Disarming the Middle East

TEL AVIV – Israel’s desperate plea that the world act to curtail what its intelligence service describes as Iran’s “gallop toward a nuclear bomb” has not gotten the positive response that Israel expected. With the United Nations sanctions regime now having proven to be utterly ineffective, and with international diplomacy apparently futile in preventing the Iranians from mastering the technology for enriching uranium, Israel is being boxed into a corner. What was supposed to be a major international effort at mediation is deteriorating into an apocalyptic Israeli-Iranian showdown.

This is an intriguing anomaly, for, notwithstanding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vile anti-Semitic rhetoric, the implications of Iran’s emerging power extend far beyond the Jewish state. Indeed, it affects the entire Arab world, particularly the vulnerable Gulf countries, and even Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States, as a major Middle East power, and Europe also have an interest in stemming the tide of nuclear proliferation that now threatens the Middle East. For a nuclear Iran would open the gates to an uncontrolled rush for the bomb across the region.

The international system’s failure to address effectively the nuclear issue in the Middle East stems mostly from the Russia-US divide, to which wrongheaded American strategy has contributed mightily. Russia cannot want a nuclear Iran. But in its quest for leverage against what it perceives as hostile American policies, and as way to bargain for a more acceptable security framework with the West, the Russians refuse to join America’s leadership in international efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Russia holds the key not only to Iran’s diplomatic isolation, but also – through the weapons transfers that it has already pledged to Iran – to the Iranian government’s capacity to protect its nuclear installations. In October 2007, Vladimir Putin became the first Russian leader since Leonid Brezhnev to visit Iran, bringing along five leaders of the Caspian Sea states. Since then, Putin has sought to expose the bankruptcy of America’s policy of isolating Iran. Russia probably can tame the Iranian regime, but it will do so only in exchange for America’s respect for its interests in the former Soviet Republics, and possibly also a revision of post-Cold War strategic agreements.