Israel, Iran and the US: Axis of instability

Ratcheting up geopolitical tension isn’t likely to contribute to peace or stability.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has long been an effective lobbyist within Washington circles [GALLO/GETTY]

Cairo, Egypt – In Iran, it doesn’t take much to capture the interest of “terrorists”. The pursuit of a career in material sciences, for instance, is enough to animate their small minds.

Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan was a 32-year-old Iranian father and a nuclear scientist. Earlier this month, an assassin attached a magnetic explosive device to his car in Tehran. The bomb was detonated and both Ahmadi-Roshan and his driver were killed in the explosion.

In the civilised world, the lives of scientists and other civilians are formally protected from directed inter-state violence. Numerous international norms and conventions are designed to isolate civilians from the most brutal consequences of armed conflicts. In war, the act of deliberately targeting civilians or their infrastructure is a criminal one. In the absence of war, however, the act of targeting civilians is terrorism. And assassinating civilians in order to affect political subterfuge is an especially ugly kind of terrorism.

Events unfolded predictably after Ahmadi-Roshan’s murder. The Iranian government quickly blamed the US and Israelis for perpetrating the assassination (the British were tacked on for good measure). The US and the British responded with fast and vociferous denials, while the Israelis only offered mealy mouthed non-denials.

Unsurprisingly, it has been reported that Israeli Mossad agents were responsible for killing the young scientist; the hit had all the agency’s flamboyant and theatrical hallmarks. Equally unsurprising was the extent to which the US went to distance themselves from the ill-advised Israeli decision to terrorise civilians in Tehran. After all, the two countries have vastly different interests when it comes to igniting another war in the Gulf.

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Israeli leaders are not irrational. They know what is at stake. A scenario where the US attacks Iran can only improve their relative political position vis-à-vis Iran. And with little perceived risk to themselves.

Power struggle

The most popular refrain in Israel (and Congress) today is that Iran poses an existential threat to the small Jewish-majority state. That is because Iran is apparently pursuing a nuclear weapon. Once that supposed nuclear weapon has been manufactured, Iranian mullahs will order that it be employed and await their own annihilation in rapturous, convulsive ecstasy (Israel possesses about 200 nuclear weapons).

In reality, however, the Israelis understand that Iran will not pursue anyone’s eradication – their more honest leaders say so regularly. The two countries are engaged in the kind of regional power struggle that has been the preserve of insurgent powers for centuries now. The Israelis possess a qualitative military advantage which the Iranians seek to neutralise. One very effective way of doing so has been to nurture asymmetrical guerrilla organisations such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. Another way of shrinking the Israeli advantage is by pursuing nuclear weapons.

To be sure, it is far from clear that the Iranians are pursuing a nuclear weapon. Their nuclear enrichment programme is legal under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, which they have signed and ratified. But the Iranians have no doubt taken note of two recent and relevant case studies: North Korea and Libya. Kim Jong-Il died of natural causes. Muammar Gadaffi did not.

Binyamin Netanyahu made a two-fold calculation when he ordered Ahmadi-Roshan’s murder. First, the Iranians may react – or overreact – to the assassination. That would provide the US and the Israelis with the kind of flimsy political cover they require to attack. In the anarchical world of inter-state competition, few states in the Middle East would actually object to a US attack, particularly if the Iranians could be made to appear confrontational. Indeed, the Saudi Arabian leadership would like nothing better than for the US to contain Iran, a regional rival.

Second, should the Iranians react – by closing the Strait of Hormuz, for example – the subsequent damage to the global and US economies may aid in unseating the incumbent US president.

This is a point that bears emphasising. For decades now, Israeli leaders have injected themselves into domestic US politics. Netanyahu especially has been an active lobbyist in Congress; the New York Times calls him “singularly influential”.

During President Clinton’s Democratic administration, Netanyahu worked with then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a Republican, to antagonise the president. Now, as then, the Israeli prime minister has cultivated a poor relationship with the US president. Barack Obama is not Netanyahu’s preferred choice for the US, despite his pliancy on the question of Israeli theft of Palestinian land.

Netanyahu’s choice?

The November presidential election in the US will hinge on one issue – the strength of the economy. The latest series of leading economic indicators suggest that Obama has done a reasonably good job of forestalling the kind of economic collapse that could cost him the incumbency. But the domestic economy remains fragile and any significant shocks to global commerce could shatter the US recovery.

In other words, a confrontation with Iran could result in a Republican presidency in 2013. Netanyahu believes that Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney – both ardent Zionists – would be more receptive to his views. Recent comments issued by both men suggest that he may be right.

Barack Obama – who is a perhaps more skillful and wily politician than even Netanyahu – seems to understand the consequences of a significant conflict with Iran. He instructed his subordinates to distance the US from the Israeli assassination of the Iranian scientist and also cancelled scheduled war games in the region. He also reportedly recently communicated directly with the Iranian leadership about US interests in the Strait of Hormuz.

In an environment where bluster and vague intentions can have an outsized negative impact, Obama has sent clear signals that the United States does not seek war with Iran at the present time.

The Iranians too cannot benefit from a war with the US. The destruction of Iraq – a formerly antagonistic state – has strengthened their regional position immeasurably. Today, the soft influence they exert in that country rivals even that of the US.

They also stand to increase their influence in other regional states, particularly if a nuclear weapon is successfully developed. For the Iranian regime, the status-quo is a substantial improvement over their position ten years ago, and war at this time would derail much of the progress they have made.

While the interests of Iran, the US, Israel and the Gulf states are clear enough, the behaviour of leaders in those countries remains difficult to predict. Israel does not possess the military ability to destroy Iran’s enrichment facilities on its own and the US administration has no interest in going to war.

But the Netanyahu government may still decide to strike Iran without US approval. The Israeli leader will rely heavily on his allies in Congress to engineer his rescue and Obama may have no choice but to respond to their pressure. But even in this scenario, Netanyahu will want to appear to be responding to an Iranian provocation.

The Iranians, for their part, appear to know better. They responded to Ahmadi-Roshan’s murder with a letter – hardly a pretext for war.

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American graduate student of Public Policy at Harvard University and co-editor of After Zionism (Saqi Books, July 2012).


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