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Are Israel and Iran on a Collision Course?

By Pierre Atlas

While America's attention is focused on the November elections and on North Korea and Iraq, tensions are mounting between Israel and Iran. Iran's nuclear program, its patron-client relationship with Hezbollah, and its nihilistic rhetoric against Israel are combining with a politically and militarily shaken Israel into a potentially volatile mix.

The Israel-Hezbollah conflict is on temporary hold, but the issues that led to war this summer have not been resolved. Iran continues to be the primary external source of arms, training, and ideological inspiration for Hezbollah, Lebanon's Shiite Islamist guerrilla force. Should Israel launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran might use Hezbollah to create a "second front" by restarting the Lebanon war--with devastating consequences for Israeli and Lebanese civilians.

The Iranians have stated repeatedly that their uranium enrichment program is for peaceful purposes only. But their refusal to allow IAEA inspections (as called for in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed) and their rejection of reasonable alternatives offered by the European Union and Russia have convinced many in the international community that Iran's nuclear ambitions are strategic.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has long sought to become a major player in the region. According to Dr. Uzi Rabbi, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies, "nuclear power is but a tool by which to turn Iran into a hegemonic power."

This week, an Iranian news organization announced that the Islamic Republic has started a second cascade of centrifuges, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brazenly declared that "today, the [nuclear] capability of our nation has multiplied tenfold over the same period last year."

Iran's nuclear ambitions make the words of its president sound all the more ominous, especially to Israel. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly declared that Israel does not have the right to exist and should be "wiped off the map." Israeli security experts and elected leaders view Iran as Israel's greatest existential threat, and the government is moving to address it.

On the same day that Iran's president boasted of his country's nuclear progress, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that the Russian immigrant party Israel Beiteinu, led by ultra-right winger Avigdor Lieberman, would be joining the governing coalition. Lieberman's 11 Knesset seats will shore up Olmert's government, weakened and shaken by the Lebanon war. In exchange, Lieberman--a man with no experience in military or strategic planning--has been appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs, assigned to direct Israel's response to Iran.

Lieberman advocates "transferring" Israel's Arab citizens to a future Palestinian state, wants to annex parts of the West Bank, and has called for the execution of Arab Knesset members who meet with Hamas officials. It remains to be seen to what extent Lieberman's military inexperience and his ideological extremism will shape Israel's policy toward Iran. But his appointment will be a propaganda boon to Israel's enemies.

A nuclear-armed Iran is not just a threat to Israel, but to the Sunni-led Arab states as well. When I was in Amman in the summer of 2004, I met with retired Jordanian Air Force general Muhammad Shiyyab. In discussing the American occupation of Iraq, Gen. Shiyyab observed that, "As bad as Saddam was, Iraq was the only regional deterrent to Iran. Who is going to deter Iran now? Is the US going to stay in Iraq forever?"

The comments of this well-respected senior Jordanian official reflected a serious concern among Arab leaders about Iran. Two and a half years later, his concern rings even more true.

Common threats can make for strange bedfellows. Israeli analyst Uzi Rabbi observes that, given the longstanding Arab-Persian animosity and "the 1,400-year Sunni-Shiite rivalry that is playing out in the streets of Baghdad," it would be "a grave mistake" if Israel did not seize the opportunity to reach out to its neighbors. He told me that Israel should develop "a constructive dialogue with moderate Arab states which share the same concern and are pretty anxious about Iran's striving for regional hegemony."

What we need in these tense times is some old fashioned Grand Diplomacy and Realpolitik. The US should begin bilateral discussions with Iran (and Syria) using carrots as well as sticks. We should broker a regional peace conference that addresses both the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the disputes between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. With the "cover" that would be provided by some tangible progress on the Arab-Israeli front, Israel and moderate Arab states might be brought together in a regional containment strategy aimed at Iran, their de facto common adversary. This in turn would bolster Security Council pressure on Iran to conform to international norms.

The threats are real, but so are the opportunities. Where are Nixon and Kissinger when we need them?

Pierre M. Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

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