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Hichem Karoui: Real world and wishful thinking
January 07, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

I have had a discussion recently with an eminent colleague, a political science professor at the University of Jerusalem, about what to expect out of this dangerous crisis between Iran and the West. He argued that the core of this crisis is about Iran’s nuclear programme, which many view as breaking the monopoly Israel exerts on the military nuclear technology in the Middle East.
Yet, although they are very worried, he contends, neither Israel nor the USA are ready to strike Iran and harvest the bad consequences of such an aggression.

In my view, this is wishful thinking as is indeed a good deal of the Iranian political discourse, based on a dangerous self-delusion, assuming the West (and Israel) would never dare attack Iran, because Iran is so “powerful” and able to “respond” tit for tat.

This crisis comes out in a fast-changing political vista: before the Arab spring, uncertainty was a variable to be taken seriously in any risk assessment of the region. After the Arab spring, uncertainty has increased in intensity to the point of becoming the main socio-political feature, not just a variable among others.
Two examples at least show us the gravity of the phenomenon: Syria and Yemen; and both of them are highly influential in the Gulf region. Syria is falling like a ripe fruit into the hands of whoever is there to pick it up, and it surely is not the Baathist regime, nor its long-time ally, Iran. Obviously, Syria is not going back to the old days of the Assad regime. It will never be as it used to be again. Thus, Iran has already lost a strategic ally, upon which it has been able to rely, and is still unable to acknowledge it or find an alternative.

With the forthcoming “wave” of new sanctions, a systematic economic smothering will put Iran on the deathbed, just as has been the case of Iraq (and Libya) under the sanctions.

Iran has so mismanaged this crisis that it has lost even the few good-willing people who were able to help it out of the impasse: Turkey, for example. Why? Because Iran’s political and military elite seem incapable of distinguishing between objective conditions and self-constructed reality, between the world as it is and the world as Iran views or (worse) wishes it.

Ostensibly, the crisis is not just about the nuclear issue; not just about “breaking Israel’s monopoly” over the military nuclear technology, which the West would not allow, as my friend the political scientist of Jerusalem put it. This crisis is far more complicated, and the US strategists have already projected it at least 30 years in the future; along with the representation of their own might, along with rising powers in the world: China, India; along with the new risks in the era of globalisation; and the picture of Iran as the “rising power” in the region is just not corresponding to the reality. To be exact: it is not allowed.

For the question one should ask is not whether Iran has the capacity to build a nuclear bomb (everybody says it has), but would that make of Iran a state able to change the power-balance in the region to the point of threatening Israel and the prevalent security order? If this is what the Iranian elite believe, they are thousands of miles away from the truth:

1) Israel does not even need its arsenal of nukes, as long as it stays under the US and the West nuclear umbrella.

2) How many years Iran would need to match Israel’s technological level? In the meantime, would the Israelis stay watching the Iranians hurrying up behind them, without themselves making any progress?

3) Imagine Iran has produced two, three or ten bombs. Then what? Would they become untouchable? How? Why the incomparable nuclear arsenal of the former USSR did not protect the regime or its satellites when everything started falling apart in the communist empire?

Today, Ahmadinejad and its followers have convinced themselves that in order to be “respected” by the world powers, they have to acquire the military might. Yet, if the military might were to provide respect and protection, it should have done so to the former USSR which from a rival superpower has become a state dependent on the USA for aid and subsides. Moreover, if such was the case of one of the two most powerful states of all times, how about a country still incapable of responding to its people’s basic needs?

Is the issue really about the Western fear of Iran “breaking Israel’s monopoly”? Come on! What would Iran do with a nuke? Bomb Israel? The question was recently discussed on CNN by UAE Vice-President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

More discussion of this topic would lead us nowhere. The reason is simple: the nuke question is just one aspect of the current crisis not all its aspects. The real problem today is not much about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions than how to make Iran behave as a responsible country. Many little countries, with no military ambition at all, have earned the respect of the world powers, just because they have an acknowledged useful role in the international community.

What is the role of Iran in our world? How do they view themselves in 10, 20, or 50 years? How come that a country with such an ancient civilisation is quite incapable of behaving as a country that has a luminous future? Instead, we see its elite nervous, threatening to do this and that, as if their neighbours were a “neglected quantity,” with no friends, no might, and no abilities of their own.
And who are they exactly threatening? The USA? It is as if a little mouse is threatening to crush an elephant. This behaviour has been the “speciality” of the region, unfortunately. Instead of resorting to the civilised dialogue, the power elite feels enough “empowered” by its own stupidity to make of threatening the only public policy available.

That is precisely why Dr Abdullah Omran wrote recently (Jan.3) his editorial calling upon the Iranian leadership to Reason. He was quite right in stressing that these are “pending issues” opposing since years Iran to the USA, the EU, and Israel — issues that have turned the region, as he put it, “into a land of direct and indirect conflict.”

If threats were to work, they would have worked for Saddam, Qadhafi, and so many other rulers who were just unable to make the only distinction that would have saved them (maybe not their regimes, though): the one between the real world, and their self-constructed representation of it.

The author an expert in US-Middle East relations at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute).

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