Fifty years ago the world stood on the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today we are on the brink of another crisis of similar global proportions. It is the crisis stoked by Iran’s quest to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and the real risk that in the coming months Israel will launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations.
This is not just a war of words between Israel and Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have made no secret of the fact that they view Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a mortal threat to Israel’s survival. They have repeatedly threatened to use military force to arrest those ambitions just as Israel did when it bombed Iraq’s and then Syria’s nuclear installations years ago.
Israel is taking active measures to ready its home defences for an attack that most officials believe would involve reprisal missile and terrorist attacks by Iran on Israel’s cities and towns. Thousands of innocent civilians would be killed if chemical or biological weapons were used in those attacks.
Israeli leaders also believe the window to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold is closing fast and that in a few months even a surgical strike on Iranian installations won’t be able to stop Iran from getting the bomb.
Public opinion, the Israeli military and even Netanyahu’s cabinet are divided over the strike option. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Israelis don’t want an attack to take place without the active support of the United States. But one thing is clear: Time is not on Israel’s side.
The Obama administration and most Western countries, including Canada, have put their faith in sanctions and diplomacy, hoping that by tightening the economic noose Iran will come clean and put its nuclear program on hold. The last thing Obama wants is a war between Israel and Iran just as he is putting his presidency to the test with American voters. However, there is little evidence that Iran is slowing down its race to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material to make the bomb. This past week German police arrested four individuals who were selling valves for a heavy water reactor to Iran in contravention of the embargo on such sales.
If Israel attacks Iran the conflict could quickly escalate beyond a war between these two countries. Iran is likely to ratchet up the pressure on the West by closing shipping lanes through the Straits of Hormuz, thus jeopardizing 20 per cent of the world’s oil supply, which passes through those straits. Sleeper cells of the Iranian-backed, militant group Hezbollah could also launch major terrorist attacks throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The recent attack on a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria is an ominous sign of Hezbollah’s growing global reach.
Ironically, the escalating civil war in Syria and Bashar Assad’s imminent downfall are playing into the strategic calculations of both Israel and Iran.
The loss of its key regional ally will only reinforce Iran’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons to defend itself. The Iranian regime failed to rebuild its armed forces and conventional war-fighting capabilities after its devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is no match for a well-armed adversary.
Syria’s turmoil affects Israel’s strategic calculus, too. Syria is in no position to come to Iran’s aid if Israel attacks Iran. And it is unlikely that the Sunni regimes in the region, like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, will rally to Iran’s defence. In fact, they would secretly welcome action to nip Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not least because they fear Iran’s quest for regional dominance.
What would an Israeli attack on Iran mean for Canada? If the war escalated to the shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf, our own naval forces could well be drawn into the action in a NATO operation to defend the sea lanes and keep them open. Because of Canada’s close relations with Israel, we too could see terrorist attacks on our soil although, unlike Europe, Hezbollah is a banned entity here so the risk is lower.
Under international law, an “unprovoked” Israeli attack on Iran would be “illegal” because there are no provisions for a “preventive war” or preventive military action to stub a country’s nuclear ambitions. However, it is highly unlikely that the Harper government, which has close relations with Netanyahu’s government, would join what would almost certainly be a predictable chorus of outrage in the United Nations and elsewhere over Israel’s premeditated attack if it comes to that.
But we should not delude ourselves that an Israeli surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a cakewalk. We are on the brink of a major crisis of global proportions.
Fen Osler Hampson is Distinguished Fellow and Director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.