Friday, May 21, 2010

Middle East 101: How to Understand the Iran Nuclear Issue and the Self-Made Decline in U.S. Power?

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By Barry Rubin

Since the Middle East is so important nowadays it is all the more necessary to explain basic concepts about the region. Here's an introduction to some key issues.

What is the use, at least potentially, of sanctions on Iran? We all know that any sanctions the world, or even the U.S. government, is likely to apply won’t stop Iran’s nuclear program. But there are many other potential goals for having sanctions. These include:

Making it harder for Iran to build these weapons and the missiles to carry them, slowing down the program, reducing Iran’s economic assets which can be used for military spending, denying Iran other weapons, intimidating Iran into greater caution in its actual behavior, and encouraging factions (both within the establishment and in the opposition) to conclude that the current Tehran regime is leading them to disaster and must be displaced.

Of these six goals, the plan largely accomplishes one of them—barring the sale of most conventional weapons (but not anti-aircraft missiles)—and does a small amount toward reducing Iran’s assets and slowing down the project. In general, though, it is a question of too little too late.

Again, the problem is not that the sanctions proposed (and which might still be watered down further) aren’t so huge as to make Iran stop but that they will not make Iran more cautious, promote internal conflict due to their high cost, or really put on economic pressure to reduce military spending and increase internal unrest.

How can one rejoice over sanctions--and the length of time it is taking to put them on--when German-Iran trade, for example, rose steeply from March 2009 to March 2010 by almost fifty percent?

Should the world stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons? In principle, the answer is “yes” but we now know that this will not happen. The task, then, is to prepare for a strong containment strategy. This is also not happening.

The U.S. government seems to believe that “declaring” containment--for example, if Tehran gives nuclear weapons to terrorists we will do something; if Tehran attacks a neighbor we will do something—is sufficient at a time when U.S. credibility and deterrence is at an all-time low in our lifetimes.

Why did Russia and China agree to the sanctions’ plan? Because it doesn’t stop them from doing everything they want, with the exception of selling conventional weapons to Iran (which they might smuggle into the country any way and does not include the potential sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles).

How do we know that U.S. credibility and deterrence power is at an all-time low due to the current policy of “proud weakness” by the Obama Administration? Take a look at Lebanon, for example. Former champions of Lebanese sovereignty against Hizballah, Iran, and Syria, now rush to Damascus to pledge allegiance to the Syrian dictatorship.

U.S. leaders also don’t notice the defection of the Turkish regime to the other side. Even with Brazil, despite Obama’s lavish praise for that country’s radical president, Tehran’s view counted more than that of Washington.

There are many articles in Arabic-speaking newspapers and other sources about how they feel the United States is too weak and undependable as a protector. Simultaneously, there are growing moves to appease Syria and Iran.

Is the concept of Iran using nuclear weapons as a “defensive umbrella” for aggression a viable one? Absolutely, remember that chess is a game that was invented in Iran. Having nuclear weapons, as the regime well understnads, will make Iran “untouchable” in terms of retaliation.

We already see this model on a smaller scale with North Korea and Pakistan. North Korea is so confident that it torpedoed and sank a South Korean ship, knowing that its adversary can do nothing about it. That regime also ignores all the requests, demands, and pressures on it to change its behavior even though its people are on the edge of starvation.

Pakistan is a stronger case. It has in the recent past seized Indian territory and set off a war (the Cargill operation), getting a way with it without setting off large-scale Indian retaliation. Pakistan also knows it can continue to sponsor a full-scale terrorist war on India while denying New Delhi any option for retaliation. Since the bloody assault on Mumbai, Pakistan has done nothing and India is helpless to do anything, largely as a result of the Pakistani nuclear umbrella.

This is all on a small scale compared to Iran’s capabilities, assets, and ambitions. The strategic idea is that Iran will not actually fire off nuclear weapons but having them gives it huge prestige that will help recruit many thousand Muslims in other countries into its client organizations, and intimidate the West and Arabic-speaking states into passivity or active appeasement.

Should Israel attack Iranian nuclear installations? I lean toward a “no” on this question for a number of reasons. We know that such an operation would not destroy Iran’s ability to rebuild its capability, or might not even damage it significantly. Too much can go wrong with the attack itself.

Moreover, Israel lacks the minimal international support for such an attack. I don’t mean Israel cannot do it, but on a cost-benefit basis—and in military operations one cannot assume everything will go right—the strategy doesn’t seem a good bet. All that is only true, of course, if Israeli assessments are that Iran is not going to attack Israel. And if those assessments ever change, then such an operation should be launched.

No one should underestimate the value of Israel’s own defensive system, which can be especially effective against the very small number of missiles Iran could launch even if it did decide to attack Israel.

This analysis does not assume a nuclear Iran will not pose a huge and actual threat, but that the main problem is for Arabic-speaking states having to protect themselves from Iranian intimidation and subversion. It is also for the United States having to create a credible system of containment. But the real burden for meeting this challenge is not for Israel.

The rest of the world is going to have to learn for itself the enormous mistake made by failing to stop Iran and cheering the weakening of the United States. At that point, they are more likely to listen to reason. They are more likely to do this if they cannot depend on Israel to “save” them.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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