Israeli threats stiffen Iran's resolve
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Although it is manifestly clear that Israel runs major risks for minor gains by
planning to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, the tendency of Israeli
politicians and pundits to underestimate the risks and the likelihood of
success is growing by leaps and bounds.
Following the argument that Israel does not want to wait for a new
administration in the United States, to paraphrase one of Israel's voices in
the US, CBS consultant Michael Oren, Israel's increasingly bellicose attitude
against Iran actually has the adverse effect: it sets barricades in the path of
Iranian politicians who want to reach a compromise with the "Iran Six" over
Tehran's nuclear program. Tehran is considering a package of proposals
presented by the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China
and Germany over its uranium-enrichment activities.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, received a positive
initial response from Iran's politicians during a recent visit, emphasizing
Tehran's preparedness to engage in serious negotiations.
But by escalating threats against Iran precisely at a time the EU is pushing
the arch of diplomacy toward Iran, Israel has made it nearly impossible for
Tehran to show a great deal of flexibility, since that would be widely
interpreted as letting Israel bully Tehran. In terms of regional calculus and
Iran's national prestige, this would compromise Iran's position in the Middle
East and undermines its national security.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has penned an article in the
International Herald Tribune, titled "Diplomacy must work", which paints a
reasonable picture of "Iran Six" diplomacy but which alludes to the
self-defeating and unreasonable Iranian approach.
Conspicuously missing in Miliband's piece, alluding to Iranian nationalism, is
any understanding of the Iranian collective psychology and the operative logic
of Iranian nationalism that, historically, does not respond well to external
pressures or threats. 
An opinion poll conducted by the Tehran website www.tabnak.com shows that the
majority of Iranian people are in favor of accepting the "incentive package"
offered by the "Iran Six". The package, included civilian nuclear cooperation
as well as wider trade in aircraft, energy, high technology and agriculture.
Based on interviews with 35,000 Iranians, the poll indicates that only 24%
think Iran should reject the package, compared to 21% who favor accepting it
completely and more than 50% who think the Iranian government should accept the
package by modifying some aspects of it.
However, the drift of public opinion may turn sharply against any compromise
should the threats and coercive actions, seen in the implementation of new EU
sanctions targeting some key Iranian officials, the Melli Bank, and more
Iranian companies, continue. Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament
(Majlis) has warned against the "contradictory behavior" of the "Iran Six" as
undermining the negotiation process. Similarly, Iranian Foreign Ministry
spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini has warned that the "politics of sticks and
carrots has no effect with respect to Iran's legal rights".
It is a tremendous stretch to think that at this critical juncture nuclear
diplomacy with Iran can succeed by upping the ante as the resort to threats of
violence undermines the diplomatic track and reduces the chances of a
breakthrough in the nuclear standoff.
What military option?
Admiral Michael Mull, chairman of the US Joint Chief of Staff, is in Israel
this week to discuss Iran. It can be expected that the issue of a joint attack
will be raised, as Israel would need the US's cruise missiles and strategic
bombers if there were to be a carpet-bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities.
The pertinent question is what can be achieved by this military option?
A short answer, reflected in Larijani's warning that threats against Iran will
result in a "done deal", is that the exercise of the military option will have
the opposite effect of putting Iran on the path of nuclear proliferation. This
is because Iran would likely end its cooperation with the United Nations'
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and embark on clandestine nuclear
proliferation in response to the military aggression.
Unless Israel is prepared to undertake a "permanent war" with Iran, implying
constant attacks on Iran, its leaders must realize that their military option
may damage some Iranian installations, but most likely Iran's nuclear program
would survive and in all likelihood would restart without the benefit of
outside supervision and scrutiny, fully geared to the goal of nuclear
This is completely overlooked by pro-Israel US politicians, such as former US
envoy to the United Nations, John Bolton, who is nowadays prodding the Israelis
to launch their attack before the end of President George W Bush's presidency
in a matter of months. Bolton seems not to address the "day after", that is,
how Iranians will shed their stated aversion toward nuclear weapons and go full
nuclear if they are subjected to an unprovoked warfare.
But Bolton and other US neo-conservatives have shown no qualms about
"obliterating Iran" if need be to secure the state of Israel, irrespective of
certain voices in Israel, such as a former head of the spy agency Mossad, who
dare to tell the Israeli public that the Iran threat has been "exaggerated" or
that there is a "mirage of a Shi'ite threat", to echo the heading of an article
in the daily Ha'aretz by Zvi Bar'el.
Although the costs of a war on Iran would be prohibitively high, and Larijani
has rightly asked the "Iran Six" to heed the warning of the IAEA's Mohammad
ElBaradei that the region will be engulfed in a "ball of fire", Israel has
nonetheless boxed itself in in its verbal commitment to prevent Iran from going
nuclear, even though the evidence on that matter is seriously lacking.
Israel, which has 150 nuclear bombs, according to a recent statement by former
US president Jimmy Carter, constantly projects onto Iran its own hegemonist
predilections and, in the words of Shmvel Bar, who sits on Israel's National
Security Council, exaggerates the consequences of a nuclear Iran by predicting:
"It would become the hegemon of the region. It would dictate oil prices. It
would lead the Muslim world." This is nuclear reductionism pure and simple.
First, a nuclear Iran would have no bearing whatsoever on the price of oil.
Second, just as nuclear Pakistan has not been able to lead the Muslim world, so
similarly a nuclear Iran would not be able to play such a role, in light of the
Muslim world's Sunni majority and the Arab-dominated Middle East. Third, Iran
has repeatedly offered the olive branch of collective security to its neighbors
in the Persian Gulf and it is unclear how a nuclear Iran, that would spur Saudi
Arabia's reacting by going nuclear too, would help Iran's regional policies or
As for Iran's need to counter the US in the region, Iraq in particular will for
the foreseeable future be a key theater in which US forces will be pinned down,
not warranting any Iranian nuclear shield (dispensing here with the issue of a
lack of second-strike capability and the US's dominant force). In sum, the
Israeli discourse leaves a lot to be desired and is bottom-line defective.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume
XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping
Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.