The Bush administration last week proceeded with its controversial decision to brand a branch of Iran's armed forces – the Quds unit of the Revolutionary Guards – as a terrorist organization and impose new sanctions on Iran. Israeli officials have welcomed this American escalation of pressures on Iran, apparently considering it a foreign-policy achievement for Israel, as well as for the formidable array of pro-Israel US pundits who push for a combative policy against Iran.
But, as aptly warned by a number of US politicians and experts, the administration's initiative against this elite force is a risky proposition that may pave the way to a military showdown with Iran by giving the US carte blanche for strikes against the Guards inside Iran, perhaps as a prelude for assaults on Iran's nuclear facilities.
The administration insists that these moves are part of a diplomatic strategy and not a step toward war.
Actions, however, speak louder than words, and momentum toward war has been generated. Those weighing the merits of this course must consider the probable consequences, for the interests of both the US and Israel, of yet another "war of choice" in light of the Iraq quagmire and Iran's capability to retaliate.
From Iran's vantage point, Israel's inability to resolve the Palestinian issue has much to do with Israel's knee-jerk blaming of Iran for what has transpired in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Exaggerating Iran's influence on Hamas and/or blaming Tehran, as Secretary Condoleezza Rice has done, for the failure of the "two-state" solution, simply does not wash. Iran should not be scapegoated for what is clearly a failed US Middle East policy, one resulting from Washington's persistent inability to revise its one-dimensional pro-Israel policy and pursue an evenhanded approach.
The US engages Iran only when it desperately needs to; otherwise, it resorts to coercion. Washington's unilateral sanctions last week have the immediate implication of clogging up opportunities for any meaningful US-Iran security dialogue. For example, Tehran had recently shown signs of willingness to reach an "incidence at sea" agreement with the US, to prevent accidental war in the Persian Gulf. But the new US measures against Iran make such breakthroughs impossible.
Allegations of Iranian nuclear proliferation are disputed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has certified the absence of any evidence of military diversion after extensive inspections, and by leading Israeli pundits, such as Martin van Creveld. In a June 2007 interview with Playboy magazine, he stated: "We are in no danger at all of having an Iranian nuclear weapon dropped on us. We cannot say so too openly, however, because we have a history of using any threat in order to get weapons ... thanks to the Iranian threat, we are getting weapons from the US and Germany."
Iran, which has not invaded any country since the 18th century, is demonized today as an "Islamofascist" state bent on Israel's destruction. Rhetoric aside, in reality, Iran regards Israel as an "out of area" threat and not germane to Iran's national security calculus except in the context of Israel's meddling in Iran's ethnic politics and the like.
The nuclear standoff itself has propelled Iran more and more toward a nationalist self-identity, which, in turn, makes more relevant ancient history still fresh in collective memory: To wit, Persian leader Cyrus the Great's famous edict in 539 BC that allowed exiled Jews to return to their homeland.
Iran is not by definition opposed to the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, several top Iranian leaders, including the former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are on record stating that Iran will abide by the will of Palestinians.
Iranian television has been featuring programs sympathetic to the Holocaust, Jews are in the Iranian parliament, and new Jewish centers have appeared in Tehran and other cities – these facts weigh against the Hitlerian image of Iran. Indeed, the combined weight of past history, Iran's immediate national security concerns, and shared interests with the US regarding the current regimes in Baghdad and Kabul, belie the simplistic, Manichaean image held as an article of faith by many Israeli politicians and pundits.
Israel should stand down from repeated threats against Iran that simply fuel the current turmoil in the troubled Middle East. The more Iran is subjected to such threats, the more likely such threats become self-fulfilling prophecies. Iran is on record declaring its antipathy toward obtaining nuclear weapons. But faced with bellicose attitudes from Israel and the US, it will be pushed toward seeking nuclear deterrence.
Any military strike on Iran – sold as the only way to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – will have tragically ironic and disastrous consequences. Iran will surely leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, suspend its cooperation with the IAEA, and strive to acquire the atomic bomb. Israel's own long-term interests will thus be put at risk in the event of a US-Iran showdown, which the Muslim world will undoubtedly attribute to Israel's machinations. For sure, nationalistic Iranians will then erase any memory of their Jewish-sympathetic history.