By Khaled Diab
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.