x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Tough talk is now the greatest danger in Iran nuclear row

It's time for a halt to the escalating rhetoric on Iran. Only a sane approach to dealing with a problem that must be faced, and cannot be bombed away, will do.

If we are to believe what we are hearing from a variety of US and Israeli sources, both confirmed and unconfirmed, one day in the next few months we may wake up to the news that Israel has bombed Iran's nuclear facilities. Or maybe not.

The Israelis appear to be deeply divided on the issue, sending mixed signals almost daily about their intentions and their capacity to conduct such a mission, and even whether Iran's programme poses an imminent danger.

The United States is tied up in knots of its own making. Being in the throes of an election, no one wants to appear critical of Israel. And so while concerned with the consequences of a unilateral Israeli strike, statements from official Washington or from presidential candidates range from hand-wringing and feigned powerlessness to full-throated support for any action Israel may take.

Last week's New York Times Magazine featured an article arguing that Israel's calculations whether to strike Iran would be based on the answers to a series of questions: whether they thought they could achieve their goals; whether they could withstand the blowback; and whether they could count on at least tacit American support. With the answers all affirmative, the article concluded, Israelis might go forward with an attack.

For their part, the Iranians apparently love the attention and have engaged in their own provocative actions and rhetorical excess.

Lost in this deadly game are a number of serious issues that should be considered - but in all probability will not be.

In the first place, the question of whether Iran is on a trajectory to build a bomb is not incidental. There have been efforts to mischaracterise the last IAEA report on the issue, but its findings were not conclusive.

Next, consider the exact nature of the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. While Israel claims an "existential" challenge from Iran, this is hyperbolic nonsense. An Iranian attack on Israel would amount to Iran signing its own death warrant. It is horrible to imagine, but the reality is that a nuclear attack anywhere inside Israel would murder tens of thousands of innocents, both Jews and Arabs, with radiation fallout possibly affecting hundreds of thousands in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian lands.

Not only would the retaliation be devastating, but Iran's fate would be sealed forever in the Arab and Muslim world. The bottom line is that there is no first strike option.

Iran's real intention in this dangerous game is bragging rights. And the target audience is the Arab Gulf. Tehran's recent efforts to recast the Arab Spring as an "Islamic awakening" led by Iran provides a case in point. Ignoring its own brutal repression of home-grown democracy movements and support for the bloody Syrian crackdown, Iran's government seeks to capitalise on Arabs' anger towards the West by projecting themselves as being in the vanguard of revulsion at the excesses of imperialism and Zionism.

If this is the game, then Israeli sabre-rattling and US outrage play right into Iran's hands. By exaggerating the threat posed by the regime, by pretending that it is a menace equal to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, the West only succeeds in giving the Iranians what they want - an inflated sense that they are a power to be feared.

Make no mistake, the regime in Tehran is a meddlesome menace, and its aspirations for regional hegemony do pose a threat, not to Israel but to the Arab Gulf, whose concerns are rarely, if ever, considered in US politics.

The escalating rhetoric by all sides poses a danger by itself. The region is a tinderbox, and everyone is too busy playing with matches to think about the consequences of their behaviour.

Rather than threats that embolden Iran, I would suggest a combination of direct engagement, continued targeted sanctions and a bit of ridicule. What, one might ask, will Tehran do with a nuclear programme? Can it feed Iran's people, rebuild their neglected and decaying infrastructure, give hope to the unemployed young, or secure a role in the community of nations?

Look at the region. As democracy movements advance in North Africa, and as Gulf states make significant progress in development and growth, Iran remains trapped in an archaic system that feeds on fear and anger.

There are lessons to be learnt to avoid a confrontation from which no one would emerge the winner. Those in the US who point to Israel's 1981 strike against the Osirak reactor in Iraq ignore the fact that Saddam Hussein emerged undeterred. Then there were Israel's repeated invasions, occupations and bombardments of Lebanon, which devastated the country and led to the strengthening of Hizbollah. Or Israel's war and strangulation of Gaza that increases the bitterness and a deepening Palestinian divide.

Call a halt to the escalating rhetoric. Recognise the real danger posed by Iran to its own people and to its neighbours. And develop a sane approach to dealing with a problem that must be faced, and cannot be simply bombed or threatened away.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @AAIUSA