January 15, 2006

The nuclear nightmare that looms over the Middle East

Posted in International Economy ·
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The Jaffa Road is one of the most spectacular sights in Jerusalem.

Architecturally, it is no great shakes (apart from the odd 19th century Ottoman merchant’s house and a couple of ancient synagogues); it’s the people that make it. At one end, the Machane Yehuda souk bustles with life, smelling of exotic spices and buzzing with the background staccato of customers and shop owners haggling.

To your left is Ethiopia Road, home to one of the most beautiful churches in the world, built in 1894 to commemorate the visit of the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Just over the road, is the ultra orthodox district of Mea She’arim where you feel that you have just stepped back in time to a shtetl in late 18th century Eastern Poland. This is home to various different sub-branches of Hassidim.

At first they look the same, with black hats, ringlets and an apparently unhealthy pallor, but then you notice that different socks, cuffs and hats denote profound tribal, religious and hierarchical differences.

It was here – in the centre of the Middle Eastern cauldron – over dinner last Thursday night that I got the Israeli view on the latest crisis in Iran. The Israeli view is central to understanding the danger of the emerging showdown between the West and Iran, because the Israeli reaction will determine the outcome.

Let’s get to the point quickly. In order of preference, there are only three ways out of this conundrum. First, and most preferable, is that the UN imposes sanctions on Iran and that this works. The second is that the US air force, launched from Iraq, attacks the Iranian instalments, neutralising the Iranian nuclear programme. The third is that the Israeli air force destroys the Iranian plant as it did Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. The last option is clearly the most dangerous for the region, but alas is the most likely one.

�Why don’t you in Europe believe what this man says?�’ my Israeli friends asked. They were referring to the declaration in October by the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel should be �wiped off the map’�. In fairness to them, the last time a small man said that he was going to kill the Jews nobody believed him. Ultimately, Hitler meant what he said. President Ahmadinejad went on in December to call the Holocaust a �myth’�. So it is not hard to see why the average Israeli takes this guy and his nuclear threat seriously, even if we do not.

Israelis are dismayed at our response (or lack of it) to his official statement that �Israel should be wiped off the map’�.

Did any country withdraw ambassadors, break off trade relations or even launch an official complaint or demand an apology? No. Let’s look at it from their perspective: one member of the United Nations calls for the destruction of another and yet nobody bats an eyelid. No wonder Israelis feel isolated.

Now imagine if Ariel Sharon had said the same thing in the Knesset? Imagine if the former general looked into a camera and solemnly stated that Iran should be wiped off the map. What do you think the reaction would have been? It is not unreasonable to suggest that every paper in the West would have carried it as front page news, with editorials deploring the naked aggression of the Zionist state. But when the Iranians call for Israel’s obliteration, we shrug and dismiss the president of a country which has over 10 per cent of the world’s oil reserves as a comic buffoon, in much the same way as Charlie Chaplin in 1940 dismissed Hitler with his parody, The Great Dictator.

Now let’s look at things from the Iranian side. They see nuclear warheads as probably their only guarantee against American aggression in the region, even if the US is not the same power it was in 2003. Granted, gone is the swagger of March 2003 when, after the rapid fall of Baghdad, American politicians were asking whether they would �turn left or right’�, referring to whether the mighty US army should invade Syria or Iran next.

Even if this self-confidence has evaporated, when seen from Tehran, America – even a humbled America – is still a threat. Nor has the lesson of North Korea gone unnoticed. Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons has been its only bargaining chip and the stand-off between it and the West implies that the international community responds positively to that threat. The lesson is simple: no matter how much they dislike you, if you have the bomb, the Yanks won’t touch you.

A second fact that has emboldened the Iranians is that their hand in the region has been strengthened immeasurably by US bungling in Iraq. Iran is now a power broker with the Shia majority in Iraq and many observers conclude that the US can only get out of that country with the help of Iran. So as Iran marches forward in its quest for nuclear power and, down the road, to regional hegemony and, eventually, the achievement of Shi’ite Islam’s global dominion, a weakened US leads the West in running away from the inevitable confrontation.

A third factor is, of course, the tripling in the price of oil since the US went into Iraq. This has directly enriched Iran and strengthened the extremists who run the country. Their regional clout has never been stronger and it is beginning to dawn on many in the West and in Moscow, that Iran can disrupt not only the old centre of energy production (the Persian Gulf), but also the emerging new one (Central Asia and the Caspian region).

Remember also that Iran is the sworn enemy of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis would react to Iran’s nuclear acquisition with an effort to buy such technology for itself. Similarly, the prospect of Iran having nuclear weapons might lead it to be regarded as the leader of the Muslim peoples in the region. This would irk Mubarak’s Egypt – traditionally the Muslim strong man – causing it to react, probably by trying to build a bomb. Thus the prospect of a nuclear arms race in an already volatile region could become a reality. In recent days, the urgent reaction of the EU and the US suggests that they see developments in Iran as the most serious threat to the continued wellbeing of the global economy in 2006.

However, the US tendency post-Iraq will be to placate, rather than confront, Iran. Sanctions are likely if the Iranians don’t back down, but sanctions only work when special conditions are in place. History shows that sanctions really only bite when a broad, comfortable middle class supports the regime, like in apartheid South Africa.

In that case, sanctions affected and hurt the regime’s power base, ultimately bringing it down. In other countries – such as Serbia and Iraq – sanctions, by emasculating the western-orientated middle classes who are the only possible internal opposition, actually strengthen the clique in power.

Given that the president of Iran wants them wiped off the face of the earth and might use his nukes to do that, what will the Israelis do? Will (probably ineffectual) sanctions be enough to prevent the Israelis from launching a pre-emptive strike? It is difficult to tell, but given that America has been chastened by Iraq, don’t be surprised if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities. And on the basis that the president of Iran is a man of his word, if you were living on the Jaffa Road, would you object?


  1. Pete

    Your explanation of why sanctions sometimes work and
    sometimes don’t is good, and suggests that they probably
    won’t work in Iran, since the middle class there generally
    doesn’t seem to support the regime.
    Also, if sanctions are imposed, Iran has threatened to
    stop pumping oil, in order to drive up the price of oil to
    levels that would send western economies into recession. I
    don’t know if they have enough market share to do that,
    but if they do it puts them in a pretty strong bargaining
    position.

  2. Andy M

    That is am excellent article. It gives a fair view of the
    middle eastern situation. One point I would make is that
    the statement by Iran about Israel DID become major news
    worldwide. Another is that Israel HAS made such statements
    about wiping ot other countries and what’s more has carried
    them out – Palestine. Watch how the maps change monthly
    simply because of who controls many major American media
    houses.

    as an Irish and European citizen I feel stuck. I see Iran
    as more of a threat to Europe, but on the other hand I see
    Israel and to some extent the US as carrying out more
    atrocious crimes against civilians and other countries. It
    is hard to support what is right when it is nto supporting
    yourself.

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