Like everything in the Middle East, the politics are more complicated here than in other parts of the world and the stakes are far graver. The recent political changes brought on predominantly by the Arab Spring are nothing short of dramatic. Over the past 5 years there have been overthrown governments in Egypt (twice), Yemen (twice) and Tunisia; and ongoing civil wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria resulting in many thousands of deaths. President Ben Ali of Tunisia escaped into exile to Saudi Arabia while President Qaddafi of Libya wasn’t as fortunate. This is an unforgiving environment and there is little to no room for egregious errors.
Israel is a minuscule country surrounded by the aforementioned turmoil and to make matters worse, almost every other country in the Middle East would be happy to see Israel go gentle into that good night and even offer considerable assistance in that regard. The fact is that Israel is still facing, as it has faced throughout its entire existence, an existential threat to its very survival. For that reason the Israeli psyche is permeated with a strong urgency of living in the here and now, and thus long term planning is not one of our strengths. We may be the Start-Up Nation but we have no Intels, Apples or Googles simply because they require a significant long-term view. By the same token, there is also no subway in Israel’s largest metropolitan area of Tel Aviv (although Cairo and Tehran do indeed have a modern subway system).
Despite the numerous accusations to the contrary, I believe that PM Netanyahu’s trip to the US Congress is not motivated by political in-fighting or jockeying for more votes in the close upcoming Israeli election. For better or worse, PM Netanyahu has made the issue of the Iranian nuclear bomb a central tenet of his candidacy and term as PM because he earnestly believes that an Iranian nuclear device poses an existential threat to the State of Israel. Considering the dangers that lurk in this neighborhood and the margin of error, it is clear that PM Netanyahu is merely channeling the environment of which he is a product, and one cannot fault him for doing so. However, does this make him right?
Well, I don’t think so. It is clear that the Iranians will in fact obtain nuclear weapons in the very foreseeable future and nothing can stop them at this stage. Yet at the same time we must remember that Iran’s internal politics are as fractious and Byzantine as Israel’s. In Iran power is not concentrated in the hands of a single individual and Iranian politics has its share of conservatives (and ultra-conservatives) like the former President Ahmadinejad and liberals like the current President Rouhani, with a Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sharing effective power.
The Ahmadinejad years in particular have caused considerable economic loss and isolated Iran even further and President Rouhani is now trying to improve Iran’s economic plight by lifting the onerous sanctions. As such, Iran desperately needs this P5+1 agreement to succeed in order to improve its economic standing and bring much needed relief to the average Iranian citizen who are still suffering greatly under the weight of years of economic hardships, government mismanagement, cronyism and corruption, and economic stagnation which is set to get worse with the recent drop in oil prices that is central to the Iranian economy.
Yet what PM Netanyahu is forgetting is that while Iranian foreign and military policies do pose a risk to Israel and the Sunni-dominated Middle East, it does not pose an existential threat to Israel’s very survival. Iran is not seeking to annihilate Israel, not now or in the future, and it is certainly not suicidal. Iran does not even share a common border with Israel. This is not a band of crazy fanatics bent on destruction but rather an extremely conservative Shiite Muslim country that seeks to project itself militarily and politically in order to protect and strengthen its co-religionists in other parts of the volatile and Sunni-dominated Middle East.
Are Iranians and Israelis all going to sit down and sing Kumbaya anytime soon? Probably not in my lifetime, but more importantly, we need to step back and assess the Iranian nuclear bomb in the context of the current volatile Middle East where Iran is not necessarily Israel’s most pressing issue.