To strike, or not to strike, Iran?
Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 02:04
While Israeli opposition to a nuclear Iran is not a new phenomenon, it has been articulated with increased urgency in recent months. This stems from the suspicion that Iran’s nuclear program is entering a “zone of immunity”— that all relevant facilities are being moved to underground fortifications, safe from any potential attack. And with Iran’s supreme leader describing Israel as “a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off,” a pre-emptive strike on Iran might appear to be an obvious necessity. But further investigation paints a far more ambiguous picture.
Iran’s fiery rhetoric stands in stark contrast to its actions — which have been downright pragmatic at times. Indeed, the regime has proven perfectly willing to bend its own rules in the name of self-preservation. When Chechen rebels called on “fellow Muslims” to help secure their independence, the Islamic Republic dared not antagonize its greatest ally, Russia. At the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, Iran provided aid to the so-called “Great Satan” to fight a regional threat — the Taliban. Iran even cooperated with the “Zionist regime” to help destroy Saddam’s nuclear program. Thus, they’ve proven themselves to be as shrewd as they are hostile.
Now, surely Iran knows that a nuclear attack on Israel would be met by a far greater response from Western powers. That would spell the end of the regime, and being pragmatists, it makes no sense for them to create that possibility. But if that is the case, why would Iran want nuclear weapons at all? The answer is simple: Iran wants nukes for the same reason why every country wants them — deterrence. Seeing that Western nukes discourage them from nuking Israel, the Iranian regime wants the same protection for itself. And considering that two of its neighbors have been invaded in the past 11 years, it is not difficult to see why.
But even if there is no existential threat to Israel, you may argue that it is still inherently bad for the Islamic Republic to possess nuclear weapons — so Israel should strike anyways. I agree with the first part, but consider the consequences of the second part. Iranians clearly have grievances with their current government (read: 2009), but their grievances with the West have not been forgotten either. It was the United States which overthrew the democratically elected Mossadegh in 1953, supported an oppressive Shah up through the 1979 Revolution and supported Saddam in what Iranians call the “Imposed War.” Iranians see their nuclear program as a matter of national pride, and so an Israeli attack could become just the latest of these perceived wrongs. This “injustice” would play right into the narrative of the regime, galvanizing the nation as a whole.
Indeed, an attack could spark a fervent Iranian nationalism not seen since the Revolution — a nationalism which would serve as the perfect distraction from the political divisions and economic hardships currently plaguing the regime. And make no mistake about it: those difficulties are real. The latest EU/U.S. sanctions have caused inflation to reach 21.5 percent, the depreciation of the Iranian rial by roughly half (vs. the U.S. Dollar) and soaring food prices. Indeed, these are unprecedented circumstances for the Islamic Republic, and may present a long-term threat to its nuclear program — as demonstrated by Iran’s more conciliatory tone in the latest Istanbul nuclear talks. And considering the events of the Arab Spring, I would even argue that these internal hardships are a threat to the regime’s existence altogether.
That is why giving Iran an external distraction right now would be a tactical mistake — and given the lack of an existential threat to Israel, one that hardly seems necessary. That is why I agreed with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan when he called a pre-emptive strike “a stupid idea.” Israel should simply let these latest sanctions continue to run their course, and try to push for more. After all, there would be no worse irony than for Israeli actions to help prolong the Islamic Republic.
Shawyoun Shaidani is a junior majoring in chemistry and computer science.