Despite Israeli media reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are in favour of using military force to deal with Iran’s budding nuclear program, Israel is essentially hoping that a regimen of rigorous global sanctions will ultimately deter Tehran.
In this spirit, Netanyahu has expressed hope that “the international community [will] stop Iran’s race for nuclear weapons.” He added, “Every responsible government in the world must draw the obvious conclusions from the IAEA report.”
Netanyahu was referring to a report that the International Atomic Energy Agency issued earlier this month strongly suggesting that Iran is assiduously working to build a militarized nuclear arsenal.
Iran claims that its nuclear program is peaceful in intent and designed to generate electricity and produce medical isotopes, but Iran’s credibility has been shaken by the IAEA, an organization that challenged western allegations nearly a decade ago that Iraq was working on a nuclear device.
After the IAEA report was released, the United States and the European Union, much to Netanyahu’s satisfaction, announced that they will slap fresh sanctions on Iran. But realistically, there is little or no chance that the United Nations Security Council – which already has imposed four sets of sanctions against Iran in a bid to halt its production of enriched uranium – will agree to further sanctions.
Taking this factor into account, Barak voiced pessimism recently that the international community has the will to rein in Iran. If Barak’s sombre assessment proves correct, the situation may yet deteriorate, forcing Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear sites, a decision fraught with dire consequences.
The reason why the Security Council will probably not pass a fifth round of sanctions stems from the fact that two of its permanent members, Russia and China, would likely veto such a measure.
Although both countries supported previous UN sanctions, the fourth set of which was approved in June 2010, they did so with reluctance and only after they had succeeded in diluting them.
In the wake of the IAEA’s most recent report, Russia and China, two of Iran’s major allies, dismissed calls for new sanctions.
Russia was particularly adamant, claiming that they would be seen as “an instrument for regime change” in Tehran.
Apart from debunking the rationale for more sanctions, Russia criticized the release of the IAEA report, branding it an attempt to scuttle the chances for a diplomatic solution and “a compilation of well-known facts that have intentionally been given a politicized intonation.”
In rallying around Iran, Russia saved some of its harshest rhetoric for Israel. President Dmitry Medvedev accused the Israeli government of creating a “dangerous” atmosphere that could touch off a regional war, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that an Israeli military strike on Iran would be a grave mistake that could unleash “unpredictable” and unintended consequences.
China’s reaction was far milder. While requesting time to study the IAEA report and underlining its general opposition to the development of nuclear weapons by any Middle Eastern country, the Chinese foreign ministry basically sided with Russia. Its communiqué read: “Imposing pressure and sanctions cannot fundamentally resolve the issue.”
Perhaps emboldened by Russia’s and China’s stance, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who has denied the Holocaust and called for Israel’s destruction – asserted that Iran would not retreat “one iota” from its resolve to pursue a nuclear program.
Meanwhile, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that an attack by its enemies, “the United States and its puppets and the Zionist regime,” would be met by an “iron fist.”
The Iranian regime’s determination to join the nuclear club is driven by three interlocking factors: an ambition to expand its influence in the Middle East, a desire to preserve its legitimacy and survival and a wish to intimidate, threaten, humiliate and delegitimize Israel.
It is debatable whether Iran, should it ever acquire the atomic bomb, would be reckless and foolhardy enough to try to strike Israel. Iran realizes that Israel, if not the United States, would surely respond in kind.
Yet this doomsday scenario was blithely belittled by Iran’s former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who ignored the “mutually assured destruction” principle and claimed that Iran could weather an Israeli or American counter-strike.
As he put it on Dec. 18, 2001, “If the day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with arms [that] Israel has in its possession, the … application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel [standing], but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.”
Rafsanjani’s cocky comment suggests that Iran’s leadership has at least considered the practical possibility of destroying Israel, which itself has had a nuclear arsenal since the 1960s, and that Iran’s truculence presents Israel with its greatest strategic challenge since the 1967 Six Day War.
Cognizant of Tehran’s visceral hostility and its alliance with Islamic fundamentalist surrogates such as Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel is profoundly concerned that an atomic bomb in the hands of an ideological adversary like Iran would not bode well for its well-being and security.
With this existential concern in mind, Israel has dispatched high-level delegations to Moscow and Beijing in an effort to persuade Russia and China that Iran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear arms.
In February 2010, Netanyahu urged Medvedev to support “crippling” sanctions, but the Russian president did not budge, saying he had no evidence that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. This self-serving claim has been reiterated by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Russia, surprisingly however, cancelled a plan to deliver the advanced S-300 missile system to Iran, justifying its position on the grounds that sending it would be a violation of UN sanctions.
When Ahmadinejad condemned Russia’s decision, Russia sweetened the bitter pill by returning Iran’s $168-million advance payment for the S-300 and by launching Iran’s first nuclear power plant in Bushehr, a step that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked Moscow to defer until Iran could conclusively prove it is not pursuing atomic weapons.
Shortly after Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow and a few months before the UN was poised to pass its fourth round of sanctions, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, accompanied by the governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, went to China to make the case for sanctions and prove that Iran’s intentions are suspect. By way of reply, China argued that Iran has a right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and that no proof exists that Iran has a military nuclear program.
The support that Iran receives from Russia and China is underpinned by a mutually lucrative history of trade.
Iran is China’s most important export market in the Mideast and its leading supplier of oil. China is also developing Iran’s offshore gas fields. During the 1980s, China sold Silkworm anti-ship missiles to Iran.
The volume of trade between Russia and Iran is nearly as significant, and Russia still remains Iran’s biggest supplier of conventional weapons.
Russia and China will thus be in no hurry to enact stiffer sanctions on Iran.