The American Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently revealed that Israel may strike Iranian nuclear facilities in April, May or June of this year. As a War Studies student at King’s College London, one is very aware of how security issues influence and shape the contemporary world. During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation was real and deadly, characterized by tension between the two superpowers at the time: America and the Soviet Union. Currently, we are perhaps on the brink of a similar scenario just in the new context of a multi-polar world. At this stage, Israel should refrain from using military force even as a preventative measure. Such a provocative strategy is likely to backfire and do more harm than good.
Given the strong and highly credible deterrent capabilities of nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation functions as a powerful source of national security. However, this in turn leads to intense inter-state paranoia. Indeed, precisely because the stakes are so high, desperate concerns are raised over the likelihood of a nuclear attack. The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has fueled such fears. He has repeatedly condemned the existence of Israel and advocated the complete annihilation of it as a legitimate UN member state. Iran continues to frequently reject international law on this issue. Disregard for any notion of law serves to destabilize the Middle East as a whole. This lack of stability manifests itself in a number of ways. Iranian funding provides terrorist groups including Hamas and Hezbollah with potential nuclear capability. Of course, this is extremely troubling for the West and Israel in particular. Moreover, Iranian presence, and ultimate hegemony, in Syria is currently creating havoc as well as widespread distress in the country. The UN Security Council has ordered Iran to halt all nuclear enrichment plans yet such calls have been unequivocally ignored. In 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency found Iran in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was signed in 1968.
With the US Presidential elections fast approaching, the Republican candidates have been upping their rhetoric on this issue. Most extreme is Newt Gingrich, who claims that an Iranian nuclear weapon could bring about “a second holocaust”. If Iran does become a fully-fledged nuclear power, whilst telling the rest of the world it has no intention of doing so, the results could be globally catastrophic. In just nine minutes Israel could be wiped off the map. Hence, the US has felt the need to toughen their sanctions in order to put pressure on Iran to co-operate, even securing an EU oil embargo. However, there is widespread uncertainty as to how long it will take before these sanctions have a significant impact. It also remains to be seen whether they will be adhered to, and if history is anything to go by then such a prospect is highly unlikely. Iran began its nuclear program in the 1950s under the Shah and has continued to do so ever since in an increasingly secretive manner. It is ill-advised to be drawn to claims suggesting that the threat of an Iran with the bomb is an exaggerated one. A nuclear Iran will be a ruthless adversary with the power to allow an unpredictable and volatile series of events to unfold. Such a threat should not be swiftly brushed aside as nuclear alarmism.
Nevertheless, a military attack should still be avoided as far as possible. The financial cost of an Israeli strike would be crippling for the country at a time of global economic austerity. The benefit of an Israeli strike is also limited. It would only serve to delay Iranian nuclear plans for a couple of years at most. More importantly the use of force would boost support in Iran, allowing the regime to rally a greater number of ordinary Iranian citizens behind the government and against Israel, the perceived external aggressor. Instead, a strong diplomatic front with the power of negotiation and compromise is of prime importance. Given that we are largely operating in the realm of the political at present, the international community ought to think quite seriously about how to prepare, react and intervene as to prevent disaster. If Israel attacks, Iran will retaliate and the situation will quickly escalate into a dangerous game of risk. As a famous Persian proverb clearly illuminates:
“If one has to jump a stream and knows how wide it is, he will not jump. If he does not know how wide it is, he will jump, and six times out of ten he will make it.”