Sunday, July 15, 2007

Hajji Baba of Natanz

In his 1824 picaresque novel of Iran, Hajji Baba of Isfahan, James Morier has his principal character say ‘If it wasn’t for the dying, how the Persians would fight’. No modern Hajji Baba would say that, of course. Anyone who has witnessed the alacrity with which Iranian fighters have embraced death during the Iran-Iraq war, or last summer in Lebanon, or currently in Iraq doesn’t have to be told that a desperate courage informs the warriors of the Islamic Republic. The centuries-old Shi’ite obsession with martyrdom has in recent years inspired a death cult that now embraces Sunnis as well, from Palestinian Hamas homicide bombers, to the threatened wave of Taleban martyrs. Hezbollah General Secretary Hasan Nasrallah, expresses this mood in chilling words: ‘We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death.’
Imagine you’re an Israeli Jew. You see boasts about ‘martyrdom operations’ translated into real attacks on children. Then you hear Iranian leaders call for your extermination. Let’s not be in any doubt about this: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others are not talking about regime change. He has spoken of Israel being ‘exterminated’ (qal‘ o qam‘ shavad). Last year, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, declared ‘There is only one solution to the Middle East problem, namely the annihilation and destruction of the Jewish state.’ In 2001, Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, ‘moderate’ cleric ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was explicit about what this annihilation could mean: ‘… the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.’
If you go to, you can listen to ‘Push the Button’, this year’s Israeli entry to the Eurovision song contest. ‘The world is full of terror, if someone makes an error, he’s gonna blow us up to kingdom come.’ It takes me back to 1965 and Barry McGuire singing ‘We’re on the Eve of Destruction’. The threat back then was real enough; but today it has become commonplace to say that the Israelis are exaggerating the threat posed to them by Iran.
It’s hard to understand why anyone should think Israel has nothing to fear. For almost sixty years, the Jewish state has had to fight off enemies bent on its destruction, and it still faces daily peril from foes who prefer to train their own children to die than accept the reality of a Jewish state on their borders. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. And Israelis aren’t paranoid, they’re as worried as you and I would be in the same situation.
In northern Europe, we may no longer feel we’re on the eve of destruction, but Israelis know that, should anyone launch a nuclear weapon, they are the most likely targets. Either an upgraded Shahab 3 or Shahab 4 missile could carry a heavy nuclear warhead as far as Tel Aviv. Iran’s nuclear programme is on course to develop such warheads over the next few years. Having completing the nuclear fuel cycle, it’s just a matter of time before the system delivers weapons, somewhere between 2007 and 2015.
The Iranian regime is unstable by nature. Pragmatists and hardliners rub shoulders at all levels. No-one imagines the pragmatists want to embroil the country in a nuclear mess. But for others, an attack on Israel is very tempting. It would serve to reinforce Iran’s credentials as the state wiling to fulfil Muslim dreams. It would solidify Iranian ambitions to be the regional superpower. That in turn could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Israelis cannot rely on the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine to feel safe from attack. Leave Iran’s nuclear installations alone, and they have to live with uncertainty every time the political wind shifts in Tehran. If they do go in, they will find themselves at war again, possibly without US support.
Since 1948, all the Israelis have wanted is security. It may be chic in some circles to wink at the claims of Holocaust deniers, but Jews know better. The Middle East is awash with Jew-hatred of a kind we in Europe haven’t seen since the Third Reich. Literally. Mainline newspapers praise Hitler and say it’s a pity he didn’t finish the job with the Jews. Former Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, put Israeli fears succinctly last year: ‘It’s 1938,’ he said, ‘and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs.’