Prem Shankar Jha

Iran– Do Israel and saudi Arabia have a backup Plan ?

Israel has been joined by Saudi Arabia openly and Turkey covertly, in opposing the rehabilitation of Iran. Here is what is What I wrote about. A shorter verion appeared in  The Indian Express.  

“The euphoria that spread though the world after the Iran – EU nuclear  agreement is  proving short-lived. Republicans in the US Congress have made it clear that they will spare no effort to block it.  Hilary Clinton, the democratic Presidential hopeful, is keeping her options open. Whispers are escaping from European chancelleries that the sanctions on Iran will only be lifted in stages. Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani have responded by insisting that they must be lifted ‘at once’.

But the agreement’s most inveterate enemy is Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel. In the week that followed the Lausanne agreement he warned the American public in three successive speeches that it would threaten the survival of Israel and  increase the risk of  ‘a horrific war’. This is a brazen attempt to whip up fear and war hysteria on the basis of a spider’s web of  misinformation.

Netanyahu unveiled  the first at the UN General Assembly in 2012. It was a large cartoon of a bomb with a red line across it, just below the mouth. This was how close Iran was  to making a nuclear bomb, he said. It could get there in a year. Only much later did the world learn that  Mossad, his own intelligence service, had told him that Iran was very far from being able to build a bomb.

Mossad probably knew what a US Congress Research Service report revealed two months later:  that  although Iran already had enough 5 percent, or low-enriched,  Uranium in August 2012 to build  5 to 7 bombs,  it had not enriched enough of it to the intermediate level of   20 percent to meet the requirement for even one  bomb.  The CRS had concluded from this and other evidence that this was because  Iran had made no effort to revive its nuclear weapons programme after stopping it ‘abruptly’ in 2003.

Netanyahu’s second deception  is that he only wants to punish Iran with sanctions till it gives up trying to acquire not only nuclear weapons but any nuclear technology that could even remotely facilitate this in the future. But he knows that no government in Iran can agree to this. So what he is really trying to steer the world towards is the alternative– a military attack on Iran.

What is more, since he also knows  that  destroying  Iran’s nuclear facilities will not destroy its capacity to rebuild these in the future he does not want the strike to end till it has  destroyed Iran’s infrastructure ( as Israel destroyed Southern Lebanon’s in 2006) ,  its industry,  its research facilities and its science universities.

He knows that Israel cannot undertake  such a vast operation without the Americans.  But there is one stumbling block—Barak Obama, who has learned from his recent  experience that, to put it mildly,  America’s  interests do not always tally with those of its allies in the middle east. So Netanyahu is following a two-pronged strategy: first to get the US Congress to insert clauses in the Treaty draft  that Iran will be forced to reject, and second to take advantage of   the spike in paranoia that will follow to  push the west into an attack on Iran.

He has been joined in this endeavour by another steadfast friend of the US, Saudi Arabia. At the end of February Saudi Arabia  quietly signed an agreement with Israel that will allow its warplanes to overfly Saudi Arabia on their way to bombing Iran. This has halved the distance  they will need to fly. And less than four weeks later, on March 26,  it declared war on the Houthis in Yemen, whom it has been  relentlessly portraying as a tiny minority bent upon taking Yemen over through sheer terror, with the backing of  Iran.

This is a substantial oversimplification , and therefore distortion, of a complicated relationship. Iran may well be helping the Houthis, but not because they are Shias.  The Houthis,  who make up 30 percent of  Yemen’s population, are Zaidis, a very different branch of Shi’a-ism than the one practiced in Iran, Pakistan and India. They inhabit  a  region that stretches across Saada, the northernmost district of  Yemen, and  three adjoining principalities, Jizan, Najran, and Asir,  that Saudi Arabia annexed in 1934.  The internecine wars that Yemeni Houthis  have fought since the 1960s  have not been sectarian, or even  against  the  Saudis specifically, but in quest of independence and, more recently, a federal state. This is a goal that several other tribes share.

The timing of  Saudi Arabia’s attack, four weeks after its overflight agreement with Israel, and its incessant  portrayal of   the Houthis as proxies of Iran, hints at a deeper understanding between it and Israel. The Houthis’ attacked  Sana’a, the capital, last September. So why did Saudi Arabia wait till now before sending its bombers in?

Iran has kept  out of the conflict in Yemen so far, but the manifestly one-sided resolution passed by the UN Security Council,  the immediate resignation of the UN special envoy for Yemen Jamal Benomar, who had been struggling to bring about a non-sectarian resolution of the  conflict in Yemen and been boycotted by Saleh’s successor,   Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi for his pains, cannot have failed to raise misgivings in  Teheran. Iraqi President Haydar Abadi’s  sharp criticism of the Saudi attack in Washington on the same day reflects his awareness of how these developments are darkening the prospect  for  Iran’s rehabilitation, and therefore  Iraq’s future.

To stop this drift Obama  needs to tell his people precisely how far,  under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel’s interests have diverged from those of the US, and how single-mindedly Israel has used its special relationship with the US to push it  into   actions that have imperiled its own security in the middle east.

Instead of dwelling on how the treaty will make it close-to-impossible for Iran to clandestinely enrich uranium or produce plutonium, he needs to remind Americans of what Netanyahu has been carefully neglecting to mention: that a nuclear device is not a bomb, and that to convert it into one Iran will need not only to master the physics of bomb-making and reduce its weight to what a missile can carry but carry out  at least one test explosion to make sure the bomb works. That will make escaping detection pretty well impossible.

Lastly the White house needs to remind Americans that Iranians also know  the price they will pay if  they are caught trying to build a bomb after signing the agreement. Not only will this bring back all and more of the sanctions they are under,  but it will vindicate Netanyahu’s apocalyptic predictions and make a pre-emptive military strike virtually unavoidable.

Finally, should a  military strike, whether deserved or undeserved,   destroy Iran’s economy,  it will add tens of thousands  of Shi’a Jihadis to the Sunni Jihadis already spawned in Libya, Somalia, Chechnya and  the other failed states and regions of the world.    The security that  Netanyahu claims it will bring, will turn out to be  a chimera.

  

 

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