CAMBRIDGE – Israel is daily ratcheting up its threats to attack Iran over its nuclear program. Unfortunately, these threats have come to overshadow more pressing events in Syria, which is the epicenter of a regional crisis that will determine the future of the Arab Spring, as well as Iran’s role in the Middle East.
Throughout 2011, the Arab uprisings were driven by each country’s internal dynamics. Yet the disparate movements were united by the pursuit of freedom, dignity, and economic opportunity. Now this liberal narrative is breaking down.
Chaos reigns in Egypt and Libya, where post-revolution authorities are proving too brittle either to consolidate their authority, or to incorporate more popular forces. In Syria, the situation is far worse, as a year-old civilian uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is now producing mass killing on a grand scale.
This violence could spill over into Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, increasing the risk of a regional conflagration. Contrary to what the Western media are saying, Syria is experiencing more than a struggle between liberalism and tyranny. In fact, both the government and the opposition, which reportedly includes groups close to al-Qaeda, receive external arms and support. And, as is often the case in this kind of war, most of the casualties are civilian bystanders. In this respect, events in Syria appear increasingly similar to the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980’s.
Unfortunately, with Russia and China obstructing meaningful United Nations action, the “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia this February offered no coherent way out of the conflict.
For years, Iran has believed that Syria – and its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon – could form its strong right arm, reaching all the way to the Mediterranean and allowing it to pressure Israel and the Gulf States. Turkey, prodded by Saudi Arabia, is now trying to amputate that Iranian arm in order to establish itself as the top regional power.
Whereas Turkey is on the rise regionally, Iran is in decline. Iran’s recent election results demonstrate the vast fissures among the ayatollahs, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the populace. The Iranian economy is sclerotic and stands to be crippled by the latest wave of sanctions. Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence seems to be operating with impunity inside Iran, assassinating scientists and delaying nuclear progress.
The Israeli government has vastly exaggerated the threat that a nuclear Iran poses to its security, as well as Israel’s capacity to halt it. Disabling the Iranian nuclear program by aerial bombardment is probably impossible, owing to its size and dispersion, a lack of actionable intelligence, and, above all, the fact that the element of surprise has long been lost. Iran’s acquisition of the bomb, on the other hand, could bring increased stability to the region, as the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction demonstrated in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Understood in this light, the real threat is not Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, but Israel’s attempts to halt it, which would surely incur Iranian retaliation through blockade of the Strait of Hormuz – sending oil prices soaring to more than $200 a barrel and driving the world's major economies into sustained free-fall. In fact, despite the faux solidarity that US President Barack Obama expressed to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in early March, Israel’s saber-rattling appears to be galvanizing an American modus vivendi with Iran in order to avert an Israeli attack.
This reading of events is amplified by British Prime Minister David Cameron’s statements during his recent US visit. The subtext is that Cameron and Obama have closed ranks in identifying Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and not the ayatollahs, as the primary wildcard. Netanyahu threatens to upend Obama’s carefully constructed international consensus concerning sanctions and containment of Iran – a consensus that averts regional mayhem.
Most sane people – including in Israel – grasp that an unprovoked Israeli attack on Iran could have catastrophic consequences. It would push the Arab Spring movements in a decidedly anti-Western direction, unify Islamists and secularists in a reinvigorated hatred of Israel, and provoke a spate of terror attacks both inside Israel and on Western interests in Arab countries with Shia populations.
Acknowledging the virtual Armageddon that could follow from an ill-conceived attack on Iran is not appeasement. It is simply recognition of the reality that Israel and the West have little to fear from Iran – even an Iran with limited nuclear capacity.
The ascendant powers in the Middle East are Turkey and Qatar. These Sunni countries, along with Saudi Arabia, should join with their international allies and initiate a regional solution to Syria’s crisis. In the process, Iran should not be needlessly antagonized.
In the absence of such leadership, the Syrian crisis is likely to have a contagious effect, as refugees, arms, and militant Islamists cross borders in greater numbers than they have since the start of the Iraq War in 2003. Indeed, this “spillover” could fuel a regional war of all against all.
Now is not the time to provoke Iran, but rather to tend to Syria’s troubles before it is too late – for example, by publicly offering Assad a way out of the country that will safeguard the minority Alawite community if he is toppled or forced to flee. If the Syria situation is ignored, its consequences could provoke Israeli or Iranian action, setting the region aflame and triggering a global depression.