On the creation of a nuclear crisis in the Middle East

On the creation of a nuclear crisis in the Middle East

Luc Reychler                            

This conference is about a nuclear crisis in the Middle East (ME). It’s a story of nuclear haves and have nots; the pursuit of offensive dominance by the West, and the growing insecurity and instability of the whole region.      

The main protagonists in the nuclear crisis are the West (in essence Israel and Washington) and Iran.

Israel is a nuclear power; it has around 200 warheads and can deliver them using intercontinental ballistic missiles, aircrafts and submarines. Israel does not admit possessing nuclear weapons; it is not a member of the Non Proliferation Treaty, and to remain the only nuclear power in the region, it aggressively prevents other countries to become nuclear powers (think of the airstrikes against Iraq’s Osiraq reactor in 1981 in the midst of the Iraq-Iran war, and against a Syrian reactor in 2007. In addition, it does everything to strengthen its anti-ballistic missile defense system. Israel has declared Iran’s enrichment of nuclear fuel an existential threat; it convinced Washington to impose increasingly heavy sanctions; launched cyberwarfare, and assassinated nuclear scientists. The last few years, Netanyahu warns Iran that its nuclear installations will be bombed when the red line is crossed. To destroy Iranian nuclear plants, some of which have been build in the mountains, deep penetration bombs are needed. Washington has both nuclear and conventional earth penetrating weapons.  

In a nutshell, Israel wants to achieve absolute security and offensive dominance (nuclear and conventional), while continuing politics as usual.          

Iran. Iran has no nuclear weapons. As many other countries in the world, it shows interest in acquiring peaceful nuclear energy since the Shah in the 70’s. After the ‘79 revolution, a clandestine nuclear weapons research program was disbanded by Ayatollah Khomeini, who considered such weapons forbidden under Muslim ethics and jurisprudence. In 1981, Iran decided to continue nuclear development. Since then, the country has been pressured by the West to make its nuclear activities fully transparent and to stop enriching nuclear materials. The government has invited inspections by the IAEA but does not suspend the enrichment activities for peaceful purposes, which are permitted in article IV of the NPT treaty. There were many ‘unsuccessful’ negotiations .

In a nutshell, Iran claims that it has no nuclear weapons and that it does not plan to build them; it is a member of the NPT; it intends to continue its low enrichment of uranium program (up to 20%) for energy and medical purposes, and  wants a nuclear weapon free ME.   

This nuclear crisis is potentially dangerous…very dangerous. To understand the crisis fully, one has to consider several elements of the big picture or the broader context.

First, the foreign interference in the ME: now and then. In 1953, for example, a democratically elected government in Iran and its head Mosaddegh was overthrown by a coup d’état, orchestrated by the secret services of the UK and the US, because two years earlier the oil industry was nationalized. A military government under Shah Pahlavi, who relied heavily on US support, was installed. 1979 saw the first popular revolution in the Middle East that installed a new regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Since then, Iran had to fight a war with Iraq between 1980 and 88 in which half to one million Iranians were killed. The US did nothing to dissuade Saddam Hussein from attacking. In fact, at that time, the West supported him. By the way, during that war, the Busher nuclear plant was damaged by French missiles. The last 33 years, Iran has been the subject of an increasing level of economic, diplomatic and military sanctions by the US and European countries.  

The denial of the root causes of the protracted conflicts and political terrorism. All the foreign interventions in whatever name (be it security, anti-terrorism, democracy, regime change or human rights) did nothing to address 1) the root causes of the conflicts, 2) the internal political, demographic and socio-economic problems, 3) the use of double standards, supporting friendly authoritarian regimes and sanctioning or destroying unfriendly ones, 4) the illegal occupation of the Palestine and the Syrian Golan Heights, and 5) the continuous repression of the Palestinians. There is a saying: “you cannot whistle against the wind; the wind is stronger”. We seem to neglect in the ME the coming storm of the human struggle for self-determination and for their own type of democracy. In this climate one cannot convert other nations and peoples to democracy without granting them the right to self-determination and stopping domestic interference. The struggle for self-determination will be accompanied by stronger demands for the democratization of the international system.       

Third, the replacement of genuine professional diplomacy by coercive diplomacy and military interventions. Since 9/11, Iran’s neighborhood has been increasingly militarized (see map military bases). In addition, the democratic West initiated several wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, Libya and Syria. The internal war in Syria has all the features of a proxy war. These interventions have contributed to the destabilization of the whole region; it has increased the level of insecurity, created disastrous humanitarian consequences, and left weak and fragile states.   

Fourth, the verbal wars and more than 30 years of absence of formal diplomatic exchange. The verbal wars of both the protagonists, calling each other names (such as the ‘great Satan’ and ‘the axis of evil’) and mutual threats to destroy each other are not helping. Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, is repeatedly cited by Netanyahu ‘to have threatened to destroy Zionist Israel’. I am sure Ahmadinejad could use a spin doctor, but we forget to mention that he compared his statement about Israel with the ending communism and apartheid. Both systems disappeared without a physical destruction of Russia nor South Africa: the first ended by implosion and the second by peace negotiations. Equally problematic is the absence of formal diplomatic relations between America and Iran since more than 30 years.   

The last and most important aspect of the big picture is the non-adaptive strategic thinking and leadership. Let me share two findings from the study of war. The first suggests that offensive dominance (which the West is now pursuing in the ME) is at the same time dangerous, quite rare and widely overstated. When offensive dominance was combined with exaggerating insecurity and bellicose conduct, it became the prime cause of national insecurity and war in history. The prime threat to security, including nuclear security, in the Middle East is the West itself. The greatest menace lies in the tendency to exaggerate the dangers it faces and to respond by counterproductive coercion and belligerence. The first problem is compounded by a second one: ‘the demand of absolute security for the West at the expense of the rest’. This feeds the security dilemma. Too strong military force can be provocative, since measures for self-defense can be perceived as a menace by other countries. This has led to ‘vicious conflict spirals’.  

After ‘45, Europe has taken these lessons seriously. Former archenemies build, with American assistance, a security community on the basis of dialogue, security cooperation and an economic union.    

If we want to prevent another war and improve the security climate in the ME, we need to deal with the conflicts, including the nuclear crisis, in a radically different way. This would imply immediately reestablishing official diplomatic relations between America and Iran, and replacing the coercive diplomacy with more adaptive and effective leadership.

On the creation of a nuclear crisis in the Middle East

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