By 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 Hezbollah, 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.
David Menashri is president of the Academic Center of Law & Business and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org