US, Israel Poised to Repeat Saddam's Error
by Uri Avnery
A respected American paper posted a scoop this week: Vice President Dick Cheney, the King of Hawks, has thought up a Machiavellian scheme for an attack on Iran. Its main point: Israel will start by bombing an Iranian nuclear installation, Iran will respond by launching missiles at Israel, and this will serve as a pretext for an American attack on Iran.
Far-fetched? Not really. It is rather like what happened in 1956. Then France, Israel, and Britain secretly planned to attack Egypt in order to topple Gamal Abdel-Nasser ("regime change" in today's lingo.) It was agreed that Israeli paratroops would be dropped near the Suez Canal, and that the resulting conflict would serve as a pretext for the French and British to occupy the canal area in order to "secure" the waterway. This plan was implemented (and failed miserably).
What would happen to us if we agreed to Cheney's plan? Our pilots would risk their lives to bomb the heavily defended Iranian installations. Then Iranian missiles would rain down on our cities. Hundreds, perhaps thousands would be killed. All this in order to supply the Americans with a pretext to go to war.
Would the pretext have stood up? In other words, is the U.S. obliged to enter a war on our side, even when that war is caused by us? In theory, the answer is yes. The current agreements between the U.S. and Israel say that America has to come to Israel's aid in any war – whoever started it.
Is there any substance to this leak? Hard to know. But it strengthens the suspicion that an attack on Iran is more imminent than people imagine.
Do Bush, Cheney, and company indeed intend to attack Iran?
I don't know, but my suspicion that they might is getting stronger.
Why? Because George Bush is nearing the end of his term of office. If it ends the way things look now, he will be remembered as a very bad – if not the worst – president in the annals of the republic. His term started with the Twin Towers catastrophe, which reflected no great credit on the intelligence agencies, and would come to a close with the grievous Iraq fiasco.
There is only one year left to do something impressive and save his name in the history books. In such situations, leaders tend to look for military adventures. Taking into account the man's demonstrated character traits, the war option suddenly seems quite frightening.
True, the American Army is pinned down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even people like Bush and Cheney could not dream, at this time, of invading a country four times larger than Iraq, with three times the population.
But quite possibly the warmongers are whispering in Bush's ear: What are you worrying about? No need for an invasion. Enough to bomb Iran, as we bombed Serbia and Afghanistan. We shall use the smartest bombs and the most sophisticated missiles against the 2,000 or so targets in order to destroy not only the Iranian nuclear sites but also their military installations and government offices. "We shall bomb them back into the Stone Age," as an American general once said about Vietnam, or "turn their clock back 20 years," as the Israeli air force Gen. Dan Halutz said about Lebanon.
That's a tempting idea. The U.S. will only use its mighty air force, missiles of all kinds, and the powerful aircraft carriers, which are already deployed in the Persian/Arabian Gulf. All of these can be sent into action at any time on short notice. For a failed president approaching the end of his term, the idea of an easy, short war must have an immense attraction. And this president has already shown how hard it is for him to resist temptations of this kind.
Would this indeed be such an easy operation, a "piece of cake" in American parlance?
I doubt it.
Even "smart" bombs kill people. The Iranians are a proud, resolute, and highly motivated people. They point out that for 2,000 years they have never attacked another country, but during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war they have amply proved their determination to defend their own when attacked.
Their first reaction to an American attack would be to close the Straits of Hormuz, the entrance to the Gulf. That would choke off a large part of the world's oil supply and cause an unprecedented worldwide economic crisis. To open the straits (if this is at all possible), the U.S. Army would have to capture and hold large areas of Iranian territory.
The short and easy war would turn into a long and hard war. What does that mean for us in Israel?
There can be little doubt that if attacked, Iran will respond as it has promised: by bombarding us with the rockets it is preparing for this precise purpose. That will not endanger Israel's existence, but it will not be pleasant either.
If the American attack turns into a long war of attrition, and if the American public comes to see it as a disaster (as is happening right now with the Iraq adventure), some will surely put the blame on Israel. It is no secret that the pro-Israel lobby and its allies – the (mostly Jewish) neocons and the Christian Zionists – are pushing America into this war, just as they pushed it into Iraq. For Israeli policy, the hoped-for gains of this war may turn into giant losses – not only for Israel, but also for the American Jewish community.
If President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not exist, the Israeli government would have had to invent him.
He has got almost everything one could wish for in an enemy. He has a big mouth. He is a braggart. He enjoys causing scandals. He is a Holocaust denier. He prophesies that Israel will "vanish from the map" (though he did not say, as falsely reported, the he would wipe Israel off the map.)
This week, the pro-Israel lobby organized big demonstrations against his visit to New York. They were a huge success – for Ahmadinejad. He has realized his dream of becoming the center of world attention. He has been given the opportunity to voice his arguments against Israel – some outrageous, some valid – before a worldwide audience.
But Ahmadinejad is not Iran. True, he has won popular elections, but Iran is like the orthodox parties in Israel: it is not their politicians who count, but their rabbis. The Shi'ite religious leadership makes the decisions and commands the armed forces, and this body is neither boastful nor vociferous nor scandal-mongering. It exercises a lot of caution.
If Iran were really so eager to obtain a nuclear bomb, it would have acted in utmost silence and kept as low a profile as possible (as Israel did). The swaggering of Ahmadinejad would hurt this effort more than any enemy of Iran could.
It is highly unpleasant to think about a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands (and, indeed, in any hands.) I hope it can be avoided by offering inducements and/or imposing sanctions. But even if this does not succeed, it would not be the end of the world, nor the end of Israel. In this area, more than in any other, Israel's deterrent power is immense. Even Ahmadinejad will not risk an exchange of queens – the destruction of Iran for the destruction of Israel.
Napoleon said that to understand a country's policy, one has only to look at the map.
If we do this, we shall see that there is no objective reason for war between Israel and Iran. On the contrary, for a long time it was believed in Jerusalem that the two countries were natural allies.
David Ben-Gurion advocated an "alliance of the periphery." He was convinced that the entire Arab world is the natural enemy of Israel, and that, therefore, allies should be sought on the fringes of the Arab world – Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia, Chad, etc. (He also looked for allies inside the Arab world – communities that are not Sunni-Arab, such as the Maronites, the Copts, the Kurds, the Shi'ites, and others.)
At the time of the shah, very close connections existed between Iran and Israel, some positive, some negative, some outright sinister. The shah helped to build a pipeline from Eilat to Askelon, in order to transport Iranian oil to the Mediterranean, bypassing the Suez Canal. Israel's internal secret service (Shabak) trained its notorious Iranian counterpart (Savak). Israelis and Iranians acted together in Iraqi Kurdistan, helping the Kurds against their Sunni-Arab oppressors.
The Khomeini revolution did not, in the beginning, put an end to this alliance, it only drove it underground. During the Iran-Iraq war, Israel supplied Iran with arms, on the assumption that anyone fighting Arabs is our friend. At the same time, the Americans supplied arms to Saddam Hussein – one of the rare instances of a clear divergence between Washington and Jerusalem. This was bridged in the Iran-Contra Affair, when the Americans helped Israel to sell arms to the ayatollahs.
Today, an ideological struggle is raging between the two countries, but it is mainly fought out on the rhetorical and demagogical level. I dare to say that Ahmadinejad doesn't give a fig for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he only uses it to make friends in the Arab world. If I were a Palestinian, I would not rely on it. Sooner or later, geography will tell and Israeli-Iranian relations will return to what they were – hopefully on a far more positive basis.
One thing I am ready to predict with confidence: whoever pushes for war against Iran will come to regret it.
Some adventures are easy to get into but hard to get out of.
The last one to find this out was Saddam Hussein. He thought that it would be a cakewalk – after all, Khomeini had killed off most of the officers, and especially the pilots, of the shah's military. He believed that one quick Iraqi blow would be enough to bring about the collapse of Iran. He had eight long years of war to regret it.
Both Americans and Israelis may soon be feeling that the Iraqi mud is like whipped cream compared to the Iranian quagmire.