- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Iran’s mullahs are set to achieve what decades of western diplomacy could not - bring about Arab/Israeli détente.

Fears of nuclear weapons in the hands of Tehran’s revolutionary Shiite regime are forcing a shotgun marriage of Tel Aviv and the Sunni Arab states in a stunning triumph of power politics over historical hatreds. The Washington Times recently had an opportunity to sit down with an Israeli source who told us, “You’d be amazed at how we see eye-to-eye with the moderate Arab states.”

The prospect of an Iranian A-bomb is not the stuff of neocon fantasies. In February the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran has sufficient raw materials to build a nuclear weapon, and noted that the “continued lack of cooperation by Iran … gives rise to concerns about possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.” The center-left Institute for Science and International Security reported in December that Iran “is expected to reach [the nuclear capability] milestone during 2009 under a wide variety of scenarios.” Even the much (and rightly) derided December 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate found that the earliest Iran would have a nuclear capability was in 2010, which if you haven’t checked your calendar lately is about nine months from now.

While the administration is fixated on the Palestinian problem, Iran is changing the strategic map of the Middle East in its drive for regional hegemony. In fact, the Palestinian issue is rapidly becoming an extension of Iranian ambitions. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak noted archly that Tehran’s considerable support for Hamas means that in practical terms Egypt “shares a border with Iran.” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has decried Iranian support for non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah. At this point no peace with Israel will be possible without Iran’s permission, and the Arab states would be happy to see this issue go away.

While we would prefer a diplomatic rather than military solution to the Iranian problem, time is running short and the United States is losing its ability to shape events. Other states will act if the U.S. does not. The Israeli source told us that a nuclear Iran would be an existential threat to Israel, and that Israel cannot allow the Iranians to have the bomb. “We take seriously their statement to wipe Israel from the map,” our source said. “Given our history we take it very seriously.”

Nor do we suspect Israel will be acting alone. Saudi Arabia faces its own existential threat from Iran. Tehran is seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the Saudi regime and establish a protectorate over Mecca and Medina. The notion of Persian Shi’ites in Mecca is far more alarming to the Arab Sunni states than Israeli control of Jerusalem. The depth of the schism between Iran and the Arab states was evident during the recent Gaza War when most sided with Israel. We presume that Israel can count on their assistance if military action against Iran becomes necessary.

Some believe that Iran will stop short of weaponization, that Tehran will be satisfied with the deterrent effect of having the building blocks for nuclear weapons without actually assembling them. But that is a naïve suggestion; in fact it would be more destabilizing than actually having a working bomb, because Tehran would be under constant threat of attack with no credible response. Also dismissible is the idea that should Iran go nuclear the Cold War-era deterrence model would apply, with Israel and Iran achieving a sustainable balance of terror. This assumes of course that Iran’s millenarian mullahs are as rational as the Soviet Politburo, a risky assumption at best.

Of course there is no reason to believe that Israel and Iran will be the only nuclear players. In the past few years all the major Arab states have declared their intentions to seek some form of nuclear capability, reversing years of policies seeking a nuclear-free Middle East. Should Iran get the bomb the world faces the probability of a massive and destabilizing regional arms race. The Cold War chess match would be replaced with a free-for-all gang war which the U.S. would be powerless to stop. Throw in the possibility of terrorists being given a nuclear weapon for a strike at the American homeland and the threat becomes even more dire.

The United States approaches this issue as though it can control events, but Iran, Israel and other countries in the region will not wait for the stately processes of American diplomacy. The strategic map in the Middle East will change with us or without us. The time is rapidly approaching when there will be no best-case scenarios, only a dwindling number of very hard choices. Meanwhile, Iranian arms continue to kill U.S. troops in Iraq, and there are reports of weapons from Tehran surging into Afghanistan. The Obama administration’s “grand bargainers” seek an opening to the Islamic Republic while a confident President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sneers at “childish” U.S. sanctions and has declared Iran a space power and nuclear power. “You take your decisions, and we do our work,” he said. “You are too small to block our path.” The Obama administration has yet to prove him wrong.

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