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Edition 3 Volume 10 - January 19, 2012

Iran, the US and Israel: toward open conflict?

The major geostrategic challenge of 2012  - David Menashri
There are many ways to delay the Iranian nuclear program short of the hazardous military option.

Iran is not an existential threat  - Bruce Riedel
Even if Iran gets the bomb, Israel will have overwhelming military superiority over Iran.

Accepting the inevitable: a nuclear Iran  - Mamdouh G. Salameh
Neither sanctions nor war against Iran will force it to relinquish its nuclear program.

Israel is the main beneficiary  - Sadegh Zibakalam
This, then, is when the Iranian threat to close the strait becomes serious.

The major geostrategic challenge of 2012
 David Menashri

The year 2012 commenced with an escalation of hardnosed rhetoric between the United States and Iran. More than ever, the drumbeat for a military strike on Iran was heard, aimed at disrupting its military nuclear program. Iran responded with threats warning of the consequences of any such attack.

Top US officials made their resolve clear, suggesting that a military strike was a viable option in the US toolkit for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. President Barack Obama underscored that it would be unacceptable for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, pledging to "keep up the pressure" and taking no option "off the table". Defense Secretary Leon Panetta alluded to a tight timetable, presenting 2012 as the critical year in which Iran could be capable of developing nuclear weapons. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey cautioned against a possible Iranian miscalculation "that would be a tragedy for the region and the world."

In the meantime, a series of mysterious explosions and assassinations of nuclear scientists and an escalating cyber-war have led to speculation that various states are contesting the Iranian program in the shadows. This was accompanied with publicized reports of massive American arm sales to Iran's Arab neighbors.

Iran's harsh response went so far as to threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz--the key strategic waterway that serves as a conduit for some one-third of the world's oil. Iran's navy chief, Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, voiced this threat publicly and First Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi reiterated that western economic pressure would come at a steep cost: not a drop of oil would pass through Hormuz if more sanctions were levied. Late in December, Iran launched a 10-day naval exercise to demonstrate that it could back its threats with action. Iran then warned the US not to return an aircraft carrier "to the Persian Gulf region", adding bluntly: "We don't have the habit of repeating threats twice."

What fueled the current escalation? First is the recognition that the very possession of nuclear arms by a regime with such a radical ideology would dramatically change the geostrategic map of the Middle East. It could trigger nuclear proliferation throughout the region. Nuclear Iran would also serve as an umbrella for Islamist movements, like Hamas and Hizballah, leading to their greater radicalization.

The "Arab spring", Iran's reactive policy in the region (mainly in Bahrain and Syria), and its policies elsewhere (mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan) have rendered the Iranian challenge even more alarming. Moreover, while Iran's national interest until recently balanced its radical ideology, producing relative pragmatism, now Tehran seems to be primarily concerned with the regime's survival.

Suffice to imagine what could have happened if Muammar Gaddafi of Libya had nuclear weapons just a few months ago, or Iran's ally Bashar Assad of Syria possessed them these days. The International Atomic Energy Agency's November report suggesting Iran had a clandestine nuclear military program was thus another impetus for concern and escalation.

Then too, the recognition that pressure works to weaken Iran stimulated calls for greater pressure. The approaching US presidential elections, with Republican candidates censuring the administration for its mild policy, also caused the latter to issue harsher statements. Finally, US Middle East allies (mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel) have persistently pressured Washington to confront Iran. Thus Washington's rhetoric may have also been designed to calm its allies and probably dissuade them (mainly Israel) from taking independent steps that ultimately could drag the US into an open confrontation with Iran.

There is also recognition that Iran is weak and vulnerable and can still be pressured to reconsider its policy. Neither the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran nor the threats to close the Strait of Hormuz (which was not closed even during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War) signal strength. Pressures from within are bearing down on the Iranian regime: not only growing popular disenchantment, but also signs of cracks within the ruling elite, including divisions between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran has also been pummeled economically by the cumulative effects of Security Council sanctions together with those imposed independently by the US and the European Union. The most recent sanctions threats concerning Iran's oil exports and its banks have particularly raised serious concerns in Tehran. Iran's currency has plunged considerably against the US dollar recently and growing unemployment and inflation are squeezing the Iranian people. Although the popular riots of 2009 were crushed, many regime rivals killed or jailed, and the main leaders (Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi) placed under house arrest, under the surface the fire of rebellion still rages. While the Islamic regime has demonstrated its power to suppress dissenting voices, Iran's youth remain the main challenge to the regime and the main source of hope for its rivals.

Finally, this election year--for the Iranian parliament (spring) and the US presidency (autumn)--may have been instrumental in the current escalation. While the US election has clearly encouraged harsher statements, it may also serve as a deterrent against precisely such an eventuality. Yet, continued strong rhetoric could also lead to further escalation, and a miscalculation could deteriorate into actual confrontation even if neither side wants it.

Still, there are ways to delay the Iranian nuclear program short of the hazardous military option. A unified, uncompromising and united western policy might be sufficient to pressure Iran to rethink its nuclear policy, even without Russia and China on board. The West should demonstrate its "moral muscle" by harshly and consistently condemning the violation of human rights in Iran. Diplomatic pressure may also help: imagine if all EU countries had recalled their ambassadors from Iran, say, following the attack on the British Embassy. Sanctions against Iranian banks and targeted economic sanctions might bring significant pressure to bear on the regime. In contrast to the regime's inflated pretensions, Iran today is weak and vulnerable. At least in the past, Tehran has shown that, under exceeding pressure, it is capable of changing its policy, even on key issues.

So far, Iran has benefited from the transatlantic differences and divisions within western democracies. If states of the West could put their individual short-term economic interests aside, they would be able to collectively face what seems to be the major geostrategic challenge of 2012.-Published 19/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

David Menashri is president of the Academic Center of Law & Business and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University.

Iran is not an existential threat
 Bruce Riedel

The danger of war is growing again over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Iran is rattling its sabers, the Republican presidential candidates and others are rattling theirs. But even if Iran gets the bomb, Israel will have overwhelming military superiority over Iran, a fact that should not be lost in all the heated rhetoric.

Former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, says Iran won't get the bomb until at least 2015. In contrast, Israel has had nuclear weapons since the late 1960s and has jealously guarded its monopoly on them in the region. Israel has used force in the past against developing nuclear threats. Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 were the targets of highly effective Israeli air strikes against developing nuclear weapons programs. Israel has seriously considered conducting such a strike against Iran and may well do so especially now that it has special bunker-busting bombs from the US.

Estimates of the size of the Israeli arsenal by international think tanks generally concur that Israel has about 100 nuclear weapons, possibly 200. Even under a crash program, Iran won't achieve an arsenal that size for many years--perhaps decades.

Israel also has multiple delivery systems. It has intermediate range ballistic missiles, the Jericho, that are capable of reaching any target in Iran. Its fleet of F15 long-range strike aircraft can also deliver nuclear payloads. Some analysts have suggested that it can also deliver nuclear weapons from its German-made Dolphin submarines using cruise missiles.

Israel will also continue to have conventional military superiority over Iran and the rest of the region. The Israel Defense Forces has a demonstrated qualitative edge over all of its potential adversaries in the region, including Iran. The Israeli air force has the capability to penetrate air defense systems with virtual impunity as it demonstrated in 2007 when it destroyed Syria's nascent nuclear capability. The IDF's intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities are vastly superior to its potential rivals. The 2006 Lebanon war and the 2009 Gaza war demonstrated that there are limits to Israel's conventional capabilities but those limits should not obscure the underlying reality of Israel's conventional military superiority over its enemies.

Iran, on the other hand, has never fully rebuilt its conventional military from the damage suffered in the Iran-Iraq war. It still relies heavily for air and sea power on equipment purchased by the Shah 40 years ago, much of which is antique today. Moreover, the June 2010 United Nations sanctions, UN Security Council resolution 1929, impose a very stringent arms ban on Iran. Virtually all significant weapons systems--tanks, aircraft, naval vessels, missiles, etc--are banned from sale or transfer to Iran. Training and technical assistance for such systems is also banned.

In other words, even if Iran wants to try to improve its conventional military capability in the next few years and has the money to do so, the UN arms ban will make that close to impossible. Iran does not have the capability to produce state-of-the-art weapons on its own, despite its occasional claims of self-sufficiency. It certainly cannot build a modern air force to compete with the IDF on its own.

Finally, Israel will continue to enjoy the support of the world's only superpower for the foreseeable future. Assistance from the United States includes roughly three billion dollars in aid every year. That is the longest running financial assistance program in American history, dating back to the 1973 war. It is never challenged or cut by Congress and permits Israeli planners to do multi-year planning for defense acquisitions with great certitude about what they can afford to acquire. When Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested cutting aid to Israel to zero in one Republican debate, his poll numbers plummeted. He backtracked fast.

US assistance is also far more than just financial aid. The Pentagon and Israel engage in constant exchanges of technical cooperation in virtually all elements of the modern battle field. Missile defense has been at the center of this exchange for over 20 years now. The United States and Israel also have a robust and dynamic intelligence relationship, which helps ensure Israel's qualitative edge. Every American president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama has been a supporter of maintaining Israel's qualitative edge over its potential foes, including US allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Iran, in contrast, has no major power providing it with financial help. Its arms relationships with Russia and China have been severed by Security Council Resolution 1929. Its only military ally is Syria, not exactly a powerhouse. And Syria is now in the midst of a civil war; its army is dissolving. If President Bashar Assad falls, Iran is the biggest loser in the "Arab spring". Hizballah will be the second largest loser. The deputy secretary general of Hizballah and one of its founders, Sheikh Naim Qassem, wrote in 2007 that Syria is "the cornerstone" of Hizballah's survival in the region. While Syria and Hizballah have their differences, the relationship is a "necessity" for Hizballah.

So don't let the hot air from Tehran or the Republican debates confuse the reality on the ground. Iran is a dangerous country but it is not an existential threat to either Israel or America.-Published 19/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC and has advised four US presidents on the Middle East and South Asia.

Accepting the inevitable: a nuclear Iran
 Mamdouh G. Salameh

The only sanctions able to hurt Iran are those that ban its crude oil exports, but getting the international community to agree on such sanctions is virtually impossible. The international political and economic repercussions of these sanctions would be so huge that they are not worth pondering. Even if, by the very unlikely chance, such sanctions were agreed upon by the United Nations Security Council, Iran's retaliation would be immediate and destructive.

Iran could easily mine the Strait of Hormuz in the face of the 17 million barrels of oil a day (mbd) exported by the Arab Gulf oil producers. This would push the price of oil to more than $150-$200 a barrel (it is currently about $100 a barrel). The biggest loser, of course, would be the biggest oil consumer--namely the United States, which imports 12-14 million barrels of oil every day. This would spell an economic catastrophe for the United States in particular and the world-at-large. And, in a blatant act of defiance, Iran could even sabotage Saudi oil installations in Ras Tannura and the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, thus plunging the world into the largest oil crisis in its history. That is why sanctions against Iran will not work.

Likewise, a naval blockade to enforce sanctions would prove futile and could lead to a war between the United States and Iran, with disastrous implications for the Middle East and US interests in the Gulf.

Like sanctions, war will not work either. A war could not deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear program and seeking nuclear weapons. Such a war could only be waged by the United States or Israel or both jointly. The flaw in this approach is that Iran unfortunately holds all the trump cards, meaning that it could inflict so much damage on the aggressor as to make the war untenable. Moreover, the United States and Israel can't win such a war without themselves using nuclear weapons to destroy Iran, something also unthinkable.

Israel could attack Iran's nuclear installations in a more limited strike, but the damage would only delay Iran's nuclear program, not stop it outright. The retaliation from Iran would be so devastating as to make Israel's war with Hizballah in 2006 look like child's play. You may recall that Israel got a bloody nose at the hands of Hizballah, with Iran-supplied rockets raining down on Israel and forcing 500,000 Israelis from the north of Israel to flee to the interior. One can only imagine what Iranian missiles targeting Israeli cities could do.

The United States has neither the appetite nor the forces for another war in the Middle East, particularly after its debacle in Iraq. US generals are scared witless of Israel dragging them into war with Iran, a war they know they cannot win (short of destroying Iran with nuclear weapons as they did with Japan in World War II).

US military doctrine has always been that the US will only go to war with overwhelming power and a certainty that it will win the war. Case in point is the invasion of Iraq and, previously, the invasion of tiny Granada where the US used the might of a superpower against a country that did not even have an army.

Being forced into a war with Iran is a completely different matter. Iran's retaliation against the United States would be to plunge the world into the biggest oil crisis it has ever witnessed. Moreover, Iran would use its Shiite supporters within Iraq to destabilize the country in the aftermath of the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

For these reasons, neither sanctions nor war against Iran will force it to relinquish its nuclear program and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the Iranian regime feels it is so well-entrenched that a regime change is virtually impossible.

The flaw in the arguments used by the United States, Israel and the European Union against Iran's nuclear program is the apparent double standard. How can the US expect to persuade Iran to relinquish its nuclear program when America has acquiesced to India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons? The US has even signed a nuclear partnership pact with India.

I am all for a nuclear-free Middle East. If Iran manages to develop nuclear weapons, then Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates might also try to buy a ready-made nuclear bomb from Pakistan. Egypt and Syria might try to develop their own nuclear weapons with the help of North Korea or Pakistan or even China. A nuclear race in the Middle East will enhance the probability of a wider war in the region.

The pursuit of a nuclear-free Middle East, on the other hand, would test the sincerity of the United States about non-proliferation, not only where Iran is concerned but also for Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. If the United States wants to pursue a nuclear-free Middle East, it has first and foremost to persuade Israel to relinquish the nuclear warheads that it has. The problem is that the United States does not want Israel to give up its nuclear weapons. Even if it did, the US has no power to force Israel to give up its weapons and Israel will never succumb to pressure in this regard. And therein lies the rub.

Were France, for instance, to table a resolution to the Security Council aimed at declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free region, the permanent members and other non-permanent numbers would have to vote on it. The test for the United States would be whether or not to support the resolution, knowing full well that the resolution would affect Israel's status as a nuclear state. This would be the real test and I bet my money on a veto vote by the United States.

Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons and will face down the United States, the European Union, Israel and the world community to do it. The US and its allies can do nothing militarily, economically or with sanctions to stop Iran. I believe the US and its allies, including Israel, will end up acquiescing to a nuclear Iran. Who knows, they might even form an "unholy alliance" made up of the US, Israel and Iran to siphon the oil and energy resources of the Arab gulf countries, something reminiscent of the US invasion of Iraq.

Iran looks with envy at the great oil resources of its Arab neighbors across the Gulf and hopes that one day it can get its hands on them or at least derive some share from this great wealth. A nuclear Iran desperate for oil could grab some of the gas and oil assets of its Gulf neighbors. It could also hold its Gulf neighbors hostage by threatening to block their oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz unless they share their wealth. The United States would certainly not come to the defense of its Arab allies against a nuclear Iran.

Iran is a hegemonic power by nature. Under the administration of US President Richard Nixon, it received the support and cooperation of the United States to establish itself as policeman of the Gulf. A nuclear Iran aspires to assume that role again independently from the United States. This is where a clash of national interests between the United States and Iran could arise.-Published 19/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mamdouh G. Salameh is an international oil economist, a consultant to the World Bank in Washington DC on oil and energy and a technical expert for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna.

Israel is the main beneficiary
 Sadegh Zibakalam

It is now more than a decade that the threat of a military confrontation between Iran and Israel or Iran and the United States has been looming. Various US leaders, including American presidents, have frequently maintained that "the military option is also on the table," a statement that Iranians have heard too often and dismiss as a mere hollow threat. The same threats have been voiced by Israeli leaders.

Both Americans and Israelis have also made contrary statements, to the effect that a military operation against Iran would not achieve the main objective of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power state by blocking its nuclear program and in particular its enrichment activity. Thus, opinion has been broadly divided between opponents and supporters of military confrontation against Iran.

The opponents argue that a military operation against Iranian nuclear sites would only strengthen Tehran's resolve to pursue its nuclear program and enable hardliners in the regime to acquire more power. They also point to legal and international ramifications of such an action. Strictly speaking, Iran has not violated any rules and regulations concerning its nuclear programs. A military strike against Iranian nuclear installations is also bound to be opposed by Russia, China and many other countries. All these elements weaken the impact of a military option being "on the table". Thus the Iranian nuclear controversy has continued while the Islamic regime has pursued its nuclear ambitions.

This was the situation until recently. In the past few weeks, however, new developments have emerged that have radically altered the situation in the Persian Gulf. This time, the threat of a military confrontation in the Gulf has dangerously intensified. While it was Iran's nuclear program that during the past ten years seemingly always posed a military threat, now the cause appears completely different: whether or not to close the Strait of Hormuz.

Some 15 million barrels of crude oil, more than 20 percent of the world's oil consumption, pass daily through the 35 km-wide waterway at the mouth of the Arabian Sea. Iran has categorically stated that if an oil embargo imposed by the West prevents it from exporting its oil, it would close the strait to other countries as well. The US and additional western powers have replied to Iran that they will do whatever it takes to make sure that the strait, as an international waterway, remains open to shipping.

It is in this context that the Iranian navy carried out a huge display of force during a weeklong military maneuver in which it fired the country's latest medium-range missile. That exercise had hardly ended when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard began a similar display of force during a 10-day long maneuver. Both operations were of course at the Strait of Hormuz. One after another, Iranian military leaders declared that closure of the strait was "as simple and straightforward an operation as drinking a glass of water". Similarly, one western leader after another responded to the Iranian threat that they would not allow closure of the strait.

At the moment, there is no serious threat of war over the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and the West. Even if the European Union goes ahead with sanctions against Iranian oil, this would amount to only a 15-20 percent loss of the country's oil exports. It is very unlikely that Iran would block the strait since it would still be selling at least 80 percent of its oil. However, if the rest of Iran's oil customers start to follow the West then the situation would become very serious.

Yet for now, such a scenario is very unlikely. China, India, Japan and South Korea together buy about 80 percent of Iran's oil. None has shown any sign of willingness to embrace the West's oil sanctions against Iran. In the past, however, the US has always forced other countries to follow its sanctions against Iran. If this time, too, Washington puts pressure on the other countries to do so, then Iran would find it very difficult to sell its oil.

This, then, is when the Iranian threat to close the strait becomes serious. If it fails to sell its oil, Iran is deprived of substantial foreign currency revenues.

Realizing this bleak prospect, the Israelis have kept silent lately about carrying out a unilateral military strike against Iran. Interestingly enough, an Israeli intelligence chief stated recently that the Islamic regime's nuclear program did not pose an existential threat to the Jewish state. In the past, Israeli leaders always complained about Iran's nuclear program and told Washington that with or without its participation or even approval Israel had to deal with Iran's nuclear threat. Now it appears that the latest developments in the Gulf are benefitting the Jewish state more than anyone else.-Published 19/1/2012 bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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