June 4, 2007

Is Iran a threat to Israel or America (or Lebanon)?

By Noah Pollak

I was invited by the editors of jewcy.com to comment on a week-long exchange, hosted on their site, between Michael Freund of the Jerusalem Post and Justin Raimondo of antiwar.com. Freund and Raimondo set out to debate what America and Israel should (or should not) do about Iran, but their epistolary turned sour — and quickly. My contribution is here, and reproduced below. I sought to address what I believe is the heart of the matter — the nature of the Iranian threat.

Justin Raimondo believes, with emphatic certainty, that “Iran is no threat to Israel, and that there is no danger of Iran dropping nukes on Tel Aviv.” Likewise he says that “Iran, with or without nuclear weapons, represents no threat to America.” Far be it from me to take Mr. Raimondo seriously when he says such things — his contributions to last week's exchange were studded with so many hateful condemnations, bizarre declarations, and quarter-baked ideas that doing so would require me to empty my brain of everything I've learned about both the Middle East and foreign policy. But these two platitudes do serve as a good jumping-off point for discussing the true nature of the Iranian threat, which is, I believe, why the editors of Jewcy asked me to contribute to this debate.
Iran is indeed a threat to both the United States and to Israel — but the threat does not come in the cartoonish form of Mr. Raimondo's fevered imagination, with Iranian bombers nuking Tel Aviv and Iranian ICBM's rocketing their way toward New York. Those scenarios are red herrings intended to make Raimondo's task of turning America and Israel into the world's leading belligerents much easier.
The actual threat posed by a nuclear Iran involves the manner in which such a development would upset the balance of power in the Middle East, which no doubt for Mr. Raimondo is a boring subject as it does not provide ready opportunities for Israel Lobby hysteria and mushroom cloud fantasies. To understand the consequences of a nuclear Iran, we have to look to the recent history of Middle East power arrangements.
Before the American-Israeli alliance was solidified in the late 1960's and early 1970's, the Middle East — especially the eastern Mediterranean half of it — was home to regular warfare. This bloodshed arose from the conviction among the Arab nations that they could destroy Israel, which they tried to do repeatedly: in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Even though some of the Arab countries were allied with the Soviet Union, Israel repulsed the invaders, and in the latter two wars even captured territory from the attacking armies. In doing so Israel created for itself a reputation as the most militarily competent country in its half of the region.
And then, as Martin Kramer explains, “the United States began to look at Israel as a potential strategic ally. Israel appeared to be the strongest, most reliable and most cost-effective bulwark against Soviet penetration of the Middle East. It could defeat any combination of Soviet clients on its own and, in so doing, humiliate the Soviet Union and drive thinking Arabs out of the Soviet camp.”
In contrast to the benefits that Israel's victories provided the United States in its maneuverings against the Soviets, the 1973 war did create something of a crisis for America, in the form of the Arab oil embargo. Having suffered a gasoline shortage at home, American strategists decided to attempt to impose peace in the region by showing so much support for Israel that the Arab states would henceforth refuse to challenge it. And this strategy has been a resounding success: Since 1973 there have been no more wars between Israel and Arab countries. This security arrangement even ended up prying Egypt away from the Soviets and into an alliance, later joined by Jordan, with America.
What does all of this have to do with Iran today? It has to do with the Islamic Republic's prospects for success in its endeavor to undermine this American-enforced security architecture. Iran is trying to destabilize the Middle East by creating its own set of alliances and clients that it hopes will rival America's. This is why it funds Hezbollah in Lebanon and now Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories; has cultivated an alliance with Syria that seeks to engulf Lebanon and allow Hezbollah free reign there; and provides weapons, money, and leadership to insurgents in Iraq.
Iran's intentions are clear: it wants America out of the Middle East, so that it can control the Persian Gulf and manipulate the rest of the region through its alliances and proxies. Are these goals going to be easier or harder to accomplish with the benefit of nuclear deterrence? The answer is obvious, and it is the real reason why preventing a nuclear Iran is both in the American and Israeli interest. The short-term stakes, though, are higher for Israel (and Lebanon, for that matter). A nuclear Iran allied with Hezbollah to the north and Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the Southwest and East would dramatically embolden Israel's enemies, suppress foreign investment and tourism in Israel, and over time would cause the economic and psychological attrition of the Jewish state — with no bombing runs over Tel Aviv necessary.
And so the true disappointment of Israel's war against Hezbollah last summer was its failure to act as a competent American client by dominating the part of the region it is responsible for keeping quiet. The war against Hezbollah was a particularly important conflict for Israel to win, because Hezbollah is more than just another disruptive presence in the Levant — it is a vanguard force in the Iranian arsenal that is attempting to make American involvement in the region as costly as possible. It is one of the means by which Iran can summon a counterattack should the U.S. or Israel strike its nuclear facilities, and it is the primary asset of the Syrian-Iranian project to co-opt Lebanon, defeat the nascent, American-allied democracy there, and bring uncontested Iranian power to Israel's northern border.
In one of his many dumb asides, Raimondo says that people who favor preventing Iran, by force if necessary, from acquiring nuclear weapons “don't have any compunction about throwing the entire region into chaos.” This is probably the most wrong-headed of his many ridiculous assertions. Western acquiescence to a nuclear Iran would do perhaps more than anything else to throw the Middle East into chaos. It would shatter the balance of power that has governed the region, however shakily, for nearly forty years. Second-tier powers, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, would be sent scrambling for their own nuclear weapons and new alliances, and the United States would almost certainly be forced from the region. Raise your hand if you're in favor of handing over control of the U.S. economy to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Posted by Noah Pollak at June 4, 2007 1:01 PM
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