Iran’s nuclear grass eaters

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By Shlomo Ben Ami

MADRID: After long years of failed international efforts to end Iran’s cunning drive to develop nuclear weapons, the question today is no longer whether the West can prevent the nuclearization of Iran’s military arsenal, but whether the Islamic regime collapses first. Unfortunately, if it does not, the only option for stopping Iran is war — and war is a very bad option.

Pakistan is worth invoking when assessing whether the sanctions now imposed on Iran will force it to surrender its nuclear program. In 1965, Pakistani Foreign Minister Zulficar Ali Bhutto famously declared that if India, its sworn enemy, went nuclear, his country would “eat grass and even go hungry” in order to develop a nuclear bomb of its own. Today, Pakistan, a near-failed state on the verge of disintegration, possesses more nuclear warheads than India.

Iran’s theocratic regime, immersed in a momentous struggle for survival against what it regards as an unholy alliance of Israel, the American “Great Satan,” and a surrounding Arab world that abhors its hegemonic ambitions, will not surrender its nuclear ambitions easily. Indeed, nuclear weapons appear to be the regime’s only real route to self-preservation.

The French and the Soviet revolutions taught us that exporting the revolution is one way to protect it. Iran tried that, and failed. The almost inevitable fall of Iran’s closest ally in the region, the Baath regime in Syria, only adds to the regime’s paranoid anxieties — and makes developing a nuclear capability seem all the more necessary for its survival.

Iran’s leaders might be ready to let their people “eat grass and even go hungry” for the sake of their nuclear ambitions, but Iran’s squeezed middle class, one hopes, will not submit to such degradation. Social unrest has been building up in Iran for years, and certainly began well before the West became serious about imposing economic and financial sanctions. In fact, the popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt were directly inspired by Iran’s Green movement, which emerged during the massive post-election protests in 2009, before succumbing to a brutal government crackdown.

The sanctions against Iran have undoubtedly bitten hard. But the truth is that the severe economic hardships suffered by ordinary Iranians mainly reflect the regime’s economic mismanagement, and the widespread fear that the threat of war from both Israel and the United States, sometimes abetted by Iran’s own war rhetoric, has unleashed.

Indeed, Iran’s economy is now firmly in the grip of a war panic. When a national currency loses 50% of its value in a matter of weeks, economic collapse is at hand. Businessmen find it impossible to use the rial even for domestic transactions, because inflation is spiraling out of control. Commodity prices, moreover, are skyrocketing, and the cost of small and mid-size apartments has become prohibitive for a middle class severely hit by unemployment.

Iran’s backward economy, a third of which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, is simply incapable of offering job opportunities to Iran’s growing cohorts of university graduates – the same segment of society that toppled the Shah. The problem has become increasingly acute, because 60% of Iran’s population was born after 1979. Moreover, rapid population growth and bungled economic policy have made Iran excessively dependent on food imports.

Yet, however crippling the effect of sanctions might be, they will not bring the regime to surrender its nuclear program. The most for which one can hope is that sanctions enhance the chances of regime change by reawakening popular protest, thereby triggering an Iranian version of the Arab Spring.

This might be wishful thinking, however. And, even if social unrest does erupt, repression might succeed again.

But an attack by either Israel or the US on Iran’s nuclear installations would be a calamitous mistake, or, as Meir Dagan, a former chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, put it, “the stupidest idea” possible. So it is to be hoped that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s war rhetoric and vulgar manipulation of the memory of the Holocaust are nothing more than a ploy to divert the world’s attention from the Palestinian problem that he has done nothing to resolve.

Alas, one cannot rule out a scenario in which nothing – diplomacy, sanctions, or the push for a regime change – works. In that case, one should not underestimate the pernicious effects of Israel’s Holocaust complex. What led Israel to war in 1967 was not a sound assessment of Egypt’s intentions to attack, but fear of a second Shoah.

An attack on Iran might, however, produce precisely the effect that Netanyahu seeks to avoid. Post-war global diplomacy might have to promote, perhaps more robustly than ever, the creation a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, and thus address Israel’s nuclear capabilities, as well as the Palestinian problem – issues that Netanyahu has worked hard to ignore.

But if the path of war is finally taken, and, in its aftermath, the international community fails once again to pacify the world’s most dysfunctional region, the Middle East would devolve into an unruly chaos far more dangerous than the threat of an Iranian bomb.

Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, now serves as Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of Wars, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (


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