Crazy Talk in the Middle East

Trying to track—let alone make sense—of recent developments around Iran is enough to make one reach for that stuff they just found lots of in Afghanistan: lithium. While the element is essential for a host of electronics, it is also a standard treatment for bipolar behavior.

Take the issue of Iran’s missile force. The conservative International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London concluded that the threat the missiles pose to Israel, the U.S. or its allies has been vastly overstated. “While such attacks might trigger fear, the expected casualties would be low—probably less than a few hundred,” the study found. Iran’s Shehab-1 and 2 cannot even reach Israel, and it will be at least three years before the longer range Shahab-3B and Sejjil-2 are deployed. In any case, according to the study, the missiles are inaccurate.

But while the IISS was pooh-poohing the danger, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Europe was threatened by “hundreds” of Iranian missiles, although Iran doesn’t have a missile that can come close to hitting Europe. Gates was on Capitol Hill pumping the Obama administration’s new sea and land-based “ phased adaptive approach” to missile defense.

In the meantime, the U.S. was sending an aircraft carrier and almost a dozen support ships into the Red Sea. Rumor has it that the fleet will try to intercept Gaza aid ships organized by the Iranian Red Crescent Society. Several Israeli submarines are currently deployed in the Gulf of Iran as well, along with a newly arrived surface warship. While it seems extremely unlikely that the U.S. would actually try to halt the Iranian ships, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said, “ I don’t think that Iran’s intentions vis-à-vis Gaza are benign.”

The London Times reported that the Israelis and the Americans had come to an agreement with Saudi Arabia to allow Israeli warplanes to cross the desert kingdom without being challenged on their way to bomb nuclear sites in Iran. While Riyadh called the story “slanderous, the Times was holding to its sources in the Israeli and U.S. militaries. And Tzahi Hanegbi, chair of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that “time was running out” for Iran.

As I said, people are talking very crazy these days in the Middle East.

If Israeli planes did decide to bomb targets in Iran, conventional thinking is they would hit enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom, a gas storage unit at Isfahan and the heavy-water reactor at Arak. Planes might also target the light-water reactor at Bushehr. To do so, of course, would require crossing Jordanian and Saudi airspace, but there is very little either country could do about it. Challenging the Israelis in the air is a very bad idea.

Even with mid-flight refueling, it would be a stretch, but it would be hard to knock out Iranian targets using just their missile firing submarines. Unless, of course, the Israelis are willing to cross the Hiroshima-Nagasaki line and use nuclear warheads. It seems like madness, but then some people are talking pretty crazy these days.

In a recent Christian Science Monitor article, “Does Israel suffer from ‘Iranophobia’?”, reporter Scott Peterson examines the Israeli mindset and found some pretty scary things. “There’s something utterly irrational and exceedingly disproportionate in Israeli understandings of the Iranian threat,” says Haggai Ram, a professor at Ben Gurion University and author of “Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession.”

“Iran is perhaps the most central issue [in Israel], yet there is really no critical debate about this,” says Ram, and for those Israelis who do challenge the idea that Iran is an “existential threat” to Israel, “they are immediately rendered into these bizarre self-defeating, self-hating Jews, and seen as a fifth column.”

According to Ram, “For Israelis, anti-Iran is a consensus. You don’t have to be a neoconservative to wish for the destruction of Iran.” Polls show that Prime Minister Netanyahu is growing in popularity, and that Israelis are circling the wagons on everything from the attack on the Gaza flotilla to the embargo of Gaza Strip.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad has also said that one day “Israel will vanish,” but much of his bombast is for internal consumption and the need to divert people from the economic crisis at home. Netanyahu’s comparison of Ahmadinejad to Hitler, and of the current situation to 1939, serves much the same purpose. Focusing on Iran keeps the world’s eyes away from the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands and the strangulation of Gaza.

How much of this is real is hard to sort out. The U.S. talks about Iran as a “threat,” even though Iran has neither the military nor the economic capabilities to inflict serious damage on Americans. Iran can also talk about Israel vanishing, but can do nothing to actually facilitate that. Even if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, to use it would be national suicide, and the Iranians have never exhibited a desire for self-destruction.

The danger is that rhetoric and bombast can create its own reality and lead to a mistake. The Israeli attack on the Turkish ship was just that. When people with nuclear weapons talk in apocalyptic language, it’s something to pay attention to.