May 4th 2019

Risk Of Israeli-Iranian War Still Looms High

by Alon Ben-Meier

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs, specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. For the past twenty five years, Dr. Ben-Meir has been directly involved in various negotiations and has operated as a liaison between top Arab and Israeli officials. Dr. Ben-Meir serves as senior fellow at New York University's School of Global Affairs where he has been teaching courses on the Middle East and negotiations for 18 years. He is also a Senior Fellow and the Middle Eastern Studies Project Director at the World Policy Institute. Dr. Ben-Meir hosts "Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir," a series of debates and conversations with top policy-makers around the world. He also regularly holds briefings at the US State Department for international visitors. Dr. Ben-Meir writes frequently and has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites including the Middle East Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Le Monde, American Chronicle, the Week, the Political Quarterly, Israel Policy Forum, Gulf Times, the Peninsula, The Jerusalem Post, and the Huffington Post. He also makes regular television and radio appearances, and has been featured on networks such as CNN, FOX, PBS, ABC, al Jazeera (English and Arabic), and NPR. He has authored six books related to Middle East policy and is currently working on a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dr. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. He is fluent in English, Arabic, and Hebrew.



This article is a short excerpt from my latest essay, Preventing an Israeli-Iran War, published in the May 2019 issue of American Diplomacy. The full-length essay is available here [http://americandiplomacy.web.unc.edu/2019/05/preventing-an-israeil-iran-war/].

Accusing Iran of being a rogue country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting extremist groups and terrorism, persistently threatening Israel, and destabilizing the region in its relentless effort to become the dominant power may well all be justified. The question is, what would it take to stop Iran from its destabilizing activities and help make it a constructive member of the international community, and avoid military confrontation with either the US or Israel or both?

The answer is not regime change, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and top American officials advocate, but a diplomatic solution. The EU, led by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – who continue to adhere to the JCPOA – should initiate a behind-the-scenes dialogue and pave the way for US involvement in a negotiating process with Iran to find a peaceful solution and prevent a disastrous military confrontation.

Should the Trump administration remain adamant on regime change, it is more than likely that one of the following scenarios will unfold, which could lead to a catastrophic development.

Bellicose narrative leads to violence: The threats and counterthreats between Iran and Israel could lead to miscalculation, resulting in an unintended outbreak of a catastrophic war that neither side wants nor can win. As it continues to escalate, such narratives also create a public perception both in Israel and Iran that military confrontation may well be inevitable. As a result, both countries would become entrapped by their bellicose narrative against one another, in which any incident perceived to threaten the national security of either side could trigger a devastating military confrontation.

Rhetoric like the statements by a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, declaring on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution that “if they [the United States] attack us, we will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground”, and Netanyahu’s response that if Iran attempts such an attack, it will fail and “…this would be the last anniversary of the revolution that they celebrate”, should be avoided.

Attacks in Syria spark further conflict: Israel’s continuing attacks on Iranian military installations in Syria, from which Iran has sustained heavy losses, could pressure Iran to retaliate as it will no longer allow itself to be humiliated now that these attacks are in the open. Iran’s tendency to overly exaggerate its military prowess, which it has come to believe in, and Israel’s psychologically rooted fear of existential threats, narrows the space of reasonable discourse.

The problem here is that Israel’s determination not to allow Iran to establish permanent military bases in Syria, and conversely Tehran’s resolve not to cut its losses and leave, shortens the time before an outright military confrontation could occur. These conditions are further aggravated by Trump’s support of Netanyahu’s military campaign against Iran in Syria, bringing Israel and Iran ever closer to the precipice of war.

Effecting regime change in Iran: Trump’s desire to effect regime change – by imposing sanctions to dislocate the Iranian economy and instigate public unrest, while trying to isolate Iran internationally – could create chaotic conditions in the country, but it does not guarantee that regime change will in fact be realized. Unlike the US’ successful attempt in 1953 to topple the then-Mosaddeq government, in today’s Iran the clergy is far more entrenched in every aspect of life.

Although Iranians are suffering and ordinary people take a serious personal risk by demonstrating against the government and demanding change, this public pressure is not enough to unseat the government, as the Trump administration is hoping for. It does, however, push the government to search for new avenues to alleviate the worsening economic conditions.

The mullahs have shown an inordinate capacity to ruthlessly quell any public unrest, and it can count on the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to safeguard the survival of the clergy, because in protecting the mullahs, the Guard protects its own elite position. This mutuality of interests and dependency explains why the clergy allocates a significant portion of Iran’s national budget to the Guard, regardless of the overall economic hardship from which the public suffers.

Waging a premeditated war against Iran: This is the worst option of all, as there is simply no way to predict the ultimate outcome. To suggest, as some Israelis do, that a surgical attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities carried out jointly by the US and Israel will not necessarily evolve into a regional war displays a clear lack of understanding of the Iranian psychological and political disposition. Regardless of cost, Iran will retaliate against US targets and allies in the region, which could plunge the Middle East into a devastating war from which no one will escape unscathed.

Given the fact that no war could obliterate Iran, and Israel’s low threshold for casualties, any Iranian attack on Israel in the course of a war that results in the death of thousands of Israelis while inflicting massive destruction may well force Israel to resort to the use of WMDs. This option becomes even more realistic should Israel conclude with certainty that Iran is posing an imminent existential threat. For this reason, no sane Israeli or American should even contemplate a premeditated war and must stop short of nothing to prevent an accidental one.

The February 2019 Warsaw conference revealed disunity and disagreement between the US and its allies in addressing the Iran problem. Although it was ostensibly convened to address the crises sweeping the Middle East, the focus quickly shifted to Iran, which was the intent of the US in the first place. The Trump administration wanted to rally the international community behind its confrontational policy toward Iran, to which the European countries objected, as was manifested by the low-level delegations they sent to the conference.

For Iran, this display of disunity provided it the opportunity to take full advantage of the Western alliance’s discord and trade with many other countries to compensate for American sanctions. However, the EU must make it clear to Tehran that it cannot count on the discord to last indefinitely. Conversely, Germany, France, and the UK ought to persuade the US that its confrontational approach will not work. Secretary of State Pompeo’s unabashed statement that “you can’t achieve stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran”, a position that Netanyahu echoed the day after, will only heighten the tension and draw them ever closer to a military confrontation.

The EU must initiate behind-the-scenes negotiations with Iran, if it hasn’t already, and along with the US, develop and agree upon a joint cohesive strategic plan to mitigate the conflict with Iran based on the carrot-and-stick approach. The new negotiations should be based on quid pro quo aiming to achieve a comprehensive deal in stages to enhance mutual credibility and build trust.

Every conflicting issue must be placed on the table and a solution to any such issue, for example, an agreement on freezing Iran’s research and development of ballistic missiles, is reciprocated by lifting a specific set of sanctions from which Iran can derive immediate benefit. To be sure, Western powers should offer Iran a path for normalization of relations, removing sanctions, and assurances that the West will not seek regime change.

In return, Iran must stop meddling in the affairs of other states, supporting extremist groups such as Hezbollah, threatening Western allies, and waging proxy wars in Yemen and Syria while undermining their geostrategic interests. Moreover, Iran must provide a full account of its nuclear weapons history and present all information pertaining to its nuclear facilities and equipment, as was uncovered by the archives seized by Israel, along with the technology and materials that it has hidden from the international monitors.

This kind of cooperation and high level of transparency will serve the objective of reaching regional stability from which Iran can benefit greatly, instead of continuing its nefarious activities which invite condemnation, sanctions, and potentially war.

Pierre Vimont, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, observes that “These different challenges all boil down to the issue of a regional security arrangement for the whole region. Highly ambitious indeed, but the response to the current mistrust between Iran and its neighbors can only come from a clear perspective of where this whole region should be heading to ensure a sustainable stability.”

There is nothing in the current crises with Iran that cannot be resolved through negotiations. But the continuing threats and counter-threats will gain increasing traction and make the risk of waging a war preferable to the consequences of allowing Iran to continue its destructive behavior.
 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "No, I am not arguing that Powell needs to replicate Volcker’s tightening campaign. But if the Fed wishes to avoid a replay of the stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it needs to recognize the extraordinary gulf between Volcker’s 4.4% real interest rate and Powell’s -2.25%. It is delusional to believe that such a wildly accommodative policy trajectory can solve America’s worst inflation problem in a generation."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "It will be critical in this context how China will act and whether it will prioritise its economic interests (continuing trade with Europe and the US) or current ideological preferences (an alliance with Russia that makes the world safe for autocracies)."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "The document is full of embarrassing and damming stories of illegal gatherings and bad behaviour. There was “excessive alcohol consumption”, a regular fixture referred to as “wine time Fridays” and altercations between staff. Aides are shown to have left Downing Street after 4am (and not because they had worked into these early hours). Cleaning staff and junior aides were abused, and a Number 10 adviser is on record before the infamous “bring your own booze” party...."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "But even a resounding Russian defeat is an ominous scenario. Yes, under such circumstances – and only such circumstances – Putin might be toppled in some kind of coup led by elements of Russia’s security apparatus. But the chances that this would produce a liberal democratic Russia that abandons Putin’s grand strategic designs are slim. More likely, Russia would be a rogue nuclear superpower ruled by military coup-makers with revanchist impulses. Germany after World War I comes to mind."
May 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "For citizens of states that are members of NATO, taking all possible steps, short of all-out war, to ensure that Russia does not conquer Ukraine is not even an altruistic sacrifice. It is a long-term investment, for themselves and their children, in freedom, democracy, and the international rule of law."
May 4th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force."
May 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: " The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes." ---- "Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?"
Apr 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "The following day Lavrov met his Eritrean counterpart, Osman Saleh, in Moscow. Eritrea was the only African country to vote against the UN resolution condemning the invasion. In this refusal to condemn Russia, Eritrea was joined by only Belarus, North Korea and Syria. Even longstanding allies such as Cuba and China abstained. It’s an indication of Russia’s increasingly limited diplomatic options as this war continues."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Although the milestone lasted only for a brief time, it points to a future in which California runs on 100% wind, solar, hydro and batteries, a future that will certainly arrive even faster than the state plans. As it is, California is ahead of its green energy goals." ...... "A world of 100% green energy and electric cars is not only a healthier and more comfortable world, it is a world where oil and gas dictators like Vladimir Putin are defunded."
Apr 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Kazakhstan’s authorities have also showed uncharacteristic leniency in allowing public rallies in support of Ukraine. Thousands of protesters holding banners reading “Russians, leave Ukraine”, “Long Live Ukraine” and “Bring Putin to trial” marched across the capital, Almaty, wrapping monuments to Lenin and other Soviet-era figures with yellow and blue balloons symbolising the Ukrainian flag."
Apr 15th 2022
EXTRACT: "People’s identification with the Soviet Union appears to have a clear and growing basis in Russian public opinion. Surveys we have conducted throughout the Putin period show that Soviet identification among the general population – something that had been steadily declining after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – began to increase in 2014, when the Russian government annexed Crimea and supported rebellions in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. By 2021, almost 50% of those surveyed identified with the Soviet Union rather than the Russian Federation."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "Worse yet, the Hungarian government has effectively been helping Putin by prohibiting the shipment of weapons to Ukraine across its borders. Hungarian public TV spreads Russian disinformation day and night. The day before the election, an assembly of ordinary people expressing solidarity with Ukraine was framed on state television as a “pro-war rally.” "
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "It may well be that the Russian army’s fate has already been sealed in what is likely to be a long war. The single qualification to this may be that Russia could default to escalation using “weapons of mass destruction” of one form or another – whether tactical nuclear warheads or chemical weapons."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACTS" "Ukraine and Russia produce a substantial amount of grain and other food for export. Ukraine alone produces a whopping 6% of all food calories traded in the international market. At least it used to, before it was invaded by the world’s largest nuclear power." ...... "When it comes to cereals like wheat, corn, rice and barley, the big players talk about millions of metric tonnes, or MMTs. A single MMT of wheat contains about 3.4 trillion food calories,." ....."Ukraine produced about 80 MMT of grain (a category that includes wheat, corn and barley) in 2021, and is expected to harvest less than half of that this year. A shortfall of 40 MMT is enough missing calories that a country like the UK could only make it up by having everyone stop eating for three years. That’s the thing about tonnes of grain: a million here and a million there and pretty soon you’ve got a real issue on your plate."
Apr 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "I don’t even know the little girl’s name. All I do know is what a friend of a friend wrote on Viber: that her relative, a senior nurse in one of Kyiv’s hospitals, “saw in the morgue a child with 20 varieties of sperm on her small body.” Since this information was conveyed in a private conversation, there is no reason to doubt its veracity."
Apr 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russian society has so far failed to stop Putin, just as German society failed to stop Hitler. And so, like a poisoned chalice, that task has fallen to the West, as it did in 1939. The West must now treat Putin and his regime the same way that Winston Churchill treated Hitler: Don’t talk to him, just defeat him. Dead-enders such as Putin are too fanatical and desperate to be reliable negotiating partners."
Apr 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "From 1807 to 1814 on the Iberian peninsula, Napoleon had to fight Spanish, Portuguese and British armies while beset by ubiquitous, ferocious insurgents. He described this war as his “bleeding ulcer”, draining him of men and equipment. It is the west’s aim to make Ukraine for Putin what Spain was for Napoleon. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Ukraine and Nato will continue to grind away at Russia’s army, digging away at that bleeding ulcer and prolonging Russia’s agony on the military front, as the west continues its parallel assault on its economy. If Putin’s plan is to proceed with the Korea model, he will fail. There is a strong possibility that Putin has only a limited idea of how badly his army is faring. So be it – he’ll find out soon enough that there is now no path for him to military victory."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Policymakers expected that the country would be able to secure its energy supply entirely from renewable sources, so they resolved to phase out coal and nuclear energy simultaneously. The last three of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants are set to be shut down this year." ---- ".... the share of wind and solar power in Germany’s total final energy consumption, which includes heating, industrial processing, and traffic, was a meager 6.7%. And while wind and solar generated 29% of the country’s electricity output, electricity itself accounted for only about a fifth of its final energy consumption." ----- "If Germany suddenly halted Russian gas imports, gas-based residential heating systems – on which half the German population, approximately 40 million people, rely – and industrial processes that rely heavily on gas imports would break down....."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "For Putin, the past that matters most is the one the dissident author and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exalted: the time when the Slavic peoples were united within the Orthodox Christian kingdom of Kievan Rus’. Kyiv formed its heart, making Ukraine central to Putin’s pan-Slavic vision. ---- But, for Putin, the Ukraine war is about preserving Russia, not just expanding it. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently made clear, Russia’s leaders believe that their country is locked in a “life-and-death battle to exist on the world’s geopolitical map.” That worldview reflects Putin’s longstanding obsession with works of other Russian emigrant philosophers, such as Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev, who described a struggle for the Eurasian (Russian) soul against the Atlanticists (the West) who would destroy it. ---- Yet Putin and his neo-Eurasianists seem to believe that the key to victory is to create the kind of regime those anti-Bolshevik philosophers most detested: one run by the security forces. A police state would fulfill the vision of another of Putin’s heroes: the KGB chief turned Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, is struggling to export last year’s harvest, and may be unable to produce much this year either. In addition, the war has caused a global fertiliser shortage, which will push up food prices around the world too. Coming at a time when the global pandemic had already increased food insecurity and depleted resources around the world, many countries may not be resilient to a major food crisis brought on by the war. Back-to-back global catastrophic events like this have not happened for close to 100 years." ----- "Another useful analogue is the case of Germany during the first world war. When war broke out in 1914, the German authorities had anticipated a short conflict – not too dissimilar to Russian assumptions a few weeks ago. Just like in Ukraine now, the first world war severely disrupted German farming."