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Diplomacy must keep the gates of hell firmly closed

Israel is not known for making idle threats.

One of the most chilling remarks I ever heard came from an Israeli Defence Force spokesman during the Gulf War of 1991. It took place at a press conference in the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel following a few nights of Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israeli cities.

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A reporter posed the question as to what Israel’s response might be if one of Saddam’s missiles contained, say, sarin or some other chemical or biological agent.

“We would turn Baghdad into a sheet of glass,” came the spokesman’s immediate reply. It was a scary moment. No conferring, no hesitation, just an implied nuclear strike. At the time, he left no-one in any doubt that he meant what he said. But, then, when it comes to its own security, Israel usually means what is says. Whatever your take on the rights and wrongs of the Israelis’ policy in the Middle East, it’s worth remembering that had they not bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak in 1981, the chances are Saddam Hussein’s regime would, indeed, have had weapons of mass destruction by the time the US and Britain went to war there in 2003.

Three years ago, Israel once again made it clear that it was not prepared to live with the chance that a neighbouring country would acquire a nuclear weapons capability to match the one the Jewish state itself has always strenuously denied possessing. On that occasion, it wiped out a North Korean-built reactor in Syria. The military operation, many said, had all the hallmarks of a dress rehearsal for the one it would inflict on Iran, should its patience run out with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s current determination to face down international efforts aimed at having him rein in his country’s nuclear ambitions.

Now, I accept there are those who would bitterly contest Israel’s right to decide which countries should or shouldn’t be allowed to have a nuclear arsenal of their own. It’s a fair enough point. But, invariably, it’s one usually made by those who don’t have to live in Israel, or have little grasp of the stark security threat posed by certain extremist states that sit cheek-by-jowl with their Jewish counterpart.

Already, I can hear howls of disapproval from certain quarters over that last observation. And I take the point that when it comes to extremist states, Israel itself at times doesn’t do a bad job of fitting the bill. There is no question that Israel has its own extremist tendencies. As regular readers of this column will know, I have never been an apologist for the military excesses of the Israeli government or the resulting human rights abuses suffered by ordinary Palestinians, Lebanese and others because of its policies. But before resorting to political type, as so many of us do when faced with the question of Israel’s behaviour in the region, let’s just pause for a moment and ask ourselves this question. How would you react to the possibility that a sworn enemy next door, such as Iran, hell-bent on the destruction of your country, was acquiring the means to do just that?

Indeed, how many of us can honestly say that even here, far from Israel, we feel comfortable with the idea of Mr Ahmadinejad -- or, indeed, anyone else -- having his finger on the nuclear button? I’m no more an apologist for Israel than I am for Tony Blair, but the former PM was right to flag up the dangers of a nuclear Iran when interviewed recently on television during the launch of his political memoirs.

Where, of course, I would differ with Mr Blair’s take is on how the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran should be dealt with. The time has not yet come for the sort of sabre-rattling or all-out military intervention Mr Blair advocated should Iran refuse to kowtow. Realising though that perhaps they’re living on borrowed time as patience rapidly runs out in Israel, the international community of late has dramatically increased its diplomatic pressure on Tehran.

On Wednesday, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany offered the Iranians another chance to enter negotiations, while reiterating that it remained essential for the Islamic state to prove its programme is peaceful. The same day, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a decree banning all sales of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. Under US and Israeli pressure, it was something of a U-turn for Moscow, having signed a 2007 contract to sell the sophisticated systems that could boost Iran’s ability to defend against air strikes.

Then, yesterday, it was the turn of UK Foreign Secretary William Hague to hold his first face-to-face meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, taking him to task about his country’s nuclear intentions and human rights record. While Mr Hague stressed the UK didn’t want to be an enemy of Tehran, he emphasised the need for the regime to engage with the international community. And all of this, of course, is how it should be. The problem is that, in Washington, and certainly in Jerusalem, there are those less interested in diplomatic solutions than they are in unleashing the dogs of war.

Only last month John Bolton -- yes, the same neo-con and former US ambassador to the United Nations who pushed so hard for a war in Iraq -- stressed that Israel must launch a military attack against Iran “within days.” Echoing Mr Bolton, Jeffrey Goldberg, a reporter who often covers the Middle East, wrote in The Atlantic magazine, that interviews he conducted with 40 “Israeli decision-makers” and US officials convinced him that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was likely to order a military strike against Iran next spring if international diplomatic efforts failed and the US didn’t act first. Earlier this week, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned Barack Obama that history will judge his presidency largely on whether or not Iran went nuclear on his watch. A nuclear Iran, said Mr Barak, will start an arms race among several members of the Middle Eastern community and give a “tailwind to global jihad”.

With political hawks such as these circling and their anger mounting over what they see as the international community’s foot-dragging and Iran’s defiance, there is the clear and present danger that voices of reason and diplomacy might once again be drowned out.

Back in 2003, around the time when everyone knew that the Bush administration had already decided to invade Iraq, Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa warned that such a move would “open the gates of hell in the Middle East”. Should Israel, the US or anyone else choose military intervention as a means of bringing Iran to heel, those gates will once gain be thrown wide. And should such a doomsday scenario unfold, it’s hard to imagine indeed how they could ever again be closed.


By David Pratt

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