The Problem with Persia
by Stewart Pollock on Friday, February 10th, 2012
With the race for the Republican presidential nomination beginning its final, desperate act, it is easy for the average news reader to forget that there are other, equally important events happening around the world–specifically, that Iran’s leaders appear to be trying as hard as they can to trigger World War III.
On the surface, the current tension between Iran, Israel and the West seems like the same old routine: Iran does something provocative– like blatantly trying to build a nuclear weapon– Israel responds with ill-advised threats, the UN takes action, by criticizing Iran and increasing sanctions, and in the end, the whole thing blows over. Saber rattling all around, and repeat ad infinitum.
This time, however, something is different. Iran faces not only external scrutiny, but also internal turmoil. Although the “Islamic Republic’s” inner workings are shrouded in mystery, recent events have strongly suggested that there is considerable tension between the country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The struggle between the temporal and ecclesial leaders of Iran seems to stem, in part, from a conflict between these two men. In April of last year, the president dismissed an intelligence minister loyal to the Supreme Leader, who immediately reinstated him. What followed was a lengthy series of snubs and public denouncements which reached a crescendo last October, when Khamenei essentially threatened to eliminate the position of presidency altogether.
This bickering could not have come at a worse time. Iran’s nuclear program, long a source of international concern, seems close to a breakthrough, despite extensive sabotage by Israeli agents and sanctions from a myria. Indeed, these efforts by Israel to prevent Iran from obtaining working nuclear weapons, which allegedly include the recent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Roshan, seem to have only emboldened the country’s already belligerent leaders.
Now, its other options exhausted, Israel seems quite ready to take more direct action, i.e. launching air strikes on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel insists that it must act now, before Iran has time to move its materials and personnel to more secure locations, out of reach of the IDF.
While a pre-emptive strike by Israel may seem like an overreaction, the whole situation has to been looked at from the Israeli perspective. Although Iran’s leaders do not see eye to eye, they all have one thing in common: an uncompromising hatred of the Jewish state, and those who support it.
Although it has been said time and time again, this hostility is the cornerstone of Iranian foreign policy. Both Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama has said repeatedly that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. But while Obama’s stance is part of broader foreign policy goals, Netanyahu’s is a result of justified existential fear. If Iran does obtain nukes, then there can be little ambiguity where they are first pointed: downtown Tel Aviv.
For this reasons, a direct strike on Iran, while fraught with peril, and the potential for collateral damage, may be the only way to conclusively deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran certainly cannot claim the moral high ground: it has been covertly funding terrorism against Israel for decades. And the argument that Iran actually is only concerned with developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is a farce. The real problem lies with Iran’s splintered leadership.
Normally, a unified Iran is a bad thing for Israel, but in this case, a divided one is even worse. Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah are trying to shore up support among both the Iranian populace and the politically powerful Revolutionary Guard. Each sees the nuclear program as a key bargaining chip in the country’s struggles with the US and nearby Saudi Arabia. In a bizarre way, this seems to mirror the US position. Many have speculated, after all, that President Obama is being pressured as much by his Republican opposition as he is by Israel in taking such a hard-line stance with Israel. The difference, of course, is that the US is fundamentally stable, and Iran is not, making the situation all the more volatile.
Regardless of the outcome of Iran’s power struggle, one thing is clear: we need to act. If Israel goes through with its threat, then the United States, and the rest of our allies, needs to be ready to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. This will not require, as some Republican presidential candidates have suggested, actual war with Iran. More than anything else, the U.S. has to make it clear to Iran that conventional retaliation, against either Israel of Saudi Arabia, will be punished tenfold. Even if we do not directly support Israel, we need to do everything in our not-inconsiderable power to keep things from blowing (both literally and figuratively) out of proportion.
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