Iran's nuclear programme is as scary as the potential of an Israeli air strike on the country.
This article originally appeared in El Pais.
Would Saudi Arabia look favourably on a possible Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities? That is the question increasingly asked these days, not least in Saudi circles. It comes as no surprise that Israel, which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, sees Iran as a danger to its existence and is prepared to do anything to stymie signs of any threat.
American willingness to acquiesce to Israeli military action without complaint is hardly novel either. But Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil producing monarchies are also now beginning to see the Iranian nuclear programme as an existential threat, prepared even to turn a blind eye in the event of an attack. This development shows to what extent the Middle East and Persian Gulf have become such a sensitive area, where war, politics and diplomatic opportunities are in a constant state of flux.
There is increasing concern regarding the suspicion that after much internal wrangling, the Bush Administration has left the timing of an air strike on Iran’s Natanza nuclear installation in Israeli hands. This would see Israel play the part of protagonist with Washington reduced to the role of side-kick again, as was the case in 1981 when the Iraqi reactor at Osirek was bombed, and when North Korean-backed Syrian installations were knocked out a few months ago. The resignation of Admiral Fallon in March, Head of US Central Command in the region, after he criticised the US government for beating the war drum over Iran is noteworthy in this context.
The prospect of a Shi’ite nuclear bomb wouldn’t allow anybody to rest easy given the record of Iran and its allies - the Mahdi Army in Iraq, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the consequences of an Israeli air strike are as troubling as the Iranian nuclear programme itself. The best case Iranian response would see reprisals aimed at disrupting Gulf oil exports, sending the price of crude through an even higher ceiling and out into the stratosphere at a time when severe energy, food and credits crises are already taking their toll. But what is really causing concern is the re-alignment of power which a nuclear Iran would bring about in a region which is the epicenter of all global tensions. That is why some people read Saudi insinuations as an explicit invitation for Europe to engage more decisively in the region and to flex its diplomatic and economic muscle.
The USA and Iran need to urgently start negotiations. The problem, as Henry Kissinger recently pointed out, is that Ahmadinejad seems undecided whether he wants Iran to be a state or an ideology. In the former case, Obama, Admiral Fallon and the Europeans would be vindicated in seeking an arrangement with Iran, trusting in its gradual transformation; at home through increasing political and economic liberalisation, and abroad by the recognition of its role as an indispensable actor in regional cooperation. Indeed, Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Bagdad is a clear sign that Iranian diplomacy has also begun to perceive the immense potential and benefits an astute foreign policy would bring.
However, if Iran insists on playing an ideological role, it would not only confirm Israeli’s bleakest predictions, but those of its neighbours as well, who would quietly go about coalescing into a grand regional alliance, isolating the Iranian regime even further. If that scenario were to play itself out, Ahmadineyad could claim the merit of having united the USA, Europe, Israel and Saudi Arabia on common ground, enabling consensus to build around a policy of containment towards Iran, something which China and Russia would be hard pressed to resist.
Paradoxically, these testing circumstances offer Europe an important chance to work more closely with the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies and so strengthen relations which have suffered numerous problems in recent years. With stumbling blocks like human rights and democracy issues to get round, that is anything but straightforward. Yet areas like technology, the service industry and even education present enormous opportunities which ought to be explored. The question is, will Europe know how to seize its chance with both hands?
Translated by Douglas Wilson for ECFR
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.