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You are here: Home >> Politics >> The debate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. An analysis by David Stewart Hurrell
19.12.2008 The debate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. An analysis by David Stewart Hurrell
Persians, Spartans and Republicans
(gm). The debate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions are being presented as a zero-sum battle between a liberal democratic Spartan state being threatened with nuclear annihilation by the irrational and ideologically driven Persian Empire. Fortunately for the Spartans, the liberal media stands behind them, unfortunately for the Spartans, Israel’s internal and external border foes are supported by the Persian Empire.
Hezbollah, the most humiliating enemy to Israel, having defeated the Israelis in the 2006 Lebanese War, is supported by Iran. Until the late 1980’s, Iran provided no more than rhetorical support for organizations such as the PLO, Hamas and Hezbollah. This changed to actual political, financial and military support in the early nineties. One would be forgiven for thinking this development followed the change in leadership in Iran, with the coming to power of Supreme Leader Ali Khameini in June 1989, and thus a change in thinking, yet the actual reasons were the changing geostrategic dynamics in the Middle East following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War.
Throughout the Cold War, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to name but a few, had a common geographic and ideological enemy; the Soviet Union. Iran still remembered the terrible Russian occupation in the north of their country during the Second World War and after, and became one of the three points in the United States ‘security triangle’ in the Middle East during the Cold War, that is, until 1979. The other two points of the ‘security triangle’ were Israel and Saudi Arabia. The United States committed a great amount of military and financial support to Iran during this period as a geographic buffer against the Soviet Union as well as to turn Iran into a regional power to balance neighbouring Middle Eastern countries with ties to the Soviet Union.
This relationship with the United States suited the Israeli’s security interests well; the security doctrine at the time entailed partnerships with non-Arab periphery states to ‘balance’ Israel’s hostile neighbours. Relations with Iran, one of the most powerful Gulf States was a crucial Israeli concern and led to intense behind-the-scenes contacts and dealings between the two states
Trita Parsi writes that Israel’s alliance with the United States did not resolve its security dilemma. “Israel was a lone state for Jews in a sea of hostile Arab states, some of which were developing closer ties to the Soviet Union. Since breaking the circle of Arab enmity appeared impossible, Israel put its faith in reaching out to the non-Arab states of the region, including Iran. This outlook gave birth to Ben-Gurion’s doctrine of the periphery, a foreign policy concept that came to dominate Israeli strategic thinking till the end of the Cold War. The doctrine held that the improbability of achieving peace with the surrounding Arab states forced Israel to build alliances with the non-Arab states of the periphery-primarily Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia-as well as with the non-Arab minorities such as the Kurds and the Lebanese Christians. This network of alliances would drive a wedge between Israel’s enemies, weaken the Arab bloc, and halt the spread of pan-Arabism in the region, the reasoning went”.
The Peripheral Alliance Doctrine entailed strong relations with Iran. In 1979, the Islamic Revolution put Ayatollah Khomeini in power. The change in leadership, however, did not change the geostrategic realities facing the country. Iran still had to contend with the Soviet Union to its north, a Soviet (and later American) backed Iraq to its west and strongly anti-Shia Afghanistan to its east. Iran’s security dilemma was worsened when the United States broke off relations with the country after the Islamic Revolution. This strategic isolation of Iran meant that stronger relations with Israel were needed. Besides the fiery-rhetoric coming from the new regime, Ayatollah Khomeini resumed a pragmatic relationship with the Israeli’s, primarily through their intelligence agencies, Savak and Mossad. A special runway was built far from Tehran’s air terminal for Israeli’s in order to ‘hide’ the true number of Israeli’s coming into the country on a regular basis. An Iranian foreign policy expert explained that “the ideological opposition to Israel played a role before the revolution” and that once the revolutionary government assumed power and was forced to confront the strategic realities it faced, implemented a foreign policy that implied “rhetorical opposition to Israel but practical collaboration...with the Jewish State”
“Out of Iran's strategic dilemma, with ideological and strategic forces pulling its foreign policy in different directions, emerged a multilayered strategy that continues to bewilder political analysts and foreign leaders alike. Instead of opting to balance the Arabs by aligning with Israel, or to seek accommodation with the Arabs by taking the lead against Israel, Tehran chose to do both by differentiating between its operational policy and its rhetoric. On the other hand, Iran collaborated secretly with Israel on security matters, and, on the other, it took its rhetorical excesses against Israel to even higher levels to cover up its Israeli dealings”.
During this time, Ayatollah Khomeini likened Israel to a ‘cancerous tumour that needed to be removed from the region’ yet continued to seek closer relations with Israel, even more so when Iraq invaded Iran. A few days after the start of the Iraq-Iran war, an Israeli deputy defence minister held a press conference urging the U.S. to put the past behind it and help Iran rebuild its defences. The reasoning was that a victorious Iraq would emerge as a severe threat to Israel without having the Iranian’s as a ‘balancer’. Israel feared an “Eastern Front “assault by hostile ‘Arab’ countries led by Iraq, this stresses the importance the country placed on good relations with Iran.
Iran needed Israel for armaments; sitting with tons of U.S. built military equipment owing to the close U.S. relationship with the Shah, the new Iranian regime found it could not maintain it’s military because of the U.S. arms embargo against them. Israel offered to help, and violating the U.S. arms embargo, supplied the Iranians with tires for their Phantom Jets as well as other weapons. Iran’s only other source of spare parts was from Vietnam, military hardware left behind when the U.S. pulled out of the country. In 1982, Defence Minister Ariel Sharon appeared on NBC and boasted about Israel’s arms sales to Iran, explaining that it was important to “leave a small window open” to the possibility of good relations with Iran in the future.
Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli prime minister from 1974 to 1977 and then again from 1992 to 1995, even went so far as to tell a press conference in 1987 that, “Iran is Israel’s best friend, and we do not intend to change our position in relation to Tehran, because Khomeini’s regime will not last forever”. Trita Parsi writes that, “after Khomeini’s death in June 1989, Israel again emphasized that due to the common threat from the Arabs, particularly Iraq, and Israeli-Iranian alliance was “natural”.
The change in Israeli policy towards Iran followed the change in the international security environment after 1991. With the collapse of the USSR, the threat of Soviet penetration of the Middle East ended, and so did Soviet military support. After the American subjugation of Iraq during and after the first Gulf War, Iraq’s influence in the region diminished significantly; with UN imposed economic sanctions and U.S. military ‘containment’ of the country, Iraq no longer posed as a military threat to Israel, or to Iran. Thus the glue that had maintained the Iran-Israel security relationship for three decades had melted away, and now the two states found themselves facing a new reality; competitive regional influence.
With Israel’s regional foe’s greatly weakened or lacking traditional support (such as the Soviet-Syrian relationship), Israel under Peres and Rabin shifted gear and started to talk of their former “natural ally” as “an existential threat”. Iran had by this time been negatively affected by the Iran-Iraq War and by the effects of more than a decade of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Israel saw this as an opportunity to induce the U.S. to pursue harsher policies towards Iran as part of a strategy to weaken the regime further.
By 1992, Israel was declaring that Iran was the “greatest threat” to the region. Iran in turn decided that the shift in relations with the U.S. was due to Israeli meddling as part of a campaign to isolate Iran. This led to a massive increase in ‘existential’ support for Israel’s smaller foes such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the PLO. ‘Existential’, because until this time, Iran’s main contribution had been rhetoric. In a revealing passage of great importance, Dr Parsi explains that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not in Iran’s strategic interests; he explains that “eager to rebuild its economy and regain its position as the gendarme of the Persian Gulf, Iran feared that a successful Oslo process, and Peres’ portrayal of Iran as a threat to the Arab world, would result in Iran’s permanent isolation and pariah status. Ever since the time of the Shah, the Iranian’s have feared that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could enable the Arabs to turn their energy and focus towards their unresolved disagreements with Iran”.
Tom Hull writes that the ‘rivalry between Iran and its Arab neighbors, reinforced by language, culture, and the Sunni-Shia religious divide’ did not diminish with the advent of the Islamic Revolution. Rather, Iran, in an attempt to garner support from its Middle Eastern neighbours, plays the anti-Israeli card to help ‘overcome the Persian-Arab and Shiite-Sunni divide’. This is part of a two-pronged strategy employed by Iran; on the one hand portraying itself as the defender of Islam in an attempt to gather support from Middle Eastern populations and secondly by ‘sabotaging US policies in the region’, such as providing technical assistance to Iraqi Shia and Hezbollah, Iran hopes to ‘put an end to American efforts to build an Israel-centric Middle East order based on Iran’s prolonged isolation’.
Ex-CIA agent and author Robert Baer notes that the three most popular political figures amongst the Muslim’s of the Middle East are all Shia; Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah, Syrian president Bashar al-Asad, and third, Iranian president Ahmedenijad. Though this statement can be contested, there is little doubt that Nasrullah and Ahmedenijad enjoy favourable standing throughout the region. This not surprising considering the PR campaign undertaken by Iran in its ‘battle with the little Satan (Israel)’. Parsi writes that “Ahmadinejad’s highly ideological broadsides against Israel have come to have a strategic purpose. Playing the anti-Israeli card helps Iran overcome the Persian-Arab and Shiite-Sunni divide, Tehran reasons. Harsh rhetoric against Israel goes down well with the Arab street, increasing tensions between Arab governments and their publics, which in turn prevents the Arabs from signing up with Tel Aviv against Tehran".
Iran’s policy appears to entail compelling ‘Washington to recognize Iran’s weight and role in the region by attaching a cost to Washington’s unwillingness to accommodate Iran’ such as sabotaging U.S. polices in the region. American security in Iraq depends upon Iran. Towards the end of 2007, the number of roadside bombs, including Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s), dropped substantially. The U.S. State Department’s top official on Iraq, David Satterefield attributed the drop to Iranian policy decision, saying that Iran has decided “at the most senior level’s” to restrain Shi’ite militants operations. U.S. Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates elaborated on Iran’s influence in Iraq at the 5th IISS Regional Security Summit in Bahrain on December 13 this year. He noted that ‘discussion of the security situation in Iraq is complete without mentioning Iran, a country whose every move seems designed to create maximum anxiety in the international community. There is no doubt that Iran has been heavily engaged in trying to influence the development and direction of the Iraqi government, and has not been a good neighbour. Much of that effort has been on training and supplying groups intent on undermining the government, more often than not through violence and attacks on Iraqi security forces and government installations and officials. Of course, the use of sub-national actors as Iranian proxies should be no surprise, considering the financial and military support that Tehran has long given organisations such as Hamas and Hizbullah.
Iraq’s government has to manage a balancing act between the strategic interests of the United States and the security concerns of Iran. Syrian political analyst Sami Moubayed writes that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ‘is torn between appeasing the United States, which brought him to power and kept him there despite all odds, since 2006, and pleasing his patrons and co-religionaries in Tehran. The Americans tell him to sign a long-term agreement between with the US, maintaining 50 permanent American military bases in Iraq. The Iranians angrily order him not to, claiming this would be a direct security threat to the region as a whole, and Iran in particular.’
Ex-CIA analyst Robert Baer considers Iran to wield enormous power throughout the region, not through hard power due to its antiquated military, but through ‘asymmetrical warfare’, "This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins—war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him”. Baer writes that,
‘Though Iran may not be strong in terms of the laundry list Washington uses to calculate power—tanks, guns, armor, aircraft carriers—Iran has developed a different sort of mastery in projecting power. It possesses effective military strength, in the sense that it controls popular and lethally efficient guerilla groups. And in Lebanon and Iraq it manipulates sovereign armies. Iran’s military might, through its proxies and allies, in fact vastly eclipses that of its neighbours.’
Israel’s security rhetoric implies that Iran is on the verge of attaining a nuclear weapon and will use ‘the bomb’ against the Jewish state once attained, based upon its current ‘policy of terrorism’ such as supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. This is inconsistent with history. The Iranian’s have repeatedly declared their willingness for cooperation, their goal being re-integration into the Middle Eastern security architecture, as opposed to being politically isolated and ‘contained’ by U.S. forces to its East and West. In 2003, Iran attempted to negotiate with the United States on a range of matters pertaining to both parties. The document, sent to U.S. authorities through Swiss intermediaries, lists Iran’s aims as a ‘halt in US hostile behaviour and rectification of status of Iran in the US’, such as removing Iran from the ‘axis of evil’ list, the ‘abolishment of all sanctions’, a respect for Iranian interests in Iraq, ‘full access to peaceful nuclear technology, biotechnology and chemical technology’, ‘recognition of Iran’s legitimate security interests in the region’, and for the pursuit of ‘anti-Iranian terrorist’ in Iraq, ‘above all’ the MKO.
Iran declared that in return for the respect of these Iranian concerns, U.S. concerns pertaining to Iran would be resolved. Iran guaranteed full transparency regarding its nuclear technology and that ‘there are no Iranian endeavours to develop or possess WMD’; that Iran would root out any terrorists on Iranian territory; in Iraq, ‘the coordination of Iranian influence for activity supporting political stability’ and ‘non-religious government’ as well as the halt of ‘material support to Palestinian opposition groups’; turn Hezbollah into ‘ a mere political organization within Lebanon’ and to accept the Arab League Beirut declaration ( a two state solution for Palestine).
The proposal was rejected by the Bush Administration, Dick Cheney was quoted as saying ‘we don’t talk to evil’. Robert Baer considers Iranian attempts at acquiring nuclear weapons to be real, but not in the immediate future. If we take Israel’s concerns about Iranian WMD seriously, then the following interview with Dr Parsi is particularly revealing;
Q. ‘What is Israel’s internal security assessment about whether they feel that Iran is likely to use a nuclear weapon against them?
A. ‘I don’t think the Israeli’s fear primarily that Iran will actually use a nuclear weapon. The fear is that if Iran gets that capability, and manages to negotiate a deal with the United States in which the US starts to treat Iran as a legitimate player in the region, the balance of power in the region would tilt so much against Israel that Israel would lose much of the manoeuvrability that it currently is enjoying, including the ability to for instance, impose unilateral peace deals on the Palestinians. That’s the fear from the Israeli’s side; that there would be a new balance in which Israel would lose this significant benefit it has had since the end of the Cold War in which there was only one superpower’.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s deputy defence minister Ephraim Sneh explained that “if indeed the U.S. adopts a conciliatory approach to Iran...the implications are that we will need to face this threat alone”.
Parsi notes that ‘Israel is seen as a major obstacle in initiating a U.S.-Iran dialogue and has played a critical role in putting Iran’s nuclear program atop the international agenda’. He outlines a policy of re-engaging Iran within the security system of the Middle East to put an end to the conflict, he writes,
‘The key to eliminating the danger Iran could pose to Israel lies in arranging these two forces of Iranian foreign policy—strategic interest and ideology—to counter each other once again. Threats of war and sanctions cannot achieve this end, however. Only through a larger accommodation—Iranian political rehabilitation in the region in return for an end to destructive Iranian behaviour—will Iran let go of its open hostility toward the Jewish state. Brought in from the cold, Tehran’s cost-benefit analysis would change dramatically. The Islamic Republic would be careful not to undermine its own geopolitical status with ideology-driven anti-Israeli and anti-American behaviour.’ In other words, Isreal is the key to the affair; its perceived security in relation to the Arab states mean that it does not need Iran as a counter-balancing ally. It seems the seeds for the current enmity were planted in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When Parsi says the key to elliminating the danger that Iran poses lies in countering its strategic and ideological interests, he is essentially telling Israeli and US policy makers to engage Iran diplomatically, with respect to its regional interests, and ignore Iran's fiery rhetoric at the same time, since it is only hot air, and not reflective of Iran's true strategic concerns.
The work of Trita Parsi serves to put the current Iranian WMD fiasco into perspective; the same argument were used against Iraq and turned out to be fallacious, implying the case for the Bush Administration to be tried as war criminals under international law. The rhetoric reflects the geostrategic concerns of both parties; Israel can continue to lead the United States into confrontation with Iran at the expense of its immediate regional security which will undoubtedly intensify with support from Iran or it can propose accommodation with Iran, and a continuation of historical security relations. As a diabolical conclusion to this analysis; the realignment of strategic interests between Israel, Iran and the United States are possible under the ‘War on Terror’ with a common enemy; the Arab states and so called radical Sunni Islam.
* Any comments, critiques or suggestions would be appreciated; email@example.com,
"Treacherous Alliance – The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US" has been awarded the silver medal in the Council on Foreign Relations’ prestigious Arthur Ross Book Award.