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Iran, Israel and Middle-Eastern Diplomacy

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This is a long post – sorry!

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made a number of comments in recent weeks about Israel. In mid-November, the president said that Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’. On December 9, the President said that he doubted that the Holocaust had occurred, and that Israel should be moved from the Middle East to Europe or to Alaska. On December 14 the President again denied that the Holocaust had occurred.

This sort of inflammatory rhetoric is not new to the Middle East, nor to Iran. What is interesting is why it is being said now – what has spurred the Iranian government to reach for the loudspeaker and start speaking tough?

I can think of five possible explanations:

1. The ‘business as usual’ hypothesis: Having now settled in behind the Big Desk, the new government has begun speaking out on Iranian foreign policy, with its pronouncements both following the logic that no Muslim regime has ever been kicked out of office for trashing Israel, and being consistent with Iran’s strategy to be seen as the defender of Islam and its adherents, including the Palestinians.

2. The ‘I have a good idea’ hypothesis: Ahmadinejad and his presidential playmates really think getting rid of Israel is a good idea in itself, regardless of other considerations.

3. The ‘a house divided’ hypothesis: The presidential team is using statements on foreign policy to upset the foreign policy plans, and likely also to weaken the domestic position, of their rivals in the Iranian elite.

4. The ‘you scratch my back’ hypothesis: The president’s statements are aimed at boosting the position of Hamas in the approaching national elections in Palestine. Hamas is widely known to be on the Iranian payroll, and the Iranian leader’s comments may indicate that Hamas is intent on doing something about Israel’s actions, and will have Iran’s material and moral support in doing so. This identification with a staunch opponent of Israel will in turn boost Iran’s claim to lead the pan-Islamic cause.

5. The ‘You’re treading on my toes’ hypothesis: The Iranians are really upset about something that someone is doing to them, and they are signalling this by yelling loudly and clearly.

Some background

Before analysing each explanation, we should understand that Iran is approaching a moment of truth in its modern history. In the last fifteen years, it has seen change in the regimes of its three major regional rivals, resulting in a tremendous improvement in Iran’s own strategic position. First, the Soviet Union disintegrated, removing Russian power from its northern border. Secondly, the hostile Taliban regime was cleaned up by the US, to be replaced by a weak and relatively unthreatening regime. And thirdly, the US cleaned up the Iraqi Ba’athists, leaving open the opportunity for the Iran-friendly Iraqi Shia to gain control over the country.

At the same time, Iran has been pursuing nuclear technology, to the extent that it has been found out by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Israel has estimated that Iran may be able to begin enriching uranium by March 2006 and to produce a nuclear weapon within three years.

In short, through a combination of others’ missteps, guile, hard work, deception and good judgment, Iran now finds itself on the threshold of becoming a regional power.

Among the remaining obstacles to that outcome, there is one that the clerics cannot sidestep, and which is not likely to disappear any time soon: the United States. US troops are in both Afghanistan and Iraq, while the US navy is bobbing around in the Persian Gulf. The US does not want Iran to get nuclear weapons – nor does anyone else, for that matter.

But the wily Iranians have played their cards well, dispersing and burying their nuclear facilities to protect their technology from air strikes, and infiltrating Iraq’s Shia population to the extent that any US moves in Iraq that displease both Iran and the Iraqi Shia would likely be followed by an insurgency in the Shia areas. The result is that the ‘Great Satan’ US and the Iranian pariah state have begun conducting sotto voce negotiations to iron-out their differences and find common ground.

The Iranian political elite is currently divided into three groups: the reformists, the pragmatic conservatives and the ultraconservatives. Following the disappointments of the rule of former President Khatami, who was stymied is his attempts to change the system from within, the reformists didn’t do well in this year’s elections. This produced a contest between the pragmatic conservative former President Rafsanjani and the ultraconservative (and non-clerical) candidate Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad won handsomely.

Very briefly, the pragmatic conservatives are Islamists who also happen to be seasoned politicians, and who balance their ideological pursuits against political realities, being able to cut deals with the US and Israel where it is necessary or advantageous. The ultraconservatives are clerics who take their Islamism very seriously, and so are less likely to ‘cut cards with the devil’, and more likely to ‘call it how they see it’ and to act in line with their rhetoric.

The analysis

Hypothesis 1 – business as usual

This is in my view possible, but not probable. The Israelis are already dusting-off plans to blow-up Iran’s hard-won nuclear technology, and threatening to wipe Israel off the map would seem to heighten the likelihood of this occurring. Business as usual for the Iranians has involved, up till now, a patient ‘slowly slowly catchee monkey’ approach. There are many things that the regime could do to rattle its sabre without threatening to ‘go nuclear’, as is implied in Ahmadinejad’s statement.

Hypothesis 2 – the good idea

This is plausible. I don’t know enough about Ahmadinejad to take the man’s measure, but what I’ve read indicates that he is an ideologue and a revolutionary, who still kneels at the robe of ultraconservative clerics. Palestine is a totemic issue for Muslims around the world, and is likely seen in black and white by the radical Islamists. If you have never been exposed to the niceties of international diplomacy, if you’ve spent most of your time debating what to do about Israel with like-minded Islamists, and your gut instincts are supported by clerics, then you’re likely to speak up about the issue – and how!

Hypothesis 3 – a house divided

I think that this is both possible and probable.

The pragmatic conservatives are seeking to lift Iran’s pariah status through back-channel negotiations with the US, with developments in Iraq and Iran’s evolving nuclear programme being the bargaining chips. The removal of Iran’s pariah status would give the regime a more solid footing internationally, and would help the country access foreign technology and markets. The ultraconservatives fear that greater proximity to the US would weaken the appeal of their ideology, not to mention the threat it would pose to the continuity of the regime – other undemocratic governments that have come close to the US recently have faced ‘name your favourite colour’ revolutions.

Trash-talking Israel, at a time when negotiations are finely balanced and sensitive, threatens to destabilise those negotiations – having people going limbic and rattling sabres is no climate for settling matters as delicate as Iraq. But derailing the diplomacy might weaken the pragmatists, and the ultraconservatives may have calculated that unsettling the negotiations is a price they are willing to pay to secure control of the country.

Hypothesis 4 – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours

I think that this explanation is highly plausible. As explained above, Iran and Hamas both stand to win from the president’s intervention. What this hypothesis doesn’t explain is the sort of intervention that Ahmadinejad has made – why such extreme statements, made repeatedly? After all, there are myriad things that he could have said to support his favoured candidates. So I would expect to couple this explanation with another outlining the president’s motives – such as hypotheses 2, 3 and 5.

Hypothesis 5 – you’re treading on my toes!

I think that this too is a highly plausible explanation. States often communicate with each other in code, trusting that their messages are clear enough to be read by attentive ministers of state, but subtle enough that the untutored public and the ADD-afflicted media won’t read between the lines.

With the constitutional plebiscite in October, and the Parliamentary elections in December, Iraq is starting to stabilise. Very simply, to get there, the US has had to cut a deal with the remaining Ba’athist elements, guaranteeing that they wouldn’t be left to the tender mercies of the Shia. This in turn meant that the Shia will influence, but will not control, Iraq – which in turn limits Iranian influence in the country. It also means that the Ba’athists, who caused them so much trauma in the eighties, are back at the table.

The Iranians are upset about this, but there is little that they can do about it directly, and – with the Iraqi Shia signed up to the plan, they didn’t have a means of being heard within Iran. So they upped the ante by playing the ‘terminate Israel’ card, knowing that: the Israelis would have to respond; the US would have to prevent Israel from responding, as air strikes would bugger up their wider plans, including for drawing down their troops; the only way for the US to do this would be to negotiate with Iran.

According to this explanation, Iran has taken a leaf out of Kim Jong-Il’s book – when things aren’t going your way, pretend to go crazy, wave your (real or possible) nuclear sabre, then shake-down your neighbours for all you can get.

So – what’s going on?

My conclusion, from what I’ve read and thought about, is that hypothesis five is the main reason for Ahmadinejad’s questioning Israel’s existence and threatening to remove its future: it plays Iran into Washington’s Iraq game, where Iran has vital national interests. It also helps put domestic rivals in their place (hypothesis 3), and gives a boost to friends in Palestine (hypothesis 4). What’s more, it’s likely something that the president has been thinking about for a long time, and which his mentors also endorse (hypothesis 2).

The thing is: what does he do next? The Israelis are now sharpening their bayonets, the Americans are miffed that he’s come in and knocked over their dominoes, and the rest of the world is wondering if letting Iran have enriched uranium is such a good idea. Think quickly, Mahmoud – Israel’s Air Marshals have drawn a big red circle around March 2006!


Written by Admin

December 29, 2005 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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