When reading Middle Eastern news, one must always ask themselves this question, “Who will get rich and who will get hurt?” The answer, though often predictable, gives a clear and concise way to sort through the muck that can be weighed down by the region’s heavy censorship laws and long-winded official reports.
The most recent example of such muck comes as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared the Iranian government is likely stepping up its attempts to build nuclear weapons. This news has sent the West scurrying to impose new sanctions and news outlets pounding out story after story on what this means for Israel, the U.S., and the region. Are you prepared to be terrified?
I mean, this is a big deal and all. I suppose. To be fair, N. Korea has the bomb. So does India, Pakistan and Israel. All of which are either undergoing, or have undergone serious and sustained turmoil with their neighbors for decades. I guess if you really wanted to get into it, one could argue that the high level of Taliban infiltration in Pakistani government makes their known nuclear arsenal a much bigger threat. That the near-constant destabilization of educational, political and security sectors in Pakistan makes Iran’s government look a shining city upon a hill. For some perspective, one way to gauge the worsening situation in Pakistan is to study their rise in domestic terrorism: Before 9/11, Pakistan had only ever suffered one suicide bombing. Since then it has incurred 290 and counting. Yet it’s rare that we hear about the dangers of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.
Similarly North Korea used to really sell the headlines when it came to drumming up some good old-fashioned atomic panic. There were those missiles that were launched that one time. All those underground, possibly radioactive, tests that we heard about. Sure, most actual nuclear scientists dismissed their capabilities. But that did not stop the onslaught of terrifying ticker bars. Most recently it came out that there was a “Super EMP” weapons test which made headlines in June of 2011, although apparently the tests were conducted almost two years prior. Considering we haven’t heard much else as of late, I’ll just assume that we’re shelving Kim Jong Il for a slow news day.
But Iran! Let’s get back to Iran. The terrifying land of friendly tea shops and Farsi calligraphy.The country with so little military might that they had to Photoshop pictures of their missile tests. I don’t mean to be dismissive of the entire Iranian military complex. However, I think it goes without contention that Iran’s military might would be no match for the U.S., let alone Israel. Sure, throw Russia into the mix, and things do get a bit heavier. However, the only weight that Russia is willing to throw around these days seems far more symbolic than threatening. Which is not to say they wouldn’t throw some weight around. I’m not on the line with Putin getting a play-by-play. However, after such a tense history in the region, Russia hasn’t shown itself willing to do more than cast a heavy side-eye on Western action.
Then, of course, there’s the simple matter of geography. One of the luckiest thing about Israel for Israelis (and less so for Palestinians, but I digress) is its proximity to one of the holiest sites in Islam (Dome of the Rock) and it’s shared space with a bucket load of Muslims. Sending “The Bomb,” or any bomb for that matter, over to Tel Aviv will throw the entire regional population into serious upheaval. The environment, never mind political balance, from Egypt, Gaza, The West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, would be upset. Iran has far too many ties with Hezbollah, Syria, and certain factions in the Palestinian government, to even pretend to attempt that kind of foolishness. That’s not even touching on the heavy retribution they would most certainly face for such actions.
Now let’s really delve into what these sanctions actually mean. First, it ought to be noted that Iran has lived under an almost constant state of sanctions since its Islamic Revolution in 1979. Iran has, since then, maintained their cities, created trade and still managed to gain access to the newest iPhone. Most of trade in Iran is done with China, India and the EU. Which is not to say there hasn’t been any impact at all. Walking the streets of Tehran and talking with Persians you can see that a certain level of isolation with the U.S. has caused a real disconnect between the country and the global community. However, it’s fairly obvious that by now, sanctions are not what’s going to cripple the Iranian regime.
This becomes especially true when we look at exactly what sanctions are being imposed. Most news outlets speak of them as being “tough” but are they really? In a word, no. Because regardless of how the U.S. and parts of Europe feel about Iran’s atomic capabilities, what it wants even more is that sweet, sweet oil. So while they have put a freeze on about 11 different businesses that have been accused of money laundering, the U.S. did not cut ties with Iran’s central bank, which would have caused gas prices to soar, and then, of course, actually caused a problem in the U.S. I’d argue that what this does instead is serve to ferment a certain level of anti-Iranian fear that has been absent in the U.S. news for a while.
Meanwhile, in the Arab world, suspicion and fervor has also been building. For instance, an explosion on November 12th rocked a military base near Tehran. Seventeen were killed, and while there has been no official explanation for the blast, many have pointed to Israel as a possible culprit. The situation becomes even more interesting if we look towards two of the U.S.’s biggest allies in the region: Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Recently an Iranian terrorist cell was apprehended in Manama before they could carry out attacks on the interior ministry of Bahrain and the embassy of Saudi Arabia. According to Bahrain’s officials, this cell had ties to the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, so now there is speculation that the Iranian government was involved in the plot.
Which is not to say that Iran is innocent of these accusations. Certainly the government has fielded its share of human rights abuses, both on their own citizens and on neighboring states. Similarly, it should surprise absolutely no one that Iran is trying to figure out how to get the bomb. After all, they can’t be the only kid on the block without one. It is also perfectly possible that they sent a terrorist cell into Bahrain, who they’ve cooled relations with since Bahrain’s crackdown on the large Shiite majority earlier this year. And hey, maybe the Iranian military blew their own bunker up by accident and simply don’t want to embarrass themselves by admitting their own fault.
Yet coincidence wears very thin in these lands. With such rich resources, and a prime spot for both shipping lanes and trade, it might do us some good to question why a lead up between such powerful, interconnected players is taking place. Sure, it might just be about a bomb. Even though Iran has a ban on preemptive strikes in its constitution and hasn’t actually led an attack on any country in over 100 years. Perhaps there are real reasons to be worried if Iran gets a hold of such powers. Or perhaps it’s better to start wondering who will get rich, and who will get hurt?