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Who is the real threat: Iran or Israel?

Israel continues to threaten Iran, despite the new dawn in Iranian diplomacy spearheaded by President Rouhani.

Last Modified: 22 Oct 2013 13:30
Akbar Ganji

Akbar Ganji is one of Iran's leading political dissidents and has received over a dozen human rights awards for his efforts. Imprisoned in Iran until 2006, he is author of one book in English, The Road to Democracy in Iran, which lays out a strategy for a nonviolent transition to democracy in Iran.
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"Israel now poses a more serious existential threat to Iran than Iran can pose to Israel in the near term, states a report from Centre for Strategic and International Studies [AP]

During his eight-year presidency Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly used inhumane and absurd language to speak about the existence of Israel and cast doubt on the catastrophic events of the Holocaust, and by doing so he served extremists such as Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu well, to the extent that he was favoured by many Israeli officials in the presidential elections of 2009.

Netanyahu, who is the biggest loser in the outcome of Iran's last presidential elections, called President Hassan Rouhani a "wolf in sheep's clothing", alleging that he smiles while building a nuclear bomb.

In my recent article, Iran's olive branch, I demonstrate the fallacy of Netanyahu's arguments. The fact is that Netanyahu and his government have tried to bring the Iran "nuclear threat" to the foreground in order to sideline other major issues, including the continued occupation of Palestinian lands and denying citizenship rights to its inhabitants. The fact that has been neglected is that Israel has been building hundreds of nuclear warheads and it threatens Iran with military attacks.

Iran's nuclear bomb is a product of Israel's propaganda. Since 1992, Netanyahu and current Israeli President Shimon Peres have repeatedly claimed that Iran will build a nuclear weapon over the next few years. Here are  two out of many examples:

1992: Israeli parliamentarian Netanyahu tells his colleagues that Iran is three to five years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon - and that the threat had to be "uprooted by an international front headed by the US".

1992: Israeli Foreign Minister Peres tells French TV that Iran was set to have nuclear warheads by 1999. "Iran is the greatest threat and greatest problem in the Middle East," Peres warned, "because it seeks the nuclear option while holding a highly dangerous stance of extreme religious militancy."

I think that we have exaggerated, for a long time, the potential threat of Iran possessing nuclear power.

- Ehud Olmert, former Israeli prime minister

After 21 years, Netanyahu is now declaring that if Iran possesses 250kg of uranium enriched at 20 percent, Israel will bomb its nuclear sites. This is while Israel possesses up to 200 nuclear warheads and is not a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). According to newly-released documents, 50 years ago,  Israel secretly received thousands of kilograms of "yellow cake", an essential product for fueling nuclear weapons, from Argentina. Israel continues to build nuclear weapons without any monitoring or inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

On the other hand, Iran is a signatory to the NPT, and is under close monitoring and inspection by the IAEA.  Further, according to the NPT, member states are entitled to the peaceful use of nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment.

A history of military threats against Iran

Israel has repeatedly tried to provoke the US into attacking Iran. In an interview with the Times of London on November 5, 2002, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tried to persuade the US to attack Iran. Calling Iran a "centre of world terror" that is pursuing nuclear weapons, Sharon insisted that the US put pressure on Tehran, the "day after action against Baghdad ends".

In April 2003, Daniel Ayalon, then Israeli ambassador to the US, called for regime change in Iran and Syria, claiming in a conference that "it [the US] has to follow through." In the same year, other Israeli officials spoke repeatedly about the possibility of Israeli unilateral attacks on Iran's nuclear sites. Then Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned that "under no circumstances would Israel be able to tolerate nuclear weapons in Iranian possession."

In January 2005, Seymour Hersh reported, "The Defence Department civilians, under the leadership of [Under-secretary of Defence for Policy] Douglas Feith, have been working with Israeli planners and consultants to develop and refine potential nuclear, chemical-weapons, and missile targets inside Iran."

In April 2005, Sharon said, "Israel - and not only Israel - cannot accept a nuclear Iran. We have the ability to deal with this and we’re making all the necessary preparations to be ready for such a situation."Sharon had reportedly ordered the IDF to develop plans for attacking Iran by March 2006. In the same month, when the IDF chief Dan Halutz was asked, how far Israel was willing to go to stop Iran's nuclear program, he responded, "two thousand kilometres," meaning Tehran. In response to Ahmadinejad's infamous and incorrectly translated statement that "Israel must be wiped off the map," Peres said, "Iran can also be wiped off the map."

After a meeting in July 2009 with then US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, Ehud Barak, Israel's Defence Minister, said that attacking Iran's nuclear facilities is an option, adding, "We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table. This is our policy; we mean it. We recommend to others to take the same position …."

Barak and Netanyahu were determined to attack Iran in 2010, but were thwarted by the military and intelligence establishments within Israel. In November 2012, Netanyahu again threatened Iran with military attacks, even if the US does not go along.

On June 19 Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s new Defense Minister called for "significant increase in pressure by Western countries to lead Iran to the dilemma of either having a bomb or surviving."

In the latest of such provocations, in an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria on August 9, Barak emphasised again that attacking Iran is a serious option for Israel. He added that Iran must be made to understand, either behind closed doors or publicly, that the military option is serious, and if they cross the red line [set by Netanyahu], military attacks will prevent them from building nuclear weapons.

I don't think [Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.

- Lt Gen Benny Gantz, IDF chief

Israel is the real threat

Even if Iran wanted to, it lacks the capability to attack Israel. The Jerusalem Post reported on April 28 that in a meeting in New York, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert talked about Netanyahu's claims about Iran's nuclear capability and said, "I think that we have exaggerated, for a long time, the potential threat of Iran possessing nuclear power."

In a research paper released by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, military analyst Anthony Cordesman stated that "Israel now poses a more serious existential threat to Iran than Iran can pose to Israel in the near term." Adding, "Israel long ago extended the range of its nuclear-armed, land-based missiles, probably now targets Iran with thermonuclear weapons, and is examining options for sea launched cruise missiles."  And according to the CSIS report, "A mix of several air and ground bursts in an Israeli thermonuclear or high fission yield attack on five key cities - Tehran (capital) 7.19 million; Mashhad 2.592 million; Esfahan 1.704 million; Karaj 1.531 million; Tabriz 1.459 million - would probably destroy Iran as a nation in anything like its current form."

Through its powerful lobby, Israel has succeeded in convincing the US Senate to unanimously pass a resolution that stated that if Israel attacked Iran, the US must help it. Senate Resolution 65 declared that:

"If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self defense against Iran's nuclear weapons program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with United States law and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence."

Before the recent diplomatic opening at the United Nations General Assembly meetings, there was even speculation about a secret agreement between the US and Israel whereby, in return for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians, the US will not oppose Israel's attacks on Iran as strongly as in the past. John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations, told Fox Business Network on July 29, that Netanyahu agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners because he wants to be able to tell Obama, "I have done everything you asked me on the Israel-Palestinian question, despite the political cost, now I want you to stand with me against Iran."

The facts on the ground

Israel has hundreds of nuclear warheads, but Netanyahu does not recognise Iran's right to enrich uranium within the NPT framework. The IDF chief, Lt Gen Benny Gantz, has said that he does not believe Iran will build a nuclear weapon. He was quoted as saying, "I don't think [Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people."

To justify military aggression against Iran - a nation that has not attacked another country for almost 300 years - Netanyahu constantly likens Iran to Nazi Germany.

In fact Khamenei's suggestion for resolving the problem between Israel and the Palestinians is to hold a referendum on the future of all of the Palestinian territories in which Israelis and Palestinians, including those that are refugees, can vote. Regardless of how one thinks about the plausibility of such a proposal, he believes that because Palestinians will be in the majority, they will liberate their nation - akin to what happened in South Africa - in which the Jewish people can also live in peace.

Netanyahu staged the last episode of this two-decade-old campaign of constructing an image of Iran as the most imminent global threat on October 1, during his UNGA speech. He devoted 214 words - less than seven percent of his speech - to the main issue, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in those words he set two conditions for the Palestinians: Recognise Israel as a "Jewish state", and thus formally accept second-class citizenship for those 25 percent of the population of Israel who are not Jews; and accept a "demilitarised" Palestinian state. He did not mention anything about the illegal settlements in the occupied territories, status of the borders or the refugees. That is the kind of "painful compromise" he intends to make on the Palestinian issue.

The speech was meant to portray the conflict as a four-thousand-year-old story of wars among prophets, kings, ancient empires and catastrophic events. Elevating a conflict over land and water and other resources to the realm of God and prophets is the best way of mystifying the political reality of a 46-year-old occupation of land and collective punishment of its people, and, in the same act, making the resolution of the conflict impossible. That is the rationale behind the magnification of the "Iranian menace". 

In the same speech Netanyahu again threatened Iran with military attacks. In his numerous speeches and interviews while in New York, Netanyahu claimed that Iran is after the destruction of Israel by creating another Holocaust.

To justify military aggression against Iran - who unlike Israel, has not attacked another country for almost 300 years - Netanyahu constantly likens Iran to Nazi Germany - see here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Iranians are deeply worried about a possible Israeli military attack. Even if such an attack is restricted to Iran's nuclear facilities, the resulting radiation and contamination will kill a large number of people. An extensive study by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman of CSIS, shows that attacking Iran's nuclear sites will kill and injure hundreds of thousands of people. It will also release radioactive nuclear materials in the air, farms, and groundwater resources. Another study by Dan Plesch and Martin Butcher of Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London concluded that attacking Iran's nuclear and chemical sites could kill over 2 million people.

The Middle East needs peace, not instability, war, enmity, inequality, and double standards. Without security and peace, democracy and respect for human rights will be marginalised.

Akbar Ganji is one of Iran's leading political dissidents and has received over a dozen human rights awards for his efforts. Imprisoned in Iran until 2006, he is author of one book in English, The Road to Democracy in Iran, which lays out a strategy for a nonviolent transition to democracy in Iran.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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