Israel’s Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Netanyahu

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By Khaled Diab

Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu are so alike it is hard to tell them apart. The best way to neutralise them is through a nuclear weapons-free Middle East.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

One may be the heir apparent of Israeli rightwing royalty and the other the son of a poor, provincial Iranian jack-of-all-trades but Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad behave like mutant clones when it comes to their international brinksmanship, their reckless and foolish handling of their countries’ foreign relations, and their uncanny knack of furthering their peoples’ international isolation.

Both men have succeeded in losing their countries valuable friends abroad. Although his predecessor Mohammad Khatami had worked hard to thaw relations with the West, Ahmadinejad has managed, with his outspokenness and defiant pursuit of a nuclear programme, to reverse these gains. Similarly, Netanyahu has, quite literally, rocked the boat with Israel’s staunchest regional ally Turkey and has strained relations with another important regional power, Egypt. Even US president Barack Obama, who has gone out of his way to frame himself as a ‘friend of Israel’, expressed frustration with Netanyahu in an unguarded exchange with French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Both ultra-conservatives to the bone, Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad are aligned with the most conservative and reactionary forces at home. Moreover, their political discourse seems to be largely targeted at this constituency, alienating and angering other, more liberal segments of their own societies while antagonising important players in the outside world.

Their desperate desire to play to the choir and preach to the converted was on ‘eloquent’ display at the UN General Assembly in September. Though both men made some valid points, these were lost in the deluge of hate and paranoia which spewed from their mouths.

Ahmadinejad insultingly suggested that the West threatened “anyone who questions the Holocaust and the September 11 event with sanctions and military actions”, eliciting angry reactions not only from the United States and Israel but also, apparently, from al-Qaeda. Not to be outdone, Netanyahu succeeded in offending the entire international community, with the possible exception of the United States, when he described the UN as “the theatre of the absurd” and that “automatic majorities… can decide that the sun sets in the west or rises in the west [sic]”.

Mad and bad as they both may be, there is some rationality and method to their madness. Both leaders are incredibly unpopular at home among moderates, liberals and leftists. Ahmadinejad’s questionable 2009 election victory sparked what became known as the ‘Green Revolution’ in favour of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and Ahmadinejad has been on the back foot at home ever since.

In addition to allegations of financial impropriety resurfacing, Netanyahu has been hit by a perfect storm of opposition: from the Israeli mainstream, by perhaps the largest and most sustained protests for social justice in the nation’s history; from the Israeli fringes, by the violent ‘price tag’ attacks perpetrated by extremist settlers; and from the Palestinians, who have taken their demands for statehood to the UN.

Against this backdrop, both Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad have, ironically, found common cause in mutual confrontation around Iran’s nuclear programme to manufacture domestic consent in what they hope will be a manageable foreign crisis. The two men are not only stoking up fear among their traumatised populations but are also exhibiting the kind of defiance and pride against ‘foreign diktats’ which plays out well with large segments of their two peoples.

That is not to say that the concerns and worries of the Iranian and Israeli peoples are entirely unjustified, but their two governments are going about resolving the issues in the wrong way.

When it comes to Iran’s civilian nuclear programme, Iranians are understandably incensed by the West’s double standards, and its determination to prevent Iran from exploiting a source of energy that has become commonplace around the world, especially when one considers that Iran was developing a nuclear programme with Washington’s blessing during the reign of the Shah. That said, it is my personal view that Iran’s post-oil energy future would have been better, and less controversially, secured by investing in solar power, which is not only greener but has the added benefit of ensuring the country’s energy independence.

If the latest IAEA report proves to be true and Iran is, despite its insistence to the contrary, developing a covert nuclear weapons programme, then though misguided, there is a logical strategic rationale behind its quest.

Iran is surrounded by nuclear-armed foes and potential foes: Israel, India and Pakistan, not to mention the United States in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, there is the deep-seated distrust of Western powers, particularly Britain, the United States and Russia, all of whom have launched military action or orchestrated coups in the country at one time or another. Then, there’s the prestige factor. Iran is very proud of its historical pre-eminence and any apparent restoration of some of that ancient glory, no matter how illusory, is bound to go down well.

But the notion of mutually assured destruction is not only as MAD as its acronym suggests, Iran is never likely to tip the ‘balance of terror’ enough in its favour to reach that level of supposed deterrence.

Given the bombast emanating from Tehran since the Islamic revolution and Ahmadinejad’s confrontational rhetoric, the fear among the Israeli public of a nuclear-armed Iran is understandable, if hugely exaggerated, given Iran’s status as a “paper tiger” rather than a “scar superpower”, as one former senior Mossad official put it.

This makes political reactions that far outweigh any possible threat seem all the more troubling and distressing. If Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are in favour of military action against Iran, this would be a foolhardy and reckless course of action. It not only carries the risk of sparking an unnecessary war between the two countries, it would come at perhaps the most volatile time in the Middle East’s history since World War I and the subsequent redrawing of the region’s political map, possibly triggering a wider conflict of unknown dimensions and scale.

But there is a far more sensible military option that Israel’s leadership and the Israeli public should seriously consider: committing to a nuclear weapons-free Middle East by coming out of the closet about being a nuclear power and dismantling the “bomb in the basement”, as Israel’s legendary military leader Moshe Dayan called it.

Not only was Israel’s nuclear weapons programme developed without the Israeli public’s knowledge or consent, it was also done so against the will of the international community – rather like what Iran is possibly doing today.

In addition, Israel’s estimated arsenal of up to 200 nuclear warheads has been a liability rather than an asset. It has done nothing for the country’s security beyond giving other regional powers the incentive to try to obtain their own bomb. And this was clear to see to critics both within Israel and among its allies. For instance, a declassified 1963 CIA report predicted that a nuclear Israel would polarise and destabilise the region and would likely lead the Arabs to seek their own “deterrent”.

For at least three decades, efforts to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East have crashed against the rocks of Israeli intransigence. If Iran does succeed in developing its own bomb, the threat of regional proliferation so long predicted is likely to mushroom as Arab powers scramble to gain their own capability to counteract that of Iran’s and Israel’s. The best way to avoid this is for Israel to commit to disarmament in return for Iran abandoning its nuclear weapons programme and the entire region signing up to a Middle Eastern non-proliferation treaty.

This is the extended version of a column which appeared in Haaretz on 6 December 2011.

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The human cost of cluster bombs

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By Katleen Maes

Cluster bombs continue to hurt people and their livelihoods years after they were dropped.

September 2008

Lebanon: 21-year-old Fayz is sitting in his living room, staring at the leg he cannot use anymore because the nerves have been cut as a result of a cluster submunition explosion. Fayz has undergone several operations and is waiting to receive rehabilitation and psychosocial and educational support. His case is similar to that of many young people injured in the aftermath of the 2006 conflict with Israel. Except that Fayz was injured while herding sheep in the Western Beka’a valley almost 12 years ago. He has received no assistance to enable him to overcome his trauma or return to school.

Cluster munitions are imprecise weapons, designed to strike a greater surface area than many other conventional weapons by dispersing smaller, but still lethal, submunitions. Scattered on the ground, these submunitions create a large footprint. Within that footprint, they kill and injure both military personnel and civilians. Even in optimal test conditions, up to a quarter of submunitions fail to explode on impact. In real-life situations, failure rates are consistently much higher.

Cluster munitions: creating a lost generation in Lebanon?

The 2006 conflict in Lebanon drew widespread attention to the effects of cluster munitions on civilian populations. However, it was not the first time that Lebanon had been hit by these weapons. Prior to 2006, Israel had used cluster munitions in Lebanon in 1978, 1982, 1996 and December 2005. According to UN and media reports citing Israeli Defence Force (IDF) commanders, approximately four million cluster submunitions were delivered in the July–August conflict, most of them in the last 72 hours of the war.

Overlapping footprints, the clearance of visible cluster munitions (disturbing the footprints) and incomplete surveying make it impossible to estimate the total number of cluster munitions delivered, or the overall failure rate. However, it is clear that estimated failure rates are higher than the official figure of 5–23%. The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre in South Lebanon (MACC-SL) estimates that between 32% and 40% fail overall. This would mean that the recent conflict added approximately 1.5 million unexploded submunitions to the mines and ordnance already on the ground from previous wars.

As of 15 January 2007, there were at least 555 recorded cluster munitions casualties in Lebanon, of which 122 were killed and 433 injured. Children make up 24% of casualties; most of them, 114, are boys. A total of 338 casualties were recorded prior to 12 July 2006, and 217 casualties were recorded between 12 July and 15 January 2007 (53 of whom were children under 18). These recorded totals do not include up to 175 unconfirmed cluster munitions casualties during or shortly after the conflict.

Most people left south Lebanon prior to 10 August, undoubtedly reducing the number of civilian cluster submunitions casualties during the conflict. Due to the nature of the conflict, the use of different types of weapons and difficulties with data collection, it is impossible to determine how many people were injured or killed by cluster submunitions during strikes. In the aftermath of the war, reporting was only possible from accessible areas, and it is also understood that most Hizbullah casualties due to cluster submunitions are not included in the data. In the post-emergency phase, a retroactive survey should be conducted to provide appropriate assistance to cluster submunitions survivors as part of a larger group of people with disabilities (PWD), and to determine the impact of cluster munitions on civilians during conflict (to see if this weapon can rightfully be used in war) and in its immediate aftermath.

Cluster munitions are large surface weapons. In Lebanon, they were used by Israel against a non-regular armed force (Hizbullah) in a small but relatively densely populated area, contaminating places where civilians need to go on a daily basis, such as roads, farmland, gardens and homes. Most incidents immediately after cluster munition strikes occur in or near the house, when returnees investigate damage and try to make their homes habitable again. Several months after the conflict, some people were still living in tents in front of their houses because failed submunitions litter their homes. In the longer term, a large percentage of casualties occur while farming, herding animals or carrying out other livelihood activities. In addition to the loss of life and the economic damage, cluster munitions exact a high psychosocial and educational cost. People feel unsafe every step they take, the secure bastion of the home is not always safe, schools are damaged or opened late and many children are not free to play where they want.

The 2006 conflict resulted in a soaring cluster submunition casualty rate of just over two people per day until the end of the year. The average casualty rate in the years prior to the conflict had slumped to a low two per year. At the beginning of 2007, casualties dropped to an average of three a week, according to MACC-SL. The reduction of casualties is mainly due to the impressive clearance capacity in Lebanon, which has been able to provide a rapid response to the emergency. It is estimated that this will take until the end of 2007. Afterwards, pasture lands will be cleared and pre-conflict clearance can be resumed. However, 70% of southern Lebanon’s economy is based on agriculture, which means that cluster submunitions will continue to cause casualties at a steady rate.

Cluster munitions: between the immediate and the long term

Throughout the conflict, Lebanon’s medical and humanitarian infrastructure, though stretched to its limits, held up, with the assistance of a vibrant civil society and international organisations. With nearly 15 years of experience in the country, Handicap International (HI) scaled up its post-conflict activities. HI prioritised equal partnership relations with long-standing local partners. A partnership approach needs to be truly equal in order to ensure sustainability, capacity-building and local ownership. This is crucial as cluster submunition survivors often need life-long support. A varied, accessible, rights-based package responding to the needs identified by the survivors, their families and communities is a necessity to fully (re)integrate them into society. Otherwise, there is a real risk that these new cluster munitions victims – meaning the affected individual, their families and communities – will end up as many mine and ERW victims before them: one of the most impoverished groups in society, facing double discrimination. So, rather than building new structures, HI chose to strengthen existing ones by supplying materials and technical advice, and assisting with coordination issues faced by local agencies. At the same time, HI has worked to ensure the financial and physical accessibility aspects of aid and reconstruction efforts, and trained community de-miners to assist in cluster munitions clearance efforts.

In parallel, HI set up disability information and referral points, to respond to the specific and general needs of PWD – medical care, physical rehabilitation, psychosocial support, economic support and equal rights. HI is also in charge of optimising the coordination of international aid efforts. In partnership with the Ministry of Social Affairs and local partners, and supported by the European Commission, a telephone platform and online database of available local and international aid services was set up.

The issue of the rehabilitation and reintegration of explosive remnants of war (ERW) survivors cannot be separated from the broader context of development in the affected country. In these efforts, non-specialist agencies would benefit from liaising with national and international agencies dealing with cluster munitions or mine action in general. Most countries affected by cluster munitions have got a mine action infrastructure under UN or government auspices, and in cooperation with national and international NGOs. These agencies, in a first stage, need to be consulted to provide security and risk prevention briefings to non-specialist staff. These centres, like for example the MACC-SL and the Landmine Resource Centre, will be able to provide up-to-date information on casualties, mine risk education (MRE) and demining, and circulate this to all stakeholders upon request.

Secondly, development agencies should coordinate their crosscutting response with the technical experts and community liaison staff of the specialised agencies, to ensure complementarity of specialised and general assistance. Reconstruction sites, for example, need to be declared mine/ERW-safe before reconstruction starts. Education or psychosocial support programmes can include a standard MRE module. And reconstruction planning should take accessibility requirements for people with disabilities into account. Many large organisations, such as UNICEF, UNDP, the ICRC and the large NGOs (like HI), already integrate a standard mine/ERW component into their operations in severely affected countries, even if the focus of their work is more general.

Cluster submunitions: a worldwide generational problem

Cluster munitions have been used in 24 countries and areas, and their use is suspected in at least a dozen more. In 2006, cluster munitions were deployed in Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, and are thought to have been used in Afghanistan. Apart from intermittent international protest, the issue of cluster munitions and the humanitarian impact – just like the items themselves – lay largely dormant until the Lebanon conflict.

HI research reveals that there are serious humanitarian problems with cluster munitions. Unlike the initial blasts, the effects of unexploded submunitions are more discriminate: they kill and injure almost exclusively civilians (98%). The research recorded more than 11,000 confirmed cluster casualties. But the real number could as high as 100,000 given that 91% casualties occurred in countries with incomplete or no data collection mechanisms, such as Iraq.

More than half the casualty toll occurs while people go about their normal daily business. Casualties are mostly male (84%), and nearly half of them are under 18 years of age. The number of casualties occurring while carrying out livelihood activities shows the direct economic impact on cluster-contaminated communities. In many of these countries, men are the traditional breadwinners. Since adult males and boys represent the majority of casualties, the socio-economic loss both in the immediate term and for the future cannot be underestimated.

Cluster munitions: bringing HI back to its roots

HI is exploiting its field and research experience in the area of victim assistance and data collection to provide a better understanding of the human cost of cluster munitions. In mid-2006, this resulted in Belgium becoming the first country to ban the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions. But it was the Lebanon crisis that triggered a worldwide public and media interest in the campaign. Some 350,000 people have signed HI’s petition calling for a ban. Spurred on by the Belgian ban, resolutions for a moratorium were tabled or passed in Australia, Austria, Denmark, France and Norway, and calls for a moratorium were issued in European Union and UN forums.

On 5 November 2006, local members of the Cluster Munition Coalition organised the first ‘Say No to Cluster Bombs’ day in Beirut, which was co-sponsored by HI. Hundreds of schoolchildren attended MRE sessions and tried walking with artificial limbs, and people signed a petition which was sent to Geneva, where the Third Review Conference of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) was convened the following week. At the CCW, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated: ‘Recent events show that the atrocious, inhumane effects of these weapons … must be addressed immediately so that civilian populations can start rebuilding their lives’.

During the conference, some states recognised that the CCW framework will not respond to the human tragedy caused by cluster munitions, just as it could not respond effectively to the landmine crisis ten years earlier. It has become clear that treaty negotiations outside the UN framework are inevitable. These will be led by Norway, which will try to extend the new model of diplomacy created by the Mine Ban Treaty: a fast-moving multilateral dialogue with extensive civil society input. On 22 and 23 February 2007, the Norwegian government invited 48 states, as well as UN and civil society groups, to Oslo to start a process towards an international ban. At the end of the meeting, 46 governments supported a declaration for a new international treaty and a ban by 2008. This conference was the first of a series during 2007 (the next meeting was scheduled for May 2007, in Lima, Peru). The declaration states that a legally binding international instrument will be agreed by 2008 that will ‘prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians, and establish a framework for cooperation and assistance that ensures adequate provision of care and rehabilitation to survivors and their communities, clearance of contaminated areas, risk education and destruction of stockpiles of prohibited cluster munitions’. The cluster bomb treaty was approved by more than 100 countries in May 2008.

Cluster munitions: a call for action

Within this legal framework, HI will be part of a treaty drafting committee. Drawing lessons from the Mine Ban Treaty, it is important that affected individuals, their families and communities are provided with an efficient and accessible rights-based assistance package, based on a twin-track approach which takes account of the specific requirements of survivors and the general development needs of the affected society. The international community is required to commit adequate material and technical resources, while acknowledging that the final responsibility in achieving appropriate assistance lies with the national governments themselves.

Through continued research into the human impact of cluster munitions, HI will ensure that the plight of casualties, as well as the economic, social and psychological cost of these weapons, is fully acknowledged and documented, not only in Lebanon but in all affected countries. The research results will be disseminated to support national campaigns and to feed relevant information back into field operations. In addition, HI will work closely with national campaigns and build their capacity.

The human cost of cluster munitions cannot be seen as old news – these weapons are spreading through new conflicts, destroying lives, disrupting communities and denying vulnerable populations access to the resources needed for economic recovery for generations to come.


Fatal Footprint: The Global Human Impact of Cluster Munitions

Handicap International’s Aid Coordination Platform

Handicap International’s Campaign Against Cluster Munitions

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines

Human Right Watch’s resource library on cluster munitions

This article first appeared on the Human Practice Network website. This is an archived item from Diabolic Digest.

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Disarming the bomb in the basement

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By Khaled Diab

Israel’s weapons policy jeopardises the country’s own security and undermines efforts to create a nuclear-free Middle East.

August 2008

Israel’s interior minister Meir Sheetrit – who is vying to take over the reins from outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert – has struck a welcome note of caution on Iran in his campaign for the ruling Kadima party’s leadership.

On Wednesday, he said: “Israel must on no account attack Iran, speak of attacking Iran or even think about it… Israel must defend itself only if attacked by Iran, but attacking Iran on our own initiative is a megalomaniacal [and] reckless idea.”

Earlier, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy also struck alarm bells against calls to bomb Iran. He warned that an attack could hurt Israel’s interests for a century. “It will have a negative effect on public opinion in the Arab world.”

In fact, the ex-intelligence chief’s opinion is that, without doing anything, Israel wins anyway. “Ahmadinejad is our greatest gift,” he told the US-sponsored Arabic-language network al-Hurra on Tuesday. “We couldn’t carry out a better operation at the Mossad than to put a guy like Ahmadinejad in power in Iran.”

According to Time magazine, another senior Mossad official opined that: “Iran’s achievement is creating an image of itself as a scary superpower when it’s really a paper tiger.”

Although these statements, as well as reported US opposition and murmurs of dissent in Tehran against the regime’s posturing on Israel, reduce the possibility of a military confrontation for the time being, tensions could flare up at any time.

“Paper tiger” or not, Tehran’s strident rhetoric is fuelling public fear in Israel, which plays into the hands of hardliners. In addition, Israel may not trust Iran’s reassurances about its civilian nuclear intentions because Israel itself gave similar assurances but, nevertheless, went on to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

In fact, Israel’s quest to become a nuclear power started shortly after independence, and the main driving force behind it was the country’s founding father, David Ben Gurion. The Israeli leader – who admitted to having nightmares about “a combined attack by all the Arab armies”, despite Israel possessing more firepower than all the Arab countries combined – saw nuclear weapons as the main way of ensuring Israel’s strategic security. Like Iran, he was also lured by the prestige factor of joining the nuclear club.

Following the Suez fiasco, Ben Gurion became more adamant. However, many senior officials opposed his nuclear designs for a number of reasons: they feared it would spark a dangerous escalation, draw resources away from conventional forces and cripple the struggling Israeli economy.

Despite this opposition, Ben Gurion, whose status allowed him to circumvent the cabinet and the Knesset, struck a landmark deal with France in 1957 to build a large reactor that could separate plutonium. Concerned at where this was leading, all but one of the members of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission resigned in protest at the growing military orientation of the programme.

Although the Dimona reactor was constructed in great secrecy, with not even a whisper in the Israeli press, word leaked out and, in December 1960, rumours spread in the western press and were confirmed by U2 spy planes. This triggered concern in Washington and Moscow, and fear and condemnation in the Arab world. The news also took the Israeli public by complete surprise. Ben Gurion assured the world that the reactor was “designed exclusively for peaceful purposes”.

It was around this time that Israel formulated its policy of nuclear ambiguity. Faced with international criticism and internal opposition, the legendary military leader Moshe Dayan developed the concept of what he ominously called “the bomb in the basement”.

Israel began its line that it would not be the first to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the region. Pressed on what exactly that meant, the then ambassador to Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, vaguely responded that Israel would not be the first to “test” such weapons.

Israel resisted international supervision under the IAEA and only grudgingly agreed to pre-arranged American inspections to limited sections of the Dimona facility which, critics argued, allowed it to hide the military activity at the reactor behind false walls.

Experts estimate that Israel acquired a nuclear capability shortly after the 1967 war and today possesses up to 200 nuclear war heads, putting it among the top six nuclear nations, just behind the UK.

Interestingly, a 1963 CIA report predicted that a nuclear Israel would polarise and destabilise the region and would likely make: “Israel’s policy with its neighbours… more, rather than less, tough”. The report also touched on the attendant dangers, such as a possible Arab quest for their own “deterrent”, as well as the damage to western interests in the region.

And, as long as Israel holds on to its nuclear arsenal, the shadow of proliferation will not go away. For at least thirty years, Arab governments, as well as Iran, have been pushing for a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. If Israel is concerned about a nuclear Iran, or the possibility that other regimes in the region will acquire the bomb, the best way it can avert this is to offer to phase out its nuclear arsenal in return for cast-iron Iranian assurances under international supervision.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 24 August 2008. Read the related discussion. This is an archived article from Diabolic Digest.

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