The war no one wants

What we need to do to pull us from the brink in Iran and Syria

Written by Arundhati Ghose | Published: March 3, 2012 12:44 am

What we need to do to pull us from the brink in Iran and Syria

Israeli diplomats are targeted in third countries,allegedly by Iran,supposedly in revenge for Iranian nuclear scientists killed allegedly by Israel. This was just one more step towards what may well become a major international crisis.

Who knows when it will start,nor why the slide to conflict started. It could have been with the Iranian Revolution itself,or the more recent vitriolic attacks by Iranian leaders against the existence of Israel,or even the yet more recent emergence of a Shia Iraq after the second Iraq war and the sharpening of sectarian divides in the region,or even the resumption of the Iranian nuclear programme after the use of chemical weapons by Saddam’s Iraq against Iranian cities. However,all of this is today almost irrelevant,of more interest to political historians as they will search for explanations in the future. Today,the rhetoric,the preparations and indeed the dangers of war appear imminent; yet,no one,at least no major country,even those indulging in these fearful preparations,seems to really want a war.

A few days ago,a media report quoted the Israeli prime minister and the defence minister informing US officials that they might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities without US consent or even information. Iran has responded with the warning that it would use the Hezbollah in Lebanon to attack Israel,on a second front,if it is attacked. The US,in election mode,balances its rhetoric with increased sanctions,both through the UN and unilaterally with its allies in economically reeling Europe. Iran,it is reported,has offered its military sites for inspection by the IAEA,having refused to do so two weeks ago,and has declared once again that the possession of nuclear weapons is “a sin”,even while continuing its threats to the existence of Israel,and as China and Russia warn against military action.

And then there is Syria,a virulent manifestation of the growing friction between Shia and Sunni,the bloodshed on the one hand and talk of arming the dissidents,whoever they might be,on the other,and the continued rumblings of the so-called Arab Spring in almost all the countries of the region. Ambitious,if tiny,Qatar,and a more tremulous Saudi Arabia,lead an overt “Arab” campaign against Syria and a more subtle one against Shia Iran. If this were a movie,warlike music would have started and the sound of anonymous marching boots (quite out of date,though it might be) reverberating across the airwaves.

Recently,a visiting member of the attentive class in Britain asked why India had not sent a minister to the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis when both the US secretary of state and the British foreign minister tried to signal the desires of the “international community”,led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Like most other countries of the world,India is aware that the crisis in Syria and the threat of war in Iran are closely linked,and like most major countries of the world,India is against war. So,when closely questioned,are the main protagonists in the current drama. If no major country really wants a war,what is making

the world lurch towards the inevitability of it?

What occupies much less space,in opinions,in convictions,in print or rhetoric,are the possible but likely global consequences of a war in the region,some immediate and some with dangerous spin-offs. All this is known,but curiously,not directly linked in the stumble towards catastrophe. Instead,at best,theories on doctrines for the use of force are bandied about in intellectual circles or concern is voiced over the resulting spiral upwards of the price of oil. This war,if there is one,will,however,spawn such malignant forces in the world,that not just the global economy but international peace and security will enter a prolonged period of instability and crises like 9/11,26/11 and others will look,in retrospect,like street accidents. This war will not be between the armed forces of states,but with forces difficult to identify,groups with no uniforms or even addresses,some embedded within the societies of all countries. After all,many of the present faultlines may well be the unintended consequences of a misjudged reaction to the attack on the mainland of the US,if that country’s former secretary of state’s narrative is accepted. The focus needs to be not as much on the causes as the consequences.

Is this unwanted war inevitable,then? Not if those against it are able to get together to stop it. Brazil and Turkey tried to mediate in Iran’s stand-off with the West,only to be dismissed by the West as seeking to punch above their weight; India,Brazil and South Africa,representing the IBSA countries sent special envoys to Syria in an effort to promote restraint on the part of the Syrian government,but with little success. China has proposed a “roadmap”,Russia “seven steps”,all in an effort to stave off what seems to be increasingly inevitable. There is so much diplomatic activity,as leaders of various countries try to defuse the proximate triggers to the possibility of a larger conflagration,as foreign ministers and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan try to douse local fires. If,instead,an IBSA-plus group,including countries like Indonesia,maybe even Germany and Turkey,despite their acceptability or otherwise to the main protagonists,were to coordinate action,talk to the election-preoccupied US and France,to Russia and China and to Israel,Iran and Saudi Arabia through the Arab League,to offer international guarantees of security and non-intervention for a specific period,perhaps under the aegis of a timorous UN,this might give the world an opportunity to take a deep breath and step back from the brink. The “local dousing of fires” would then get some space within which to press ahead in Syria,in Israel,in the Sunni Arab states of the Arab League and even in an Iran facing an important election to the Majlis. Engaging election-preoccupied states will not be easy,but no one says it will be an easy task.

Maybe it is too late to call for this “freeze”. As it were,maybe it will fail or not start at all. But at least the international community would have tried to avert a calamitous world war.

The writer,a former diplomat,was India’s ambassador to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament,

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