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Iran Conflict Has Little to Do with Nukes

Stephen Walt and Israeli “Arab affairs” reporter for Army Radio, Jackie Hugi (English version here), yesterday wrote two parallel analyses of the real reasons for the festering tension both between Iran and the west, and Iran and its regional neighbors.  In short, it’s not about nukes.  It’s about power.  Though they’re related, they’re not the same thing.

Here is Walt:

…The real issue isn’t whether Iran gets close to a bomb; the real issue is the long-term balance of power in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Iran has far more power potential than any of the other states in the region: a larger population, a fairly sophisticated and well-educated middle class, some good universities, and abundant oil and gas to boost economic growth (if used wisely). If Iran ever escapes the shackles of international sanctions and puts some competent people in charge of its economy, it’s going to loom much larger in regional affairs over time. That prospect is what really lies behind the Israeli and Saudi concerns about the nuclear deal. Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t think Iran is going to get up one day and start lobbing warheads at its neighbors, and they probably don’t even believe that Iran would ever try the pointless act of nuclear blackmail. No, they’re just worried that a powerful Iran would over time exert greater influence in the region, in all the ways that major powers do. From the perspective of Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the goal is to try to keep Iran in a box for as long as possible — isolated, friendless, and artificially weakened.

But from the U.S. perspective, that’s neither a realistic nor a desirable long-term goal…America’s main strategic interest in the…Middle East is a balance of power in which no single state dominates. In such a situation, U.S. interests and leverage are best served by having good relations with as many states as possible and at least decent working relations with all of them. America’s long-term interests are best served by helping reintegrate Iran into the global community, which is likely to strengthen the hand of moderate forces there and make Iran less disruptive in other contexts (e.g., Lebanon). Managing this process will require reassuring existing allies, but this development would also force current allies to listen to Washington a bit more attentively, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

As Walt says, even Israeli or Saudi anti-Iran hawks don’t believe their own rhetoric about Iran dropping the Big One on them.  What they really fear is Iran flexing its economic, political and military muscle in the region.  Tel Aviv and Riyadh are used to dominating their particular spheres of influence.  Israel wants maximum leverage to dominate all the frontline states (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, etc.), while Saudi Arabia revels in its role as the guardian of the holy places.  The Iranian threat is that there could be a new sheriff in town, one that will side with Israel’s enemies like Hezbollah, Assad or Hamas; and one that will threaten Saudi hegemony over the Muslim world.

The “Jewish state” and the Muslim state want a bifurcated Middle East in which each dominates its own sphere of influence.  It doesn’t want a region in which power becomes decentralized and fragmented among various states.  And it certainly doesn’t want to share power with an upstart Shiite rival.

The Israeli columnist speaks in similar tones.  Though much of what Hugi writes is analytically sound, even he can’t resist the typical Israeli impulse to wildly overstate Iranian power and menace:

…The rapprochement between America and Iran will bring dramatic changes to the balance of power within the entire region.  It might return Iran to the role of ally of the U.S. and eclipse its relationship with other Arab states, foremost among them Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  This is the nightmare of the Arabs.

If Israel fears the loss of its partner in an attack on Iran, it may be comforted by the fact that it isn’t the only one.  The Arabs, chief among them Saudi Arabia, fear that within a year or two a Washington-Teheran rapprochement will formalized that will eclipse them.  For them the “Iranian threat” is neither a nuclear bomb or the “point of no return.”  For them, Iran is a regional power with octopus-like reach in every direction, which attempts to buy influence in every possible sphere.  Ask the Bahraini king who fears a military coup that will turn his country into an Iranian colony.  In the Arab world there’s even a word for this, tashayua, the spread of the “Shiia idea.”

In every place in the region in which there is bloody conflict, you’ll find the Iranian presence with money, weapons, or proxies.  In Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen (!), Bahrain and Gaza…

The royal kingdom in Riyadh enjoys special status in Washington and closer relations with Iran would be perceived as a threat.

This passage illustrates the level of hysteria inside Saudi Arabia toward the Iranians, and reminds us of precisely the same alarmist statements made fifty years ago by U.S. war hawks defending the War in Vietnam:

“To the Saudis, the Iranian nuclear program and the Syria war are parts of a single conflict,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton. “One well-placed Saudi told me, ‘If we don’t do this in Syria, we’ll be fighting them next inside the kingdom.’ ”

Turning now to Israel’s motivations for opposing the rise of Iran: with a resolution of the nuclear issue Iran would be transformed from a bogeyman into a simple political or commercial rival.  Gone would be many of the fires stoked by Iran’s support of proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.  What would be left?  Israel would be standing on stage like the emperor with no clothes.  It would be even clearer than ever that Israel stands in the way of resolving the remaining issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Israel at all costs seeks to avoid a spotlight shining on its Occupation as it stands naked on stage before the world community.  It needs distractions like an Iranian bomb to clothe itself and its actions in deceptive outer garments.

The reality is that, as Walt writes, it can only be healthy for Iran to play a more robust, prominent role in the region.  At least in part, because it would deny predominance to any single nation or axis of nations (like Israel and the Saudis).  Further, Iran represents a new governance model for the region as well: an Islamist republic that is, at least nominally, a democracy.  One of the thorniest dilemmas faced in the region is how to translates the populist fervor of the Arab Spring into true democracy.  Iran (though not an Arab state) may offer a suitable model, or at least one model among many.

This is what scares the bejesus out of Iran’s regional enemies.  They prefer the strongmen of the Old Guard.  They prefer the authoritarian leader they can trust to the will of the people, which they cannot.  They prefer buying off one man than facing the legitimate aspirations of an entire people–something they cannot buy off.  Though governance in Iran is by no means perfect, it offers a far more inclusive model than countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Syria.

{ 20 comments… add one }
  • Shmuel November 26, 2013, 2:10 AM

    I also don’t think even bibi believes that Iran would nuke Israel seeing that as an obvious consequence many Muslims including Shiites would be directly or indirectly affected.

    However there ought to be genuine concern of a nuke getting to irresponsible terrorist hands such as Hamas Syria or hizbollah who will be more than capable of nuclear blackmail for nefarious purposes.

    In fact the USA ought to be more worried than Israel since the same problem of collateral Muslim damage would apply to these terrorists and thus most likely the threat would be on USA territory and not the Middle East.

    • Deïr Yassin November 26, 2013, 3:24 AM

      Haha, Shmuel has changed ! I remember when he was ‘offended’ that Richard called ‘his’ prime minister Bibi.
      Hamas are ‘irresponsible terrorists’ ? Nah, Nuts@Yahoo is a irresponsible terrorist. And it’s not that the Israelis are capable of “nuclear blackmail for nefarious purposes”, is it ?

      • shmuel November 26, 2013, 6:37 AM

        No, DY, I haven’t changed. I was never offended by Richard calling the PM “Bibi”, I merely pointed out about 3 years ago that Richard uses the term “Bibi” in reference to a head of state after he chastised me for calling the chief of police in Dubai “Dahi” rather than his full name and rank.

        I don’t know if Hamas would actually use a nuke, would your friends at the PFLP use one if they could get one?

        I genuinly think Hizbollah would, and have no doubt that al-Qaida would, and are probably trying their best to get one.

        Reminds me of an old Tom Lehrer song…

        • Deïr Yassin November 26, 2013, 10:10 AM

          Oh, now we’re not only talking about Hamas, and Hizbullah, but also Al-Qaeda and the Popular Front….
          Where do you think the Popular Front would drop a nuclear bomb, in the Galilee or the Negev, with a huge Palestinian population ? Or on Shatta prison where Ahmad Sa’adat is kept in solitary confinement ?
          No, the Palestinians love their homeland too much to ever drop a nuclear bomb on it, they wouldn’t wound the land with an ugly wall either, nor burn olive trees by the thousands or dump sewage on their neighbours’ fields.

          • Hasbarist settler November 26, 2013, 12:51 PM

            Funny the fact that the Galilee has a huge Palestinian population, didn’t bother Hizballah to bring down a rain of rockets on it in 2006.
            link to ynetnews.com

            And BTW, Jibril Rajoub has already shared his view regarding nuking Israel.
            link to ynetnews.com

          • Richard Silverstein November 26, 2013, 4:56 PM

            @ Hasbarist settler: Hezbollah’s armaments don’t have the pinpoint accuracy of Israeli weapons so it couldn’t direct them to land on only Israeli Jewish communities or avoid Palestinian communities. THat’s why some Israeli Palestinians were killed in 2006. But if Iran keeps supplying missiles to Hezbollah and they increase their accuracy & lethality, then this might be possible. Would that satisfy you? Or would it be preferable to resolve outstanding differences with Lebanon & end the missiles entirely? I know that’s a tough choice for a settler like you who’s prepared to fight to the last Israeli. But for the rest of us, we see things a bit more realistically.

            How much do you think Bibi cares about all those Iranian Jews he’d kill if he attacked Iran? Including those Iranian Jews who support Iran’s nuclear program & oppose an attack on Iran (did you see the pictures of their recent rally)? Do you think Bibi gives a crap about their views? This is the same guy who’s the leader of all the Jews in the world, to hear him tell it.

        • Richard Silverstein November 26, 2013, 5:10 PM

          @ shmuel: THe difference between use of the term “Bibi” and “Dahi” is that no one calls the chief of police “Dahi,” while everyone in Israel calls Netanyahu “Bibi.” The term is used scores of times of day in the Israeli media and hundreds of thousands of times a day if you count every Israeli who has a conversation in which he or she discusses politics.

          BTW, I’ve never called Bibi “Nutanyahoo” or the like. While I have no respect for Bibi as a person, Jew or political leader, I don’t believe in cheapshots.

    • muhammad November 26, 2013, 10:18 AM


      With all due respect, you do not know what you are talking about. any nuclear material has a “genetic finger print,” i.e. one can trace back to its origin, say Iran. So, if Iran did such a stupid thing as giving some sort of nuclear device to anyone, and if it is used, one can identify where it came from.

    • Richard Silverstein November 26, 2013, 5:16 PM

      @ Shmuel: You’ve raised a fairly standard and discredited shibboleth among the crazy mullah” contingent. In fact, Iran (unlike Pakistan and North Korea) has never proliferated its nuclear knowledge. It’s never allowed either its technology or nuclear materials to escape its control. The notion that Iran would allow a “suitcase bomb” or “dirty bomb” into the hands of Al Qaeda (a Sunni movement which Iran hates anyway) or Hezbollah is ludicrous.

      • Davey November 26, 2013, 7:58 PM

        The image of “suitcase bombs” and “crazy mullahs” are intended to be inflammatory. They are intended to fan the flames of reaction here in the US and in Europe, to side with Israel which is the greatest reactionary, counter-revolutionary force in the region, even outranking the Saudis. It is a “red scare” yet again. Interestingly, I think Americans are beginning to “get it,” to see through these sorts of speech.

        Let’s state it again: Israel is the greatest risk factor in the Middle East by a mile! It is bound by no legal structures and has a nuclear arsenal, also unbounded. Israel has evidenced its preference for violence and seizure, what used to be called “plunder and pillage,” repeatedly. The sooner Israel is brought under watchful authority the better for all of us. As for nuclear threat, Israel is the only state already making attempts at such extortion. What a surprise! Israel’s nuclear extortion is present but not reduced to words, like so many Israeli policies.

  • Muhammad November 26, 2013, 8:57 AM

    I agree with Walt and Richard. Back in 2009 I published a piece about the same issue, talking about the same, with the added idea that with Iran becoming unattackable and a true rival to Israel, a lot of elite Israelis – innovators, intellectuals, and academics – may not even want to stay in Israel anymore. An academic Israeli friend told me that 25% of all Israeli professors have a second appointment outside Israel, and are ready to leave any moment. If such an exodus does happen, that would represent an “existential” threat to Israel.

    link to original.antiwar.com

    • Ari Greenfield November 26, 2013, 10:38 AM


      Sorry to jump off topic a bit but I noticed you posted a link to antiwar… Has Justin Raimondo said anything about the recent FOIA release of the FBI files on his case? I saw the documents on another site and it was kind of interesting….

      Back on topic.

      • Muhammad November 26, 2013, 12:46 PM


        I do not know how current you are about antiwar, but yes, there have been new reports.

    • Richard Silverstein November 26, 2013, 5:08 PM

      @ Muhammad: Haaretz just published a study that showed Israel had one of the highest emigration rates of any OECD country. Many of those emigrating are of the professional class, precisely those who are most needed to have a highly educated, innovative work force.

      • Muhammad November 26, 2013, 5:21 PM

        Richard: Thank you. This is confirmation of what I had said in 2009.

      • Deïr Yassin November 26, 2013, 6:12 PM

        @ Richard
        Haaretz published two articles on the subject:
        “Israel’s emigration rate among the lowest in developed world”
        link to haaretz.com
        Then ten days later: “The surprising reason why Israelis are fleeing in droves”
        link to haaretz.com
        As the first commenter notes: “Make up your mind, Haaretz. Last week you reported the Israeli emigration rate is among the lowest in developed countries”.

        • Deïr Yassin November 26, 2013, 6:18 PM

          Second link once again: link to haaretz.com

  • Ari Greenfield November 26, 2013, 10:32 AM

    Richard, could you please expand a bit more on what you mean here:

    “Turning now to Israel’s motivations for opposing the rise of Iran: with a resolution of the nuclear issue Iran would be transformed from a bogeyman into a simple political or commercial rival. Gone would be many of the fires stoked by Iran’s support of proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. Gone would be many of the fires stoked by Iran’s support of proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.”

    Are you saying a non nuclear Iran w/ sanctions removed would not longer fund proxies, including Hezbollah? Obviously that wasn’t part of the interim agreement but I would hope it is a condition of any larger comprehensive agreement that allows a non nuclear Iran back into the community of nations. I don’t see Iran just volunteering to do this in their own- especially with what is happening in Syria. (On a related note, did anyone see the BBC Doc about the Iranian Quds Force members fighting ans training pro Assad rebels in Syria? Very interesting video).

    I look forward to your reply.


    • Oui November 26, 2013, 11:41 AM

      Back channel diplomacy and bilateral talks between US and Iran since early 2013. Believe me, Syria has been a major topic, not just the civilian nuclear development in Iran. Lebanon and Syria have become a grave security threat for ally Israel.

      Path of Diplomacy Has Not Ended

      Obama On Path Towards Grand-Slam In Diplomacy Aug. 27, 2013

      If John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov illustrate their determination …
      STEP 1 – Resolve CW issue on Syria
      STEP 2 – Arms embargo and a political solution for Syria
      STEP 3 – Resolve nuclear issue of Iran with president Rouhani
      STEP 4 – Finalize a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine

      Obama made a courageous decision stepping away from 35 years of biased US policy on the Middle East. Angry Arab states Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar plus Turkey and Israel. Praise from Russia, Iran and Iraq (Maliki).

    • Richard Silverstein November 26, 2013, 5:02 PM

      @ Ari Greenfield: Right. There is a big step from ending the nuclear weapons program and removing sanctions, to ending Iran’s support for proxies. But if the U.S. & world community undertake a resolution of the outstanding issues between Israel & Lebanon there would no need for Hezbollah to be an Iranian proxy. Once this happens it becomes easier to resolve the Syrian civil war. And if there is an Israeli Palestinian deal then there’s no need for Iran to support either Islamic Jihad or Hamas (which it’s stopped doing anyway).

      As long as Iranian moderates remain in power I see a great possibility for these developments. There are enough sweeteners the west can offer Iran in order to induce it to give up its military proxy relationships. If the west screws this up or hardliners take over in Tehran all bets are off.

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