ANALYSIS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The Iranian strategic threat – shattered or just fractured?

They stole the threat from us

Iran is indeed deceptive, but it is not crazy. It operates according to a systematic political and diplomatic rationale. But since 1979 this political rationale has been swallowed up in international rhetoric, mainly American and Israeli, which has portrayed Iran as the ultimate global enemy. This is why the American report is such a great blow to Israel. The report does not dismiss the Iranian threat – though it does not substantiate it – but it snatches an important strategic asset from Israel. No longer can Israel play the regional power that charts the map of global strategic threats; the state that mobilized the world against Iran will now assume the role of nudnik.

But Israel’s real problem is that Iran is also losing its status as a strategic threat because of the report, and Israel will find it difficult to “enlist” Iran to promote its regional policy. For example, what justification will Israel have for demanding that Syria sever its relations with Iran as a condition for conducting negotiations once American intelligence has certified Iran as being somewhat acceptable? What good can come from emphasizing the ties between Iran and Hamas or Hezbollah when Iran is now portrayed as a state that no longer threatens the region? And why should the Annapolis conference be described as designed to stymie Iran?

Israel is not the only one with this problem. Its Arab counterparts, who are stuck in the same anti-Iran pit, are also panicking. When Iran’s nuclear threat is not recognized, two fronts collapse: the Iranian-Shi’ite front, which brought Israel closer to some of the Arab states, and the Israeli front against radical organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, or against Syria. In each of these fronts, Iran serves as a connecting axis, an enemy against which coalitions of interests were built and agreements between rivals were generated.

Thus, for example, most Arab countries perceive Iran’s involvement in Lebanon as not just an intervention by a foreign state in Arab affairs, but as a penetration by a hostile state. And Israel intensifies Hezbollah’s tactical threat into a strategic threat because of the Iran connection. Hamas is also accorded the status of a super-threat because of Israel’s efforts to link it with Iran, the mother of all threats, so that we almost forget that the Hamas threat is based only on Qassam rockets.

These enemies will revert to being only “local enemies,” not part of an axis of evil (which also collapses because of the American report). They will no longer be emissaries of a nuclear monster. Israel will have to go back to routine, boring enemies whom it can fight using checkpoints and electricity cuts. Back to Annapolis. Back to the grind.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, some people said the U.S. would have to manufacture a new strategic threat. It will be interesting to see what Israel does after the American report shattered its strategic threat. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — The NIE, if viewed as a precision attack aimed at preventing military strikes on Iran in 2008, almost certainly hit its target. But if viewed as a strategic weapon designed to re-shape America and Israel’s approach to the Middle East, it remains to be seen whether an intelligence report alone is capable of bringing about such a sweeping effect.

Consider the difference between American views of Iran and North Korea. It is widely recognized that the North Korean people suffer a depth of oppression from their own government far greater than do the Iranians. The Islamic Republic of Iran, having become distanced from its revolutionary roots, is in many ways the most modern and Westernized of Middle Eastern countries. North Korea on the other hand is for good reason often referred to as the Hermit Kingdom. Iran put its nuclear weapons program on hold while North Korea forged ahead and put its own nuclear weapons to the test. North Korean power is concentrated in the hands of a mercurial leader, while Iranian power is more diffused through a complex power structure.

Why then should the NIE’s most significant “revelation” be the following claim?

Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.

To say that Iran may be more vulnerable to influence than previously judged actually says more about that previous judgment than it says about Iran. And that judgment reveals the critical difference between the views of Iran and those of North Korea.

Iran is the nation state upon which American and Israeli Islamophobia is most sharply focused. Even though there are fewer reasons to regard North Korea as a rational actor, fear of North Korea’s sometimes unpredictable leadership is not matched with an image of some amorphous, demonic Korean threat.

North Korea’s inclusion in the “axis of evil” always looked like a feeble attempt to deflect the charge that the administration was waging a war on Islam. Yet in spite of its inclusion there was no matching and full-blooded demonization. As a result we are now witness to a spectacular turnaround in the Bush administration’s approach to a pariah state, known to be involved in nuclear proliferation. President Bush has just written to “Dear Chairman” Kim Jong Il, and the New York Philarmonic orchestra will soon land in Pyongyang in an effort to serenade the hermit out of its shell.

What hope is there that we might witness such conciliatory gestures aimed at Tehran?

The challenge for Iran is not merely that it nurture a budding understanding in Washington that the United States is actually dealing with a rational actor. The greater challenge lies in the undoing of a pervasive fear that has long been merchandised by people who have no interest in now either owning up to a purposeful deceit or abandoning a deep-seated prejudice.

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