The politics of a strike on Iran

To say the Iranian issue is somewhat complex is an understatement of nuclear proportions. Indeed, the politics at play make the outlook overwhelmingly bleak

Israeli Air Forces - are they to make the next move?
Carly Beckerman-Boys
On 20 February 2012 17:27

The Iran editorial is now a cornerstone of any media outlet’s discussion of conflict and peace in the Middle East. Between the “hawks”, who see appeasement as the path to war, and “doves”, who view escalation as the cause of conflict, Iran is becoming the Munich, or Cuban Missile question for our generation.

On the Andrew Marr Show, Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Israel to show restraint against Iran and to give sanctions time to work. Whether the Foreign Secretary genuinely believes in the efficacy of sanctions in this case is immaterial. Of course, they will not work.

Iran has had time to find alternative markets for its oil, and is now able to lash out at British and French oil companies early, months before the sanctions were anticipated to take effect. The purpose of this abrupt halt is to restrict oil supplies to Western Europe in order to inflate prices (though it is not clear whether the halt will achieve its fully intended effect since buyers are already adjusting to the conditions of forthcoming embargo). Nevertheless, at a time of crisis within the Eurozone, even a whisper of further financial problems would be a good political reason for any of Europe’s democratically elected leaders to ease off the anti-Iran rhetoric.

In the United States, the year further complicates the issue. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, has also been calling for Israeli restraint “at this time”, which of course means “before November”. The Republican machine is already painting President Obama as weak on Iran and derelict in duty towards Israel. The constraints of the powerful office prevent Obama from publicly encouraging or condoning an attack on Iran, however, so the political fallout from an Israeli strike would likely be devastating before the presidential election. Urging restraint means Obama is pushing the Iran problem, at the very least, into his second term if not further.

In Israel, however, the issue is both politically and materially urgent. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu came to power in 2009 on a platform of dealing with the Iranian threat. So far, his term has included the flotilla incident, the degeneration of relations with Turkey and another stillborn attempt at Palestinian peace, but nothing on Iran. As Iran edges closer to the status of a nuclear power, this threatens not only Israel’s existence but also the legitimacy of its current coalition government. The political stakes are high, and perhaps too high to justify waiting.

On the flip side, in Iran the nuclear development program is too politically important to be abandoned. This is why sanctions are useless. For any Iranian leader, therefore, the rational option is in fact to continue developing nuclear weapons. The problem remains that even a strike today would only delay Iran’s nuclear development, not stop it. This would appear to legitimise Ahmadinejad’s ravings about dangerous “Jews” and could solidify his otherwise tenuous hold on power.

The general arguments for a strike revolve around the concept of “do something now or you’ll regret not doing it later” – the appeasement/Munich analogy. Arguments against a strike involve concerns over the feasibility of ‘winning’ definitively by striking and over whether striking will in fact provoke a larger war – the Cuban Missile Crisis comparison. These considerations, however, are merely theoretical; the important variables are the domestic politics of each nation involved.

European governments will abhor an attack that disrupts Middle Eastern oil and creates another financial crisis. President Obama cannot endorse an attack on Iran while it threatens his re-election. Israel’s leaders are talking about urgency and the existential threat, and their own political positions depend on at least the appearance of dealing with Iran. The Islamic Republic, however, could absorb a strike and possibly emerge with a stronger hand, only slightly delayed in its development of nuclear weapons.

These are the problems. To those of us who enjoy living without the threat of nuclear annihilation, the options appear limited and the outlook somewhat bleak.

Carly Beckerman-Boys is a PhD Candidate at the University of Birmingham. She maintains a website at and can be followed on twitter @carlybboys

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