an air/missile strike against Iranian targets;
(d) An Israeli first-strike against Iran would actually coalesce Iranian sentiment around the ruling clerics and against Israel; and
(e) The United States Government would unreservedly oppose an Israeli strike.
What is also not understood by most commentators and foreign governments is the reality that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been attempting to persuade the Obama Administration in the US of the desirability of decisive military action against Iran. This has not been a campaign to tell the US that Israel would act unilaterally against Iran. So what has not been seen is actual evidence of the probability of a unilateral Israeli stance, which would only occur if an existential threat actually presented itself to Israel. At present, this is not perceived to be the case, even though Mr. Netanyahu portrays the Iranian nuclear weapons situation has being ultimately an existential threat. The IDF, the Israeli Intelligence Community, the Israeli opposition parties, and so on, all categorically reject the idea of an Israeli first strike at Iranian targets, despite acknowledging that elected leaders (Netanyahu, Barak) might try to insist on such an action. But, absent tacit or express US approval for such an action (which even Netanyahu and Barak acknowledge requiring), such an attack would not occur. Moreover, the US Government is aware that any action by Israel — even if it was opposed by the US — would be seen globally as having US support; thus the US is committed to ensuring it does not happen. The US Obama Administration has intentionally continued to leak reporting which would hamper such a step by Israel, even “disclosing” that Israel had arranged for the use of bases in Azerbaijan to stage air attacks into or exiting Iran. That was a canard: the use of Azerbaijani facilities and air space was considered some years ago when Israel had access to Turkish air space, which would be essential to allowing access into and from Azerbaijan. That is no longer feasible. However, US reports that Israel lacked the reach or technical capability to undertake a first strike against Iran are incorrect. Israel has this capacity.
6. The reality that the Persian-Israeli link has been mutually beneficial for two-and-a-half millennia, and the recent Iranian clerical rhetoric against Israel was for tactical purposes, although, in fact, reflecting the radical interpretation of Shi’ism and Islam by the clerics. Israel has what Iran/Persia has always valued: access to the Mediterranean. This is why Iran courts or attempts to control Syria and Lebanon, but Israel is what cements, or could cement, Iranian reach into the Mediterranean, and such a relationship also gives Israel the ability to outmaneuver the Sunni populations which constrain it. Tehran escalated the anti-Israel posture to maneuver against the US during the US-led war on Iraq; now it must find a way to back down from this position (and likewise Israel must find a way to retract from its reactive anti-Iranian stance) so that a rapprochement can be re-developed. This was less important to Israel when it had a strong relationship with Turkey, but that cannot be assumed to be salvageable until the last of the present leadership team departs office in Turkey. Meanwhile, the Sunni states — and particularly Saudi Arabia — engage in covert “information sharing” with Israel to boost Israel’s hostility toward Iran, and this has been particularly effective with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
7. The prospect exists that the Russian Federation, already concerned over its inability to control two states in which it invested so heavily (Iran and Turkey), may well sponsor a revived diplomatic approach to Israel and encourage an Israel-Iran rapprochement. It is worth noting that Israel has been quiet on the subject of promoting the end to the Bashar al-Assad Government in Syria, knowing that it is a close ally of Tehran.
Western commentators and politicians have locked themselves into an unsustainable position: attempting to deny Iran access to nuclear weapons. The reality, as US and Israeli officials have now acknowledged, is that Iran already has deployed nuclear weapons, albeit not domestically-made ones. This has been known, but not discussed, since 1991, as this Service has consistently noted.
US and Western officials missed the opportunity, with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), begun under US Pres. Ronald Reagan, to develop a system which would have effectively negated the efficacy of missile-based nuclear weapons. As a result, nuclear weapons proliferation is likely to continue, not just with Iran, but potentially with Turkey, which has been developing the capabilities to achieve nuclear weapons production capacity.
As a result of this, and the reality that the size, geography, and capabilities of Iran — including its alliance structure with North Korea (DPRK), and now the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — preclude armed invasion (a la Iraq, a much, much easier target), opponents of Iran have limited options. One is to seek to create a viable relationship with Iran so as to preclude the prospect of Iranian use (or threats of use) of nuclear weapons. This, obviously, from a Western or Israeli standpoint would be better facilitated if Iran was governed by a non-clerical administration. The question, then, would be how such an outcome could be achieved. Significantly, isolating Iran through sanctions and hostility has enabled the clerics to build a society which they can dominate. Isolation works both ways; in this case, it has strengthened clerical control of the Iranian population. Attempts to sow secessionist discord among Iranian constituent populations have thus far failed, although the most significant attempts — to create secessionism in Baluchistan — have actually fueled secessionist momentum in Pakistani Baluchistan and, to a degree, Afghan Baluchistan.
Indeed, all realities may change if secessionist movements take root in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the present Afghanistan war winds down and the US and Coalition forces depart the area.
As things stand at present, Iran stands to gain — whether under a clerical government or not — and the US has lost (and continues to lose) influence in the Persian Gulf, the Northern Tier, and Central Asia. Israeli leaders must take account of this obvious reality, and plan for a new strategic framework, one which includes a new energy relationship with the European Union, a new relationship with Russia, and a new relationship with Iran (which can also be facilitated by the PRC).
If the Sunni states — and particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey — succeed in overthrowing the Iranian-supported ‘Alawite leadership in Syria, then Israel will face a reinvigorated “Arab” threat. Israel is already conscious of the fact that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have almost succeeded in replacing an anti-Saudi leadership in Libya (Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi) with a pro-Saudi/salafist-jihadist leadership in Tripoli. Significantly, the non-salafist Libyan province of Cyrenaica has resisted this, and has called — as it did when it started the anti-Qadhafi revolt in February 2011 — for the restitution of the 1951 Libyan Constitution, which allows for a federal structure. This would wrest control of the oil from radical Tripolitania and the salafist interim President of Libya, and return it to Cyrenaica, under the moderate and pro-Western Senussi sect.
These are all inter-related aspects of the current framework which is only superficially addressed in the “international debate” as to whether Israeli would or should strike at Iranian nuclear facilities. The real is-sue includes the broader conflict for dominance between Shi’ism and Sunnism, and nationally between Turkish and Iranian competition for historical reach.
Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.