As 2012 opens, voices threatening use of the military option against Iran are rumbling to stop (or delay) its nuclear program. The American threats and its wholesale arms sales to Arab countries in the Persian Gulf are countered by Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz - the oil export artery from the Gulf - while Iran's naval exercises now underway have pushed tensions to a high level.
Top US officials have not only said lately that "all the cards are on the table", but also that the likelihood of using them is higher than could have been assumed. President Barack Obama has made it clear that a nuclear Iran is intolerable, and emphasized the US's commitment to "up the pressure," and not to remove any option from the table.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has also hinted about the expected timetable. We could wake up to a nuclear Iran in 2012, he has said. US Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey has warned against a miscalculation by Iran, "which would be a tragedy for the region and the world".
All this comes against a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last November, which accused Iran of having a secret nuclear program. In addition, a series of mysterious explosions, assassinations of Iran atomic experts, and evidence of cyber warfare, have raised the probability that foreign countries are already using a range of means to stop the nuclear train.
A nuclear Iran is a reality whose severity is hard to overestimate - for Israel, the Middle East, and the whole world. The combination of such a radical ideology and radical Islamic regime is liable to change the geopolitical balance of power in the region. In the past, revolutionary fervor was offset by the national interest, which resulted in a fairly pragmatic policy. But is seems that the regime is now fighting for its life, and the national interest is secondary to the existential interest of the regime's survival.
It is enough to imagine that what would have happened if Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi had atomic weapons a few months ago, or if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were to have them now. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resulting nuclear disaster have sounded the alarm. If such a disaster could happen in Japan, could it not happen at Bushehr, which is also sited in an earthquake zone? A nuclear Iran is also liable to be a nuclear umbrella for radical organizations (Hamas, Hizbullah) to operate more daringly.
A welcome media quiet
The media quiet is welcome, which it seems that the Israeli leadership has finally imposed on itself about the Iranian issue. The chronic and alarmist Israeli chatter hurt more than it helped. It even created an impression - even if that was not the intention - that a nuclear Iran was only Israel's problem, that it could certainly take on the task, and would do so willingly. Talk about a nuclear Iran as an existential threat, even if it is true (and some military chiefs now doubt it), is unquestionably unwise. Is this message that we want to send Iran, or even to our own youth?
Comparing Iran to Nazi Germany and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler does more harm than good. It minimizes the historical significance of the Holocaust and does not deter the Iranian president. In fact, through repeated declarations we unnecessarily took on the problem as our own, and other designated us as the one who should provide the solution.
It is good, therefore, that the US is now raising its voice. It is not clear if this is actually a new policy, or merely election-year declarations. It is also not clear whether the electioneering climate which encourages such remarks will enable the taking of military measures in an election year. At any rate, the echoes of the American determination have been loudly heard in Iran, and are giving it pause.
In contrast to its jingoistic rhetoric, today's Iran is weak and vulnerable. The 33-year experience of the revolutionary regime has proved that pressure can affect its policy. Belying the façade that it wears, it actually projects weakness. Threats to close the Persian Gulf, like the military exercises, cannot cover up the weakness. And indeed, Iran has rushed to signal Europe that it is prepared to resume the dialogue on the nuclear project, just as it has done before when under pressure, in order to gain precious time.
A coordinated, uniform, and determined policy by the West will likely influence Iran, even if Russia and China do not participate. The Free World should discover its moral muscle to determinedly and steadfastly condemn the gross human rights violations in Iran. Diplomatic pressure can also help.
For example, had the Western countries had recalled their ambassadors from Iran after the attack on the UK Embassy in Teheran, or if top Iranian defense officials had been banned from visiting Europe, this would have put a heavy burden on Iran. Sanctions against Iranian banks and focused and biting economic sanctions can also help to step up the pressure.
Dangerous cracks in the leadership
Iran faces serious socioeconomic and political-ideological problems. Not just the growing public grumbling, but also dangerous cracks in the leadership. The regime violently repressed the public struggle after the presidential elections of 2009 - the remaining opposition leaders who survived were executed or placed under house arrest, and just last week, the website of former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was blocked.
Add to this the open tensions between Iran's Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad. At the same time, Iran has been seriously hurt by the cumulative burden of economic sanctions levied by the UN Security Council, and the independent sanctions imposed by the US and the EU. Iran's economic distress is growing.
In addition, to rising inflation and oppressive unemployment, the Iranian rial has plummeted in recent weeks. Although the public awakening of 2009 was suppressed, tensions are still high beneath the surface and are threatening to explode. The Arab Spring was loudly heard among Iran's young people. The possible fall of Iran's ally, Assad, is liable to affect Iran's position in both Syrian and Lebanon.
Until now, Iran has fully exploited the disputes on the two sides of the Atlantic and the pursuit by the countries of Free World of the after short-term economic interests of each. But if Western countries put to one side their immediate and narrow economic interests, they can apply pressure that will compel Iran to change its policy, even without the military option.
Professor David Menashri is the head of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on January 4, 2012
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