On August 26, Vice President Boediono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa were scheduled to fly to the Iranian capital of Teheran for the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), where the vice president would represent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
While there, they could not have possibly missed observing that the leaders of Iran and many of its people were making a big show of their high morale. But underneath the smiles and the bravado, the Iranians knew they were facing grim prospects. I don’t just mean the impact of an earthquake that killed hundreds: Since more than a year ago, Iranians have borne a deep sense of being under siege.
No state has declared war on Iran. But according to the Iranian leadership, the United States, Israel and their allies are already waging an economic war and a cyber war against the country.
Pangs of sanctions
As the United States last month made another turn of the screw on Iran’s already decimated oil exports, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, head of the powerful Guardians Council, was quoted as saying the obvious: “This is war!” Economic war, he meant.
Sales of Iranian crude oil have been cut in half. The dollar exchange value of the Iranian currency, the rial, has also been halved. During the past four months, imports — already low — fell by another 7%. Non-oil exports plunged by 16%. The bureaucracy is bracing itself for deep budget cuts.
As I write this, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon received a letter from Fetemeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of Iran’s Charity Foundation for Special Diseases, warning the UN that many Iranian children could die because sanctions have made it nearly impossible for Iranian hospitals to obtain medicines for hemophilia, multiple sclerosis, kidney failure and various cancers.
The news reports did not mention that Fetemeh is the daughter of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, today a pillar of the opposition. She could not have written that letter under instruction from Iran’s rulers, who are loath to admit that the sanctions are hurting.
As to cyber warfare, there is clear but unofficial admission by the US government that it was behind the cyber attacks that threw a monkey wrench in the Iranian uranium enrichment program. The international community is not condemning these cyber attacks. Better these than the outright missile attacks that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is tirelessly advocating.
No day passes without Netanyahu bellowing to the media and to his cabinet that Iran is about to achieve nuclear weapons capability and its nuclear facilities should now be destroyed with bunker bombs and missile strikes. He keeps repeating that the Iranian nuclear threat “dwarfs all other threats against Israel.” Accordingly, Israel goes through the motions of preparing for war, regularly holding military and civilian defense exercises.
No fighters or bombers are scrambling. No missiles are being fired. Retired and active leaders of the Israeli military establishment ridicule the hawkish posturing of Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, and cast doubt on their ability to lead a successful war against Iran.
For even Netanyahu knows Israel cannot win the war alone. It is banking on a massive strike by the United States to finish the job. But the United States would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities only if Iran weaponizes its uranium hoard. Iran has not done that, nor are there signs that it will.
If ever Iran makes that move, the United States is confident it would instantly know and promptly start dropping bunker busters on Iran. All the weaponry it needs to carry out that strike is already in place in the Gulf.
On this controversy, Indonesia’s position is consistent: as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has no business building a nuclear bomb. On the other hand, the Western countries have no business preventing Iran from making peaceful use of nuclear energy. Iran should therefore cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to dispel all doubts about its nuclear program. But this has not happened.
For some reason, although Iran swears by a fatwa of its Supreme Leader that it is haram to make, stockpile or even just acquire nuclear weapons, it won’t allow the IAEA access to all the facilities that it wants to examine.
The ambiguity game
It’s just possible that Iran is playing the game of “nuclear ambiguity.” It would never let the world be too sure that it will never acquire nuclear weapons. Qaddafi of Libya traded that ambiguity for relief from sanctions, and look what happened to him! It is also possible that Israel is playing its own game of ambiguity. Netanyahu may be thinking: “Let the world fear that I am crazy enough to carry out a unilateral missile strike against Iran. I’ll get more respect that way.”
But in this kind of brinkmanship there is no guarantee that nobody falls over the brink. What would happen if Israel were tempted to make good its threat against Iran? The least of Iran’s responses would be to mine the Gulf of Hormuz. If that happens, according to the forecasting firm IHS Global, crude oil prices would soar from the current $125 per barrel to about $240.
All nations would be direly affected: Indonesia, estimated to import more than $43 billion worth of crude this year, would find its industries starved for fuel. For a period of about six months, its exports to the Gulf region, which amounted to $6.5 billion in 2010, would be reduced to near zero. The rest of the global economy would be in agony.
Meanwhile, the mighty navies of the United States and its Western allies would be able to re-open the Strait of Hormuz in spite of Iranian mines and small-boat swarming tactics. Missile attacks by the US and its Gulf allies would flatten the Iranian military. The US would tap its fuel reserves and Saudi Arabia would jack up production and pipe it to the Red Sea. The world would learn to use fuel more efficiently. And the price of crude oil would go back to normal.
That is the optimistic view. It seems to underestimate Iran’s capability to inflict damage on its attackers. It forgets to factor in the civil war raging in Syria and the capabilities of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A grim scenario
On the other hand, a grim scenario is being peddled by conspiracy theorists, which I feel compelled to mention for one reason: a few weeks ago, the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad threatened to unleash chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) on any foreign force coming in to help the rebels in the civil war.
Few analysts today dismiss that warning as a bluff. Syria has a store of chemical WMDs but nobody knows its size or where the weapons are stockpiled. Dropping a bomb on them would only release and spread the poison on innocent populations.
If Syria has chemical WMDs, then it is possible that the conspiracy theorists are on to something when they claim that Iran has thousands of missiles with chemical warheads. And not only Iran, but also the Hezbollah, who serve as Iran’s commandos in Lebanon.
In that case the whole Middle East is in a MAD (mutually-assured destruction) situation. And in the event of a war triggered by an Israeli strike against Iran, the final result could be the total obliteration of Iran and Syria and the decimation through poisoning of Israel, Turkey and other parts of the region.
That is not yet the worst: what if China, taking advantage of the distraction of the United States by a massive war effort in the Middle East, suddenly asserts its ownership of the South China Sea through sheer naval superiority? That would be a huge miscalculation and it’s improbable that China would sacrifice its peaceful rise for the dubious gains from a World War III. But when a flock of black swans is already swimming in a fiery lake, it is not impossible for one more to come out of nowhere and complete the apocalyptic cast.
The point is that when the international community deals with the Iranian nuclear problem, the stakes are much more than the security of the nations immediately involved. The fate of all humankind is on the line.
Ironically the solution is so obvious yet the actors involved can’t see their way to seizing it. Israel and the Western powers must recognize the right of Iran as a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to make use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Israel and the West won’t hear of it.
For its part, Iran must fully cooperate with the IAEA and remove all doubts that its nuclear program is peaceful. By doing that, Iran would deprive Israel, the Arab states and the West of every excuse to thwart its nuclear program. Every sanction imposed against it would be clearly shown as immoral. But Iran won’t do it.
Until both sides come to their senses, the stand-off prevails. And the world, not to mention the Middle East, remains in grave danger.