THE COUNTER-NEGOTIATIONS ON THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM: THREATS AND RACE TO ARMS
on one hand international diplomacy debates over the usefulness of
a deal over Iran's nuclear programme, weighing the pros and the
cons of an agreement, on the other hand the negotiations have
taken a different twist, one that is not generally associated with
the cocoon-like atmosphere of a gathering of diplomats. The tone
of the counter-negotiations has been one of menaces and threats.
In fact, as soon as the first deal between Iran and the rest of the world, based on a series of guidelines to be approved in the coming weeks, was reached, a news war broke out. In other words, each actor involved in the negotiations and any other State that feels will be influenced by the outcomes of the agreement, started to emphasize its military might. The hidden message is pretty straight forward: if the terms of the deal are not respected I, meaning the United States and Israel, have the capability to strike. Iran replied that they would know how to defend themselves. Russia, instead, suggested that, since it is a superpower, it was willing to play its role in support of the Iranians.
It is against this geopolitical landscape that we should put a number of recent news into context.
The US began when they stated that they own a bomb, a super bomb as matter of fact, capable of destroying any underground nuclear facility. It's called “Massive Ordnance Penetrator” and it is the most powerful bunker buster out there, with a warhead of 30 thousand pounds that can go as deep as 61 meters below ground level. The message itself is pretty clear and refers to the underground structures part of the Iranian nuclear programme, namely the Fordo central, near Qom, where uranium is enriched. It was the US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, who broke the news as soon as the Geneva deal was struck.
Iran replied with a statement by General Abdul Rahim Mousavi that claimed that he could operate and employ in attacks thousands of kamikaze drones. That is, drones capable of hitting and exploding on a target. This specific type of drone was supplied to both Hezbollah and Hamas, it is equipped with explosives on board and has a long flight autonomy. In this case the recipient of the message was Israel, in case Tel Aviv decides to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
In this game of threats Russia joined the choir when it stated, on April 12, 2015, that it had given the green light, after years of embargo, to the sale of S-300 missiles, used for long distance aerial defense, to Iran. A similar supply was also granted to Egypt a few weeks later. The move has provided Iran a vital defense tool in case of an Israeli raid. At the same time Russia sent out a clear and loud message over it's role in Middle Eastern affairs: Moscow is also a key actor.
US President Barack Obama made his move and tried to reply to the growing Israeli concerns. Obama announced that that United States are capable of penetrating the Russian S-300 missile system provided by Moscow to Teheran. This statement does not take into account the different S-300 models on the market, some of which are old, while others are highly sophisticated. Vladimir Putin kept quiet on what he supplied the Iranians with.
The Israelis are concerned almost as much as the States of the Arabian Gulf. They are worried both for the weapons sold to Iran and for the threat posed by a deal on the nuclear programme and the lifting of the sanctions against Teheran. Arab countries fear the Iranians will return to play an hegemonic role in the Arabian peninsula. The Gulf Cooperation Council members that met in Camp David with Barack Obama on May 14, 2015 were reassured that the US will to come to their defense in case of an aggression. They were also promised more weapons.
Ground-to-air S-300 missiles
Tel Aviv's message
Israel did not just sit and stare. On one side it dedicated its efforts to the publicizing of its defensive military capability in the event of a missile attack: a new defensive system, called “Magic Wand” or “David's Sling”, has brilliantly passed all technical tests and will start working in a few months. This system is capable of intercepting and destroying hundreds of missiles in the hypothetic scenario seeing the Hezbollah, that have an Iranian furbished supply of about 120.000 missiles, shooting between 1.000 to 1.500 missiles per day. In the event of an asymmetric war the message to Iran is pretty evident: if you supply missiles to the Hezbollah you will not be able to hit us.
Presently Israel is capable of destroying any rocket or missile targeting its territory and shot from any distance. The core of the message is: “Iron Dome” (up to 70 km), “Magic Wand” or “David Sling” (from 70 to 300 km), “Arrow 2” (bigger distance), “Arrow 3” (beyond 2500 km). In military terms this means that there is no room for the Iranian Fajr-5 and BM-25 missiles, nor for the M-600 and Yakhont (or P-800 Oniks) in the hands of the Syrians.
But Israel did not just celebrate its defensive capabilities and, once again with the support of the US, it spelled out its offensive threat. On Israeli Independence day, on April 23, 2015, US Deputy President Joe Biden affirmed that the United States will sell 28 F-35 airplanes to Israel. This is a multi-role aircraft, long haul, with “stealth” capabilities that are unrivaled anywhere else in the Middle East. Only Turkey has a supply of similar, but not as up to date, models. This sale has been labeled as part of the ongoing US support to its Israeli ally. The supply allows the Jewish State to maintain its military edge in the region, namely as far as the control of the sky is concerned, based on the “qualitative military edge” doctrine.
In yet another show of force, the Israelis also successfully tested an intercontinental missile. It is called Jericho 3 and can strike targets as far as 10.000 km away. If a missile war were to be waged Teheran would know what to expect. The development of military technology goes hand in hand with increased defense spending. Israel has recently increased its military budget by 7%. The United States are debating whether to push their yearly military aid to the Israelis up to 3,6 billion dollars. It currently stands at 3 billion per year. After all, war is a costly venture. Last year's conflict in Gaza costed the Israelis 8.6 billion dollars. Defending oneself from threats also has a cost.
Lockheed Martin F-35
The arms race
In other terms, the issue of Iran's nuclear programme has sparked a veritable arms race. France decided to profit on the growing tensions in the region in the name of its “grandeur” or, more prosaically, of business. French President François Hollande, together with his ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs, has recently taken part at a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council. His first stop during his trip was in Qatar, where he signed a 6.3 billion contract to sell 24 Rafale fighter jets. The deal includes technical assistance, pilot training and intelligence support. He then moved to the United Arab Emirates for yet another sale of military gear. In both cases France stated it will stand by the Gulf States in case of an attack.
What is yet more worrying is that some Arab countries reacted to their fear of an Iranian bomb with the idea of fetching a nuclear bomb of their own. It is the case of Saudi Arabia, that has opened a negotiation with Pakistan to acquire a nuclear bomb before Iran becomes even capable of potentially producing one. It is a very likely scenario given the privileged relationship between Riyadh and Islamabad. It was the Saudis that financed Pakistan's nuclear program back in the days.
Faced with a Middle East ridden with nuclear bombs, Egypt proposed, together with a number of Arab countries, to host an international conference to ban all nuclear weapons in the region. The proposal was immediately turned down by the United States since it would have meant Israel would have had to relinquish its yet undeclared nuclear arsenal.
If there is a moral to this story it would be that there cannot be such an asymmetric distribution of power in the Middle East. There is a country that has the atomic bomb (Israel) and one that would want to have one (Iran). There are those who fear Israel for having one (Iran) and those fearing Iran could obtain one in the future (Israel and Saudi Arabia). In the background are the ongoing unresolved issues setting the entire region on fire: the Sunni vs Shia competition, the hegemonic role of the United States and Russia, the Palestinian issue, Islamic radicalism and terrorism, civil wars. It is in such a hot context that the best answer all the actors involved have come up with has been to increase their military strength and scare the others around them. A never ending perverse logic.