Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A nuclear Iran - how does Israel respond?

Rafsanjani is a name that has a familiar ring to it, but I suspect is difficult for most people to pinpoint. In fact, he is a predecessor of Iran's President Ahmadinejad, serving from 1989 to 1997.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani enjoyed a rather colorful career. He was elected chairman of the Iranian parliament around the time that the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, and he served in that office until its cessation in 1988. Throughout that time he was also the de facto commander-in-chief of the Iranian military. In 1989 he stood as president.

During most of his time in office he was as hard-line on both the subject of Israel and Iran’s development of nuclear weapons as his current successor, Ahmadinejad. Since then, though, he has become increasingly estranged from the ruling junta in general, and Ayatollah Khamenei in particular. He has repeatedly made it known that he is in disagreement with the leader over how the country is run.

Last January his daughter, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former MP and a critic of the government, was sentenced to six months in prison for "making propaganda against the ruling system". Her trial took place behind closed doors, and according to the website Mashregh News, she has been banned from taking part in political, cultural and media activities for five years.

Nor is this the only brush the Rafsanjanis have had with the government. Efat Maraashi, Rafsanjani's wife, was the first person, in an interview on the day of the disputed 2009 presidential election, to order the people to take to the streets if the vote was rigged. A group of senior members of Rafsanjani's party, including Hossein Maraashi, Mrs Rafsanjani's cousin, were detained after the elections.

In Rafsanjani’s famous Friday Prayer sermon, which coincided with the 2009 summer protests. he called for national reconciliation, the release of political prisoners and freedom of the press. That there were an estimated 1.5 million worshippers attending that Friday Prayer was a bitter pill for Khamenei to swallow. In January, Rafsanjani's official website was blocked by the Iranian judiciary for its refusal to remove the transcription of the sermon.

So it would appear that Rafsanjani is his own man, and not afraid to speak his mind. In February 1987 Rafsanjani addressed Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI), in an astonishingly frank manner about Iran’s intentions in the nuclear field:

Regarding atomic energy, we need it now... Our nation has always been threatened from outside. The least we can do to face this danger is to let our enemies know that we can defend ourselves. Therefore, every step you take here is in defense of your country and your evolution. With this in mind, you should work hard and at great speed.

In a speech given in December 2001 he was equally candid:

If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists' strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.

Last week, Haaretz correspondent Ari Shavit published an interview with a key figure in Israel’s security establishment, in which the dilemma for Israel was clearly spelled out:

What does Rafsanjani say? He says that between the Muslim world and Israel there is no balance, and therefore there will also be no balance of deterrence. Israel is not … Japan, that absorbed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and within 15 years became a world power. Israel is a one-bomb state. After a single atom bomb, it will no longer be what it was or what it was meant to be. A single atom bomb is enough to finish off the Zionist story. In contrast, says Rafsanjani, the Muslim world has a billion and a half people and dozens of countries. Even if Israel strikes back hard at the country that dispatched the bomb, Islam will remain intact. A nuclear war will not make the Muslim world disappear, but it will do irreparable damage to Israel.

For this security expert, these words seems to be enough to spell out the necessity for Israel to take unilateral military action against Iran – not to wipe out its nuclear programme, mind, for that would be impossible, but at least to postpone its ultimate objective of producing a nuclear missile capable of reaching Tel Aviv for a couple of years. In those 2 years, he adjudges, the basic interests of the international community regarding Iran will not change, and so the continued combination of sanctions, diplomatic pressure and the intelligence battle will greatly increase the odds that the Iranian regime will fall before Iran goes nuclear. He did not specify whether he looked to Rafsanjani as a key figure in engineering a change of régime, but it is worth noting that Rafsanjani and his family have become progressively alienated from the government, and he is too powerful a figure in the country to be simply crushed.
That is the expert's judgement, but it is as suspect as the options of doing nothing, or waiting to co-ordinate action with the Americans, when the time comes that the necessity to do so overwhelms them. But there is no evidence available in the public arena that Israel is indeed able, by means of military strikes, to delay the Iranian nuclear program by two years – or, for that matter, at all – especially when the political fallout for military action is so enormous.

Which is not, of course, any reason for Israel to sit on its haunches while the nation that is dedicated to wiping it from the pages of history prepares to do so. Nor, we may be assured, is Israel doing so. What is thus called for is coordination, timing, and intensive diplomatic activity involving the numerous nation states – many of them Muslim − that greatly fear Iran’s intentions.

Back in September 2010, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) published a well-documented report detailing concerns in Kuwait and the Gulf over the threat currently posed by Iran to them. “More and more voices in the Kuwaiti press and public,” it reported, “describe Iran as a threat to the security and stability of the Gulf states.” This it ascribes to “events, reports, assessments, and rumors regarding hostile Iranian activity in the Gulf.”

Among these it lists: the discovery of a money laundering operation in Bahrain connected to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); the arrest of 250 operatives in Bahrain suspected of membership in terror cells, and reports that similar cells exist in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; the uncovering of an Iranian espionage network in Kuwait; reports about Iranian plans to occupy the Gulf states and to assassinate senior military commanders and media figures in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf and in Lebanon; and assessments that Iran's influence in the region will grow in the wake of the US withdrawal from Iraq. “The sense of threat generated by all these factors,” states the report, “is compounded by the advances in Iran's nuclear program.”

As a result, the Institute reports, columnists and public figures in Kuwait are united in their assessment that Iran intends to take over the Gulf States, and are speculating about the nature of this takeover, how it might be implemented, and ways to address the threat.

Iranian-Israeli political analyst, Meir Javedanfar, believes that Iran is worried not only by the possibility of a military strike by Israel, but also by the Israeli government’s ability to justify it. As Javedanfar sees it, if Israel had a consensus of world opinion on its side, this would severely curtail Iran’s ability to justify its own retaliation. The State of Israel, he concludes, should not forget that it “has the diplomatic option of significantly hurting the regime in Tehran.”

Let us hope wise counsels within the Israeli government are noting this sort of advice as well as the more gung-ho voices that may be louder, but not necessarily more perceptive. Back then the world ignored Rafsanjani’s frightening decrees, but now it’s time for the world to realize that the same mistake cannot be repeated with his successor.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post 15 August, under the title "Radical then, radical now."

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