Today's date:
Winter 2010

The Real Issue Is Iran’s Emergence as a Regional Power

Alastair Crooke, the legendary former British intelligence (MI6) agent, is author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution.

Beirut—It was pure drama: The leaders of the United States, Britain and France stepped onto the stage at the Pittsburgh G-20 meeting in September to unveil Western intelligence that showed Iran had a second nuclear fuel enrichment facility under construction, which Iran had declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency the preceding Monday. 

The Western leaders gathered in Pittsburgh implied that their revelation was devastating for Iran as a credible player. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates subsequently pronounced Iran to be “in a very bad spot now.” But anyone who listened to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the day of the presentation, and to subsequent Iranian statements, will be clear that Iran, at least, does not see itself as boxed in. 

Far from it, Ahmadinejad exuded confidence and simply—and non-aggressively —counseled US President Barack Obama not to go down this route. It might seem counterintuitive to most Americans and Europeans, but Ahmadinejad’s advice might be worth pondering.

The Pittsburgh dramatics, in a sense, signal the culmination of three pivotal events that took place in the Middle East some 20 years ago. The first was the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1989, the second was the 1991 Gulf War, and the third was Yitzak Rabin’s victory in the 1992 Israeli elections. The consequences from these momentous events are coming to a head for President Obama now. His course of action may determine whether this region is about to enter a new phase of bitter conflict or enter a new era of strategic change.

The first two events hobbled Iran’s traditional foes on its frontiers. Neither the imploded USSR, nor Sunni Iraq, at war with a Western coalition led by the US, was in a position any longer to contain an emergent Iran. As a consequence, Iran’s place as a pre-eminent—if not the pre-eminent—power in the Middle East was guaranteed. 

The third event, the arrival of a Labor government in Israel, was pivotal to Iran becoming “the nuclear threat.” In a dramatic change of policy in 2002, Israel abandoned the Ben-Gurion doctrine of allying Israel with the regional periphery (Turkey, Ethiopia and Iran), an Israeli policy that persisted beyond the Iranian Revolution, and began to engage with its Arab “vicinity.” 

To manage such a radical shift of talking peace to the former Arab “enemy,” a U-turn that bitterly split the Israeli electorate and alienated Israel’s supporters in the US, the Labor government in Israel began, from 1993 onward, to identify Iran to its supporters in the US as the new existential “threat”—in place of the former threat of the “never-changing Arab inability to reconcile” with Israel. Subsequently, the West would absorb the Iranian “threat” as its own, for very different reasons.

The significance of this for President Obama is that he is not facing just the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. This program is rolled into a more substantive and sensitive issue. The more substantive issue, the one at the heart of the Iranian approach to negotiations, is whether—nuclear weapons issue apart—Israel and the US are able to come to terms with an Iran that is, and will be, a pre-eminent power in the region. 

At present, these two issues have been conflated. Iran has signaled on various occasions that the nuclear issue could be resolved but first wants to know the answer to the wider issue: Can the US bring Israel to accept Iran as a principal regional power? Can the US itself accept such an outcome?

All here in the region understand the significance of this question: It is not just the nuclear weapon possibility that concerns Israel; it is the fact of Iranian conventional military power, too. Already it is the conventional military power of Iran and its allies that is circumscribing Israeli conventional military freedom of action in the region. A few Israelis are ready to acknowledge this. What we are dealing with here is whether Israel and, by extension, America, can accept that Israel will no longer enjoy its hitherto absolute conventional military dominance in the region.

This is, at bottom, the choice facing Obama: He can pursue a real solution—one that will have to acknowledge painful new realities and accept new forces arising in the region that inevitably will shift strategic balances. Or he can continue to try to contain them and risk a polarized and unstable Middle East.

The US is slowly reducing its options through the Pittsburgh elevation of the nuclear file to an “ultimatum” choice. Perhaps President Obama believes that in this way he will relieve pressure from Israel for unilateral military action? Perhaps he sees a powerful, conventionally equipped Iran as a threat to Arab allies?

To insist that Iran abandons altogether the nuclear fuel cycle is now probably unrealistic. Iran already has it. To set as an objective that Iran must never acquire the technology that would allow a “breakout” capability (that is, that Iran would be not able speedily to move to weapons capacity at some future point in time) is also unrealistic. Breakout capability goes with the territory: Japan has a peaceful nuclear program, but implicitly it also has “break-out” capability. But to bomb is even less a solution.

It seems then we are heading to increasing sanctions on Iran, but these, too, are likely to be ineffective, as most specialists already admit—Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s initial positive words to Obama on sanctions, notwithstanding. But such a policy will again polarize the region, split it, increase the tensions, and contribute to further isolating America and Europe in the Muslim world.

Despite the rhetorical stance of some Arab governments, the Arab and Muslim street—and a number of states faced with Western escalation against Iran—are more likely to perceive the conflict as one in which the West is seeking to weaken a Muslim rival in order to maintain Israel’s military hegemony. Sentiment will turn against the West and Israel.

In short, the US will again be boxed into an ineffective and unpopular policy. Already, the non-aligned majority and most Muslim states support Iranian rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. For the US to elevate the nuclear issue to an ultimatum, while ignoring the new strategic reality of a powerful Iran, is, as Ahmadinejad hinted, a course of action that Obama in time to come may regret. The Pittsburgh theatrics may prove to have been shortsighted.