It seems that the Western media can't get enough of what other sanctions we can slap on Iran, thanks to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s banal banter that Iran is out to get Israel. Logically, we might ask, what might things look like from Iran’s point of view, looking at the West and Israel -- and applying the same criteria we use on Iran?
First, Iran’s hypothetical nuclear weapons are a threat to the world. Granted, but Iran is next to Afghanistan to the East, and just behind this no man’s land lie Pakistan and India. The former’s chronic instability and its proximity to Iran particularly worry planners in Tehran, because a collapsed Pakistani state with loose nukes would quickly make Israel and America footnotes in Iran’s strategic outlook.
To the West lies Iraq – geographically, it is at the center of the Middle East, and for now, it is assumed to be under increasing Iranian influence, but this may very well be a short respite in what has historically been a volatile Western border for Iran. Until recently, it was a potential second front for Iran. Should Iraq find its economic and strategic legs again, that relationship might eventually revert to its historically suspicious character.
Afghanistan is nothing more than a paper state at this point in time, and as such, represents a significant security risk for Iran. The presence of ISAF forces is not only for hunting terrorists, but also acts as a strong deterrent against Iran, while they’re there. Given that Western hardware is on its doorstep in a country that could collapse on itself once more, Afghanistan probably rates as high as Pakistan in Iran’s foreign policy agenda. Despite the withdrawal of Western forces, the disintegration of the social fabric from ethnic and religious problems could affect eastern Iran negatively.
Israel is of strategic concern for Iran for several reasons. First is the fact that it’s a nuclear state that does not submit to any nuclear treaty or agreement. We should thank the French for giving Israel the technology back in the day and then proceed to call it a rogue state for having the audacity to go nuclear without telling anybody, because that’s what we do with North Korea, for example! And then we have something to say to Iran? With this in mind, Netanyahu shouldn’t be speaking at all. At least, Pyongyang and Teheran are willing to let someone see some of what they’re doing, even if it’s once in a while -- and we might as well call Dimona “Area 51” of the Middle East.
Second, Netanyahu’s calls for a preemptive strike on Iran are backed up by Israel’s history of preemptive strikes for various reasons around the Middle East, including Osirak in 1981 and Syria in 2007. Logic would demand that Israel is thus a lot more likely to carry out this threat and Iran has a very logical right to be worried about it and adopt a defensive posture. What’s more, aside from the dirty subterranean game of chicken Tel Aviv and Teheran are playing in the Mideast, Iran has not formally invaded anybody in centuries, whereas that’s one way to frame Israel’s short history of statehood.
Other Mideast authoritarians who gave up their nuclear ambitions were consequently removed by force. Two precedents offer food for thought: Saddam in Iraq and Qaddafi in Libya. Every regime, no matter how perverse and despicable, wants to survive as long as possible. That is perfectly rational, and nuclear weapons are a strong, if imperfect, guarantor of that; imperfect, because the USSR and Pakistan, as nuclear powers, suffered either from historical extinction or coup d’état, respectively. Thus, while Iran may hold off on the nuclear weapons thing, an attack from Israel will be just the ticket to develop them. Moreover, it would be a valid response to a legitimate security concern, since getting attacked is never a fun activity for anybody, and assure the survival of a regime that does not particularly care for what the West has to say.
Shortly put, this is what’s going on in the heads of Iranian policymakers: since Iran cannot take on the world at once, it has to do three things: act asymmetrically, keep nuclear uncertainty going as long as possible and make an attack prohibitively costly – politically and in hard numbers. Why would Iran not want nuclear weapons? First, because they suck a lot of money and produce absolutely nothing. Second, mastering the atom offers incredibly profitable civilian applications and third, jumpstarts scientific development, where investments in fundamental research can be exponentially returned into the real economy. Yes, one day China and Iran might just built a large collider in the outskirts of Teheran and clash fundamental particles too.
If an attack happens before the American elections in November, America will have a strategic choice to make – does it cut off Israel, or keep it going? The trade will be bitter, because on the one side of the scale is America’s entire influence in the Mideast and on the other, Israel’s viability as a state, because it cannot hope to survive in the war of attrition that would follow without American support. Bibi would be wise to keep this in mind, because a very likely second term for Obama combines with a very cool Tel Aviv-Washington relationship and a severe fiscal limit on America’s abilities, which puts the outcome of such a war in a very doubtful light.
I’ve said this before, but let me say it again: if to nobody else, let’s listen to the Israeli people, because they may have the most to lose from a misguided foreign policy out of Tel Aviv, and seem to have the most common sense out of anybody in power or the analyst business.
They don’t want war with Iran, neither do we, and Iranians least of all.