Although political brinksmanship with Iran is nothing new, escalating tensions do not bode well for the region.
Here we go again with the Iran hysteria. It is tempting to think this time will be just like previous periods of sabre rattling against Iran. But there are significant new dangers. The Arab Spring, Israel's position, changes in the regional and global balance of forces, and national election campaigns, all point to this round of anti-Iranian hysteria posing potentially graver risks than five or six years ago.
We have seen all this before. The US ratchets up its rhetoric, Israel threatens a military attack, escalating sanctions bite harder on the Iranian people, Iran refuses to back down on uranium enrichment. But at the same time, top US military and intelligence officials actually admit Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, is not building a nuclear weapon, and has not decided whether to even begin a building process.
There is certainly a big dose of déjà vu. In 2004 Israel's prime minister denounced the international community for not doing enough to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. In 2005 the Israeli military was reported to "be ready by the end of March for possible strikes on secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran". In 2006 the House Armed Services Committee issued a report drafted by one congressional staffer (an aide to hard-line pro-war John Bolton, then US ambassador to the UN), claiming that Iran was enriching uranium to weapons-grade 90 per cent. That same year a different Israeli prime minister publicly threatened a military strike against Iran. In 2008, George W Bush visited Israel to reassure them that "all options" remained on the table.
Would the US back an Israeli attack on Iran?
The earlier crisis saw a very similar gap between the demonisation, sanctions, threats of military strikes against Iran, and the seemingly contradictory recognition by US, Israeli, United Nations and other military and intelligence officials that Iran actually did not possess nuclear weapons, a nuclear weapons programme, or even a decision to try to develop nuclear weapons.
The 2005 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) determined that even if Iran decided it wanted to make a nuclear weapon, it was unlikely before five to ten years, and that producing enough fissile material would be impossible even in five years unless Iran achieved "more rapid and successful progress" than it had so far. By 2007, a new NIEhad pulled back even further, asserting "with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme ... Tehran had not started its nuclear weapons programme as of mid-2007". The NIE even admitted "we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons". That made the dire threats against Iran sound pretty lame. So maybe it wasn't surprising that Newsweek magazine described how, "in private conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week, the president all but disowned the document".
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA - the UN's nuclear watchdog) issued report after report indicating it could find no evidence that Iran had diverted enriched uranium to a weapons programme. The UN inspection agency harshly rejected the House committee report, calling some of its claims about Iran's alleged nuclear weapons activities incorrect, and others "outrageous and dishonest". And outside of the Bush White House, which was spearheading much of the hysteria, members of Congress, the neo-con think tanks, hysterical talk show hosts, and much of the mainstream media went ballistic.
Then and now
All of that sounds very familiar right now. Military and intelligence leaders in Israel and the US once again admit that Iran does not have nukes. (Israel of course does, but no one talks about that.) Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta asked and answered his own Iran question: "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No." Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr. admitted the US does not even know "if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons". The latest 2011 NIE makes clear there is no new evidence to challenge the 2007 conclusions; Iran still does not have a nuclear weapons programme in operation.
According to the Independent, "almost the entire senior hierarchy of Israel's military and security establishment is worried about a premature attack on Iran and apprehensive about the possible repercussions." Former head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said "it is quite clear that much if not all of the IDF leadership do not support military action at this point."
But despite all the military and intelligence experts, the threat of war still looms.
"Republican candidates pound the lecterns promising that ... Iran willaccept international inspectors - as if the IAEA had not maintained an inspection team inside Iran for the last many years."
Republican candidates pound the lecterns promising that "when I'm president..." Iran will accept international inspectors - as if the IAEA had not maintained an inspection team inside Iran for the last many years. We hear overheated rumours of Iranian clerics promising nuclear weapons to their people - as if Iran's leaders had not actually issued fatwas against nuclear weapons, something that would be very difficult to reverse.
Some strategic issues are indeed at stake, but the current anti-Iran mobilisation is primarily political. It doesn't reflect actual US or Israeli military or intelligence threat assessments, but rather political conditions pushing politicians, here and in Israel, to escalate the fear factor about Iranian weapons [however non-existent] and the urgency for attacking Iran [however illegal]. And the danger, of course, is that this kind of rhetoric can box leaders in, making them believe they cannot back down from their belligerent words.
Israel at the centre
One of the main differences from the propaganda run-up to the Iraq war is the consistent centrality of Israel and its supporters, particularly AIPAC in the US, in this push for war against Iran. Israel certainly jumped aboard the attack-Iraq bandwagon when it was clear that war was indeed inevitable, but US strategic concerns regarding oil and the expansion of US military power were first and primary. Even back then,Israel recognised Iran as a far greater threat than Iraq. And now, Israelis using that alleged threat to pressure US policymakers and shape US policy - in dangerous ways. During this campaign cycle, Obama is under the greatest pressure he has ever faced, and likely ever will face, to defend the Israeli position unequivocally, and to pledge US military support for any Israeli action, however illegal, dangerous, and threatening to US interests.
Inside Story - Will Israel attack Iran?
Iran simply is not, as former CIA analyst and presidential adviser Bruce Reidel makes clear, "an existential threat" to Israel. Even a theoretical future nuclear-armed Iran, if it ever chose that trajectory, would not be a threat to the existence of Israel, but would be a threat to Israel's longstanding nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. That is the real threat motivating Israel's attack-Iran-now campaign. Further, as long as top US political officials, from the White House to Congress, are competing to see who can be more supportive of Israel in its stand-off with Iran, no one in Washington will even consider pressure on Israel to end its violations of international law and human rights regarding its occupation and apartheid policies towards Palestinians. Israel gets a pass.
Israel is more isolated in the region than ever before. The US-backed neighbouring dictatorships Israel once counted on as allies are being challenged by the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Egypt's Mubarak was overthrown, the king of Jordan faces growing pressure at home, and the threats to Syria's regime mean that Israel could face massive instability on its northern border - something Bashar al-Assad and his father largely staved off since Israel occupied the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967.
Syria moves to the centre - two struggles in one
The calamity underway in Syria is also directly linked to the Iran crisis. There are two struggles going on in Syria - and unfortunately one may destroy the potential of the other.
First was Syria's home-grown popular uprising against a brutal government, inspired by and organically tied to the other risings of the Arab Spring, and like them calling first for massive reform and soon for the overthrow of the regime. Syria is a relatively wealthy and diverse country, in which a large middle class, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, had prospered under the regime, despite its political repression. As a result, unlike some other regional uprisings,Syria's opposition was challenging a regime which still held some public support and legitimacy. The regime's drastic military assault on largely non-violent protests led some sectors of the opposition to take up arms, in tandem with growing numbers of military defectors, which of course meant waging their democratic struggle in the terrain in which the regime remains strongest: military force. The government's security forces killed thousands, injuring and arresting thousands more, and in recent weeks even the longstanding support for Assad in Damascus and Aleppo began to waver. Simultaneously, attacks against government forces increased, and the internal struggle has taken on more and more the character of a civil war.
Israel's nuclear capabilities
The further complication in Syria, and its link to Iran, is that it has simultaneously become a regional and global struggle. Syria is Iran's most significant partner in the Middle East, so key countries that support Israel's anti-Iran mobilisation have turned against Syria, looking to weaken Iran by undermining its closest ally. (Perhaps because the Assad regimes have kept the occupied Golan Heights and the Israeli-Syrian border relatively quiet, Israel itself has not been the major public face in the regionalisation of the Syrian crisis.) But clearly Saudi Arabia is fighting with Iran in Syria for influence in the region. The Arab League, whose Syria decision-making remains dominated by the Saudis and their allied Gulf petro-states (such as Qatar and the UAE)