Israel’s Nightmare

A military confrontation with Iran looms in the Middle East. The main reason: Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The danger of further large-scale military confrontations hangs over the Middle East like a dark cloud. Why? Because failed US policy in Iraq has strengthened America’s enemies in the region rather than weakening them. Above all Iran (still a member of the axis of evil!) was pushed into a hegemonic role that it never could have attained under its own power and in such a short time. With that, a latent but ever-present fight for hegemony in the Middle East was transformed into an open war for regional pre-eminence. The two main protagonists are Iran and Israel who – astoundingly – find themselves in an objective alliance with Saudi Arabia. Israel and Saudi Arabia both feel existentially threatened by Iran’s ascendancy to regional hegemony.

New alliances have sprung up in the Middle East: Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and, bizarrely enough, the Shiite dominated Iraqi government supported by the United States, all of whom are united against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and most of the other Sunni Arab states.

The danger of a major confrontation is increased by persistently high oil prices that open new financial and power-political possibilities for Iran. Added to this are the defeats dished out to the western powers and their regional allies in the proxy wars like Gaza and more recently in Lebanon. Last but not least, there is the strengthened possibility of conflict due to the failure of the UN Security Council to convince Iran by diplomatic means to at least temporarily suspend its nuclear program.

The Iranian nuclear program is the one dynamic factor in this formula that threatens to tilt the regional strategic balance for once and for all. An Iran, whose president never tires of calling loudly for Israel’s obliteration and disappearance, an Iran which in actual military fact sits on Israel’s southern and northern borders and wages large-scale proxy wars against it, such an Iran to someday gain access to ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads is clearly Israel’s worst national security nightmare.

In politics, it’s not only facts that count but, above all, how those facts are perceived. Whether one accepts facts as reality or delusion has nothing to do with it. The perception counts because that is what leads to decisions. This primacy of perception is especially applicable when the players use threats, especially threats to one’s existence, to express it. President Ahmadinejad’s threats to annihilate Israel, in the context of the Holocaust, are taken very seriously there. And fear of a nuclear Iran is shared by most Arab governments in the region.

Last week, Israel celebrated its 60th birthday and US President George Bush was in Jerusalem for the festivities. Anyone who thought he went because of stagnant Israeli– Palestinian peace negotiations was bitterly disappointed. The central theme was Iran, even in Bush’s remarks before the Israeli parliament.

While it’s true Bush promised to get closer to a solution in the Middle East before the year was out, we must assume he and Israel plan to solve one problem before the end of his term in a completely different manner: Iran’s nuclear program will be handled militarily, not diplomatically.

Whoever paid attention to what the English-language Israeli media was saying and printing during the celebrations in Jerusalem didn’t have to be a prophet to understand that the situation was rapidly coming to a head:

— “No more appeasement!” is a demand being raised across the political spectrum in Israel, and it refers to Iran’s nuclear threat.

— Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quoted in the media as saying that while Israel celebrated, a possible life-and-death confrontation might be gathering overhead.

— The departing commander of the Israeli Air Force announced its capability to ensure Israeli security no matter what difficulties were encountered. As an example, he cited the destruction of the Syrian nuclear facility last year and the fact that there was no international reaction to the attack.

— Israel’s wish list for weapons deliveries from the United States, which was negotiated with the president, concentrated mainly on Israel’s air attack and precision capabilities.

— The helplessness of diplomatic initiatives and UN sanctions were repeatedly mentioned.

— And not of least importance in Israeli political debate was the closing time window of Bush’s term in office and uncertainty about the politics of his successor.

Above all, the two last factors weigh heavily. It may be true that Israeli military security services assume that Iran can’t cross the red line to nuclear power until the 2010-2015 time-frame at the earliest, but the political clock for action says now, in George W. Bush’s final months, is the time to act.

Those in Jerusalem understand clearly that an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be risky and would bring with it consequences difficult to predict. Faced with two alternatives, accepting an Iranian nuclear capability or trying to destroy that capability regardless of the risks and possible dangerous aftermath, the decision is clear. Israel will not watch and wait.

The Middle East is marching toward a new and immense confrontation. Tehran must understand that matters will continue to become more critical in the coming months if no diplomatic solution is reached. It is high time for serious negotiations. The latest six-power offer is on the table and it is clearly not in Iran’s interests. Whether or not it can freeze negotiations for the long term and prevent a military confrontation will be crucial. If the attempt fails, then things will rapidly become serious. Very serious, indeed.

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