Nuclear dangers and capabilities
With the decline of US hegemony and the loss of its ally in Egypt Moshé Machover fears that Israel could react irrationally and launch a spectacular attack on Iran
For nearly 50 years I have been talking and writing about the prospect of an Arab revolution and only last year I said that, while I am confident this is going to happen, “don’t hold your breath”. What has been taking place has been a nice dress rehearsal, but we can see that the Arab revolution is not such a distant prospect. It is difficult to exaggerate its significance - not only for the region, but also for the whole world and for human history.
It is against this background that I would like to discuss the Wikileaks revelations. One whole section of Wikileaks has to do with the Middle East, and specifically with Israel and Iran.
There have also been other significant leaks. One came from Palestine: someone in the Palestinian Authority, obviously exasperated by the PA’s abject stance, released a lot of documents, revealing what everyone knew about the role of the Palestinian Authority. The other set of leaks has been less publicised in Britain and in Israel as well. These were released by a woman who worked in the Israeli military and released a whole lot of documents to an Israeli journalist (who fled to the UK in order to avoid arrest). The woman is now on trial.
The main conclusion that I draw from these multiple leaks on what has been happening supposedly in secret is that there is nothing in them that we did not already know, nor anything that would make us change our position. What these revelations do confirm, however, is that a guerrilla or terrorist war against Iran has been conducted for a number of years by the US and Israel. Mainly using Israeli agents, it has employed espionage, sabotage and even assassinations directed specifically against the nuclear enterprise of the Iranian regime.
There have been two well known cases of nuclear scientists being assassinated in Iran. In one instance an assassin was caught and confessed to being trained in Israel. Another interesting case is that of Iran’s former deputy defence minister, Ali-Reza Asgari, who disappeared in 2007 and was believed to have defected to the US. It turns out he was abducted in Turkey by Israel. How do we know this? Well, because he died recently in Israel in Ayalon prison. It is possible that he died of natural causes, but I think this is the least likely explanation. He could have died under torture, but this is also unlikely - Israel does employ torture, but to extract information, not as a simply vindictive or punitive measure. So the most probable explanation, given the circumstances, is that they decided to execute him. They got the information they wanted from him (very little, by the way) long ago and had no further use for him. He was simply an embarrassment, so why not get rid of him? As I say, this is merely speculation, but it is known that Asgari died in Ayalon prison.
‘Dog that didn’t bark’
What Wikileaks tells us is that Meir Dagan - the former head of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad - claimed some years ago that Iran’s nuclear programme is unstoppable and so one probably has to live with it. When Binyamin Netanyahu became prime minister, he promptly sacked Dagan.
Wikileaks also tells us that Israel is set up and ready for an attack on Iran: that is to say, it has contingency plans and is just waiting for the green light. Well, thank you, Columbus, for discovering America! We already knew this. In fact the official reaction from Israel to Wikileaks has been: all this shows is that what we have been saying in public is correct - why should we be embarrassed? This was the semi-official response of the Israeli government and it is true: nothing surprising was revealed by Wikileaks.
What is significant is what Wikileaks does not say. For instance, there is nothing in the leaks indicating that Iran is planning to produce nuclear weapons. Western propaganda constantly attempts to sell the message that Iran is set on this course, and the Iranian regime constantly denies it. There is no reason to believe either of them, but on purely rational grounds the most likely scenario is that the Iranian regime is planning to acquire nuclear capability. That is not the same as producing nuclear weapons and the Iranian regime is by no means the only state in the world set on this course. That is to say, to be in a position to produce a nuclear weapon if and when necessary in a short space of time. There are many advantages to this - one of which is that it is not prohibited by any international treaty.
If, however, the regime was planning more than that, then one would have expected some information in Wikileaks about more tangible steps. By this I do not mean a fully-fledged nuclear test - in order to actually use a nuclear weapon you do not need to have performed such a test: it is useful, but not necessary.
Take the example of Israel. Already at the time of the 1967 war, Israel is known to have had not only nuclear capability, but actual nuclear weapons. There are multiple grounds for this, published in many reports, and it is more or less agreed by all experts. Of course, this is not officially acknowledged, but everyone who has written on the subject accepts that Israel already had nuclear weapons in 1967 and was thinking of using them - not in its actual attack on Egypt, but as a standby if the war went wrong. Of course, the war did not go wrong for Israel, so the question did not arise. In the 1973 war initiated by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Israel was taken by surprise and its generals were seriously considering the use of nuclear weapons. However, the first fully-fledged nuclear test by Israel did not occur until September 1979. However, in November 1966 Israel had conducted what is known as a ‘cold test’, where the mechanism needed to detonate the bomb is tested, as opposed to causing an actual explosion.
So, if Iran was actually on the verge of producing nuclear weapons, one would expect some information about it in Wikileaks - there is no way that Iran can be in a position to fire a nuclear weapon without at least having undertaken a cold test. This is the ‘dog that didn’t bark’: there is no evidence that anything like this is happening. In summary, nothing that has been revealed changes for me the most likely scenario - Iran wants to achieve nuclear capability; it is not attempting to produce nuclear weapons.
Let me turn now to the Arab revolution and explain why current events are so momentous for the Middle East and the whole world. This is because they are a sure and clear sign of the decline of American hegemony. (I would not like to comment on whether world capitalism is in decline - I like to keep an open mind on this. I hope it is, but we will know later on, after the event!) The decline of US hegemony is palpable.
The US is losing control in Latin America, and has lost ground in sub-Saharan Africa. However, Latin America and sub Saharan Africa are not the Middle East; the Middle East is strategically the most important part of the world - the most important pillar for American domination.
I say this for two reasons. The first is an old one: the Suez Canal in Egypt, which has been a vital trade route since 1869. The second reason has been with us since 1913: oil (1913 was the year the British navy converted from coal to oil). Nothing that happens in the Middle East is unrelated to oil.
Egypt is the most important country in the region. It is the most highly populated, at around 83 million (by comparison, Turkey and Iran have a populace of around 77 million), and is the key Arab country. Although it does not have much oil itself, the Middle East tends to follow developments in Egypt.
However, the immediate reaction of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was to affirm that the state was stable. This showed that, not only had the US lost control: it was not even properly informed about what was happening. The US knew there was resentment from below, but it felt the regime was able to deal with it.
This will have tremendous implications for the rearrangement of American power. Of course, it would like to recoup some of its influence (although it will not be able to recover all of it, no matter what happens). Even if a military dictatorship is re-established in Egypt, which is not the most likely scenario, that would not produce the same reliability and stability as the Mubarak regime. It is not just a feeling throughout the Middle East and the Arab world that the region is no longer a secure asset. It is a fact. I repeat: Egypt is the key country and the Middle East is the most important strategic area in the world for American domination.
It is no coincidence that the last stand of British imperialism was played out in Egypt in 1956. Anyone can see how big the change was. Take one example: if you look at pictures from the Suez war protests in Trafalgar Square, all the men were wearing hats! Yet after 1956 no-one wore a hat any more: this is just a symbol of how life changed completely - not only in Britain, but in the world. Similarly, today everything is going to change.
From the point of view of Israel, the loss of Egypt as a secure ally is even more momentous. Israel used to have two allies in the region: Iran and Turkey. It lost Iran in 1979 after the revolution, but fortunately for Israel it got Egypt at the same time through the peace treaty (and Jordan too, but that is far less important). Turkey is no longer a secure ally, and this not just because of the Mavi Marmara: that was merely a manifestation of the shift in Turkish policy towards Israel for its own reasons. Now Egypt, an absolutely crucial ally for local Israel hegemony and a sub-contractor of American imperialism in the region, appears to be lost.
As everyone knows, Israeli forces were evacuated from Gaza in 2005 on the assumption that Israel could with impunity maintain a siege at less cost financially and militarily. But the collusion and complicity of the Egyptian regime was crucial to this because of the border at Rafah, which is half in Gaza and half in Sinai.
The strategy of keeping the Palestinian Authority divided between Gaza and the West Bank, in order to control the Palestinians the better, is also conducted through Egypt. Egypt is supposed to be the mediator between the two arms, but in fact it does Israel’s job by keeping them apart and preventing a coalition.
There are also other implications that are not often commented on. Since the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel has been able to drastically cut its military forces in the south. Before 1979 the biggest concentration of the Israeli military was in the southern command, facing Egypt, but afterwards this was very much depleted - it was just not needed from the point of view of the Israeli military. Later the central command facing Jordan was also cut.
Israeli military expenditure costs a fortune, as does that of Egypt, but both are funded by America. The Egyptian military costs the US taxpayer around $1.5 billion a year, while the Israeli military bill is more than twice that. With the changing circumstances in the region, even this will not be enough - Israel could well have to pay more itself. At the moment it is economically prospering, but because of what has happened in Egypt and the prospect of increased military expenditure, this is under threat.
Another important factor is that Israelis use gas for cooking much more than electricity, but 40% of Israel’s gas supply comes from Egypt through the pipeline in the Sinai (which has now blown up - maybe by accident, maybe not).
So what are the political conclusions? In a situation like this there is a lot of uncertainty - a state threatened with loss of power or influence can react in unpredictable ways. Look how Britain and France reacted over Suez in 1956. It was a stupid war and, worse, they did not inform the Americans what they were intending. It has been noted many times that declining powers tend sometimes to react in very irrational ways. While Obama appears so far to have reacted rationally to events in the Arab world, that may not mean much. Besides, who knows who the next US president will be and what he or she may do? There are various factions within American imperialism, all pulling different ways.
As for Israel, for its own local reasons it is allied with the most adventurous and the most aggressive section within the American ruling elite. In a situation where Israel is losing huge political, military and economic assets, it is possible that it may react in an irrational way - or in a way that in retrospect may seem irrational.
So the conclusion that I draw is that we should maintain our vigilance. The dangers of an Israeli attack cannot be ruled out - I mean a fully-fledged attack, not a terroristic, low-intensity war against Iran, of the type which has been going on all the time, but something much more spectacular. Such an attack might be carried out in order to try to reverse Israel’s loss of influence and be supported by the more irrational and aggressive section of the American ruling class.
We have seen inspiring events that point the way to the Arab revolution. But we are entering a period of instability and that implies a lot of dangers as well.