The US and its allies have waged a series of wars over the past two decades for legitimate reasons. One reason has been self defence: the US’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was a straightforward case of a state defending itself from attack. Another has been humanitarian: the interventions in Kosova in 1999 and Libya in 2011 averted humanitarian catastrophes. There is a strong case for intervening in Syria today on the same grounds. A third reason has been to promote progressive and democratic change. One of the ironies of the most controversial of the West’s recent wars – the Iraq war – was that although there were strong humanitarian and democratic reasons for waging it, these were not primarily stressed by Western leaders. Before President George W. Bush, US leaders had pursued the policy of leaving Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in power while strangling Iraq with sanctions over many years – at enormous cost to the Iraqi people. Although the Bush Administration bungled the occupation, the argument that a short war was a price worth paying to free Iraq from dictatorship, sanctions and isolation was not unreasonable. A pity, therefore, that the war was justified on the grounds of the Baathist regime’s supposed development of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Even before the coalition failed to discover them, the grounds for invasion were not deemed sufficient by international opinion. The war was from the start a propaganda disaster from which the West’s reputation is still struggling to recover.
An Israeli or US attack on Iran would most likely be another such propaganda disaster. It would have no humanitarian justification, nor would it advance the cause of democracy or human rights in Iran or the Middle East. The argument that it would constitute a pre-emptive act of self-defence by Israel – which we shall come to – is not to be sniffed at but is nevertheless misguided. We are left with a purely strategic argument: the need to limit the power of a barbaric Islamist regime with an aggressively anti-Western ideology and foreign policy, that is promoting bloodshed and strife in the region. While this argument, too, is not to be sniffed at, it is not sufficient to go to war, and would not be accepted as such by world opinion.
It has been suggested that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states would publicly deplore an Israeli strike against Iran while privately rejoicing in it. In other words, Israel would be doing the dirty work for a group of regimes, at least one of which is, if anything, even worse and more dangerous than the Iranian regime itself. Iran promotes regional trouble and instability; it enables the Assad regime’s slaughter of its own people and supports the terrorist Hezbollah in Lebanon. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s promotion of trouble extends far beyond the Middle East, through its export of Wahhabi fundamentalism from Pakistan to Bosnia. Last October, a locally grown Wahhabi, Mevlid Jasarevic, carried out a terrorist attack against the US embassy in Sarajevo. Osama bin Laden himself was the bastard offspring of the Saudi system. Going to war against Iran with the silent blessing of Riyadh would be like going to war against Stalin with the silent blessing of Hitler.
The idea that ‘weapons of mass destruction’ pose a terrifying threat is a canard. Nuclear weapons have only ever been used once, against Japan in 1945. The Cold War came and went without either side falling victim to them, yet nearly three thousand civilians were massacred in the US in September 2001 by virtually unarmed terrorists. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in his genocidal campaign against the Kurds in Iraq in the late 1980s, but a much higher death-toll – up to one million – was achieved by the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, using much more primitive weapons, in particular machetes. In other words, sophisticated ‘weapons of mass destruction’ are not needed to carry out mass murder, and those regimes that possess them have not used them against the Western democratic world, whose powers of deterrence have been sufficient to protect us from them – though not from more primitive forms of attack.
Israel has very legitimate reasons for wanting to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons: the regime in Tehran has made clear it will never recognise Israel, that it views the state of Israel as illegitimate, and that it seeks Israel’s destruction. Its propaganda systematically demonises Israel and Israelis, and it supports terrorist and extremist groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, that are likewise formally committed to the end of Israel. It represents a real threat to the latter – broadly comparable to the threat posed by the Soviet Union to the Western democratic world during the Cold War. Yet the Tehran regime’s stated desire to see Israel abolished is no less utopian than the Soviet leadership’s formal goal of overthrowing world capitalism; it is a crucial part of the self-legitimising ideology and propaganda of a tyrannical regime, not a concrete policy goal.
Against this threat, Israel possesses very effective protection in the form of its own nuclear deterrent. Even were it to acquire nuclear weapons, Iran would be in no position to use them against Israel, or against anyone else, since to do so would lead to its own certain annihilation. It is simply unserious to portray Iran’s leaders as lunatics seeking to commit suicide by launching a nuclear strike against Israel, as opposed simply to cynical, calculating politicians seeking to strengthen their state’s power in the region while exploiting anti-Zionist rhetoric. Former enemies of the West have not lived up to the stereotype of the suicidal madman: Saddam Hussein failed to attack the US forces that were amassing against him in Saudi Arabia in 1990, and instead passively awaited their offensive; Osama bin Laden did not die fighting heroically in Afghanistan in 2001, but scuttled off to Pakistan and hid there until he was hunted down; Ratko Mladic quietly let himself be arrested in Serbia last year. Furthermore, neither Ahmadinejad nor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei possesses the sort of absolute power that Saddam possessed; the Iranian theocracy is far from democratic, but neither is it a totalitarian personal dictatorship. Its regional policies have been evil but sober rather than crazy; it has done nothing even as adventurous as trying to annex Kuwait, let alone launch a war that would inevitably destroy it. We should, perhaps, be more afraid of the nuclear capacity possessed by Pakistan – a highly unstable state deeply infiltrated by extreme, murderous Islamist currents, whose intelligence services are involved in supporting the Taliban’s war against Western forces in Afghanistan.
According to a poll carried out last month, 58% of Israelis oppose attacking Iran without US support. This is, after all, not 1967, when Israel took preemptive action in the face of a very real and immediate existential threat. Yet even that stunning victory, like the military victories won by Israel before and since, did not provide the country with lasting security. That can only come with a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. For the longer this conflict continues, the more likely it is that Israel, not to mention the Palestinians, will suffer a major catastrophe. Meanwhile, as the Israeli author David Grossman argues, the uncertain results of a strike against Iran would have to be set against the long-term damage to Israel’s standing among the more educated, liberal and secular elements in the Iranian population that may one day overthrow the regime and come to lead the country. They would have to be set against the global anti-Israeli backlash that would inevitably occur.
Unfortunately, the same right-wing nationalist Israeli government that is apparently preparing to attack Iran, has shown itself a major obstacle to a peace agreement and to regional normalisation, from its foot-dragging over the peace process and its promotion of settlement-expansion to its obstruction of the wholly legitimate Palestinian demand for membership of the UN and UNESCO, undermining the most moderate leadership Palestine has yet produced. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was the world leader who supported the dictator Hosni Mubarak against his own people most openly during last year’s Egyptian revolution. There is absolutely no reason why Israel, the US and the West should allow themselves to be dragged into a damaging war to serve the reactionary, chauvinistic agenda of this government, which will probably use the opportunity to impose further repressive and discriminatory measures against the Palestinian population of the West Bank. A successful war against Iran would further encourage the Netanyahu government along its self-destructive nationalistic path, making a future peace agreement even less likely and further jeopardising Israel’s future.
Democrats should be deeply concerned at the climate being generated by this government and its supporters as they prepare for war. Nobel laureate Guenter Grass’s wrote a pretty innocuous and banal poem criticising Israeli policy vis-a-vis Iran, containing such lines as the demand that ‘the governments of both Iran and Israel allow an international authority free and open inspection of the nuclear potential and capability of both. No other course offers help to Israelis and Palestinians alike’. He was consequently subjected to hyperbolic verbal attacks by senior Israeli ministers Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman and barred from entering Israel, while a campaign is being waged to smear him as an anti-Semite. If Israel is falling prey to this kind of hysteria, it is time for people who really care about the country to play a moderating role.
There is an Israeli left, and we in the West would do better to support them. The threat posed to the Middle East by Iran’s regime can ultimately only be resolved by a democratic revolution in that country. In the meantime, to weaken this regime, we would do better to concentrate on bringing down its murderous ally in Damascus, something that would not only save lives, but if handled properly might even improve the West’s reputation in the Middle East, instead of ruining it further.
Update: A strong case against an Israeli attack on Iran is made by Shalom Lappin at Normblog.
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