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Nukes aside, the real problem with Iran

The country is emerging as a regional power. Is the West ready for that?

(Page 2 of 2)

The significance of this for Obama is that he is not facing just the issue of Iran's nuclear program. This program is rolled into a more substantive and sensitive issue that lies at the heart of the Iranian approach to negotiations.

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Nuclear weapons issue apart – it's a question of whether Israel and the US are able to come to terms with an Iran that is, and will be, a preeminent power in the region.

At present, these two issues have been conflated. Iran has signaled on various occasions that the nuclear issue could be resolved, but Iran first wants to know the answer to the wider issue: Can the US bring Israel to accept Iran as a principal regional power? Can the US itself accept such an outcome?

All here in the region understand the significance of this question. It is not just the nuclear weapon possibility that concerns Israel, it is the fact of Iranian conventional military power, too.

Already it is the conventional military power of Iran and its allies that is circumscribing Israeli conventional military freedom of action in the region. A few Israelis are ready to acknowledge this. What we are dealing with here is whether Israel and, by extension, America, can accept that Israel will no longer enjoy its hitherto absolute conventional military dominance in the region.

This is, at bottom, the choice facing Obama: He can pursue a real solution, one that will have to acknowledge painful new realities and accept new forces arising in the region that inevitably will shift strategic balances. Or he can continue to try to contain them and risk a polarized and unstable Middle East.

The US is slowly reducing its options through the Pittsburgh elevation of the nuclear file to an ultimatum. Perhaps Obama believes that in this way he will relieve pressure from Israel for unilateral military action? Perhaps he sees a powerful, conventionally equipped Iran as a threat to Arab allies?

To insist that Iran abandons altogether the nuclear fuel cycle is now probably unrealistic. Iran already has it. To set as an objective that Iran must never acquire the technology that would allow a "breakout" capability – that Iran would not be able speedily to move to weapons capacity at some future point in time – is also unrealistic. Breakout capability goes with the territory: Japan has a peaceful nuclear program, but implicitly it also has breakout capability. But to bomb is even less of a solution.

It seems then we are heading toward increasing sanctions on Iran. But these, too, are likely to be ineffective, as most specialists already admit – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's initial positive words to Obama on sanctions, notwithstanding. But what such a policy will do is again polarize the region, split it, increase the tensions, and contribute to further isolating America and Europe in the Muslim world.

Despite the rhetorical stance of some Arab governments, the Arab and Muslim street and a number of states faced with Western escalation against Iran are more likely to perceive the conflict as one in which the West is seeking to weaken a Muslim rival in order to maintain Israel's military hegemony. Sentiment will turn against the West and Israel.

In short, the US will again be boxed into an ineffective and unpopular policy. Already, the nonaligned majority and most Muslim states support the Iranian rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

For the US to elevate the nuclear issue to an ultimatum, while ignoring the new strategic reality of a powerful Iran, is, as Ahmadinejad hinted, a course of action that Obama, in time to come, may regret. The Pittsburgh theatrics may prove to have been short-sighted.

Alastair Crooke, the legendary former British intelligence (MI6) agent, is author of "Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution." © 2009 Global Viewpoint Network. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.