A significant threat to world peace — of which, I suspect, most Americans are unaware — is looming on the not-very-distant horizon. The following presents a way of framing that growing crisis that, aside from perhaps illuminating the heart of the matter, may offer lines of diplomatic action that could lessen the chance of the worst coming to pass.
The Most Dangerous Situation in the World?
What is the most dangerous situation in the world today? It might not be what you think.
Most everyone, I expect, would say that it is the confrontation between the United States and North Korea, regarding the latter becoming a nuclear power that potentially threatens its region and even the U. S. itself. And they may very well be right.
But there’s another potential war that, because it looks at present more likely to ignite into a conflagration, with possibly catastrophic consequences, may be an even more dangerous threat to world peace.
I’m referring to a possible war brewing between Iran and Israel. The flashpoint is in Syria, where the Russians have a significant presence. With the Russians semi-allied with Iran in the Syrian civil war, and with the long-standing U.S. alignment with Israel, this confrontation has the potential not only to become a major regional war, but possibly even to spin out beyond.
(In an article titled “Are Iran and Israel Headed for Their First Direct War,” Thomas Friedman delineates some of the main aspects of this confrontation, including the two brief outbreaks of armed conflict involving Israel and the Iranians that have occurred in February and then again in April.)
Here, in brief, is the structure of the conflict.
Iran has a military presence in Syria because the Iranians — along with the Russians — have been providing the Bashar al Assad regime with the military power to win the civil war that was threatening to topple him and his regime. The Iranians are, of course, seeking benefits from that presence– and important among them is the establishment of bases from which it can threaten Israel.
Those Iranian intentions come squarely up against the Israeli determination to defend itself, which the Israelis have regularly been fiercely announcing their intention to do.
Both sides have been displaying strong determination, and their purposes — Iran determined to utilize its present foothold in Syria to threaten Israel and Israel determined not to allow such a threat to develop — are irreconcilably in conflict.
If neither diverts from its present path, war would seem inevitable.
As Friedman puts the issue: “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force seems determined to try to turn Syria into a base from which to pressure Israel, and Israel seems determined to prevent that.”
Except that Friedman’s use of the word “pressure” may not hit the nail on the head.
Which brings us to how this collision path should be framed.
The Heart of the Issue
If all that were at stake was how much “pressure” the Iranians can apply to Israel, that would be one thing. Nations struggle for power against each other all the time. My argument here is premised on the notion that the Iranian purpose is not simply to pressure the Jewish state, but to destroy it.
That interpretation seems entirely reasonable to reach.
A collection of more than a dozen statements from prominent Iranian officials (and leaders of its proxy militia, Hezbollah) expressing the intention of destroying Israel can be found here. Any Israeli government would be obliged to take such threats and expressions of intention seriously.
(Even this past week, an Iranian Brigadier General, echoing past threats about driving the Jews “into the sea,” declared to the Israelis, “Israel is surrounded and you have nowhere to escape to except to fall into the sea.”)
The Iranian regime has been virulently antagonistic toward Israel since the Iranian Revolution nearly 40 years ago. It has long threatened Israel with destruction, and now — with its virtual control over Lebanon, and apparent intention of making Syria another client state on Israel’s borders, the ability of the Iranians to wreak destruction on Israel threatens to grow to alarming levels.
In response to this growing threat, the Israelis have articulated “red lines” — albeit somewhat ambiguously defined — that it will enforce to protect itself.
From all this, the collision path between the two states comes into clearer focus:
- Iran wants to destroy Israel.
- Israel is determined to prevent Iran from having the ability to do so.
If this characterization of the conflict is valid — and there seems to be nothing in the conduct of the two nations inconsistent with that interpretation of their purposes — it becomes clear which nation must change course to avoid the collision.
A Nation Has a Fundamental Right to Exist
It is generally recognized as a basic principle of international relations that every nation has the right to exist. Regardless of anyone’s critiques of whatever Israeli policies, Israel has that right no less than any other nation.
(Indeed, as Israel is the only nation state in the world that was established by the entire world community –in a vote in the United Nations General Assembly– the legitimacy of Israel’s existence might more readily be argued to be more, not less, than that of other nations.)
The whole international community has a strong interest in upholding that right of each nation to exist. Which also means rejecting the right of any nation to seek the destruction of another.
Therefore, if this crisis revolves around the fundamental right of a nation to exist, that would seem to point toward the kind of pressure the international community should bring to bear to achieve a peaceful resolution.
Pressuring Iran to Back Off
I am unaware that any of the nations of the world have been speaking about this growing crisis in these terms. (Not even Israel, so far as I’ve seen, has chosen to assert its case in terms of its fundamental rights as a nation.) But these, I would assert, are the most valid — and potentially most fruitful — terms in which the world community should frame this dangerous confrontation.
Back in 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded the sovereign nation of Kuwait, much of the international community was rallied to see to it that “this aggression will not stand.” An international military force drove Saddam’s forces back out of Kuwait.
What Saddam did to Kuwait was not as profound an offense against international norms as what Iran is threatening to do to the sovereign nation of Israel. Whereas Saddam attempted to absorb Kuwait, Iran threatens to destroy Israel and expel its people from the region.
If it was appropriate for the international community to reverse Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait, how much more appropriate would it be for it to use peaceful means to pressure Iran to back off from its efforts to threaten Israel with destruction.
It took a war to reverse what Saddam had already done. Preventing the threatened Iranian violation of a nation’s right to exist is something that can be pursued by peaceful means.
A hue and cry should be raised — as worldwide as possible — to focus on the illegitimacy of the Iranian purpose regarding Israel. The pressure of moral condemnation could be underscored by appropriate economic sanctions.
Who Might Do What?
It is not clear what role the United States can play in bringing moral pressure to bear upon Iran: unlike in 1990, the leadership of the United States now lacks the kind of moral standing and prestige that, when George H.W. Bush was President, made possible the assembling of a multi-national force to reclaim Kuwait’s sovereignty.
But whatever can be accomplished for this purpose at the presidential level, perhaps the Congress — through passing a resolution on the matter — can contribute to the effort.
In the current situation, it may be from the Europeans — especially Britain, France, and Germany — that the initiative ideally could come to denounce as illegitimate the Iranian intentions toward Israel.
One way and another, as much as possible of the world community should pressure the Iranians to observe — with respect to their military posture in Syria — whatever red lines are required to prevent the fulfillment of those intentions.
And thereby, it seems reasonable to hope, prevent the outbreak of a war that would be very damaging to the region, and perhaps beyond.
This piece was written in the hope that its central ideas — that the heart of the confrontation is that one nation wishes to destroy the other, and that this framing of the issue makes clear where pressure should be applied to resolve the brewing conflict in favor of the demands of the nation whose existence is being threatened — might provide a basis for actions that would reduce the chances of war.
Obviously, even if those ideas have any such potential value, it is only people in prominent positions who have the ability to act on them and realize that value.
I would like to request the help of any readers here who see such potential in this approach. Anyone who has access to people — in the U.S. or elsewhere — who might be able to advance this approach, I hope you’ll bring this piece to their attention.
And those who, like me, lack such direct access but wish to help this idea get attention from people who might be able to make use of these ideas, or who would know people who could, please send this along to them by whatever means available.