In 1980, Saddam Hussein started the first Gulf War by invading Iran, starting an eight-year melee that left 2 million dead between the two countries. In 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait, underestimating the resolve of dozens of countries that launched Operation Desert Storm to expel the Iraqis. In 2003, the Bush Administration toppled the Hussein regime, igniting a massive civil war between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shiites, exposing Iraq to Iranian sabotage, and bringing Turkey to the brink of war with Iraqi Kurdistan.
In 2010, the real possibility that Iran could be attacked in a pre-emptive strike by Israel, or Iraq and other Arab states may defend themselves from an Iranian offensive, arguably has the Middle East on the brink of the fourth major war in the Persian Gulf in 30 years.
But after years of nuclear anxiety and headlines ad nauseum about negotiations, has the novelty of such a threat worn off? Much of the talk of war seems passé. But I am going to make the effort to say that the threat of a massive regional war is very real, and will reel in the major UN Security Council powers, plus Germany.
Israel has attacked hostile states’ nuclear programs before – Iraq’s and Syria’s. Any attack by Israel would have to have some level of approval from both the United States and neighboring Arab countries. The entire region would have to be in sync and ready for the attack. That is approval that Saudi Arabia, as reported by a local report by the Heritage Foundation, is willing to give to Israel when the time is right.
The US would not be able to avoid the retaliation, and would be dragged into a war with Iran. An Iranian response would involve proxies not just in Lebanon and Israel, but in Iraq and throughout the Persian Gulf. Britain, Germany and France would operationally support Israel and the United States, if not actually deploy troops into the Middle Eastern theater.
With the window closing on the opportunity for a concerted hit, it is vital that Iranian access to nuclear weapons be categorically denied immediately. But that does not imply the only option, or the best option, would be to attack Iran. On the contrary, the best case scenario there would be a delay in nuclear development. The elimination of the regime is the only guarantee that the Tehran we know and despise would acquire nuclear capabilities. If a different government ran the country, especially a democracy, the West and Israel would accept an Iranian nuclear program as non-hostile and uninterested in creating a nuclear warhead.
AS BEST IT CAN, the world needs to support the opposition movement in Iran. Estimations that a revolution usually belittle the historical memory of young Iranians, whose parents are reminding them day in and day out that a revolution is possible. They know how to do it. This is the grand fear in Tehran, a primary reason the regime there has lashed out publicly against “soft” and “velvet” revolutions, patronizing them in an effort to stigmatize any such campaign. Both Iran and China have accused the US of waging “cyber warfare,” signaling that not only is it a significant tactic – it’s something they fear.
Any revolution on the ground there will be their own. Nothing the US, Europe, Israel or anyone else could do would launch a massive revolt. But these countries can provide the tools – or at least keep them online.
In June, bloggers and hackers the world over attacked government firewalls in order to keep cell phones, the internet and Twitter afloat. Reports varied on how effective the effort was, but the fact it made any impact was significant.
Certain features, like Facebook, have been inoperable in Iran since the elections. The organizational power the website offers represents enough of a threat it is worth Tehran’s time to shut it down. Keeping these lines of communication open, not just during massive demonstrations but in the days before they are organized, is essential to protesters.
IN THE MEANTIME, this is not an option the world can count on. There are subtleties to American and European diplomacy that would help pressure Iran, plus make Syria and Hezbollah think twice about being lockstep in line with Tehran’s policies.
A prevalent idea in recent years has been an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement that would sever the Iranian-Syrian military alliance. All this assumes Syria would actually break its military alliance with Iran and the region’s prominent terrorist organizations. Syria will not do such a thing, even if Israel were willing to trade the Golan Heights for a peace deal. This entire line of thinking assumes Syria is the weak link in the chain and can be diplomatically parleyed off, when in fact it is Iran facing domestic instability.
Damascus has used the diplomatic breathing room by the Obama Administration’s warmer policies to increase pressure on Lebanon. Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been reduced to humiliating gestures like meeting with his father’s murderer and acquiescing to Hezbollah’s arsenal in coalition talks. Hariri’s March 14th alliance has relinquished these things despite having a larger margin of the vote in 2009 than 2005, when Syria was weak and isolated by the Bush Administration.
It is a combination of inability and unwillingness that make Syria just as weak under threat or American economic and diplomatic sanctions. Iran does not need Syria to send weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, as it has proven with shipments that were caught in the Red Sea in 2002 and Sudan during Operation Cast Lead. Shipments like the one captured in Cyprus in 2009 did not need to pass through a Syrian port to reach Lebanon.
POLICY needs to be made more consistent to fully pressure the Syrians and Iranians, otherwise the countries will continue using diplomatic patience as a window for nuclear development and weapons smuggling. No amount of US and French support for Lebanon will mean anything as long as either Syria or Iran exploits weakness in Western foreign policy. The only guarantee that this alliance will crack is via a combination of domestic and foreign pressure.