AS we move into a new year, again we are hearing the drumbeat for a military strike on Iran in order to disrupt its military nuclear program.
The American threats and mass sale of arms to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf last month were followed by similarly harsh Iranian statements threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. Then Iran held naval exercises in the Gulf and warned the US not to return its aircraft carrier “to the Persian Gulf region“.
Earlier, top US officials made their resolve clear, suggesting a military strike was a viable option in the US toolkit for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. As 2011 wound to a close, President Obama underscored that it would be unacceptable for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons and pledged to “keep up the pressure”, taking “no options off the table”.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, reiterating a similar warning, alluded to the tight timetable. Iran, he said, was capable of developing nuclear weapons within a year. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, cautioned against a possible Iranian miscalculation “that would be a tragedy for the region and the world”.
This came against the background of the International Atomic Energy Association’s November report suggesting Iran had a clandestine nuclear military program.
A series of mysterious explosions, assassinations of nuclear experts, and signs of a cyber war have led to speculation various states have been contesting a program in the shadows.
At the same time, pressures from within are bearing down on the Iranian regime – not only growing popular disenchantment, but also signs of cracks within the ruling elite, including divisions between Supreme Leader Khamene’i and President Ahmadinejad.
Iran has also been pummelled economically by the cumulative effects of Security Council sanctions, and those imposed independently by the US and the EU. Its currency has plunged against the US dollar and growing unemployment and inflation are squeezing the Iranian people.
Yet, thus far, the regime shows no sign of retreating from its nuclear schemes.
What if Iran becomes a nuclear power? A nuclear capability in the hands of a regime that embraces such a radical ideology will dramatically change the geo-strategic map of the Middle East.
While its generally nationalistic politics have thus far led to relative pragmatism, the current struggle is primarily for regime survival, not for national interest.
Suffice to imagine what could have happened if Gaddafi of Libya had nuclear weapons earlier this year; or Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Iranian nuclear power may also pose a serious environmental hazard for the Iranian people and the entire Gulf region, as we witnessed during the earthquake in Japan. Bushehr, the site of Iran’s nuclear power plant in the country’s south, is located in an area prone to earthquakes.
No less important, a nuclear Iran will trigger nuclear proliferation throughout the region. Nuclear Iran will also serve as an umbrella for Islamist movements, like Hamas and Hezbollah.
But whose problem is it? While many believe a nuclear Iran is a threat to Israel alone, and therefore the solution should bear the trademark “Made in Israel”, in fact, it is the problem of the free world, and of the Middle East, not of Israel alone.
It is unthinkable that such a revolutionary movement, with its radical vision and mission, would view tiny Israel as its ultimate target. Even in their own jargon, the Great Satan is the US; Israel is only the Lesser Satan!
So, what can be done? There are ways to dissuade Iran from pursuing such a dangerous path, short of the hazardous military option.
A unified, uncompromising and united Western policy – even without Russia and China on board – may be sufficient to pressure Iran to rethink its nuclear policy.
The world community should demonstrate “moral muscle” by harshly and consistently condemning the violation of human rights in Iran. Diplomatic pressure will help: imagine if all EU countries had recalled their ambassadors from Iran, say, following the attack on the British Embassy.
Sanctions against Iranian banks and focused economic sanctions might bring significant pressure to bear on the regime.
This regime has shown that, under exceeding pressure, it is capable of changing its policy, even on key issues.
In contrast to the regime’s inflated pretensions, Iran today is weak and vulnerable and its policy seems to be the result of domestic political calculations, and attests to its weakness.
Iran is facing unprecedented socio-economic, political-factional challenges and, above all, growing popular resentment.
Although the popular opposition of 2009 has been crushed, under the surface the fire of rebellion still rages on. So far, Iran has benefited from the transatlantic differences and divisions within the Western democracies.
If states of the West put their individual short-term economic interests aside, they would be able to collectively face what seems to be the major geostrategic challenge of 2012.
>>Professor David Menashri is the President of the College of Law and Business in Israel and Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University writing for the Herald Sun