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Paradigm Shift: Why Iran Now Needs the Bomb

Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme leader of Iran

Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme leader of Iran
Photo Credit: Foundation of Holy Defence Values, Archives and Publications/Wikimedia Commons

Let’s talk about how everything has changed, geopolitically. In August 2012, we are no longer operating on all the old assumptions that anchored conduct among the nations in the 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interpreting what’s going on in light of those old assumptions will now lead us into error. We are wrong about some very important things today, if our thinking remains stuck in the themes of the past. Here are just four of those important things:

1. The import of what Russia and China do with their military forces. When Russia deploys bombers or attack submarines close to the US, or Russia and China parade huge naval forces around the Japanese islands, or Russia sends a big naval force to the Mediterranean and prepares to hold the most comprehensive military exercise since the end of the Cold War in the Caucasus, or China conducts air force exercises with Turkey and sends warships into the Black Sea for port visits – when these things happen, they mean Russia and China are serious about the potential need to use force.

It means they are not satisfied with the status quo, and they are preparing for the day when they will have to breach it, or can benefit from a breach in it through the use of force (even if only for intimidation). It is the height of foolish complacency for Americans and Europeans to take these signs lightly.

It is also a backward-looking conclusion to say that the US can prevail over any of the forces deployed by Russia and China. The post-Cold War paradigm in which that might have been true is shattered. Russia and China are preparing for confrontations they can win. We are not. They won’t confront us with forces in our own region – although, as Russia has done, they will certainly warn us with them. They will instead induce things to happen in their region – things prejudicial to our interests – which we can only prevent if we use force where we are at a disadvantage: on their turf.

This isn’t a resumption of the Cold War. It’s a new-old paradigm of international confrontation, and the advantages we had in the Cold War, such as our superb network of alliances, no longer necessarily apply to the tasks America will perceive to be necessary.

2. The explanatory narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the early years of modern Israel’s existence, it was generally understood in the West that the Arabs hated the re-formed state. They were quite explicit about it, after all, and the data point in the public mind was phrased in just those terms. A number of the Arab nations threw in with the Soviet Union in order to gain support for their various projects of Arabism and anti-Western, anti-Israeli geopolitics.

From the late 1970s, when the Israel-Egypt accords were signed, the political mainstreaming of Yasser Arafat, the “intifadas,” and the rise of globalist Islamism gradually turned the narrative to a different theme. The Oslo accords and empowerment of the Palestinian Authority set the stage for that theme to produce endless drama, in which the Palestinian Arabs have been depicted as the victims of a brutal campaign of sequestration by Israel. In many ways, history and current events have been completely falsified by anti-Israel forces during this period. But the persistent thread in the narrative has been that “justice” will only come when the Palestinian Arabs have a nation of their own.

In light of this narrative, the “Peace Process” has been focused in the last decade on negotiating a settlement by which the Palestinian Arabs gain a nation-state. The best-known corollary to this narrative, in the mainstream media and among anti-Israel groups, says that Israel is the problem in these negotiations: Israel won’t make enough concessions; Israel keeps expanding settlements in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria); Israel provokes the terrorist attacks of Hamas with her cruelty to the Palestinian Arabs. These allegations have been ridden almost to a UN vote on recognizing a state of Palestine – unilaterally, against the national prerogatives conferred on Israel by the UN Charter itself.

The “almost” is important, because this paradigm too is changing. The impetus is no longer behind forcing a Palestinian state on Israel as the chief means of gaining position against Israel. Before the Arab Spring, that strategy had the support of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as the primary means of changing the Arab-Islamic world’s position in relation to Israel. As the Arab Spring unfolds, however, promoting unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state has lost its strategic urgency. The other factors in the region are changing, and there may well be better ways to get at Israel.

Egypt has a long-pacified buffer with Israel in the Sinai, and the Arab world’s largest nation is now in Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim-Brotherhood hands. A Morsi advisor told Egyptian media this week that Egypt’s new government is looking at amending the Camp David Accords to affirm Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai. This policy shift won’t be benign, given Morsi’s rallying cry from June 2012:

“Our capital shall be Jerusalem!”

“Millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem!”

“Banish the sleep from the eyes of all Jews!”

“You lovers of martyrdom, you are all Hamas!”

“Jerusalem is our goal!”

Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, continues to leverage cooperation with the United States to gain control over the future of Syria, which also has a border with Israel. Erdogan and Morsi, heads of populous nations, are now in competition with each other for leadership of the emerging phenomenon of modern state-Islamism. The Muslim Brotherhood’s influence will be effectively focused through the lens of Morsi’s government in Egypt; Erdogan is without a doubt an Islamist, but the Muslim Brotherhood has had an Arab- and Jerusalem-oriented trend in the last several years, and Morsi is its great hope now for wielding state power. Erdogan’s scope of interest is more diverse, given Turkey’s geography and history.  (Erdogan is also better armed, and remains a member of NATO, so Turkey is not to be counted out.)

Iran, through her client Hezbollah, sits on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Hezbollah has controlled Lebanon’s government since early 2011, and has completely controlled southern Lebanon since at least early 2010. Iran has been rocked on her heels by the travails of Bashar al-Assad, her client in Syria. But her influence in Lebanon keeps her in the game.

Israel’s other border is with Jordan, which remains solidly aligned with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are seeking to be better armed and to leverage more of a say in the Levant, but at the moment, their influence is the least of Israel’s problems.

Hamas will not cease perpetrating terror attacks on Israel any time soon, but then, Hamas’s attacks were never about an earnest yearning for a Palestinian state. They are mounted solely to undermine Israel and wreak destruction. They will continue in spite of the decline of interest in pressing for a Palestinian state. But that decline will be noticeable. Morsi, Erdogan, and the mullahs are competing with each other now, and their absorption will be in gaining power and position where they can. The Palestinian narrative will be sidelined.  Its strategic usefulness – except as a perfunctory theme for denigrating Israel – is plummeting as I write, because a new objective is emerging.

3.  What the priority of radical Islamists is. A short while back, the Obama administration put out a report that the number of global terrorist incidents had declined between 2010 and 2011, connecting the decline to the death of Osama bin Laden. The administration certainly can’t be blamed for putting out good news, but its analysis is flawed. Bin Laden’s influence on global terrorism had declined precipitously in the years since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He was nowhere near the operational leader or even rallying influence that he had been a decade before.

We will very probably find when we get the terrorism statistics for 2012 and the out years that the number of attacks continues to decline. The reason will be the strategically important thing that happened in 2011: the Arab Spring. The toppling of old, sclerotic despotisms has opened the door to the ascent of state Islamism – and that’s where the Muslim Brotherhood is putting its efforts now. Islamist autocrats, which is what Morsi is becoming, will not tolerate extemporaneous terrorism that works against their purposes. (Morsi is likely to clamp down on terrorism inside Egypt much more effectively than Mubarak did.)

The Arab Spring’s civil wars have also kept jihadis occupied, fighting in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and turning to new opportunities for political agitation in nations like Tunisia and Egypt. Terrorism is no longer the most significant model of radical Islamist political expression. It is outdated to think in those terms.

Guerrilla tactics will still prevail in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they are especially well suited to population control. Terrorism won’t stop, either. But the model of terrorism against the West in the last 40 years is no longer the way Islamist extremism will communicate or seek influence.  The terrorist paradigm is giving way at this very moment to the paradigm of state-Islamism.

4.  The reason Iran wants nuclear weapons.  Ten years ago, Iran wanted to be nuclear armed so she could deter US policy, drive us out of the Middle East, and pluck away Israel’s friends and options.

Now the Arab Spring has happened, and Iran’s relative position in the region has been eroded. Iran is in a less stable and preeminent position than she was two years ago. Her emerging competition then was Erdogan’s Turkey, but Ankara’s competition for leadership as an Islamist state was ambiguous up until the past year, since Erdogan has sought to retain Turkey’s ties with the West and keep good relations with Russia, Iran’s main patron. Erdogan has presented himself as an Islamic alternative to state Islamism, even while systematically undoing Turkey’s liberal reforms and guarantees from the Ataturk era.

Turkey has her drawbacks as a focus of Islamist aspirations, with a political history in the region that automatically alarms much of Europe and Central Asia. Turkey has even been a source of discouragement to modern Islamists. The Ottoman Empire was defeated and dismantled by the West, after all, and Ataturk’s Turkey gave in to Western mores and ideas. Arab Islamists are not necessarily anxious to rally behind Turkey’s leadership in a neo-Ottoman consortium.

Still, Erdogan is, as noted, heavily armed, and has been able to put together political successes recently, bolstered by the Obama administration. Now, with the Arab Spring, has come an emerging Islamist Egypt. Ten years ago Iran was the only Islamist theocracy in the region. Now there are two others emerging, and vying for leadership of the global-Islamist ideology. Syria is up for grabs, and might, with US help, migrate into Turkey’s orbit. The Arab Spring brought strife to most of the region, and Iran was implicated in some of it – in Bahrain and Yemen – which created greater alarm for Saudi Arabia, and has lined the Saudis up behind the push to eject Assad and Iran from Syria.

Iran’s relative situation has deteriorated. To regain a sense of leadership and invulnerability – as well as to vindicate Shia Islam over the recent Sunni triumphs in the region – Iran needs a big strategic win. She needs a trump card over the emerging Sunni centers of gravity in Cairo and Ankara.

She will have to win out over those competitors if she wants to have an Iranian-led army waiting for the Mahdi in Jerusalem. She’s not just planning a long game against the US now; she’s jockeying against regional competitors – who are already making their moves – for the whole ball of wax.

For this reason, I now think there is a real possibility that Iran will try to detonate a warhead this year. The movement in the rest of the region makes the task more urgent from Iran’s strategic perspective. And the US election may well create a frame for Iran’s intentions. The clearest frame would be drawn if Obama loses in November. His lame-duck period would be the time Iran would want to shoot for.

If he wins again, Iran would have a little breathing room in terms of whether the US would take action against an Iranian “breakout.” But there isn’t much time to be lost in establishing regional preeminence for Iran through acquiring nuclear weapons. The aftermath of the Arab Spring has made sure of that.

If Israel is seeking to be prepared to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities before the US election, I believe it is because the urgency of a breakout for Iran has ratcheted up in 2012. In the wake of the Arab Spring, if you’re standing still in the race to Jerusalem, you’re falling behind.

About the Author: J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.


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