Those who, like me, believe the Middle East deserves a respite from war after protracted conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are looking at Iran with trepidation. Talk is rife that the country is bracing for war, and some have even suggested a possible date for it: May this year.
If war does break out, and particularly if it becomes an extended fight, the entire region will be sorely threatened. The rest of the world too will be affected. Already, Tehran has warned that it will block the Strait of Hormuz if the West tries to impose an embargo on its petroleum exports. And such an embargo is exactly what has begun to take place, with European governments recently banning new oil contracts with the Islamic republic and wanting to phase out existing ones.
The strait matters very much. It links the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman, and a fifth of the world’s oil supply passes through it, so a blockade leaves little to the imagination.
The American, and more broadly Western, determination to break such a blockade would be obvious, too. It is not for nothing that the US Fifth Fleet patrols the Persian Gulf.
However, the emerging contours of this conflict are not driven primarily by oil, Western-Iranian hostility, Sunni-Shiite rivalry or Arab-Persian history. All of these are realities in the region, but they are manageable. What makes the standoff between Iran and the West, in particular with Israel and America, so dangerous is that it is an existential test of wills.
It is threatening because it goes to the heart of the existence of both Iran and Israel. Israel is an undeclared nuclear state, and it seems as though it will do almost anything to stop Iran from becoming one. That includes a pre-emptive strike that could lead to war.
This existential conflict is there for all to see. Iran, a member of the United Nations, calls for the end of the Israeli state, another UN member. This does not only breach diplomatic protocol, but goes against the very grain of the UN system, which is based on the mutual acceptance by states of one another’s right to exist.
Such calls have been made not by publicity-seeking politicians, but by the head of the Iranian state. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provoked international condemnation when he made those particular anti-Israel comments in 2005, and similar statements since then have kept up the tempo.
Although many argue that Ahmadinejad’s comments, made in Farsi, are accurately translated as a call for the end to the state of Israel, not for the physical destruction of its people, many Israelis believe Iran actually wants to annihilate them.
The Iranian leadership is not interested in the political complexion of the Israeli government, whether it is led by the left-of-center Labor Party or the center-right Likud.
What incenses Tehran is the alleged nature of the very state, the “Zionist entity” that the “regime” is said to preside over. Indeed, referring to the Israeli state as an entity rather than as a state is itself a semantic rejection of its political legitimacy. Combine that with talk of destruction, and the drift of the Iranian argument is clear.
Israel, which came into being after the horrors of the Holocaust, cannot take such things lightly. Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which it says is solely for medical and other peaceful uses, is therefore viewed as the thin end of the wedge. A nuclear-armed Iran would have the wherewithal to translate words into deeds.
In trying to deny Tehran that capability, Israel is backed by the United States but is supported even by other countries such as France, which has vocal constituencies that are critical of Israel’s unfair treatment of Palestinians.
Ironically, the views held in the Western world are similar to those in Tehran’s corridors of power.
American leaders, too, refer to Ahmadinejad’s legitimate government as “the Iranian regime.” Given Washington’s habitual interest in regime change, this description cannot but sound ominous to Iranian ears.
After the regime changes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, taken against regimes that challenged American might, and the possibility of Syria following these countries, Iranians are understandably worried that they are next. Since no regime likes to be changed from the outside, Tehran’s denunciation of the West is based on its desire for self-protection.
That self-protection extends to the ideological core of the Iranian state. Since 1979, when a mass uprising overthrew the cruel and corrupt despotism of the US-backed shah, Iran has been a revolutionary state.
True, Iran is a theocratic state. However, it is also a country where regular and credible elections are held even in wartime — a far cry from some other Middle Eastern countries, where such democracy is unheard of even in times of peace.
A revolutionary state will do almost anything to preserve its character. If it wants to develop nuclear weapons — I stress “if” — it will do so because these are the ultimate weapons of self-preservation through deterrence.
Moreover, it has not escaped the Iranians that the West has behaved very differently when facing non-nuclear candidates for regime change, such as Libya and Syria, and nuclear ones such as North Korea.
On the issue of self-preservation, most of the citizens of a revolutionary state will go along with their government most of the time.
Thus, even though Iranian dissidents and other young, left-leaning liberals, who not long ago launched an abortive Persian Spring akin to the Arab Spring, want a more democratic Iran, they do not want an Iran changed through invasion or subversion. They certainly do not want a foreign-sponsored shah (by whatever name today) to lead them back to the happy family of Western-backed democracies.
Here, then, lie the roots of conflict: Iran does not accept the reality of Israel and America does not accept the reality of Iran.
The three countries form a veritable existential triangle of hostility between two sides and the third.
Every move that one makes ups the existential stakes.
This is exactly what Tehran should desist from doing. Regime change is a certain outcome of a war that is lost. It therefore should not give Jerusalem and Washington a real reason to go after it.
And, in fact, when all is said and done, Israel does not call for the destruction of the Persian state. So, the message for Iran is: Live and let live. And so long as Iran does not go nuclear, the message for Israel and the United States is the same: live and let live.
Of course, there is also James Bond’s motto: Live and let die. But that makes sense only in spy thrillers. States must behave more responsibly.