By Paul Michaels
Following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s talks with Prime Minister Harper in Ottawa and President Obama in Washington last week, substantial media coverage implied that Netanyahu is recklessly itching for war with Iran.
The reality is that Israel has been warning for years that a nuclear-armed Iran is a menace to the international community, not just to Israel – which has been repeatedly threatened with destruction by Tehran. Israel has emphasized that it’s the responsibility of the international community to rein in Iran by all means necessary short of war. This includes tough economic sanctions, some of which are only beginning to take effect. Still, many analysts see these as too little too late, and thus insufficient to derail Iran’s illicit nuclear program.
By the middle of last week came the announcement that major powers, including China, Russia, the US, and some EU countries, had decided to once again try negotiations with Iran. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, hoped that “Iran will now enter into a sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress…” But there is widespread skepticism that further talks with Iran, scheduled to start in April, will provide anything other than a cover for Iran to stall for time while it pushes ahead with nuclear fuel enrichment and related weapons programs. Words like “sustained” and “progress” have a double entendre meaning where Tehran is concerned.
This skepticism is bolstered by other considerations. Efraim Halevy, former head of Israel’s Mossad, recently argued (in The New Republic) that Arab and Muslim leaders in the Middle East have learned a valuable lesson from last year’s NATO campaign in Libya. Recall that Muammar Gaddifi, in 2003, gave up Libya’s nuclear arms program in exchange for re-engagement with the West. The lesson for Iran today: don’t follow Libya’s lead if you plan to survive, since having nuclear weapons is the best guarantee against attack.
Halevy put this starkly: “In light of the Libyan experience, what nuclear aspiring nation can now put its trust in a rollback deal of any sort? When NATO took to the skies over Tripoli, Benghazi, and Misrata, it delivered the greatest possible blow to future non-proliferation diplomacy.”
Chatter about such a “peaceful” resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis contrasted with commentary about Israel’s “aggressive” inclinations. But there was an important element of the overall story that was missing from almost all the coverage: namely, that the Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, feel very threatened by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Shia Iran.
In the past, the Saudi King has urged the Americans to “cut off the head of the snake” in reference to Iran. His ambassador to the US urged the same, and was subsequently found to be the target of an Iranian assassination plot planned to unfold in Washington.
Reports at the time indicated that the Saudis, while certainly not saying so publicly, were also secretly counting on the Israelis (with US backing) to confront Iran militarily.
As the “Arab Spring” has resulted in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, etc.), a fascinating paradox has emerged. The Brotherhood is extremely hostile to Israel. But it’s also hostile to Shia Iran (even though Iran has offered to provide funds to Egypt, whose economy is teetering and whose leadership has been pulling away from the Americans). Yet while Iran is helping Syria’s Assad brutally repress the rebellion led mainly by the majority Sunnis, even Hamas, an outgrowth of the Brotherhood which formerly relied on Iranian funds, has had to distance itself from Iran and side with its Sunni brethren.
So it was most unexpected to see a report last week in The Guardian that a senior Hamas official said that Hamas might not react if Israel were to attack Iran (although this was later denied). But in the broader context of the contest between Sunni and Shia forces in the Arab world, this story might not be as shocking as it appears.
Paul Michaels is the Director of Research and Media Relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
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