IF a deeply troubling international situation suddenly looks too good to be true, it usually is just that – and so desperately bad as to need looking good.
And so it is with the positions of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) over Israel’s push to attack Iran, a situation that can soon become much more desperate.
China and Russia have long resisted the Israel-United States axis’ efforts to recreate West Asia in its own image, or at least to its own preference. The point was driven home when, under cover of “protecting innocents” through a ceasefire and no-fly zone in Libya last year, Western countries openly attacked government forces.
Now that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya are gone, the only Muslim nation capable of standing up to the axis is Iran. But how to fashion a case against Iran that looks at least half-credible internationally?
China and Russia have no desire to see a nuclear-armed Iran either, in fact quite the reverse. Their intelligence services report that there are no grounds to assume that Iran has or even wants to have nuclear weapons.
The conclusion is shared by US and Israeli intelligence, and cited by no less than Israel’s military chief, among others. But that is “only” the pure outlook of professionals and technocrats before getting tweaked by politicians.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems bent on creating an imploding situation, pushing and pulling to make it want to explode and involve other countries in supporting roles. Chinese and Russian diplomats have consistently kept well clear of it all.
Sensing that Obama’s Washington had lately also been keeping its distance, Netanyahu piled on the pressure for days on end. Then his ultimatum was delivered on Tuesday: that if the US still insists on staying away, without even red lines or deadlines for Iran to conform to, Israel may well go it alone and attack Iran.
And if that happened, Washington could be made to look bad in failing to live up to its God-given mission of protecting the free world. In an election season, those kinds of terms can make a difference, and they did.
News then came the next day that Beijing and Moscow had at last “agreed” to add their weight to Western-Israeli condemnation of Iran’s attitude, if not its actions or policies. That may seem like the hitherto elusive consensus among the UNSC’s permanent five, except that it never was.
After Israel’s quiet ultimatum following long days of hard lobbying, its bottom line finally made Washington scramble – not the fighter jets, but UN diplomats in persuading Beijing and Moscow to swing their support behind an alternative approach pre-empting Israel’s further war cries.
At any rate, the resolution at the IAEA (UN nuclear watchdog) on Thursday would have no binding effect. If diplomatic declarations are mere symbols of policy intentions, then the proposed resolution is the most symbolic of all.
Yet at the most superficial of official levels, Israel also agrees that diplomacy should still be the first option before military action. But there is no denying that Netanyahu is gung-ho on another attack on another Muslim nation, preferably with other countries rather than Israel doing the work.
Walking the tightrope
Iran has no plan or policy for nuclear weapons, much less those weapons themselves. For Netanyahu’s campaign to target Teheran it needed to spread fear and vilification, while official texts could refer only to Iran’s attitude and posturing.
Yet despite all his huffing and puffing, or rather because of them, he is making matters worse for the entire region. Anyone in a less emotional state can see the thin tightrope he is treading.
By seeking to force Iran, a country justly proud of its history and culture, to bow to unreasonable demands, Netanyahu is only making a rebuff from Teheran inevitable. That would in turn force Israel to plummet into war, since it would also not want to lose face.
Then by making clear that the push for war “has to come now” rather than later when Iran may possess nuclear weapons, Netanyahu is confirming to Teheran that nuclear weapons work as a deterrent against foreign attacks. Even if Iran never wanted nuclear weapons before, it would be sorely tempted to seek them now.
One result is that Israeli leaders themselves are divided over an attack on Iran. Its military leaders, President Shimon Peres and Netanyahu’s own Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor (in charge of intelligence and nuclear affairs) are among those who disagree with him on the need to attack Iran.
Meanwhile, a top-level US report bearing the seal of more than 30 retired diplomats, admirals, generals and security chiefs advise that a war with Iran will be more painful and costly than the Iraq and Afghan invasions combined.
Previous estimates had found that an attack on Iran would only delay its nuclear programme by several months. This latest report says that a full-scale attack involving aerial bombardment, ground troops, cyberwarfare and a military occupation, among other requirements, would only delay a nuclear programme by several years, not stop it.
However, the likes of Netanyahu are determined to press on regardless. He seems to have calculated that a US election season can give him an edge by pressuring incumbent Obama to lend him unambiguous support.
Iran may also be hoping that public anxieties in the US over jobs and a faltering economy can, in an election season, constrain the urge of US hawks to join Israel. So far Teheran appears to not want to relent by appeasing the doubters.
Nonetheless, the prospect of war is still closer than anyone other than Netanyahu would wish. There are at least five reasons for this.
First, by pushing the option of a military attack to the maximum, Israeli policymakers would be loath to effect a turnaround short of a major Iranian concession. And that would be highly unlikely.
Second, Netanyahu’s primary aim is not the destruction of Iran but key surgical strikes against suspected nuclear sites. He and his advisers may well see this as “doable”, even though the consequences can easily and quickly become unmanageable.
Third, Iran is likely to retaliate in more ways than one, including through forms of asymmetrical warfare. Israel has launched “spot attacks” on Iraq’s and Syria’s installations before and got away with it, but it has never engaged a country as large and powerful as Iran.
Fourth, an attack by Israel, or jointly by Israel and the US, would immediately invite endless rounds of counter-attacks by militant Muslim groups and individuals around the world. These are just some of the consequences that are not clearly foreseeable or controllable.
Fifth, when push comes to shove, both Democratic and Republican candidates in the US presidential election are likely to side with Israel.
Once Netanyahu as Prime Minister sets the country on a war footing, even the naysayers in his own administration will feel the need to acquiesce in the national decision.
Behind The Headlines By Bunn Nagara