Israel: The right time to strike Iran?

6 04 2013

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The Iranians don’t believe it will happen. It would be, they say, so “stupid” that even if Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to attack their nuclear facilities, his own government would step in for fear of the “harsh consequences of such action.” Most Western analysts believe the Israeli prime minister continues to leak information on his willingness to bomb Iranian centrifuges to force Barack Obama to sharpen his tone against the Islamic Republic. Scepticism is widespread, but it is not necessarily justified.

The first reason to take Netanyahu seriously is that Iran’s nuclear program is progressing. Computer viruses and the assassination of scientists – the shadow war – have slowed it down. But the number of operational centrifuges is growing every month. European and American diplomats no longer believe negotiations can push the Iranian government to abandon the development of a nuclear bomb, and Benjamin Netanyahu never believed economic sanctions would have an impact.

Maybe he is wrong. Maybe the sanctions will end up weakening the regime to the point where it has to give in before it is faced with too much internal pressure. That is what Western governments hope. That is also why Barack Obama does not want to shift to military options too quickly and why he refuses to have his hands tied by the Israelis. But Netanyahu is afraid the day might come when a military strike against the Iranian sites is no longer possible, when the Islamic Republic has already developed nuclear weapons.

The second reason that might induce Netanyahu to act in the coming weeks is that the Republican Party in general, and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney in particular, have heavily attacked Barack Obama on his supposed weakness vis-à-vis Iran. The Iranian regime remains very unpopular in the United States, and Obama would have great difficulties if he distanced himself from Israel in the midst of the election campaign. This is indeed a window of opportunity for Netanyahu.

The third reason to take Netanyahu seriously is that the crises in the Middle East greatly limit the risks Israel would face if it bombed the Iranian sites. Not only is Iran’s main ally, the Syrian regime, too busy slaughtering its own people to go to war with Israel, but Lebanese Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite organisation armed by Tehran, would also have to think twice before launching missiles on Tel Aviv. Bashar Al-Assad is no longer in a position to easily back them; neither is Iran. And many Lebanese would blame Assad and Hezbollah for bringing war to their territory by siding with the Islamic Republic. These two crucial elements have not gone unnoticed by Netanyahu, of course, but the key point is elsewhere.

In today’s Middle East, the increasing tensions between the two branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite, have become the dominating factor. For decades, Sunni governments and the Shiite regime of Iran and its regional allies have been in a latent conflict. But since the Syrian uprising, with a Shiite dictatorship and a largely Sunni population on opposite sides, the divisions between the two Muslim denominations have spread to all of their followers. After fuelling tensions between the Sunni minority and the Shiite majority in Iraq, the Syrian conflict now divides the Middle East along nations and communities of both religions: on the one hand, Shiite governments and populations (Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime); on the other, the Sunni governments of the Gulf, Turkey and the Islamist governments that emerged from the Arab Spring.

The Middle Eastern monarchies can barely hide their impatience to see Israel act against a regime that has done everything to destabilize them for the past 30 years. Turkey strongly opposes a nuclear Iran. And Sunni populations show no support for the Iranian leaders who support Assad in his suppression of the democratic aspirations of Syrian youth.

Not only are the regional circumstances favourable for an Israeli strike against Iranian sites, but Western governments are starting to think, if they ultimately have to establish “safe zones” in Syria, then the fall of the Iranian regime wouldn’t necessarily be the worst side effect.

It can’t be taken for granted that Netanyahu is just bluffing.

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