Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Is an attack on Iran in the works?

Target "IRAN"

In contrast to, say, a year ago, few analysts now dare to consider a military strike on Iran in the near future as a serious possibility. On the contrary, most are dismissive of the idea, especially in as much as Israel is concerned. One of the great bluffs in the foreign policy community in the previous decade was that Israel would have no choice but to attack Iran's nuclear facilities unless Washington stepped up and took military action first.
Yet, despite all the good arguments, the Iranian front is becoming more complicated every week and month. Israel is by far not the only foreign threat to the ayatollahs, and its silence and apparent weaknesses can be misleading, as the past 44 years (since the 1967 war) have taught. It is seldom safe to call what may appear to be an Israeli bluff.

The advice of a prominent military historian stands out in this respect. Usually they act first, as they did in 2007 against an alleged nuclear reactor in Syria, and say very little afterward. This inclines me to believe that there is little rhetoric and more reality happening. 
Jeffrey Goldberg

In the past month or so, there has been some important debate in Israeli political and media circles about a strike on the Islamic Republic, but as a whole, it has been remarkably muted compared to the bluster of, say, a year ago. Back then, Jeffrey Goldberg, among others, stirred the spirits by predicting that "there is a better than 50% chance that Israel will launch a strike by this July. He drew that conclusion on the basis of his discussions with Israeli politicians and defense officials.

In the past few months, ostensibly in the wake of the Arab Spring, discussion of a war with Iran has been relegated to the back-burner. The logic of waiting to see what happens prevailed, and more pressing problems, such as Egypt's instability and the Palestinian intention to declare statehood this year, took the center-stage in Israel. Splits on the Iranian issue became increasingly visible inside the Israeli establishment, and even some politicians previously seen as hawks, such as the influential Defense Minister Ehud Barak, softened their rhetoric.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak

It is worth noting, however, that Goldberg's deadline has not yet passed, and could even be stretched due to unpredictable circumstances such as the Arab Spring. The most important red flag since the beginning of the year came in the form of an emphatic warning issued a month ago by Mossad's legendary former chief Meir Dagan, who said that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities was "the stupidest thing I have ever heard". He later added, "If anyone seriously considers a strike on Iran needs to understand that they'll be dragging Israel into a regional war that it wouldn't know how to get out of. The security challenge would become unbearable." 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also alluded to the possibility of striking Iran, for example in his speech before the US Congress last month. "When I last stood here, I spoke of the consequences of Iran developing nuclear weapons," he said. "Now time is running out. The hinge of history may soon turn, for the greatest danger of all could soon be upon us: a militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons." Subsequently, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of strategic affairs, Moshe Ya'alon, said that "the civilized world" must take action against Iran, including military action "if necessary". 
Moshe Ya'alon

As mentioned above, heating up the rhetoric could mean a delay in any Israeli timeline for an actual strike. At present, discussion is muted, but it could escalate any moment. It could also subside, perhaps in anticipation of a strike. It is important to watch the warning signs.

Israeli analyst Amir Oren argues that "between the end of June and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates' retirement, and the end of September and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen's retirement, the danger that Netanyahu and Barak will aim at a surprise in Iran is especially great, especially since this would divert attention from the Palestinian issue. Right now, Oren's arguments and his conclusion appear speculative, but it is important to watch the Palestinian-Israeli sub-plot, among others.

Even speculation about an imminent prisoner swap deal for the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit  can be interpreted to point to a danger of conflagration. In the past, Israeli analysts have speculated that the government would try very hard to free Shalit before any attack on Iran, because a regional war could mean that a deal is put off indefinitely.

It is important to mention that a couple of months ago, Israel released detailed maps of Hezbollah bunkers in South Lebanon , in what was widely seen as a warning to the militant organization to stay out of any confrontation with the Jewish state. Hezbollah is widely perceived as a fundamental part of Iran's deterrent against Israel.

Maps of Hezbollah bunkers in South Lebanon

Both Dagan's comments, the release of (perhaps outdated) Hezbollah maps, and the Shalit negotiations serve their own complex goals; they do not necessarily come in genuine anticipation of a strike on Iran. Taken together, they raise significant questions, but these can also be interpreted in different ways.

It could be that Israel maybe preparing for the eventuality of somebody else's attack on the Islamic Republic and the repercussions that would almost inevitably reach it. Dagan could also be warning against Israeli involvement with a strike rather than the possibility of unilateral action.

From a more global perspective, tensions involving Iran are clearly at a high, even though the known facts fail to implicate convincingly the Jewish state. A source close to Russia reports that the Kremlin has started to pull out significant numbers of nuclear technicians and other specialists from the Islamic Republic; if confirmed, this information could mean that Russia anticipates a military campaign in the near future.

The same source speculates that a military operation against Iran could be seen as a necessity in order to suppress the Arab Spring, or to further the interests of the alleged counter-revolution. "A hit against a big country could do the job," the source said.
Muammar Gadahfi

Some analysts have applied a similar logic to the campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gadahfi, but the Libyan debacle has clearly not done the job. Moreover, the now increasingly possible ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh could rekindle the protests throughout the Arab world. As a prominent figure in the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has said, "The departure of Saleh is a turning point not just for the Yemeni revolution but also is a huge push for the current changes in the Arab region and is the start of the real victory."

Necessarily, this shifts the focus of the discussion to the fabled maestro of the counter-revolution, Saudi Arabia. Much has been made of the Saudi Arabian foreign legion and the Gulf Cooperation Council's militancy. Brian Downing discusses the recruitment of Sunni former Pakistani and Iraqi soldiers for the Saudi private army.
Saudi Arabian King Abdullah

Saudi Arabia's bitter feud with Iran is long-known, as is the "cut off the head of the snake" comment that Saudi Arabian King Abdullah made to American officials a few years ago. It is hard to imagine that Saudi Arabia is militarily prepared for an imminent attack on Iran, and a full-blown private war involving Pakistan seems much to speculative to be discussed in detail, but in this part of the world, it is good to expect the unexpected.

Moreover, it is equally hard to imagine that, should hostilities break out, the United States would be able to stay out of the fray for long. The reality is that its dependence on Saudi oil is simply too high.

It does not help that the Iranian nuclear crisis is deepening. Despite assurances by Iran's nuclear envoy Ali Ashgar Soltanieh that building a nuclear weapon would be a "strategic mistake", the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued warnings last month that one of its seals in the "feed and withdrawal area" of the Natanz enrichment plant was broken. This would mean, according to experts, that Iran is trying to conceal how much enriched uranium it has on stock. Last month, the IAEA also accused Iran of hacking into its inspectors' computers and cell phones during visits to the facilities. 

Moreover, the Arab Spring has clearly failed the expectations of some observers, including Israeli experts, that it could spread to Iran and topple the regime. The internal rifts in the Islamic Republic have only deepened recently, but this may actually make the nuclear stand-off more entrenched. According to a recent report by the Institute for Science and International Security:
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Much has been made in the media about the power struggle between Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - with the backing of the Iranian parliament (Majlis) - and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The struggle may make less likely the prospect that Iran will be able (if it is indeed willing at all) to negotiate a diplomatic deal over the nuclear crisis in the near future, though it may still be willing to meet with the P5+1 [Five permanent members of the United Nations Security Councils plus Germany]. Iran has thus far been unwilling to suspend its enrichment program as called for by the United Nations Security Council or answer questions about its past work on nuclear weapons. Since the Supreme Leader has shown a willingness to publicly and forcefully assert his authority over Ahmadinejad, and appears unwilling to negotiate an end to the nuclear issue, any deal is unlikely. This could make any meetings with the P5+1 simply an empty exercise on Iran's end. 

In brief, while there are many good reasons why a war with Iran is unlikely at the moment, dark clouds are quietly gathering, and in the Middle East, appearances could be misleading. Both the Iranian and the anti-Iranian camps are arming and preparing themselves militarily, and in military science as in theater, Anton Chekhov's maximum often applies that a gun in the first act is bound to go off at some point later.

Rhetoric, in fact, is often inversely proportional to the probability of action. This summer will be the time to watch, both because it has historically been the season of war in the Middle East, and because according to most experts, this summer Iran will likely reach the nuclear point of no-return. So will, in all likelihood, the Arab revolutions.

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