Friday 26 September 2008

What to do about Iran

It is true that the Islamic Republic of Iran has outwardly become more anti-Israeli since Ahmadinejad became President in August 2005. It is also true that Iran was not exactly a friend of Israel under the rule of those that preceded him following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 - Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami. There are, however, two main differences between Ahmadinejad's brand of hate of Israel when compared to that of his predecessors. Firstly, Ahmadinejad has no shame in screaming his hatred from the rooftops, even at the podium of the hallowed UN General Assembly. Secondly, Ahmadinejad is building a nuclear bomb.

Ahmadinejad's rhetoric has been aggressive and hate-filled from the moment he was elected to the high office of President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Most of his vitriol is directed at Israel, although he has reserved choice words for the US and other Western democracies. On the very day that I am writing this, Ahmadinejad has had the honour of speaking at the UN. No surprise that he used this opportunity, as always, to promote hatred towards Israel, Jews and the US. His distinctly undiplomatic style crosses the border of defamation and should not be tolerated by the UN in accordance with the terms of its charter. To actually invite somebody like Ahmadinejad to address the General Assembly is an insult to Israel and the other countries that he continuously insults.

Ahmadinejad's outbursts have prompted former Mossad Chief, Ephraim Halevy, to comment that he is Israel's greatest gift. Halevy's contention is that Ahmadinejad has united the international community against him and Iran, which serves an Israeli interest. I have a slightly diluted view of the extent to which this serves Israel's interests. The fact is that ordinary peace-loving democracies which respect the rule of law and the rights of other nations to exist are unable to simply stand by and watch the Iranian rant. This includes even countries that are not Israel's biggest supporters. The fact that some countries that are not big friends of Israel are forced to criticise Iran's actions does not turn them suddenly into big friends of Israel. I feel sure that these same countries would stand by and criticise Iran verbally if the worst happened and an open conflict occurred between Iran and Israel. Make no bones about it, they are not suddenly inclined to sell weapons to Israel or make any concrete contributions to the Jewish state as a result of Ahmadinejad's insults.

What is more worrying is the nuclear bomb that he is building. Even though he initially tried to conceal the true intention of the country's nuclear enrichment program as part of it's production of domestic electricity, he has recently made less effort to try to hide what he is doing. It seems fairly clear to all concerned that something sinister is going on. The concerns that Israel and other Western countries have of allowing a nuclear bomb to fall into Iranian hands centres mainly on the lack of stability shown by Iranian rulers and governments. It is hard to trust them with such a weapon when one gets the impression that they could fire the button on any day that they get out of bed on the wrong side. To date, the possession of nuclear weapons has been used as a tool to maintain the balance of power, for example in the Indian subcontinent with India and Pakistan. Due to Iran's inherent instability, and in light of the recent tirade of hatred flowing from its President, allowing Iran to possess nuclear weapons is an entirely different and extremely dangerous proposition.

So, what can Israel do about this unsatisfactory state of affairs? Diplomatic efforts have been sporadic to say the least. The US has made some diplomatic noises in support of Israel's position. The matter has been discussed at the United Nations and at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Voices of protest have been raised, condemnations issued and sanctions imposed. But all this counts for very little when somebody with the resolve of Ahmadinejad is determined to develop a nuclear weapon despite the views of the world. Whilst he is still not openly admitting to the fact that his uranium enrichment program is for the purpose of developing weapons, he has been keen to publicise the progress that Iran is making in reaching the point of perfecting enrichment to produce reactor fuel. There are mixed views outside of Iran about the true state of the progress that is being made. Whilst the Americans believe that the true position is behind that stated by the Iranian President, the Israelis have stated that the true position may be further ahead. Diplomatic efforts are clearly not currently working, and it is questionable as to whether tougher diplomatic initiatives would be more effective.

Much has been written about Israel's military options. Precedents were created when Israel destroyed both the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak in Operation Opera in 1981, and the Syrian nuclear site under construction near Dayr az-Zawr in 2007. Both were destroyed by pinpoint air force raids and, apart from a few raised voices and verbal utterances, went without response from either of the countries.

Despite two successful missions to its credit, I don't see the Israeli Air Force carrying out a similar attack in Iran. It is true that much has been written about the plans that have already been formulated by the IAF which has served to hype up this possibility. The IAF is even reputed to have carried out a preparation exercise off the coast of Greece during the past few months. At the political level, however, I believe that such a decision is much more difficult.

Iran, in the light of all the hype about the possibility of an Israeli attack, has been making military noises of its own. It is reported to have no less than 600 Shahab medium and long-range missiles pointing at Israel and ready for firing at any given moment. The latest version of the missile, Shahab 3, is reputed to be strong, accurate and capable of carrying conventional as well as unconventional (nuclear and chemical) warheads. In addition, Iran has test fired missiles recently and has held a number of military exercises. It would appear to be ready for any attempt by Israel to destroy its nuclear sites.

In view of Iran's military preparations and statements of intent, it would be safe to assume that Iran would respond to any attack by Israel. Even if the Israeli jets succeed in hitting their target and returning to Israel undetected, the first discovery of an Israeli attack by Iran will solicit a response. Any attack by Iran on Israel would inevitably be accompanied by an attack on the north of Israel by Iran's proxy army in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and an attack on the south of Israel by Iran's allies in Gaza, Hamas. This means that Israel will need to be on a full war footing before the first jets leave their bases en-route to Iran. All civilians would need to be in bomb shelters, a widespread call-up of reserve soldiers will be required and all Arrows anti-Shahab missiles should be ready to fire.

Clearly, none of these preparations can be made without alerting the world to Israel's intentions. It is hardly possible to put 7.5 million people onto a war footing without the rest of the world noticing. When considering thise together with the prospect of an all-out war with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and whoever else may choose to join, the possible use of military force looks a distinctly unattractive option.

So how can this matter be taken care of? The best alternative from an Israeli perspective is a solution internal to Iran. In just the same way as Ahmadinejad was explaining in New York this week that he is not advocating a violent end to Israel's existence, but rather one which comes about by political evolution, so it is that I wish the same upon him. He faces a Presidential election in 2009 and, if the information that we receive from Tehran is accurate, he is up against some significant opposition. This same information indicates that the election will be won and lost on internal matters - the economy and social issues - rather than the foreign policy issues that he seems to have focused much of his Presidential time on. As such, the best approach for Israel, the US and other Western countries is to shore up the opposition as much as possible to ensure that a new President comes to power in the next election. Although we cannot be guaranteed that he will better than Ahmadinejad, it is clear that it can also not get much worse. It is hoped, however, that an evolutionary change will bring somebody to power who has a more engaging approach with the West. This will hopefully ensure a peaceful but decisive resolution to the Iran nuclear issue.

Whilst Ephraim Halevy may be believe that Ahmadinejad is Israel's greatest gift, I believe that it will be a greater gift when he is removed. It is my personal hope that this latter gift is received as soon as possible.

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