11.02.2014 Author: Stanislav Ivanov

Nuclear nonproliferation in the Middle East context Part 2

6gWith the election of the Iranian president H. Rouhani, the probability of war in the Persian Gulf has markedly declined and, accordingly, the chances of a peaceful solution to the Iranian problem have increased. Washington and its Western allies have continued their political and diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, believing that the restrictive financial and economic sanctions of the UN, the U.S. and the EU against Tehran are yielding results. However, this position does not suit Israel, whose leadership still does not believe that Iran will actually abandon plans to develop nuclear weapons. The leadership of Israel believes that Iran, even having nuclear weapons, is unlikely to decide to use them, but such weapons would boost its role and influence in the region and would eventually destroy the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Therefore, Tel Aviv has not abandoned plans for a military solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Theoretically, three most likely scenarios of military actions of Israel against Iran could be considered

First scenario. In view of the existing experience of air raids on nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria, Israel can carry out similar pinpoint airstrikes on Iran, for example, on enrichment complexes in Natanz and Fordow, accompanying these attacks by cyber-attacks on Iranian vital facilities. In this case, even the underground Iranian nuclear facilities will not be safe, due to the destruction of ground infrastructure (entrances, exits, access roads, power supply and communication systems, etc.).

Second scenario. Long-term (up to 5 days) air raids on a larger range of nuclear facilities, missile launchers, air defense systems, airfields, Navy bases, headquarters, command and communication posts.

Third scenario. Regular air strikes on a more expanded list of facilities, compared to the second scenario, which would last for several weeks.

Israel has the necessary combat capability to realize all of the three options. The main obstacle in the implementation of such plans may be the negative reaction of the world community and Tel Aviv’s allies in Washington and in the West.

According to the experts, the main obstacle for the Israeli air force is not the air defense system of Iran, but the geographical position of Israel. It will be difficult for tactical fighters to fly 1,500 km charged with maximum ammunition, make pinpoint attacks and return safely to their bases. Israel might also use the medium range ballistic missiles “Jericho”, but much will depend on the accuracy of their targeting. Further developments will depend on the response of Iran and its allies in the region, as well as on the possible intervention in the conflict by the U.S.A. and other countries. The probability that Israel will use nuclear weapons is small, but it should not be ruled out, particularly if the very existence of the Israeli state is threatened. Iran can make retaliatory strikes on Israel using the ballistic missiles “Shahab-3” and “Sege”, F-5 fighter jets, rocket attacks and terrorist attacks by the Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip should not be excluded either.

In case of substantial damage to Israel, or on its own initiative, Washington may also attack Iran. Iranian territory is already monitored by a group of American spy satellites, the U.S. military capabilities in the Persian Gulf, in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean (Diego Garcia airbase) are sufficient to destroy most of the nuclear and military facilities in Iran without transferring additional forces to the region. U.S. had such an experience during military operations against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. At the same time, neither the United States nor, especially, Israel is planning a ground operation or subsequent occupation of Iran. Most likely, they will have to limit themselves to disabling the nuclear facilities and military infrastructure.

It is difficult to predict the subsequent reaction of the region and of the world to the possible strikes of Israel and (or) the U.S. on Iran, but the consequences of an aggression can be disastrous. The Islamic Republic of Iran is an 80-million people strong regional power, with high scientific, technical, industrial and military potential; it is one of the leaders of the Islamic world, which plays a very important role in the fight against drug trafficking and international terrorism. It is possible that a war against Iran will eventually destroy the system of international security under the auspices of the UN and the NPT regime, give a boost to military nuclear programs in several other countries, wanting to create their own nuclear deterrents.

Tel Aviv considers Iran’s nuclear-missile program and strengthening the influence of the Islamic factor in the region as a threat to Israel’s national security. Its leadership sees “the hand of Tehran” in the incessant rocket attacks on its territory from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, as well as in terrorist attacks of the radical Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. In its turn, the Iranian leadership believes that Israel is involved in the cyber-attacks on Iran’s vital facilities and assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. The confrontation between the two countries is accompanied by reciprocal and quite harsh accusations, threats of military operations, which can be viewed more as part of the lingering propaganda and information war. While in Iran the authorities and the overwhelming majority of the society have a consolidated position in relation to Israel, in Israel, given the overall negative attitude towards the Iranian regime, there is a wider range of views on ways and means of resolving the situation around the Iranian nuclear program. Most of the Israeli politicians are inclined to think that they should continue to closely collaborate with the United States in this direction and that it is dangerous for Israel to take any military action alone against Iran. Undoubtedly, there are political hawks that urge air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, as early as possible, in order to prevent Iran from gaining access to nuclear weapons.

Yet, the opinion still prevails in Tel Aviv that unilateral attempts to prevent Iran, by military force, from obtaining access to nuclear weapons could be counterproductive. This is not only because of the expected sharp negative international reaction and the subsequent isolation of Israel, but also because a military strike could force Iran to withdraw from the NPT and boost the military component of its nuclear program. The contemplated “thaw” in relations between Iran and the United States objectively strengthens in Israel the position of the supporters of more balanced approaches to the settlement of the issue of the Iranian nuclear program.

The idea of ​​creating a zone free of nuclear weapons, which in 1974 was supported by the UN General Assembly in Resolution 3263 and since then this topic has been constantly present in the UN agenda, is also noteworthy. Since 2005, this idea has been transformed into the concept of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological weapons). The main obstacle for the creation of such a zone is the explosive nature of the overall military and political situation in the region, mainly because of the unresolved Palestinian problem. Recently, the devastating effects of the “Arab Spring”, the confrontations of the Gulf monarchies with Iran, inciting hatred between Sunnis and Shiites, the civil war in Syria have aggravated the situation. Unanimously supporting the idea of ​​WMD-free zone, the Middle Eastern Islamic countries assert that Israel’s nuclear capabilities and its non-participation in the NPT is a major security problem for the region and an obstacle to strengthening the regime of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Israel for its part, argues that the creation of a WMD-free zone is possible only on the basis of an achievement of peace agreements with all countries in the region, without exception. Islamic states associate such agreements with Israel’s withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967, with the solution of the Palestinian problem and formation of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. So far, there are no visible preconditions for a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian problem and the achievement of a comprehensive treaty of peace and cooperation between Israel and the Islamic states of the Middle East; hence, the concept of creating a WMD-free zone in the region is not implemented yet. However, the consent of Syrian leadership for destruction of its arsenal of chemical weapons may be noted as a positive step. Subsequently, other concrete steps in the direction of the phased creation of a WMD-free zone could be undertaken. For example, all the countries in the region could be offered to introduce a ban on research on the nuclear fuel cycle and technologies with dual purposes. It should be borne in mind that the creation of the European security system in 1970-90 also moved gradually from the political and economic arrangements to an increased level of mutual trust, transparency, reduction of armed forces, conventional and nuclear weapons, prohibition of biological weapons and elimination of chemical weapons. Although this process has not reached the establishment of a NWFZ in Europe.

In general, the issue of nuclear non-proliferation in the Middle East context now seems more relevant than ever, given the volatile situation in the region and the growing terrorist threat.

Stanislav Ivanov, leading researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies, PhD of historical sciences, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook