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Opinion

Nuclear chutzpah*

Marwan Bishara examines claims and counter-claims by Israel and Iran regarding their nuclear and regional policies.

Last updated: 05 Dec 2013 13:04
Marwan Bishara

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.
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Iran has agreed to full inspections of its nuclear facilities by the IAEA [AP]

The unwritten rule in US and other Western capitals regarding nukes is: Don't mention Israel's nuclear programme. Even journalists in the mainstream media don't, or won't, ask the Israeli or Western officials simple and direct questions about Israel's nukes.

There seems to be an "unspoken understanding" that Israel's bombs are best left unmentioned, even when, as Micah Zenko writes in Foreign Policy, "Israeli officials routinely hint at missions where they would be used - specifically for deterrence or to threaten deeply buried targets in Iran."

Ever since it was built with France's help in the 1950s, Israel has rejected any international inspections or oversight of its reactor in the southern part of the country. Any leaks from this decades-old reactor in Dimona could affect millions of Israelis and Palestinians.

Meanwhile, the world's powers have signed an agreement with Iran, which allows them access to most of the country's nuclear sites. They also put to rest the possibility that Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would have been a major blow to nuclear non-proliferation and would have had disastrous implications for the region and world security. A balance of nuclear terror between Israel and Iran wouldn't have necessarily led to the same result as the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union.

According to some Western estimates, a worst case scenario of future nuclear confrontation between Israel and Iran would lead to (wild as it may seem) some 27 million Iranian deaths and two million Israeli deaths.

But thanks to the recent rounds of negotiations, the Iranian programme is about to be fully transparent, inspected and contained to ensure its use is limited to peaceful purposes.

However, the Israeli government and its supporters in Washington contend that Iran cannot be trusted; that it's dangerous, unpredictable, and is adamant on destroying Israel. 

To confirm or contradict such assertions, one needs to look at the facts, judge them by studying the historical record, and look at Iran's behaviour since 1979 and how it contrasts and conflates with Israel's.

Iran has made it abundantly clear on countless occasions that it stands against nuclear weapons and considers them un-Islamic.

Enriching difference

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that Iran signed in 1968, and ratified in 1970, allows for inspections of its facilities. Israel has refused to sign the NPT and rejects any inspection or oversight by any international body.

Iran has made it abundantly clear on countless occasions that it stands against nuclear weapons and considers them un-Islamic. Israel maintains opacity - or "transparent ambiguity" regarding its nuclear status; so transparent, in fact, that anyone in the world is privy to the idea that Israel is committed to its nuclear deterrence.

Iran insists on its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the supervision of the IAEA. Israel insists on its right to enrich weapon-grade plutonium outside the framework of the NPT.

Iran has been accused of concealing parts of its programmes and failing to meet its obligation under the NPT treaty. Israel has fully concealed its nuclear weapon programme and rejected any international authority or safeguards of its reactor.

Iran has joined 19 rounds of negotiations on its nuclear programme over the last ten years. Israel has rejected negotiations and any mention or discussion about them.

Iran arrived at three agreements in 2003 and 2004, to freeze its uranium enrichment. Israel reached no agreements and condemned any dealings with Iran.

Iran secretly negotiated with the US to get rid of uranium enriched above 20 percent. Israel has reportedly been covertly assassinating Iranian scientists.

Iran agreed to subject its programme to strict international supervision without insisting that Israel do the same. Israel maintains that Iran must dismantle its entire nuclear programme without any mention of its own nuclear programme.

Iran's non-existent nuclear weapons have been the obsession of Western media, which has all too wilfully ignored Israel's existent arsenal.

The world referred to the agreement as a "historic deal". Israel referred to it as a "historic mistake" that will be regretted.

Iran's foreign minister Talks To Al Jazeera

Pragmatic Ayatollahs

Iran has finally reached an interim agreement with the world's leading powers, which in short, meets their demands on a number of fronts including serious inspections, and diluting the 20 percent uranium enrichment to five percent.

Regionally, the nuclear issue has several strategic dimensions. Iran wants Western recognition of its central role as a regional intermediary. Israel has used Western help to establish its military hegemony.

Iran, a country of 70 million and long a regional power and empire over thousands of years, is reclaiming its role in the Middle East. Israel, a country of seven million and a 60-year history, has been aggressively pursuing regional hegemony for decades.

Israel claims that Iran is dangerous and unpredictable. But the Iranian leaders have shown over the last four decades to be terribly pragmatic, as well as survivalists, who carefully calculate their steps all of which run into criticisms of irrationality.

Israel asserts that Iran is headed by a fundamentalist and apocalyptic leadership. The Ayatollahs have long chosen expediency over recklessness and are quite the appeasers in the interests of safeguarding their control and influence.

Iran boasts regional influence from Lebanon to Afghanistan. Israel is reportedly prepared to use an atomic bomb if faced with military defeat. Should we expect an attack on Gaza or Lebanon soon?

Iran claims that Israel is isolated and weakened and would be tamed. Israeli officials and supporters have cynically accused the West of appeasing Iran like they appeased the Nazis in Czechoslovakia in 1938.

Speaking of the West and cynicism: What has come out of President Barack Obama's commitment in Berlin towards "bold reductions" in US and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe? In his 2008 speech, didn't he call for "a world without nuclear weapons"?

The NPT also obliges nuclear powers to seek reduction and eventually the elimination of their nuclear arsenal, a process that entices other states like Iran to sign on to the NPT. But the record shows that while some reduction has taken place, it has been too slow, while these powers have been modernising their nuclear programmes.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, the US and Russia have several thousand nuclear warheads each, while France has 300 warheads, China 240, Britain 225. India, Pakistan and Israel are estimated to have 100 each.

In Israel, as in Iran, militant leaders have shown political tenacity and a capacity for survival that dwarfs any perception of sentimentality or principle. For them all means seem to justify their political ends.

Eerie similarities

Iranian and Israeli leaders have long been useful to one other. They tend to repeat their respective populist declarations as demonstrative revelations for the purpose of inflaming the national sentiment to garner public support. Framing their national and strategic antagonism in theological terms further complicates and deepens their differences.

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's call for "ending the Zionist regime" has been used by the Israeli right, just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call for punishing Iran has been used by the Ayatollahs in Tehran. Likewise, the recent statement by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that Israel is a "rabid dog", served Netanyahu internally, just as Netanyahu's claim that "Iran is getting everything and giving nothing", has been used by the Ayatollahs to underline their claims of no compromise.

Despite the populist and inflammatory rhetoric of many in the Iranian and Israeli leadership, in practice, they've been more preoccupied by power politics than any greater principle.

They've also long given up on their slogans of "revolution for the weak", or a "nation of survivors", in return for embracing cold calculated strategies aimed at strengthening their grip on power and advancing their national interests in the region and beyond.

Their strategic calculus in Syria and Lebanon goes a long way to underline a cynical and outright contemptuous approach to human rights.  

In Israel, as in Iran, militant leaders have shown political tenacity and a capacity for survival that dwarfs any perception of sentimentality or principle. For them all means seem to justify their political ends.

Having long dramatised their plight and inflamed their supporters, taming or reversing their habitual dramas could prove to be a huge challenge.

*Author's note: Chutzpah, a concept taken from Yiddish with numerous old theological and modern sociological and legal uses. Pronounced HUTS-pah or KHOOTS-pah, Chutzpah is "presumption-plus-arrogance". For example, Chutzpah is killing one's own parents and then begging the court to have mercy on an orphan! 

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

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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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