This week, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again attended the United Nations in New York. Again, his visit was laced with controversy. He denounced the state of Israel as a ‘fake regime’, claimed that a threat of an Israeli strike on Iran’s facilities was ‘bluffing’, yet warned of Iranian retaliation should Israel carry out such a strike. Israel will be a blip in the region’s history, he predicted, causing ‘minimal disturbances’ before being ‘eliminated’. And should Israel try to pre-empt this elimination, then Tehran would hold the United States responsible.
It is hard to know what more Ahmadinejad needs to do to be taken seriously. For seven years, he has been talking about taking Israel ‘off the map’. The head of the Iranian military said recently that Iran’s ‘cause’ was ‘the full annihilation of Israel’ and the ayatollahs are arming themselves accordingly. A recent report by the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed what the world already knew: that despite sanctions and the warnings of all international bodies, Iran is continuing to pursue and produce the components necessary for a nuclear arsenal. The less the world seems to want to listen, the more likely Israel is to act.
Even the traditionally close relationship between the US and Israel has come under strain, with an experienced Israeli prime minister pushing a comparatively junior American President in a direction the latter clearly wishes to avoid. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently again called on the US administration to draw clear ‘red lines’, beyond which Iran must not go. President Obama refuses to announce such lines, spawning a variety of conspiracies elaborate even by Middle Eastern standards.
They include, in recent days and weeks, an increasing number of people who say that perhaps Israel is ‘crying wolf’ over the Iranian nuclear issue. They point to warnings from Israeli politicians — and Netanyahu in particular — going back many years, predicting Iranian nuclear timelines which long ago ran out. Can anyone not remember a time when Iran was three years away from getting the bomb? Might it be that the ayatollahs, for all their genocidal intent, lack the expertise? Anyone with a desire for peace will want to believe this line of argument: that the threat is exaggerated. Because it hasn’t happened, it probably won’t happen.
But Iran’s lack of progress is, in fact, a reminder of how successful Israel’s efforts have been. They include computer viruses and the assassinations of senior Iranian nuclear figures. If a motorcyclist pinning a magnetic bomb to the car of a scientist is a far more efficient way of stopping a nuclear strike, it makes more sense to proceed this way. Such attacks could, of course, have been carried out by any number of actors — Israel is far from the only country in the world that wishes to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. But whoever is responsible has gone a significant way to delaying the point when Iran is in possession of all the necessary materials. Such means cannot delay that day -permanently.
Even Israel will regard a unilateral strike on Iran as a dreadful option: it would likely set off a chain reaction of unwanted and unpredictable consequences. But if Israel is alone, no one can expect it to wait for a new holocaust. We are moving towards crisis precisely because the international community, in its desire for peace, is not ready to confront Iran. The foreign ministries of Europe, as well as sections of the Obama administration, are weary of war and talk about the ‘containment’ of Iran and of the effect of sanctions. In Israel, the talk is different. Most there know that, historically, when tyrants talk about killing Jews they are seldom taken seriously, but do tend to mean it.
Israel knows that it has few allies, but has become used to this situation. Nowadays, both regional neighbours and the West applaud Israel’s pre-emptive attack on Saddam Hussein’s French nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. At the time, however, Israel was condemned by all its allies, including the Reagan administration and the Thatcher government. They may expect similar reproaches this time. If recent leaked comments from the head of MI6 are anything to go by (and they may not be) then Britain’s own Foreign Office and security service are gearing up to issue stern reprimands.
But they — and we — need to consider this. Rhetoric aside, most of Britain’s politicians and military know that any strike on Iran, while potentially involving America, will have no British or European component. This is an acknowledgement of our declining capabilities as much as anything else. But it would be wrong to take this to mean that we can do nothing. As Britain and our EU allies have shown with sanctions, there are areas on which we can lead, and our stirrings do not count for nothing.
A new war in the Middle East would be a calamity, and would likely trigger a multi-polar nuclear stand-off in the only part of the world actually likely to use nuclear weapons. But the only way to avert a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran is to tell the world — including Iran — that we will never tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. And to persuade Ahmadinejad that even an indebted, exhausted country can mean what it says. The weakening of Western resolve is more likely to bring war in the Middle East than anything else. Giving our backing to Israel is free. Sending a few more submarines to patrol the region will be a little more expensive. But it is a price worth paying for avoiding Armageddon.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 September 2012