The drums of war can again be heard beating across the Middle East. It’s a comfortable stereotype to perpetuate that this region is riven with conflict. With its extremists, terrorists, evil dictators and tyrannical regimes it should come as no surprise that Iran is now the target of such “peace-loving nations” as the United States and Israel.

Amidst the sabre rattling over Iran’s nuclear program and the threats from President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu to take military action against the Islamic Republic, a generous dose of reason is most welcome. Everything is not black and white.

Daily media reports apparently signal the inevitability of military action — with heightening sanctions, retaliatory embargoes and threats to close economically important shipping lanes, assassinations of nuclear scientists and attempted assassinations of diplomats.

While the Obama administration continues to insist “all options are still on the table”, it is becoming increasingly evident that Washington is hoping the threat of war, along with a concerted sanctions regime, will be enough to dissuade Tehran from continuing along its path of uranium enrichment.

Talking to the Brooking Institute last December, Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said an Israeli attack on Iran would be “counter-productive” but earlier this month his office leaked statements to The Washington Post, describing a “strong likelihood” that Israel would launch an attack some time between April and June.

There is a strong element of “good cop, bad cop” to the current heightening of tensions, with Israel maintaining it is willing to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, as it did in Syria in 2007 and Iraq in 1981, while the US is portraying itself as attempting to restrain its strong regional ally. Prime Minister Netanyahu has indicated he would not give advanced notice to President Obama before launching an assault on Iran but in reality the Israeli leader knows his country is unable to effectively eliminate the threat of a nuclear Iran without substantial US assistance.

Iran’s nuclear facilities are scattered around the country and well fortified — often underground. The key sites likely to be targets in any attack are the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo, the yellowcake conversion plant at Isfahan and a heavy-water reactor at Arak. On Sunday The New York Times cited “US defence officials and military analysts close to the Pentagon” as describing the task of undertaking such a raid as beyond Israel’s capabilities. The range of Israel’s US built F-15I and F-16I fighter jets is less than the more than 3000-kilometre round trip from Israel to Iran, meaning they would need to refuelled before or after any attack. One hundred aircraft would be required to hit all of the targets successfully.

Hooman Majd, a New York journalist and author of two books on Iran, told Crikey he feels the Obama administration is playing for time, by maintaining the threat of a military strike and initiating fresh sanctions against the Islamic Republic, in the hope that following re-election a more considered policy towards Tehran can be implemented.

“I don’t see military action as likely and I don’t think President Obama wants a conflict,” he said. “Israel cannot project itself to the extent that would be necessary and it wants the United States to assist but that could ultimately mean boots on the ground.”

In addition to opening a conflict with Tehran, any attack would also invite retaliation from Iranian-backed groups on Israel’s borders, with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and from Palestinian fighters linked with the militant political parties Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Furthermore, with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad a key ally of the Islamic Republic, perhaps an external enemy would be a welcome diversion for his embattled regime.

A relative of the two-term reformist Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, Majd sees the US and Iran as being better served by a policy of engagement. “Iran does not want to be a pariah nation,” he stresses. “They’re a nation of traders and business people, they have a lot to offer the world. These sanctions, imposed by the US and Europe, will not affect the regime but will only hurt the people. If the people are squeezed too much they will rally around the government. Change can only come from within.”

Majd questions the attribution of last week’s attacks on Israeli diplomats, in New Delhi, Tbilisi and Bangkok, to Iran’s government. India, Georgia and Thailand all enjoy relatively normalised relations with Tehran and, at a time when the US and Europe are imposing harsh sanctions, these relationships are becoming increasingly important. Iranian crude accounts for 12% of India’s oil imports and New Delhi has indicated it will continue the imports despite Western sanctions. Despite Prime Minister Netanyahu announcing within minutes that Iran was responsible for the co-ordinated attacks, yesterday The Times of India reported that police there still had no evidence linking the attack to Tehran.

“This regime is rational,” he argues. “It may be brutal but it’s rational.”

John Meirsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of The New York Times bestseller The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, see the beginnings of the US’ current strategic position in relation to Iran as beginning during the presidency of Bill Clinton. “Israeli leaders began warning Washington in 1993 that Iran was a grave threat not only to Israel but to the US as well,” they write. “There has been no let up in that alarmist and aggressive rhetoric since then.”

Despite being the world’s fifth largest exporter of crude oil, Iran possesses little capacity to refine oil and relies on imports 40% of its petroleum for domestic consumption. Technology and knowledge of the refining process is seen as a considerable carrot to offer Iran should any move towards normalisation in relations with the US take place.

In March 1995, Iran chose the US oil company Conoco to develop the Sirri oilfields, over several other foreign bidders. Meisheimer and Walt describe the selection of Conoco as deliberate “in order to signal its interest in improving relations with the United States”. President Clinton killed the deal by issuing an executive order banning American companies from helping Iran develop its oilfields. Clinton later admitted the US-based pro-Israel lobby groups the World Jewish Congress and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were “the most effective opponents” to the Conoco deal.

Although optimistic that an Obama administration, in its second term, may approach Iran with a more reasoned and strategic outlook, Majd is aware of the possibility for a dramatic twist should Obama lose this year’s presidential election. “If Obama is re-elected he will be able to deal in a more measured way with Iran but if he isn’t we may have a cowboy in the White House who sees himself as able to attack any country at will,” he warned.

All three Republican Party front-runners have indicated their willingness to use military might against Iran, as they seek to present President Obama’s perceived lack of support for Israel as an election issue. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich told a televised primary campaign debate, in November, that they would attack Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Rick Santorum takes the hunger for war to another level by describing the death of Iranian nuclear scientists (who his campaign website describes as “enemy combatants”) as a “wonderful thing”. In January, during an interview with ABC America’s Meet the Press, he said he would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities unless they were opened up to international inspectors.

Nuclear weapons are generally acquired by states as a deterrent to aggression. “I don’t believe the decision to make a nuclear weapon has been made yet, within the regime,” Majd says of those in power inside the Islamic Republic. “But the actions of the US and Israel are certainly not helping.”

Peter Fray

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