By BARIN KAYAOĞLU
15 December 2011
Things are going badly for the Middle East these days.
Last month, a high-ranking general in Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned that, if the United States and and/or Israel attack Iran, they would retaliate against NATO’s missile defense radar in Turkey. General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who is in charge of the IRGC’s ballistic missiles, said the following: “If any [attack] is staged against Iran, we will target NATO’s missile shield in Turkey and will then attack other targets.”
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, calmly urged Turkey to refrain from deploying the missile shield. But Member of Parliament (MP) Hossein Ebrahimi, who is Mr. Boroujerdi’s deputy in the commission, followed General Hajizadeh’s line by arguing that Iran has a “natural right” to hit targets in Turkey.
Although Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi tried to downplay the hostile remarks yesterday, it is doubtful whether Iran can put the genie back in the bottle.
Putting Oneself in Iran’s Shoes
In order to make sense of Iran’s foreign policy behavior, we need to understand the psychological trauma of three invasions in the twentieth century – the most recent and bloodiest at the hands of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The Iran-Iraq War, which started in 1980 and ended 8 years and nearly 800,000 dead Iranians later, is a constant reminder to Iranians that they cannot take their security for granted. When Saddam attacked in 1980, the United Nations did not condemn the aggression. When Saddam used chemical weapons against the Iranian military throughout the war, the world simply watched.
Today, as far as the Iranians are concerned, there is nothing to protect them from a similar fate. That is the primary reason why Tehran may develop nuclear weapons at some point. That is also the reason why Iranians do not want Turkey to station a missile defense that could neutralize their still-conventional missiles.
But whatever gains that Iranian leaders are trying to achieve, threatening Turkey only worsens their already fragile position. Just as international threats and sanctions have only intensified Iranian resolve to continue with the nuclear program, threats against Turkey will have a similar effect. While Turkish people and their leaders have repudiated claims that NATO’s missile shield would help to protect Israel, Iranian threats might force them to reconsider their position and keep the missile defense.
Iran, Israel, Turkey, United States: The Four-Way Mexican Standoff
If threatening Turkey is so foolish, then why are Iranian leaders doing it? Much of it has to do with Syria, Iran’s erstwhile ally. While Ankara supports the uprisings against Bashar al-Assad, Tehran is throwing its weight behind the Syrian President. Geopolitics is the pure and simple reason: Without Syria, Iran would have significant logistical difficulties in supporting Hezbollah and HAMAS, its most effective deterrents against Israel. But with the NATO shield in Turkey keeping watch over its missiles, a weakened Hezbollah and HAMAS would diminish Iran’s leverage against Israel. And such a development may make an American and/or Israeli attack against Iran more feasible.
The scene resembles a Western movie with Israel, the United States, and Iran pointing guns at each other’s heads. Turkey, for its part, looks like the semi-puzzled cowboy that would rather walk away from this mess. With millions of lives in danger, that is really the only smart option.
But how can the standoff be defused? The first thing to do is to understand the respective parties’ insecurities. With nearly 150 thousand U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and NATO bases in Turkey, it would be hard to convince Iran that it is not surrounded by hostile countries. Nevertheless, and despite the negative effects of recent allegations that Iranian agents tried to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, the Obama administration needs to signal to the Iranian government that it has no interest in escalating the current situation (assuming, of course, that cooler heads still prevail in Washington).
Iran should also understand the other side’s concerns and refrain from brinksmanship. Although the recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program is not the damning document that spells doom-and-gloom (as some media outlets purport it to be), the parts on the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program is worrisome. For the sake of peace, Iran has to come clean with its nuclear program sooner rather than later.
Most important, Iranian leaders should stop jeopardizing their country by forcing Turkey to the Western side. Attacking Turkey would only give the United States and/or Israel the pretext that they need to strike at Iran. While a unilateral Israeli attack would not have the desired effect, a sustained U.S.-led NATO action would be extremely hurtful to Iran. And although Iranian threats to shut down oil shipments from the Persian Gulf would also be extremely destructive for the world economy, Iran would emerge from such a scenario in the worst possible way.
To paraphrase an old saying about paranoia, just because Iran, the United States, Israel, and Turkey are paranoid does not mean they should start shooting at each other. In fact, it would be best if they could all slowly holster their guns and step away from each other before they cause irreparable damage to the world.
Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.