Nuclear chutzpah in the Middle East

Israel’s temerity, Iran’s bellicosity and America’s ambiguity could plunge the region in turmoil.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reviews Iran's new nuclear achievements during the National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran on April 10, 2021 [Iranian Presidency Office/WANA via Reuters]

Here they go again.

Iran has accused Israel of sabotaging its nuclear site in Natanz, portraying the attack as a “very bad gamble”, a desperate “revenge against the Iranian people for their success on the path of lifting international sanctions”. Once again, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has tried hard to put a brave face on a humiliating situation, threatening “revenge against the Zionists”.

Israel has responded on script with a conspicuous “no comment” posturing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeated his apocalyptic mantras about Iran’s evil intentions to develop nuclear weapons in order to “wipe out” Israel and his determination to stop it in its tracks, come what may.

Israel has carried out multiple assaults on Iran’s nuclear programme and its scientists over the years, countless airstrikes on its positions in Syria over the past decade, and a dozen attacks on its ships and oil tankers over the past two years. It is doing all, short of war, to slow down or destroy the Iranian nuclear programme and curtail its expanding influence in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, with the help of its newfound Arab best friends.

Iran has responded by mostly escalating its rhetorical menace, but has not undertaken any major retaliatory attacks, aside from reportedly targeting a couple of Israeli ships. Meanwhile, it continues to accelerate its uranium enrichment and take advantage of US blunders in the region to expand its destabilising projection of power across the Middle East.

The continued escalation has been dubbed a “shadow war”, characterised by ongoing “tit-for-tat attacks” that fall short of direct military confrontation or an all-out war.

But in reality, these have been mostly preemptive attacks in what increasingly appears to be an Israeli “war of attrition” against Iran, aimed at curbing its provocative regional influence across the Middle East, including Israel’s immediate surroundings.

Although so far direct military engagement has been avoided, the two countries are in a race against time and are bound to make hasty decisions in a reckless brinkmanship to deter each other.

Considering that the latest attacks constitute a dangerous escalation, Washington’s silence is deafening. The Biden administration has chosen to simply distance itself from the incident, as if it were a mere spectator, raising doubts about its commitment to replace the irresponsible policies of its predecessor with meaningful diplomacy.

I doubt the Biden administration was in on Israel’s attack before it happened, even if, as some argue, it could benefit from it in the negotiations.

The attack was timed to essentially embarrass the US and chastise it for deciding to return to negotiations with Iran. It coincided with the start of the indirect US-Iran meeting in Vienna, where the US declared its readiness to lift all sanctions in order to revive the tattered nuclear deal.

It also coincided with the visit of US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin to Israel, who, nevertheless, underlined US “enduring and ironclad” commitment to maintaining Israel’s strategic superiority in the Middle East – a bizarre and exaggerated commitment that will continue to humiliate Middle Easterners and destabilise the region for years to come.

Biden suffered a similar personal humiliation in 2010, when the Netanyahu government timed its announcement of more illegal settlement expansion while he was in the country to revive the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

But unlike in Palestine, where the response to Israeli provocations is limited, the repercussions of Israeli attacks on Iran could lead to a catastrophic escalation.

Already, Iran has bombastically declared its intention to begin enriching uranium up to 60 percent from its current 20 percent level, getting it ever closer to a weapons-grade level. It has argued that it needs such high-grade fuel to power nuclear ships, but it has no such vessels in its navy.

This is sure to elicit another Israeli attack. The situation is on the brink of spiralling out of control, leading to serious regional turmoil and leaving American diplomacy in tatters.

That is why the Biden administration and its powerful international partners in the nuclear deal must move quickly, to restrain both Israel and Iran and to deter them from taking further unilateral actions by passing a biding UN Security Council resolution to deescalate tension.

Needless to say, Biden will likely face nasty opposition from powerful pro-Israeli players in Washington and especially in Congress. But as Israel’s only enabler, the US government has an obligation to tame its client’s reckless behaviour, no less when it is enthusiastically acting in its favour to contain Iran’s nuclear ambition.

It takes a great deal of chutzpah for Israel to reward its patron with such humiliation, when the US has consistently shielded it against international condemnation or retaliation for its decades-old nuclear weapons programme, an obnoxious fact that no one of considerable influence even mentions any more.

I am truly at a loss as to why Israel does not simply show gratitude instead of grudge, by helping, not hindering, renewed US attempts at curtailing Iran’s nuclear programme through diplomacy.

Yes, Israel does have legitimate security concerns, too. But those can only be resolved not by waging more wars, making more enemies, and subjugating more nations to its whims, but by ending its military occupation of Palestine and its illegal expansion into Palestinian and Arab lands.

How many wars must America wage in the Middle East for Israel to feel safe? How many wars must Israelis fight for Netanyahu to stay in power? How many Arab states must be destabilised for Iran to regain its pride? How many people must die, before it is enough?