Guest Article: Air Forces – Balance of Power in the Middle Eas

By: Karsten Riise

Air forces are of colossal importance in the Balance of Power between states. Without air superiority, a state is open for huge devastation from potential adversaries. To get a clearer picture of the Balance of Power in the Middle East, I therefore decided to focus on the balance of assets for air superiority in the Wider Middle East – see figure 1:

Figure 1


My methodology in figure 1 is straight forward: Only high-end fighter (or multirole) aircraft in service are relevant for the contestation of air space. It is assumed high-end fighters in service have received all technical upgrades for high-end status. Light or older fighter aircraft are shown, but may quickly be eliminated.  To keep the methodology robust, I focus on the sheer number of high-end air superiority fighters. Only easily available, open sources have been used.

Readiness is a significant quantifiable factor which has not been easily available. If a modern air force has a normal readiness of for example 70%, it may well be, that Iran, due to lack of spare parts, lack of instruments, lack of trained pilots and technicians, may have a readiness of only 35%. If that is the case, the effective force of Iran would be only half of what her number of 44 high-end units indicates, bringing Iran’s total force down to 22 comparable “units of force-level”.

The “qualitative factors” like pilot-training, support-structures, leadership, configuration of bases, communication, support from other assets (ground-sensors, AWACS, satellites) etc. can be decisive. Also lethality and availability of modern munitions (e.g. air-to-air missiles) go into this. A “quality-factor” is difficult to measure, but it is still possible to say something in general about “quality” level. If USA=100 in “quality-factor”, it is generally accepted that Israel’s “quality-factor” is probably quite above 100, that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are probably a bit below 100, and that Iran is very much lower due to lack of training, and other modern assets. In this analysis, I will not measure “quality-factors”, just point to them.


Figure 1 brings up four issues for my discussion: First, Iran’s obvious lack of air power against all of her many competitors. Second, the enormous increase in GCC air power, not least in Saudi Arabia. Third, the balance of power in relation to Israel. Fourth, the issue of nuclear weapons.

Iran – vacuum of air-power

Iran has only got 44 high-end aircraft to disperse, and they may not all be upgraded to deserve “high-end” status. Due to lack of training, spare parts etc. it may well be that Iran’s readiness factor is only half of her neighboring countries, which means that her 44 units may only count as a “force-level” of 22. These 22 units of “force-level” have to be split up in (minimum) 3-6 sectors to defend a vast territory of 1,6 million km2, leaving only a meager 3-7 units of modern “force-level” per defense sector. It is obvious, that Iran does not possess any of the air assets necessary to protect her air space, not even against the air force of her smallest neighbors. Deficits in other “qualitative” combat factors like pilot-training only reinforce this conclusion. A few S-300 anti-air missiles may serve as a “trip-wire” for point-defense, but without a comprehensive, layered integrated air defense system, a few S-300 do not change the overall picture of a nearly undefended air space. The regional stability risk, therefore, seems not to be that Iran becomes “too strong”, but rather, that Iran in terms of air defense is a power-vacuum, which could invite intrusion from any of her numerous competitors. Iran does possess a substantial number of surface-to-surface missiles of considerable range, which are often cited (especially by USA sources) as a “threat”. But you cannot win a war with surface-to-surface missiles alone, and all of Iran’s competitors have got effective Patriot missile defenses. In view of Iran’s lack of air power, Iran’s surface-to-surface missiles are a stand-alone capability. Iran’s missiles must merely be seen as a deterrent, in other words a defensive capability, which stabilizes the region, because Iran’s missiles discourage attack on Iran. Iran also possesses a capability of armed speed-boats, land-to-sea missiles etc. which can obstruct the oil traffic in the Persian Gulf. This marine capability, like Iran’s conventionally armed land-to-land missiles, must also in the overall context be seen as a deterrent, discouraging attack on Iran, but not a capability which gives Iran encouragement for a very adventurous strategy. As it will appear below in figure 2 and 3, Iran is not investing an overly great portion of her economy in military.  

Is this “good” or “bad”? Well, anyone reserving a “right” to attack Iran, may think it is “good”.  Given the troubling experiences in the region of turning a functioning country into havoc and chaos, it may arguably also be “bad”.

GCC – enormous increase in air-power

All the GCC countries relative to their size possess very large quantities of high-end air assets. The GCC total is 409 aircraft, and with 349 units more on order, this group is on way to an inventory of 758 units. In comparison, France and Britain have a total of 369 high-end units, according to the same sources. Even the smaller GCC-states have by a wide margin plenty of assets against Iran. Saudi Arabia alone has got 222 units, and 156 more on order, for a total of 378 units. An additional order of 72 Eurofighters is under consideration, which could bring Saudi Arabia up to 450 units. According to, Saudi Arabia has also asked for 100 units of F-35 “stealth” fighters. If Saudi Arabia is denied F-35 from the USA, she may instead choose to buy J-31 “stealth” fighters from China. That might bring the Royal Saudi Air Force up to 550 units. Saudi Arabia also possesses 13 units of E3-sentry AWACS. In comparison, NATO for patrolling all its Eastern flank from Norway to Turkey (4,000+ km) has got about 16 similar units.

The question comes up, why Saudi Arabia invests in air superiority assets on such a large scale. Air force may be the most expensive part of Saudi Arabian military spending, and Saudi Arabia’s military spending of 13.7% of GDP in 2015 is the third the highest in the world after Oman (and South Sudan, not shown) – see figure 2:

Figure 2

Oil prices have been high for many of the preceding years. Surplus money may tempt military spending. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s high air force investments are felt now that oil incomes have been depressed the last few years, and Saudi Arabia also wants to invest huge sums of money in diversifying her economy to achieve a broader economic footing to prepare for her “post-oil” era in due time.

Intentions are never known for sure, and may even change. I will go through a range of seven theoretical types of thinkable intentions. First, air forces have prestige. But the “bling” factor can hardly explain investment on this scale. Second, “defense against Iran” can be ruled out as a reason, because the Iranian air force is so small, ref above. Third, the Saudi Arabian and GCC assets are so numerous, that an offensive strategy (for example against Iran) may be a possibility, especially if the Patriot systems (which all the GCC countries have) are effective to defend against possible retaliatory missile strikes. Fourth, protection of Saudi Arabia against internal revolts, might theoretically be thought of, but the Saudi Arabian air force seems bigger than needed for that. Fifth, Saudi Arabia might seek the role of a great regional power. For the general role as a regional power, Saudi Arabia will need a strong navy to complement her air force in power-projection. And according to the open sources used here, Saudi Arabia actually has got an ambitious navy program with 7 frigates, 4 corvettes, and contemplates buying 2-3 destroyers, including the powerful American Arleigh Burke class, plus the advanced Freedom class littoral combat ship. Submarines are missing. For power projection, Saudi Arabia also has 2 tanker aircraft, 3 more tankers on order, plus a number of heavy transport aircraft. Saudi Arabia also has a satellite program, but her missile force seems not built out. Sixth, Saudi Arabia might not rule out, that a conflict with Israel could erupt one day, willingly or unwillingly, perhaps just due to misunderstandings. Here, however, Israel is in possession of the “great peacekeeper” in form of nuclear devices. Seventh, we may look at the timing of Saudi Arabia’s increase in military spending – see figure 3:

Figure 3

The acceleration in Saudi Arabian military spending started 2004/2005, after the USA war for “regime change” in Iraq. It might be thinkable, that Saudi Arabia wants to have an “insurance policy”, that such an American action should never be turned against Saudi Arabia. To make this effective, Saudi Arabia would need to add aircraft from non-US suppliers, and (better) to have themselves the kind of “devices” which Israel has in possession. All this is of course theoretical, because the surge in Saudi Arabian military spending since 2004/2005 also to some degree coincides with a higher general level of oil prices.

The balance

Iran’s air force is not a threat to Israel – probably not even Iran’s missiles, due to Israel’s layered missile defense systems. However, figure 1 shows that Israel soon will have 366 fighter aircraft against 1,046 fighters from the GCC-countries, Egypt and Jordan – and they are out to buy more. These countries are not Israel’s enemies, and Israel has good practical relations with all of them. Still, a numerical disadvantage of 3:1 is something to think about, even taking into account Israeli historical superiority in training, her satellites etc. – but above all, her nuclear weapons.
Israel being free from major conflict hinges on Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. This will also apply, if more sides possess them. Nuclear weapons, however, do not hinder that “Low-Intensity” War will continue.

Karsten Riise
Partner & Editor


Karsten Riise is Master of Science (Econ) from Copenhagen Business School and has university degree in Spanish Culture and Languages from University of Copenhagen. Former senior Vice President Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Mercedes-Benz in Denmark and Sweden with a responsibility of US Dollars 1 billion. At time of appointment, the youngest and the first non-German in that top-position within Mercedes-Benz’ worldwide sales organization.

Karsten Riise can be reached at

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Welcome, Mr. Secretary

At one point during his election campaign, President-Elect Donald Trump promised to spend the first hundred days on the job restoring the U.S military. And following the endless unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, restoring it certainly needs. Now he has come up with the man who is supposed to do the restoring: four-star Marine Corps General (ret.) James Mattis.

To imitate the language of the Old Testament, I shall not list “the rest of the General’s acts, and all his might, and all that he did.” They can easily be found on the Net. A few points, however, are worth taking note of. First, he is immensely experienced, having made his way up by participating in practically every war the U.S has fought from 1972 on. Second, as a high-ranking Marine he is intimately familiar with operations “in the air, on land and sea” (the Marine Corps anthem) and not just with one of the three as so many army, navy and air force generals are. Third, along with general David Petraeus he was responsible for America’s counterinsurgency doctrine. Precisely that which, in this day and age of what I once called “non-trinitarian warfare,” is the most important and the most necessary of all. Fourth, he cares for his troops. Fifth, he is a man of considerable learning such as is rarely found among his fellow officers (having lived with them, I should know). Last not least, he has no fear of speaking his mind. A quality which, in today’s politically-correct world, is as hard to find as diamonds.

Entering office, the General will have his work cut out for him. Two issues on which he has expressed himself in the past are Iran and “the Middle East” (meaning, of course, Israel and the Palestinians). So let me start by venturing to provide him with some cautious advice on both of those. Re. Iran, I think that the present agreement with that country is as good as can be had. It is good for Iran, good, for the Middle East, good for the U.S, and good for world peace. Why re-open a (nuclear) nest of hornets when, judging by everything that has happened since Tehran re-started its nuclear program back in the early 1990s there is no need? The more so because, by doing so, the US will be widely seen as untrustworthy, a problem which will surely complicate efforts to deal with similar issues such as, for example, North Korea. And the more so because it will be pushing Iran into Putin’s welcoming arms.

As to my own country, I agree with outgoing President Barak Obama that fifty years of occupation are enough and more than enough. The present situation is untenable for the world, for the US, and, not least, Israel itself. Surprising as it may sound to outsiders, many, perhaps even most, Israelis are aware of this fact. However, they are prevented from doing what has to be done—in one way or another, get the devil out of the Territories—by the country’s complicated internal political divisions. As they say, four Jews, five opinions! So I strongly suggest that the new Secretary of Defense should put his weight behind the attempts to impose some kind of enforced solution. One which, while not perfect, will at least extinguish many flames and dispose of many sparks (as our mutual acquaintance Clausewitz puts it in On War.)

Important as these issues are, they only comprise the beginning. As readers of the present blog as well as my book Pussycats will know, I see the military crisis the U.S (and other Western countries, including, in many ways, my own) is undergoing primarily as a spiritual one. Not, in other words, one that is occasioned by lack of money. And not as one caused by defective organization, inappropriate doctrine, insufficient equipment, inadequate training, and so on. To repeat, it is the spirit, eroded partly by a whole series of unsuccessful wars and partly by domestic factors, which has been lacking and which must be restored.

Here I want to quote some little-known words General Mattis uttered two years ago (according to the Washington Times, 25.5.2014). The text of his remarks goes as follows:

I would just say there is one misperception of our veterans and that is they are somehow damaged goods. I don’t buy it.

If we tell our veterans enough that this is what is wrong with them they may actually start believing it.

While victimhood in America is exalted I don’t think our veterans should join those ranks.

There is also something called post traumatic growth where you come out of a situation like that and you actually feel kinder toward your fellow man and fellow woman.

We are going to have to have young people in our country who are willing to go toe to toe with this because two irreconcilable wills exist.

There is no room for military people, including our veterans, to see themselves as victims even if so many of our countrymen are prone to relish that role.

Coming on top of some other courageous words General Mattis has spoken over the years, it is probable that, in the entire U.S military there is no one more suitable to carry out the necessary repairs than he is. Repairs, let me repeat, whose nature is predominantly spiritual, not material.

And so I wish him good luck in what is surely going to be a very difficult task.

Scholars, Journalists, Spies

spiesHere is a story I heard many years ago. On one occasion, someone asked US President Lyndon Johnson how important the various intelligence services—of which the US has plenty and to spare—were to his job. His response? I never got anything from the hush-hush crowd that I could not read next day on the pages of the New York Times. And there is a reason for that, Johnson is supposed to have added. Intelligence people are experts in gathering information. Journalists are also experts in gathering information. The difference is that the journalists are usually better.

The story may or may not be true. Assuming it is, Johnson may have meant what he said. Or else he may have been deliberately downplaying the role of secret intelligence so as to conceal the fact that he knew more; after all, dissimulation is said to have been one of his outstanding qualities. I can think of several other interpretations. No matter. Presumably we shall never know.

Why this story? Because, a couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to hold a public lecture here in Jerusalem. My topic was, “Where did the Iranian Threat Go?” A riddle indeed, considering the number of times Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to the issue; not to mention his repeated threats to bomb Iran so as to prevent it from building a bomb.

I took the occasion to argue, as I have often done on this site among other places, that the Iranian nuclear threat to my country was largely a myth. As I spoke, I did not have to wait for the Q&A to know what my audience was thinking—I have been through it so many times before. Do you, as a scholar, have access to secret intelligence? No, I do not (nor am I sure I would like to; such access creates its own constraints). If so, how do you know what you claim to know? Good question, that: and one which I want to address here.

Point No. 1. I do not claim to know nearly as much as the intelligence services about how many centrifuges Iran has, where they are located, by how many meters of concrete they are protected, how much enriched uranium they have produced, etc. Here I am largely dependent on the journalists, who themselves derive much of their information from the spies, who almost always have their own agenda in mind in releasing it at the time, and in the form, they do.

Point No. 2. Information of the kind just referred to, however accurate, is meaningless on its own. To understand its significance it is first necessary to answer much broader questions. Such as the roots of Iran’s behavior; its objectives; and its constraints. Briefly, its national strategy and the role its nuclear program is playing within that strategy. When it comes to these problems, the information at the disposal of scholars is often quite as good as, if not better than, that of the spies or, for that matter, the journalists.

Point No. 3. When it comes to still broader questions, such as the impact of nuclear weapons on international relations, the history deterrence and of proliferation, and so on, scholars may well be better informed than either spies or journalists. The reason being that members of these professions are unlikely to have the leisure to look into such problems as thoroughly as they should.

Point No. 4. Spies and the agencies for which they work often come under political pressure to tell decision-makers what they want to hear. An outstanding, indeed outrageous, example was provided by the attempts of the Clinton and Bush administrations to “prove” the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What things did they not do, what stories did they not invent! Such as mobile laboratories for manufacturing germs, and God knows what else. I once had the pleasure of spending an hour with Hans Blix, the UN commissioner who headed the team appointed to find those weapons. He told me, as he has told others, how the Americans did it. Scholars, working in an academic environment, are much less likely to come under pressures of this kind.

Briefly, spies have their advantages. For any government, military, and even large corporation they are a must. But they cannot operate on their own. To some extent, this is recognized by the intelligence services themselves. Or why else recruit, train and use “analysts” as well as “collectors”?

I myself have some experience with this. Time upon time over the years, I have had meetings with intelligence people and journalists from all over the world. Quite a few visited my hometown near Jerusalem specifically in order to discuss various issues with me. Including events in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Time upon time, I expressed my surprise at the fact that they, who had been to those countries, came to see me, who had not. The answer I got was always the same: by adding context, you can explain to us what we have seen, heard, and experienced.

To which I can only say, Amen.

Where Did the Iranian “Threat” Go?

41l9c6MZegLAs the illustration accompanying this text shows, starting as long ago as 2000, the world has been filled with discussions of the terrible, but terrible, Iranian nuclear “threat.” However, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action having been signed in Lausanne in July 2015, the “threat” vanished almost overnight. Now that the dust has settled and the air is clean, I want to return to that topic. Doing so, I shall start with a general account and continue with an Israeli point of view; both because of the role Israel and Netanyahu have played in the story and because I myself, after all, am an Israeli.

First, the background. The origins of Iran’s nuclear program go back to the days of the Shah. The idea, at that time, was to deter the Soviets, whom not only the Shah but President Carter and his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, suspected of planning a drive through the Zagros Mountains to the Persian Gulf. This explains why the US, though not exactly enthusiastic about what the Iranians were doing, did nothing to oppose it.

The Shah having been deposed in 1978, the Islamic Republic took over. Eighteen or so months later Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, seeking to exploit the prevailing chaos in Iran, launched an unprovoked attack on his neighbor. However, he miscalculated; the war, which was supposed to be over in a few months or even weeks, lasted fully eight years. The demands, military and economic, which it made on both belligerents were enormous. The more so because, after 1982, the price of oil kept falling. The difference between the two countries was that Saddam had the Gulf countries to pay for his war whereas Iran did not. As a result, the Iranian nuclear program was suspended.

The war having ended in 1988, the Mullahs resumed their efforts. By then they had every reason to do so. Iran was surrounded by nuclear powers on all sides; proceeding counterclockwise, they were the Soviet Union/Russia, Pakistan, India, and Israel (which, unlike Iran had never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty). Not to mention Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was known to be working on his own program. Still things moved very, very slowly. So slowly, in fact, as to make one doubt whether the Iranians were really interested in building a bomb in the first place.

In 2002-2003 the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq again changed the situation. Sitting in Tehran, the Mullahs could see their country surrounded by American troops on all sides. Stationed in Iraq, several Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf—the Persian Gulf, nota bene—they formed an iron ring around Iran. The Mullahs had good reason to be worried. Partly because recent events had shown that, in a conventional war, their armed forces were no match for the American ones; and partly because, as the record since the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident shows only too clearly, one can never know which country the US will choose to bomb next.

Accordingly, the years immediately after 2003 were some of the most dangerous Iran ever went through. Scant wonder the nuclear program was accelerated. Come 2005-6, though, Tehran had good reason to heave a sigh of relief. With the Americans hopelessly stuck in both Iraq and Afghanistan and domestic criticism of both invasions growing, the threat to Iran diminished.

Enter Israel. Under the Shah, relations between Tehran and Jerusalem had been excellent. This changed after 1978, but not nearly as fast as most people believe; it may come as news to many readers that as late as the mid-1980s high-ranking Israeli military experts were still helping Iran fight Iraq. It was only after 1988 that things really started changing. Even so Jerusalem vastly exaggerated the threat. As I myself became aware as far back as 1992 when an Israeli officer, speaking confidentially, told me he had received official news that the Iranians already had the bomb.

Between then and 2015, not a year passed without the Israelis claiming that Iran would have the bomb in five years, or three, or one, or even in six months. Back in 2006 one Russian “expert” went so far as to publish what he said he knew was the exact day on which the Israelis would strike. As we now know, both the Iranian “threat” and the Israeli one were, to put it impolitely but accurately, bull.

1427730328899Which brings me to the last question: why did several Israeli prime ministers, Netanyahu above all, raise the ruckus in the first place? The answer goes back at least as far as the mid-1950s when Moshe Dayan, then chief of staff, suggested that Israel should behave like a “rabid dog.” By threatening to go to war (in self-defense, of course), it could loosen the money- and weapon strings in Washington and Bonn. This policy has always served Israel well, enabling it to push through its nuclear program among other things. Proof? In the whole of history, no other country has ever received so much money and so many weapons free of charge.

How close Israel has ever been to launching a military operation against Iran is hard to say. Judging by the fact that neither Prime Minister Begin before he destroyed the Iraqi Reactor nor Prime Minister Olmert before he did the same to the Syrian one ever uttered a single public threat, the chance was never great. As the saying goes, a barking dog does not bite; the more so because success depends more on surprise than on any other factor. Now that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is in force, it is down to practically zero, which is why talk about it has all but disappeared.

Rest thou in peace, dear Iranian “threat.” And while one never knows what some future Israeli prime minister will choose to do, I very much hope that it has been put to rest for a long, long time.

A Thirty Years’ War?

For those of you who have forgotten, here is a short reminder. The Thirty Years’ War started in May 1618 when the Protestant Estates of Bohemia revolted against the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. They threw his envoys out of the windows of the palace at Prague. Fortunately for them, the moat into which they fell was filled with rubbish and nobody was killed.

imagesHad the revolt remained local, it would have been suppressed fairly quickly. As, in fact, it was in 1620 when the Habsburgs and their allies won the Battle of the White Mountain. Instead it expanded and expanded. First the Hungarians and then the Ottomans were drawn in (though they did not stay in for long). Then came the Spaniards, then the Danes, then the Swedes, and finally the French. Some did less, others more. Many petty European states, cities, and more or less independent robber barons also set up militias and joined what developed into a wild free for all. For three decades armies and militias chased each other all over central Europe. Robbing, burning, raping, killing. By the time the Treaty of Westphalia ended the hostilities in 1648 the population of Germany had been reduced by an estimated one third.

The similarities with the current war in Syria are obvious and chilling. This war, too, started with a revolt against an oppressive ruler and his regime. One who, however nasty he might be, at any rate had kept things more or less under control. At first it was a question of various “liberal” Syrian factions—supposing such things exist—trying to overthrow Bashir Assad. Next it turned out that some of those factions were not liberal but Islamic, part of a much larger movement originating in Iraq and known, for short, as IS or Daesh. Next Hezbollah, which in some ways acts as an extension of Assad, and Iran, which had long supported Hezbollah against Israel, were drawn in. The former sent in fighters, the latter advisers and arms.

Even that was only the beginning. Smelling blood, the Kurds, whose territory straddles both Syria and Iraq, tried to use the opportunity to gain their independence. This necessarily drew in the Turks. To prevent its native Kurds from joining their brethren. Ankara started bombing them. To satisfy Obama, it also dropped a few bombs on IS. The US on its part started training some of the “liberal” militias, to no avail. US instructors did no better in Syria than their predecessors had done in Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq; what is surprising is that they, and their bosses in the White House, never learn.

Next the US itself entered the fray. Fearing casualties, though, it only did so to the extent of launching drone-strikes, which are more or less useless. The Russians, determined to avoid the loss of their only remaining base outside their own country and to keep Assad in place, launched airstrikes on some, but not all, the militias. The French, hoping to achieve God knows what, did the same. Fueling the conflict are the Saudis who will oppose anything the Iranians support. Too cowardly to send in their own useless army, they are trying to get rid of Assad by heavily subsidizing his enemies.

With so many interests, native and foreign, involved, a way out does not seem in sight. Nor can the outcome be foreseen any more than that of the Thirty Years’ War could be four years after the beginning of the conflict, i.e. 1622. In fact there is good reason to believe that the hostilities have just begun. Additional players such as Lebanon and Jordan may well be drawn in. That in turn will almost certainly bring in Israel as well. Some right-wing Israelis, including several ministers, actually dream of such a scenario. They hope that the fall of the Hashemite Dynasty and the disintegration of Jordan will provide them with an opportunity to repeat the events of 1948 by throwing the Palestinians out of the West Bank and into Jordan.

That, however, is Zukunftsmusik, future music as the Germans say. As of the present, the greatest losers are going to be Syria and Iraq. Neither really exists any longer as organized entities, and neither seems to have a future as such an entity. The greatest winner is going to be Iran. Playing the role once reserved for Richelieu, the great 17th century French statesman, the Mullahs are watching the entire vast area from the Persian Gulf to Latakia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean turn into a maelstrom of conflicting interests they can play with. Nor are they at all sorry to see Turks and Kurds kill each other to their hearts’ contents.

Finally, as happened in 1618-48, the main victim is the civilian population. Just as in 1618-48, people are being robbed, despoiled, and killed. Just as in 1618-48 the slave trade, especially in nubile females who can be raped and young boys who can be conscripted, is undergoing a revival. Not only in Syria, but in Iraq, where IS is fighting both the local Kurds and whatever ragtag units the Iraqi “Army” can field. Ere it is over the number of refugees desperately seeking to escape will rise into the millions. Many, not having anything to lose, are going to risk life and limb trying to reach Europe. Joining others from Libya and the rest of Africa, at least some will link with the Salafists, an extreme Muslim sect that is already very active in the continent’s cities. Of those who do, some will turn to terrorism. Terrorism, unless it can be contained, will increasingly be answered not just by extremism, the loss of civil rights and the breakdown of democracy—that is beginning to happen already—but by terrorism.

And whom will everyone blame? Israel, of course. But that is something we Israelis, and Jews, are used to.

In Re. Iran

Like most people, I am not terribly familiar with the complicated rules that govern the way the US Congress works and votes. Unlike most people, in re. Iran I do not think it matters very much. That is why I allow myself to look into the future as best I can. images

  1. Whatever happens, the Mullahs are not going to give up their nuclear program. Partly that is because of the number of times the US has waged war in or against foreign countries over the last half century or so. Partly because, not counting the US forces in the Gulf, they have three nuclear neighbors right in their backyard; and partly because Israel, which is not an NPT member, has repeatedly threatened to bomb them. That does not mean they are going to test any time soon. What it does mean is that they will continue to shape the program in such a way as to allow them to build the weapons fairly quickly in case they feel under threat. They will also continue to build increasingly sophisticated delivery vehicles in the form of ballistic missiles and, perhaps, cruise missiles.
  2. Whatever happens, the same Mullahs are not going to drop their bomb, if and when they have it, on anyone. No more so than the other members of the nuclear club, i.e. the US, the Soviet Union/Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea (which has recently resolved the latest of its countless crises with the South) did. It is indeed possible that the Iranians, in an attempt to further their political interests, will threaten to use the bomb. If so, however, they will hardly be able to do so in more crude and blatant a way than Truman did in 1948, Khruschev in 1956, Kennedy in 1962, Nixon in 1973, and so on and so on.
  3. Whatever happens, several other countries in the Middle East are going to push their nuclear programs forward. Just so as to be on the safe side. Among them are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Jordan as well. The only question is, how fast they will proceed and how long it will take them to produce results (whatever that may mean).
  4. Whatever happens, Iran’s nuclear program will continue to figure large in the ongoing wars between Democrats and the Republicans. Considering that elections are only a little more than a year away, and also the importance of the Jewish-American vote, this is just too good an issue for either side to drop. And even should they want to do so, there will always be Netanyahu to stir up things and ensure that they don’t.
  5. Whatever happens, the sanctions will gradually come to an end. Already now Russia, by agreeing to sell Iran SA-300 surface-to-air missiles, has occasioned a major breach in the international consensus. Delegations from China, Germany, France and Japan are flooding Tehran, seeking opportunities for trade. Pressure in this direction can only increase. History will not stand still merely because President Obama cannot agree with Congress, or the other way around. At a time when the world economy seems to be faltering, by and large the return to normalcy is a good thing. It should cause the price of oil to fall. Until it starts rising again, of course.
  6. Whatever happens, and occasional talk about an eventual nuclear-free Middle East notwithstanding, Israel will continue to maintain a formidable nuclear arsenal. One fully capable of wiping out Iran and/or quite some other countries within striking range of its ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, fighter-bombers, and submarines. Probably meaning, even without taking the submarines into account, at least three and a half thousand kilometers from Tel Aviv.
  7. Whatever happens, Netanyahu, as long as he stays in power, will continue to huff and puff about the “Iranian threat” and the urgent need to counter it. Partly he will do so in order to impress his electorate which, following years of sustained propaganda, has become paranoid and believes that no Iranian ever thinks of anything except for getting to paradise with its seventy-two “big breasted” virgins. And partly because, each time he does so, the spigots open and Israel gets more and more weapons from the US and Germany in particular. Speaking to the New York Times, Obama personally has offered help in building “a successor to Iron Dome.” Israeli reports also have it that he is prepared to help in finding solutions to the problem posed by the “attack tunnels” Hamas, and perhaps Hezbollah, are digging along the borders of the Gaza Strip and Southern Lebanon respectively.
  8. Whatever happens, Netanyahu, as long as he stays in power, will not launch an offensive against Iran. Partly that is because some of his advisers have repeatedly told him that such a strike may very well fail to achieve its aim. Partly because of the fear of Iranian retaliation, which is certain to follow; and partly because he knows that the US opposes to such a strike and may not rush to his assistance in case he runs into difficulties. Above all, however, it is because, as the so-called Barak tapes have recently shown once again, the man does not have the necessary guts. The only opponents he will wage war on are very weak ones such as Hamas.

And once he is gone? Remember that, a decade ago, Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, a much braver man than he, also threatened to attack Iran. And that nothing came of it at that time either.

Hiroshima, or Then There Will Be Ten

Exactly seventy years ago, on 6 August 1945, the US dropped the world’s first nuclear device on Hiroshima. Three days later it dropped the second one on Nagasaki. The total number of those who died either on the spot or later, as the result of radiation, was probably between 150,000 and 200,000. President Truman’s reasons for using the bomb have been in dispute ever since.


“Ways toward nuclear disarmament–PIR Center”

What has not been in dispute is that, ever since, the US has done everything it could to prevent other countries from obtaining the weapons it already had. Not that I blame it; any other Power in its position would have done exactly the same. The first country to which the policy was applied was Stalin’s Soviet Union. In 1941-45 Stalin had been known as “Uncle Joe.” Now, within the space of a few weeks or months, he was turned into a monster. One which, in some ways, was even worse than Adolf Hitler. Stalin was an atheist. Stalin was a Communist. Stalin was hell-bent on dominating the world. In seeking to realize that objective, he recognized no moral laws whatever. It was, all of it, in vain. Four years after Hiroshima the Soviet Union did in fact test its first bomb. And what happened? Nothing. Stalin did not invade Europe, as had been feared. Let alone unleash a third world war.

Confronted by a fait accompli, Washington switched it attention to its own allies, Britain and France. One could not, of course, accuse them of being atheists, or Communists, or non-democratic. Let alone of presenting a danger to the US, or seeking to dominate the world, or whatever. Some more benign reasons had to be invented. Some more benign reasons were invented. Such as, for example, the claim that, once the British and the French possessed their own nuclear arsenals, the Soviets might think they could attack them without necessarily involving the US, thus weakening NATO. The consequences would be terrible. Again, their efforts availed the Americans nothing, Britain tested its first bomb in 1952, France in 1960. And what happened? Nothing.

Next it was the turn of China. Its leader, Mao Zedong, was even worse than Stalin. Let alone his successors who, as détente took hold, had turned into more or less “responsible” and “calculable” actors. Mao was a revolutionary. Mao was a dictator. Mao was a Communist. Mao was a mass murderer. Had he not supported North Korea? Had he not sworn to regain Taiwan? Had he not dared call the US a paper tiger? And did not Khrushchev say that he had said that he was prepared to sacrifice three hundred million lives so as to put an end to imperialism? How could one permit such a man to put his finger on the trigger? In October 1964, he did. And what happened? Nothing.

Unlike China, Israel was a tiny country of two and a half million tucked away in the Middle East. It was also democratic. By no stretch of the imagination did it present a danger to the US or any of its allies. And yet the US under Kennedy did what it could to prevent Jerusalem from going nuclear. So much so that, by some accounts, Prime Minister Ben Gurion resigned over this very issue. This time the rationale was that an Israeli bomb would immediately lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. With Egypt, as the largest Arab country, in the lead. In fact, that did not happen. As of 2015, Egypt still does not have the bomb.

In 1974 the Indians set off what they called a “peaceful nuclear explosion” (PNE). No sooner had they done so than America’s ambassador to New Delhi, Daniel Moynihan, went to the foreign ministry. You have, he lectured them, done a terrible thing. Not because India might use the bomb, but because it would cause the “Moghuls” in Karachi to build a bomb of their own. By that logic, incidentally, the US should have avoided building the bomb out of fear that the Soviet Union would follow.

In the event, Moynihan was right. Ten years or so later, the “Moghuls” did in fact go nuclear. In 1998 both India and Pakistan tested their bombs. And what happened? Nothing.

And then it was the turn of North Korea. Everyone knew that the people in Pyongyang were as bad as anyone could be. They had set up a terrible dictatorship. They had developed a strange doctrine, known as Juche and roughly translatable as “we ourselves.” They starved their own people. They staged some dangerous incidents along the border between them and South Korea. They had the regime’s opponents torn to pieces by dogs (though this particular accusation later turned out to be a figment of someone’s imagination). In 2006, to the accompaniment of dire warnings, they tested their first bomb. And what happened? Nothing.

The logic behind the “international,” read mainly American, attempts to prevent proliferation is clear enough. Since 1945 no country has gone to war more often, and against as many opponents scattered all over the world, as the US has. Nor has any country more readily threatened to use its nuclear weapons. After all, it had far more of them than anyone else did. Conversely, each time another country obtains the bomb the number of those the US can attack without risking nuclear escalation goes down by one.

And then it was the turn of Iran. Iran is not a democracy (as if, judging by the fact that, in the past, quite some non-democratic countries acquired the bomb, it matters). Iran is not transparent (ditto). Iran supports terrorism (ditto). Should it develop the bomb, then that bomb may fall into the hand of terrorists. Etc., etc. Note that the rationales keep adapting themselves to circumstances. However, the objective remains always the same.

That is also why the details of the agreement with Iran, about which so much is being said and written, do not really matter. The controls may or may not be effective. They may or may not expire after ten years. Regardless, the Mullahs will continue their nuclear program so they can build the bomb if and when they need it. Partly that is because Iran is surrounded by nuclear countries on all sides. Partly, because of America’s habit of sending it troops to fight in or against other countries, with reason or without. One way or another, they will keep it in operation whether the rest of “the world,” agrees or not.

That is why, sooner or later, out of hundred and ninety or so countries on this earth there will be not nine nuclear ones but ten. And very little, if anything, will happen.

More May Be Better

“More may be better” was the title of an article published back in 1981 by the redoubtable political scientist Kenneth Waltz. Going against the prevailing wisdom, Waltz argued that nuclear proliferation might not be all bad. Nuclear weapons, he wrote, had prevented the US and the USSR from going to war against each other; as, by all historical logic since the days of Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC, they should have done. Instead they circled each other like dogs, occasionally barking and baring their teeth but never actually biting. Such was the fear the weapons inspired that other nuclear countries would probably follow suit. To quote Winston Churchill, peace might be the sturdy child of terror.

Since then over thirty years have passed. Though Waltz himself died in 2013, his light goes marching on. At the time he published his article there were just five nuclear countries (the US, the USSR, Britain, France, and China). Plus one, Israel, which had the bomb but put anybody who dared say so in jail. Since then three (India, Pakistan, and North Korea) have been added, raising the total to nine. Yet on no occasion did any of these states fight a major war against any other major, read nuclear, power.South_African_nuclear_bomb_casings

And how about Iran? First, note that no country has taken nearly as long as Iran did to develop its nuclear program. Started during the 1970s under the Shah, suspended during the 1980s as the Iranians were fighting Saddam Hussein (who had invaded Iran), and renewed in the early 1990s, that program has still not borne fruit. This suggests that, when the Iranians say, as they repeatedly have, that they do not want to build a bomb they are sincere, at least up to a point. All they want is the infrastructure that will enable them to build it quickly should the need arise. That is a desire they have in common with quite some other countries such as Sweden, Japan, and Australia.

Second, the real purpose of the Iranian program, and any eventual bomb that may result from it, is to deter a possible attack by the U.S. Look at the record; one never knows what America’s next president is going to do. There is a distinct possibility that another Clinton, who attacked Serbia, and another Bush, who attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, will occupy the White House from 2016. Thus caution is advised. The Mullahs have no desire to share the fate of Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Khadafy. The latter’s fate in particular gives reason for thought. In 2002-3, coming under Western pressure, Khadafy gave up his nuclear program. As his reward, no sooner did the West see an opportunity in 2011 than it stabbed him in the back, waged war on him, overthrew him, and had him killed. Leaving Libya in a mess from which it may never recover.

Third, Israel is in no danger. Alone among all the countries of the Middle East, Israel has what it takes to deter Iran and, if absolutely necessary, wage a nuclear war against it. What such a war might look like was described in some detail a few years ago by Anthony Cordesman, an American political scientist and former member of the National Security Council. His conclusion? The difference in size notwithstanding, the outcome would be to wipe Iran, but not Israel, off the map.

Netanyahu has Iran in his head and effectively used it to win the elections. Yet truth to say, no Iranian leader has ever directly threatened Israel. To be sure, neither Iran’s presidents nor the Mullahs like the Zionist Entity. They do not stand to attention when Hatikvah is played. They have even had the chutzpah—how dare they?—to deny the Holocaust. Yet all they have said is that, if Israel attacked them, they would respond in kind. Also that “rotten” Israel would end up by collapsing under its own weight. All this serves to divert attention away from their real purpose. That purpose, as I just said, is to deter the U.S. And to draw as much support in the Moslem world as verbal attacks on Israel always do.

Finally, morality. Are the Iranians really as bad as some people, especially Netanyahu who would like to fight Teheran to the last drop of Western blood, always claim? If so, why did Iran sign the non-proliferation treaty whereas Israel did not? During the three and a half decades since the fall of the Shah the U.S has waged war first against (or in) Grenada; then Panama; then Iraq; then Serbia (in Bosnia); then Serbia again (in Kosovo); then Afghanistan; then Iraq again; then Libya. In many of these worthy undertakings it was supported by its allies which, like jackals, joined in the feast.

The Iranians are not angels—far from it. They have meddled in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, as they still do. They have also assisted terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas. But everything is relative. They have not waged large-scale warfare against any other country. Let alone bombed it or invaded it.

And that, in the final analysis, is all that matters.

And Everything Else be Damned

netanyahu-speaks-at-un-about-iranian-bomb-2Most people think that the recent fracas between Jerusalem and Washington is about Iran. They are wrong. Should Israel and Iran engage in a nuclear exchange, says U.S Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman, then it is the latter and not the former that will be wiped off the map. Nor are the mullahs unaware of that fact. That has not prevented Israel from talking about destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Both Netanyahu and his predecessors have been doing so for over a decade. Since success depends on surprise—as when it bombed the Iraqi reactor in 1981 and the Syrian one in 2007—this talk itself proves it has no serious intention of carrying out its threats. Nor is Netanyahu the man to do it. For all his frequent posturing, he does not have the guts.

The threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the United States is much smaller still. In fact it would be comparable to the one mounted by North Korea since it detonated its first device nine years ago; meaning, close to zero. Arguably, indeed, possession of the bomb would compel Tehran to become more cautious than, by most measures, it already is. Thus the bomb would contribute to stability in the Middle East, not detract from it. That, at any rate, is what, to-date, nuclear weapons have done in every single region where they have been introduced.

Amidst these questions, whether Netanyahu is or is not supported by his own security service is small potatoes. As former U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, Israel does not really have a foreign policy. All it has are internal politics of which foreign policy is a third-rate extension. It is mainly internal politics that have driven Netanyahu to emphasize the Iranian “threat.” Not without success. Only yesterday a neighbor of mine, a highly-educated lawyer, told me that, much as he disliked Netanyahu, he was going to vote for him because of the threat in question.

Which reminds us that, in Israel, it is elections time. The last two elections were held in 2009 and 2013. In neither of them was there any question but that Likud would win and Netanyahu hold on to his dearly-beloved job. This time things are different. One reason for this is that, economically speaking, things are not going as well as they should. The outcome is high prices—for a couple of years now, not a day has passed without the media publishing comparisons with other countries, almost all of them unfavorable to Israel. In particular, the burden on young couples out to purchase their first flat has become all but intolerable.

The other reason is the creation of a new left-center party under the joint leadership of Yitzhak Herzog and former foreign minister Tziporah (“Tzippi”) Livni. Both Herzog and Livni have the charisma of earthworms. Many people, though, see them as preferable to Netanyahu who is regarded as glib and untrustworthy.

Netanyahu needs a boost. There is not much he can do about prices. Nor do people really believe him when he says, as he has been doing for some years, that he will do something. But he can try to strike poses in foreign relations. The murder a couple of weeks ago of four Jews in a French kosher supermarket seemed to present him with a great opportunity to do just that. What could be better than to be photographed while marching arm in arm with other heads of state, acting not merely as the Prime Minister of Israel but as the head of the Jewish people world-wide?

Unfortunately for him, it all went wrong. President Hollande of France, it turned out, did not really want him there. To be sure, he could hardly prohibit Netanyahu from coming. But he did take the opportunity to humiliate him by failing to receive him at the Elysée Palace. Worse still, when Netanyahu arrived there was no proper reception-party waiting to take him from the airport to town. Israel TV showed him standing in the rain, umbrella over his head, waiting for a bus and looking forlorn. Elections or not, that is not the kind of image a prime minister wants or needs.

So what to do? Unlike former Prime Ministers Menahem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu cannot claim credit for any important foreign policy deed. Like his one-time mentor, former Prime-Minister Yitzhak Shamir, all he can do is try and maintain the status quo. Partly that is because he does not have the necessary authority over his own party and the Israeli right in general. Partly because, as I said, he just doesn’t have the guts. But maintaining the status quo does not yield many votes. At any rate not enough to make him feels secure.

So use your Jewish-American card. Get yourself invited to the U.S. If not to the White House, with whose occupant Netanyahu has long been at loggerheads, then to address both Houses of Congress. The procedure is somewhat unusual, but that does not bother the prime minister too much. After all, the U.S, too, is facing elections in less than two years. Consequently the pressure it can bring to bear on Israel is limited. It is even possible that, by seeming to twist President Barak Obama’s arm, Netanyahu will actually gain some points with parts of the electorate.

And so it goes. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will huff and puff. Presumably more so behind closed doors than in public. They may even threaten to “reconsider” America’s relationship with Israel. As, for example, Gerald Ford and Kissinger did in 1975 when Rabin did not agree to a proposed interim agreement with Egypt. However, real change will only happen, if it does, after the next American elections.

By that time Netanyahu will be safely back in the saddle, or so he hopes. And everything else be damned.


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