The most contentious trouble spot on earth nowadays is probably Iran. Some say that Israel (or even the United States) is preparing a strike against its nuclear labs and production facilities. I haven’t seen proof of that, but one cannot dismiss it out of hand.
The first question that arises is: Is the newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nuts? He has broken seals on his nuclear facilities that were installed by the IAEA. He is certainly spouting off in the most provocative way possible, threatening to destroy Israel, as if actually inviting an attack. But in a Stratfor commentary on January 20, George Friedman argued that he is entirely sane – just seeking goals other than the ones approved by Bush, who has disappointed Iran by not assuring a dominant position in Iraq for the Shia.
When the Shah was overthrown, Iran became the unmistakable leader of revolutionary Islam, creating Hezbollah, the organization that pioneered suicide bombings. But even before Osama bin Laden stole the leadership from the Iranians, Friedman notes, their position had been compromised. For example, they had accepted money from the US in the Iran-Contra scandal, and had accepted weapons from Israel. The Wahhabis also had “outflanked” revolutionary Iran even before al Qaeda made its bold entrance onto the world’s stage. But now the goal for Iran is to rid itself of the taint of past collaboration with Israel by becoming stridently anti-Zionist. Ahmadinejad (see photo) won the presidency mainly because he was the clearest descendent of the Khomenei revolution. He is taking an outrageous position to demonstrate how anti-Jewish he is and also to set himself apart from the more pragmatic position of Khatami, whose strategy had been to divide the Americans from the Europeans. Other Muslims had objected to Khatami’s friendliness toward Europeans, whom Ahmadinejad went out of his way to offend (especially Germany) by denying the Holocaust. If that made him look idiotic in Europe, it made him look heroic among Muslims everywhere.
Ahmadinejad is going even further with the nuclear issue by showing his intention to acquire weapons. (Friedman does not believe he actually can get them.) He may get away with threatening to do so. Either the Israeli government will bomb him or they won’t, and he can benefit either way. Friedman writes,
In Friedman’s opinion, Iran is no longer jockeying for position against the United States, but rather is engaged in a “more radical, intra-Islamic diplomacy. That means that they might welcome a (survivable) attack by Israel or the United States. It would burnish Iran's credentials as the true martyr and fighter of Islam.”
“A lot of countries don't want an Iranian bomb. Israel is one. The United States is another. Throw Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and most of the 'Stans into this, and there are not a lot of supporters for an Iranian bomb. However, there are only two countries that can do something about it. The Israelis don't want to get the grief, but they are the ones who cannot avoid action because they are the most vulnerable if Iran should develop a weapon. The United States doesn't want Israel to strike at Iran, as that would massively complicate the U.S. situation in the region, but it doesn't want to carry out the strike itself either.”
But if the Bush administration is over a barrel today, it is mostly because of their own previous bad decisions. In yesterday’s New York Times, Flynt Leverett’s op ed piece, “The Gulf Between Us,” reviews the events leading to the present impasse. Leverett is a Middle Eastern specialist who served on Bush II’s National Security Council until March 2003. He reminds us of the opportunities that have been squandered. After September 11, Tehran had offered to help overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, but President Bush rejected that option, dismissing Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” Nevertheless, behind the scenes the Iranians continued making overtures, as for example by offering a detailed plan for negotiating their differences with the US administration. Indeed, in October 2003, Iran accepted the Europeans’ plan to suspend uranium enrichment and engage in talks, but the Bush administration stood aloof from the European initiative, so the talks failed. Hence the present impasse.
Nevertheless, Leverett still sees hope. He mentions a statement by the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Saud al-Faisal, who reminded the Iranians that if they used a nuclear weapon against Israel they would also kill Palestinians. Faisal of course blamed the Israeli government for starting the nuclear arms race in the Middle East (who could deny that?) but he did not make that accusation into the central point of his proposal. Instead of insisting that the Israelis must get rid of their nukes as a precondition for any progress (a perfectly understandable, if unproductive, argument), he suggested that a new Islamic organization be created first in the region of the Persian Gulf. This Gulf Security Council would include Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the other Arab states, plus the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Through such a body, the US would pledge not to use force against Iran, so long as it “committed itself to regionally defined and monitored norms for nonproliferation (including a nuclear weapons ban), counterterrorism and human rights.” Leverett invests his greatest hope in Faisal’s proposal, and even suggests that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council should meet in Riyadh to discuss Iran.
Certainly Leverett knows a thing or two about the region and his opinions should be taken seriously. Still, there is a wide disparity between his views and those of Friedman. If Friedman is right, Ahmadinejad is in the saddle in Tehran and has no interest in placating the West – especially not by tactfully overlooking the Israeli nuclear arsenal temporarily, while promising not to acquire weapons of his own. For one thing, public opinion in Iran is said to be enthusiastic about the prospect of acquiring nuclear weapons. Still, there is no harm in trying Leverett’s approach.
Moreover, there is nothing in Leverett’s (i.e. Faisal’s) proposal that is incompatible with yet another, and vastly more satisfactory, approach: nonviolence. The student population of Iran is ripe for resisting what is left of Khomeni’s revolution, and could be encouraged to carry out a different kind of revolution of their own. I had coffee yesterday with an outstanding young Berkeley graduate student, Arthur Edelstein, who displays a refreshing ardor in favor of nonviolent sanctions to bring about democracy. We shared stories about the “colored” revolutions that have taken place in the former Communist countries in recent years, and took pleasure in discovering how much we both revere Gene Sharp for instructing and inspiring those movements. Arthur has worked to help the movement in Belarus (which seems to be going nowhere now) and is enthusiastic about the prospects for ushering democracy into the Maldives shortly. Naturally, he favors an effort on the part of the US government to support the dissident students in their nonviolent resistance to Ahmadinejad’s regime.
I fully concur. However, no movement of that kind can work unless a sizeable majority of the population wants it. I’m not sure whether that’s the case. By all accounts that I’ve read, the Iranians really want nukes, and are not in a mood to back off. However, Edelstein may be correctly assessing the present government as undemocratic and unrepresentative. In any case, time and effort will be required to create a nonviolent revolution in Iran. This is a good time to start that project – at the same time as the Leverett’s favorite approach is taken also – to create a Gulf Security Council that can begin negotiating solutions to the dangers in the region.