Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Case for Iran or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Return of the S-300 Saga?

Back in 2010 Russia tried to sell Iran and Syria the very capable S-300 mobile surface-to-air missile but was forced in the end to scrap the deal due to immense Western and Israeli pressure, which included a visit by the Israeli PM to Moscow to dissuade President Putin from doing so. The reason for all the hype was the fact that the S-300 was rightfully viewed as a game-changer that could potentially alter the regional balance of power.

The Russians tried unsuccessfully to argue then that since the S-300 was essentially an advanced air-defense system, it was therefore by definition a defensive weapon and thus should be exempt from all the hoopla surrounding the sale of the S-300. What really worried the Americans and Israelis was the fact that the S-300 was so advanced that it essentially provided an invisible umbrella capable of protecting Iranian and Syrian nuclear sites from any aerial attack. And I do mean any aerial attack, including those originating from aircraft, cruise missiles, UAVs, air-to-surface missiles – the whole enchilada. The S-300 were that good.

So why am I mentioning the old S-300 story from 2010? Well, because Reuters and TASS are reporting that the Russian company that manufactures the S-300 (Almaz, which has merged with Antey) is now offering a newer version of the S-300, called the Antey-2500, to Iran. The Antey-2500 (also knows as the S-300VM) is even more capable than the old S-300, possessing improved guidance radar, an ability to engage faster targets and a greater number of targets.

The Israelis in particular are worried about the presence of either air-defense system for the simple reason that Israel prides itself on its ability to control the skies of its Middle Eastern neighbors. Israel has hegemony of the skies over Lebanon and Syria (as well as Jordan and Egypt, although it respects the territorial integrity of the latter two) and often violates their airspace when Israel deems it necessary – when striking targets deep in their territory like the 2007 strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor in Operation Orchard or more recent strikes on Hezbollah arms depots in and around Damascus airport. Israel would like to preserve the current status quo and any change thereto worries Israel because it restricts their ability to surreptitiously deal with any potential threats to the State of Israel.

It is extremely difficult to send in a team of commandos to destroy a well-guarded site deep in enemy territory and there are many more factors that could go wrong (capture of soldiers, failure of the mission, etc.). Also, there is a greater degree of plausible deniability with an airstrike. In fact, the 2007 airstrike in Syria has never been officially attributed to Israel although it seems clear that Israel was responsible. However, this uncertainty was also important for the Assad regime since he could save some face.

Regarding the possible delivery of the new Antey-2500 to Iran, while the timing of the offer is quite odd coming on the cusp of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran (of which Russia is a member), I believe that news of the potential missile sale will not lead to another international brouhaha for the following reasons: back in 2010, the US administration was serious about the option of an Iranian strike being on the table, today that is no longer the case; current US-Israeli relations are at a nadir; and relations between the West and Russia have been seriously downgraded due to the Ukraine crisis and there is little that the West can pressure Putin with these days that it hasn’t already done.

It is also possible that once the imminent P5+1 deal is signed, the Iranian insurance plan against an Israeli strike comes in the form of the new Russian missiles. After all, it would be nearly impossible to carry out an aerial attack on Iranian nuclear sites with the new missiles in place.

So what does this mean for Israel in 2015? Well, it will probably depend on the outcome of the upcoming elections. If Isaac Herzog is elected Prime Minister, it is hard to imagine any attack on Iran would be forthcoming, regardless of whether new missiles are delivered or not, especially so early in his new term. The situation were Benjamin Netanyahu to be re-elected PM is more complicated. PM Netanyahu has made the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel such a central tenet of his candidacy and term as PM that it is hard to imagine him doing nothing on the issue.

The fact that PM Netanyahu could successfully carry out such a strike doesn’t necessarily mean that he should carry it out. Despite the now infamous Iranian comments about wiping Israel off the map, few Israeli military leaders actually believe Iran would ever seriously consider doing so. Why? Well, quite simply, Israel has a better insurance policy in place: it’s called a second-strike capability. It is no great secret that Israel’s Dolphin-class submarines possess that ability and that a few of them are always at sea. Let’s also not forget that Pakistan and India are both nuclear powers as well as bitter enemies who have fought numerous wars yet self-preservation and cool heads have managed to keep everything under control.

Will it be different between Iran and Israel should Iran finally join the nuclear club? Probably not. Will there be moments of political and military confrontation and brinkmanship? Sure thing, but let’s not kid ourselves into believing that the moment that Iran attains nuclear weapons they would start bombing Tel Aviv or shipping them off to Hezbollah with arming instructions on the back of a cereal box. That will not happen. Will it lead to more tension in the Middle East? Certainly. Will it lead to a new arms race here? Probably, but hey, this ain’t Wisconsin.