It’s an assertion that trips glibly off the tongue of politicians, academics and media pundits. An Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would, they keep telling us, lead to a conflagration across the Middle East, even World War III.
So relentlessly is this apocalyptic warning run in the Western media that it has become ‘received wisdom’ more broadly. But it’s an assertion that runs counter to the actual facts. And here’s why.Iran’s Shia Mullahacracy is not only considered a menacing threat by Israel, Tehran’s nuclear ambitions also scare the living daylights out of its regional Sunni Arab neighbours; not one of whom would rally to Iran’s cause in the event of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, even by Israel. Neither does OPEC – which an Iranian hardliner currently chairs – possess the global oil power play clout it once did
Nuclear arms race
We know three things about Iran’s nuclear programme. First, as the IAEA has reported, Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme goes way beyond what is necessary for domestic energy production. Second, the time for sanctions to work is fast running out. Third, this is no irenic political game for Israel. The Iranian president, the mouthpiece of the Mullahocracy, has stated plainly that Iran would like to “wipe Israel from the map”. A nuclear detonation around Tel Aviv would not only ‘eliminate’ the Jewish state they so hate, but would catapult Iran to the superpower status its leaders crave – something Tehran’s neighbours dread.
In 2005, King Abdullah of Jordan warned that Iran’s growing influence in Iraq was part of a concerted attempt to “create a Shi’ite crescent” through the region. Iran’s proxy wars against Israel, using Hezbollah from Lebanon and Hamas from Gaza, further concerned Iran’s Sunni Muslim neighbours. In August 2007, the respected British defence journal Jane’s reported, “Bellicose rhetoric and the increasing influence of Tehran-affiliated Shia groups in Iraq, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, have alarmed Sunni regimes.” The report went on to identify that “the near-simultaneous decision of so many Sunni Arab regimes” to pursue a nuclear energy program “raises the possibility of a nuclear arms race among the Islamic countries of the Middle East.”
But any lingering doubts over a sudden Sunni Muslim nuclear scramble were dispelled by King Abdullah in January 2007. In an interview with Israel’s Haaretz newspaper the king let slip: “The rules have changed on the nuclear subject throughout the whole region. Where I think Jordan was saying, ‘We’d like to have a nuclear-free zone in this area,’ after this summer [referring to Hezbollah’s Iran-backed war with Israel], everybody’s going for nuclear programmes.”
In September 2006, Egypt’s President Mubarak became the first leader of an Arab state to launch a nuclear program. By the end of 2006, so concerned had many regional governments become that the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions rose to the top of the agenda of a conference of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Arab States. At its conclusion all six members, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE, announced their intention to pursue domestic nuclear energy programs.
Hot on the heels of the GCC conference, in January 2007, Algeria signed a nuclear development deal with Russia. In the early months of 2007 Morocco and Jordan each independently declared they too wanted to go nuclear. By September 2007 France had agreed to help the United Arab Emirates launch its nuclear program, while the GCC group of six Arab states, of which the UAE is a member, had already entered into serious partnership negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency in order to advance their atomic plans.
In sum, a dozen or so Sunni Muslim states have jumped on the Middle East nuclear bandwagon, most as a direct consequence of growing nervousness over Iran’s regional ambitions.
While playing the anti-Israel, anti-West rhetoric to the hilt, Arab leaders have also been urging America to pro-active military action against Iran – as these few exchanges from the 2010 Wiki-leaks exposure confirm:
- Saudi King Abdullah repeatedly urged the United States to destroy the Iranian program. “He told you [Americans] to “cut off the head of the snake,” the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir said, according to a report on Abdullah’s meeting with the US General David Petraeus in April 2008. Abdullah told a US diplomat: “The bottom line is that they (the Iranians) cannot be trusted.”
- Officials from Jordan also called for the Iranian program to be stopped by any means necessary while leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt referred to Iran as “evil,” and an “existential threat.”
- Iran has obtained advanced missiles from North Korea that could enable it to strike at Western European capitals and Moscow.
- Crown Prince bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi said in one cable: “Any culture that is patient and focused enough to spend years working on a single carpet is capable of waiting years and even decades to achieve even greater goals.”
- Kuwait’s military intelligence chief informed General Petraeus Iran was supporting Shi’ite groups in the Gulf and extremists in Yemen.
- Iran withheld from the International Atomic Energy Agency the original design documents for a secret nuclear reactor.
In the event of an Israeli strike at Iran’s Natanz, Isfahan and others nuclear sites, oil prices would undoubtedly spike at over $150 a barrel and hot heads would be on the streets burning Israeli and US flags. But the economic reality is that rocketing oil and gas production from US – the ‘new Middle East’ – Canadian oil sands and Western shale discoveries already pose a serious threat to OPEC. But any action by OPEC has already been undermined when , speaking at the biennial International Energy Forum conference in Kuwait mid-March, Saudi oil minister Ali Al Naimi announced, “Saudi Arabia and others remain poised to make good the shortfall, perceived or real, in crude oil supply.” A commitment already made by the UAE and Kuwait.
And potential US reserves are breath-taking. Wyoming and surrounding states alone are estimated to hold over 800 billion barrels – more than triple Saudi Arabia’s known reserves. Industry consultants Wood MacKenzie estimate spending on oil and gas exploration hit a record $72 billion in 2011, with 2012 expected to outstrip that figure. Iran’s share of global oil production is however, according to the IEA, set to fall from 4.9 billion barrels in 2012 to 4.5 billion barrels in 2015.
The willingness of regional ‘friends’ to cover any potential Iranian oil shortfall, is highly instructive. Not only does it reveal that de-nuking the Mullahocracy’s nuclear ambitions would only cause a short-term blip in the global oil market, it would actually elicit a collective sigh of relief in the corridors of power from Riyadh to Amman to Cairo – not just in Tel Aviv.