David Owen – Times Online October 12, 2008
Some key decision makers in Israel fear that unless they attack Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities in the next few months, while George W Bush is still president, there will not be another period when they can rely on the United States as being anywhere near as supportive in the aftermath of a unilateral attack.
In the past 40 years there have been few occasions when I have been more concerned about a specific conflict escalating to involve, economically, the whole world. We are watching a disinformation exercise involving a number of intelligence services. Reality is becoming ever harder to disentangle.
Last month a story in The Guardian claimed that on May 14 Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, in a meeting with Bush, had asked for a green light to attack Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. We were told that Bush refused. He believed Iran would see the United States as being behind any such assault and Americans would come under renewed attack in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shipping in the Gulf would be vulnerable. We were told that the source of the story was a European head of government and “his” officials – as if to exclude Angela Merkel and Germany. It is, however, improbable that Israel abandoned its option to take unilateral action.
Three weeks later the Israeli military conducted an exercise over the Mediterranean to demonstrate to the United States as well as Iran that it could attack. More recently there have been a number of stories raising concern about what is happening in Iran. One said Iran’s first nuclear electricity generating plant would go critical in December and thereafter any air attack would become impossible since it would trigger a nuclear explosion. Then we were told that a US radar system had been deployed in Israel with US personnel to strengthen Israel’s defence against Iranian airstrikes. There was also an interview with Olmert where he dismissed as “megalomania” any thought that Israel should attack Iran. He appeared to be trying to disrupt the Israeli coalition negotiations.
Finally, on Friday, The New York Times revealed that in February an IAEA inspector had talked of experiments in Iran that were “not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon”. Iran denied the claim.
Before the Israeli negotiations got under way, Ehud Barak, the Labour leader, spoke first to Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud opposition party, rather than to Tzipi Livni, the newly elected leader of Kadima. This indicated that Barak was interested in an all-party coalition, presumably believing that a Palestinian settlement is not yet achievable and that Israel needs maximum unity to deal with a world transfixed by the economic crisis and resigned to Iran becoming a nuclear weapon state.
If Israel were to attack Iran, one Iranian response would be to block the Strait of Hormuz. On September 16 Iran said its Revolutionary Guards would defend the Gulf waters. In the narrow strait just one oil tanker sunk would halt shipping for months. Insurance cover would be refused and owners would fear the risks of sailing even if the US navy cleared mines.
The Revolutionary Guards are committed to a war against Israel and prepared, in the process, to take on the rest of the world. They have good equipment and operate from the land, sea and air. They will be suicide soldiers, seamen and airmen. If Iran is attacked, Russia and China will supply it with arms.
The circumstances surrounding Georgia’s decision to attack South Ossetia are worth remembering. The Georgian president was advised by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, not to attack but there were powerful voices in Washington that, by a nod and a wink, were encouraging action, so the Georgian government felt confident in going ahead.
Following an Israeli attack and Iranian countermeasures, the American military would be bound to follow Bush’s orders. The president-designate or, if before the election, the two candidates, would be wary of criticising him. It is imperative that voices are raised in America and Europe to warn Israel off unilateral action against Iran. The experience of Georgia has given an amber, if not a green, light to Israel and only Bush can switch that to red.
Bush’s legacy would be best served by taking dramatic diplomatic action to prevent a war with Iran. He should publicly warn Israel that the United States will use its air power to prevent it bombing Iran, while announcing that he is sending Rice to Tehran to start negotiating a grand bargain whereby all sanctions would be lifted if Iran forgoes the nuclear weapons option. He could indicate that the negotiations would not continue indefinitely, but they would give his successor, as president, time to consider all the options, military and economic. It would also allow time for Israel either to negotiate a coalition to last until 2010 or to hold elections. It would replace the present multilateral negotiations, which are stalled with Russia and China unwilling to move on strong economic sanctions. Above all, it would be a last act of real statesmanship from Bush who is otherwise destined to end his term a miserable failure.
David Owen was foreign secretary from 1977 to 1979
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