Sunday, December 5, 2010

Will Iran’s nuclear program unify Arabs and Jews?

Diverging vital national interests of two warring sides, Israel and Arabs, have come to converge on at least one issue; Iran’s nuclear weapons program which equally threatens both the sides. They want to stop Iran at all costs to become a nuclear state. Israel has already contemplated surgical strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites to destroy its nuclear capability and Arabs are pursuing their powerful friends to do the same on their behalf. This week's WikiLeaks release of State Department cables highlighted the growing concerns of numerous Sunni Arabs leaders over Iran's nuclear program. Bahrain's king, for instance, pleaded to a U.S. diplomat that the Iranian nuclear program "must be stopped." In another leaked cable, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supposedly implored the United States to "cut of the head of the snake” before it was too late. Equating the present Iranian government with snake amply explains Arabs’ perception of Iran.

Will the US oblige its Arab friends and go ahead with the desired attack on Iran’s nuclear installations? In yet another leaked cable, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates dismissed the traditional way, an air campaign, concluding that it "would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker." Smart thinking indeed and the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it wiser than ever. For its efforts in these two very visible wars, the United States spent a huge fortune, lost thousands of soldiers and earned opprobrium from many quarters of the world. It is little wonder why Gates would be quick to find a reason to avoid yet another military commitment. 

It does not mean that Iran is not the focus of US attention any more. Foreign Policy Magazine,  in an article titled, The Covert War Inside Iran, says that Iran seems to be under assault from a different kind of warfare. First was the arrival of Stuxnet, a highly sophisticated malware worm specifically designed to attack machinery produced by Siemens Corporation, a German industrial conglomerate. According to FPRI, a think-tank in Philadelphia, Stuxnet (introduced into Iran's nuclear program by an infiltrator wielding a USB flash drive) targets Siemens-designed Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. Some anonymous adversary has apparently concluded that Iran's uranium enrichment facilities, archetypes of large-scale industrial processes, are highly suitable candidates for this type of cyber attack. 

Iran's nuclear program is also under attack from another very old-fashioned method: the anonymous assassin. This week one high-level Iranian nuclear scientist was killed and another wounded when they were attacked by assassins on motorcycles who attached bombs to their cars. In January, another Iranian nuclear scientist was killed by a bomb. But this covert war will have the same effects which an all-out attack could have; a temporary delay. The world should have lost its sleep at the ramifications of these ambitions considering the facts that three powers in the region already have this capability. Look at the balance of nuclear terror in the region with nuclear powers clearly aligned to two different camps; Pakistan and China as opposed to India and Iran. This also puts USA in a difficult position because India is its strategic partner which can bring it closer to Iran, India’s strategic partner. And a friend of my friend cannot be my enemy.

According to the New York Times, Israel, for its part, has been quick to assert that the leaks show that it and the Gulf Arab states have a common outlook regarding Iran. “More and more states, governments and leaders in the Middle East and the wider region and the world believe this is the fundamental threat,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said when asked about the cables. 

“No one will now be able to allege that Israel is acting irresponsibly,” wrote Aluf Benn, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz. “When the King of Saudi Arabia and the King of Jordan call for lopping off the head of the Iranian snake, no one will believe them when they denounce an Israeli operation.” But there is little to back up such claims. Israel has long wanted the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. It has also strongly implied that if Washington refuses to do so, it will go ahead on its own — in a manner calculated to leave the United States no choice but to join it in war with Iran. 

The Gulf Arabs want to forestall Iranian nuclear ambitions, but they are willing to defer to American judgment about how best to achieve that, and they certainly don’t want it to result in a war in their own neighborhood. Clearly, this is a very different position from the one held by Mr. Netanyahu. 

There are other ways in which the Arabs and Israelis are at odds on Iran policy. The leaks show that Gulf Arab rulers are concerned above all that a nuclear-armed Iran would have greater prestige in the region and ever-greater influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. The nuclear weapons themselves, they feel, are primarily a threat to Israel and American forces in the region.Yes, Israelis fear that Iran might gratuitously attempt another Holocaust by attacking them. But the leaked documents also show that one of the main worries Israel has about Iran’s nuclear ambitions is that it could lose its regional monopoly on nuclear weapons, limiting their leverage on a whole range of issues. One doubts the Gulf Arabs share that concern. 

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