One of the more important assertions that President Obama made in his speech to AIPAC this week was that preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons was a US national security interest; indeed, he clarified that it was the interest of the global community.
This statement, that two or three years ago may have seemed quite obvious, takes on new importance today on the backdrop of the problematic shift in the debate over international efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and advances. Instead of being discussed in terms of strong international actors confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the dynamic is increasingly being framed as one that pits Israel against Iran. At the forefront of the current debate is one question: Whether Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, possibly leading to wider hostilities in the Middle East, and dragging the US into a war it doesn’t want.
How did Israel become the major protagonist in this story, after years of consistently lending its support to international diplomatic efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions? On the surface, it looks like it is Israel that has thrust itself to the forefront by making overt threats to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities as a last option before Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state. Pundits explain that Israel feels an existential threat from Iran – which others do not – and is therefore issuing these threats.
But the truly disturbing, and largely unmentioned part of this picture is how the international community implicitly opened the space for Israel to come forward. Its lack of a coordinated approach, and its weak level of determination, in facing Iran is what has enabled Iran over the past decade to slowly but surely advance its nuclear program and establish the basis for a military capability.
Israel’s hopes for a successful outcome through dialogue and its support for ongoing diplomatic efforts have been replaced by an increasing sense of fear and frustration with the way events have unfolded. Until recently, the international community remained divided even over the very question of Iran’s military ambitions, and today, the remaining question marks having been removed by the November 2011 IAEA report on Iran, Russia and China continue to stubbornly resist harsher sanctions. The past 10 years included much talk of diplomacy but very little by way of demonstrated expertise in conducting the kind of hard bargaining that would be necessary to face a determined nuclear proliferator like Iran.
Israel’s sense of vulnerability and frustration have grown in tandem with Iran’s steady nuclear advances and the exposure of the failure of the international community to carry through on negotiations. These fears and frustrations are exacerbated by the sense that Israel is increasingly alone in its determination to stop Iran. Ironically, the more Israel comes to the fore, the more room the international community actually gives it to do so. While the US and others overtly warn Israel of the dire consequences of attack by not stressing their own redlines, these actors are actually helping to establish the new framing of the problem. Not surprisingly, slowly but surely Israel is beginning to appear more of a problem than Iran itself. And it doesn’t look like anyone is particularly disturbed by this.
Stopping Iran is neither Israel’s role nor its responsibility. It is rather in every respect the responsibility of the strong international actors that are leading the process – the P5 states first and foremost. Iran is challenging the nonproliferation regime by violating the obligation it took upon itself to remain nonnuclear. The scenario of a nuclear Iran could devalue the NPT to the point that it becomes virtually meaningless.
In addition, Iran is posing a real threat to the future of the Middle East and beyond, and if it becomes a nuclear state, motivation for additional proliferation will be high. In light of these serious challenges, allowing Israel – driven by its fear and frustration – to assume center stage is to the discredit of the international community.
It would behoove the permanent members of the Security Council to shoulder their responsibility, and not to play on Israel’s vulnerabilities. Instead of saying to Israel “don’t attack, this would be a disaster”, strong international actors need to give strong assurances that they will take more determined action to stop Iran in time. Russia and China have unfortunately proven to be highly irresponsible in this regard, and the US and its strong European allies Britain and France are left to take the lead. The US in particular must issue its precise red lines for military action in the nuclear realm, in a manner similar to the red line that it immediately and effectively delivered to Iran following Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz several weeks ago.
Obama’s AIPAC speech was a welcome reminder of the fact that a nuclear Iran is against the interests of the US and the international community, not only Israel. If strong international actors would step up to the plate and more determinedly assume their responsibility for upholding the NPT, Israel would be able to step back, which is what everyone wants Israel to do. At least, that’s what they say.