Two weeks ago, Israeli air force jets apparently conducted a secret raid in Syria. Uncharacteristically, Israel has remained totally mum on the issue, a clear indication of the importance it attaches to it. Speculation in the media has been rampant, covering the entire gamut of possible targets, including an attack on a Syrian or Iranian arms shipment to Hizballah and the destruction of a nuclear facility that North Korea is now reported to have supplied to Syria.
We may never know what exactly happened, but a few points are worth emphasizing. The Middle East is increasingly going nuclear. The Iraqi program has been stopped, at least for the foreseeable future and Libya, having learned from the Iraqi precedent, voluntarily agreed to dismantle its program, in exchange for renewed relations with the US. The Iranian program, however, is rapidly reaching the critical turning point. Israel, long been thought to be a nuclear power as well, views an Iranian nuclear capability as a threat to its very existence. The Sunni regimes, including Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, even Jordan and others, are petrified at the very thought that their Shiite neighbor may soon be able to use its nuclear capabilities to further advance its hegemonic aspirations and dictate events in the region. In response, they are now giving increasing attention to possible “civil” nuclear programs of their own. “Civil” nuclear programs, as we know, have a pesky tendency to morph into military ones.
The thought that Syria, an unofficial, but de-facto member in nefarious standing in the “axis of evil”, may have an active nuclear program, far more advanced than heretofore known, is particularly worrisome. Rabidly dictatorial, already armed with a massive arsenal of chemical weapons, Syria has long been a regional spoiler. It is today an ally of Iran’s, with an increasingly close “strategic” military relationship. Together with Iran, Syria arms and gives various other types of support to Hizballah, Hamas, the insurgents in Iraq and other highly “savory” groups. Tensions along the border between Syria and Israel have also grown in recent months, increasing the risk of a military clash.
A multi-nuclear Middle East is a nightmare scenario the likes of which the world has yet to face. While it would not pose the threat of an end to humanity, as in the Cold War, in some ways a nuclear Middle East poses even greater dangers, if only because of the far greater prospects that nukes might actually be used. This would certainly be true in the case of a multi-nuclear Middle East. For the US, moreover, the danger of being drawn into a nuclear crisis would rise exponentially.
Iran is of course the greatest worry. A nuclear Iran would place most of the world’s oil — simply the world economy and western way of life — under the threat of a regime whose extremist ideology is inspired by an aggressive interpretation of the divine word and an implacable opposition to Western values. Vociferously anti-American, despite attempts at rapprochement, Iran is explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel and developing the capabilities to do so.
The US-led diplomatic effort to bring the Iranian nuclear program to an end appears to be rapidly running its course. After months of talks in the Security Council, the US is now making a major push to convince the other members to join it in a third resolution condemning Iran, one which would, hopefully, impose sanctions with would finally have some true “teeth.” Russia and China remain recalcitrant and even if they ultimately agree to adopt some resolution, it is clear that the sanctions they agree to will be the bare minimum they believe they can accede to, without forcing the US to act independently, outside of the restrictive confines of the Security Council. In any event, it is highly unlikely that they will agree to further steps and to cooperate with the US in imposing the kind of overwhelming sanctions that might just be sufficient to actually get the Iranians, who have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the continuing their nuclear program, to acquiesce.
What this means is that sometime in the near future, quite possibly during the upcoming election year, American policymakers will be faced with the decision of how to truly deal with the Iranian threat. Various options still remain before one has to contemplate direct military action, such as US sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard, a primary political and economic force in Iran, which would have a major effect on Russian and Chinese economic interests and possibly encourage greater cooperation on their part in the Security Council, multilateral Western sanctions against Iran, an oil embargo and even a naval blockade. Given the pace of Iranian nuclear development, however, the time for this is limited.
In 1981 Israel destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak and in so doing did the world a great favor. It may have done so again, at a much earlier stage, in Syria. The time for effective action against Iran is rapidly approaching.