Israel should consider the Arab response to a military strike on Iran

In 1981, the Arab world accepted passively Israel’s strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Today’s Middle East is a very different place. Young revolutionaries have broken through the fear barrier, political Islamism is on the rise and  the Arab uprisings are ongoing. All these developments would have implications if Israel were to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

By Nervana Mahmoud

On 7June 1981, Israel attacked and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. That was the day the Arabs lost their nuclear ambition.

The code name was, Operation Opera, but the opera wasn’t Nabucco and its chorus of Hebrew slaves, but rather Aida and its triumphal march. The Israelis had managed to catch everyone by surprise, and the result was a perfect example of Sun Tzu’s philosophy and Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous slogan “shock and awe.”

As Israel seeks to reaffirm its long-term strategy of deterrence and pre-emption 30 years later, we are facing a similar scenario; but this time it is the Iranians’ turn. The world is pre-occupied with the possible military strike against Iran and its potential risks and benefits. However, very few have considered the implications for the Arab world and how the Arab street would respond to such an attack.

There is no doubt that predictions in such crises are unwise and even foolish, though there are some realities in the Arab world that would be unlikely to change regardless of the outcome of any military scenario, even if this outcome were decisive, successful and without any retaliation.

First, forget the shock: in contrast to 1981, when many Arabs didn’t know about Saddam’s nuclear reactor and those who knew didn’t expect it to be destroyed easily, the endless debate and the tough rhetoric from various Israeli leaders have eliminated any element of surprise this time round.  Even my taxi driver in Cairo, during my last visit, asked when –not if —  Israel would bomb Iran.

Second, forget the awe: The young Arab men and women who defied teargas, live ammunition, bombing and ruthless murderers are very different from earlier Arab generations. They were not deterred by dictators; and they won’t be frightened by an Israeli strike on Iran. Deterrence, a policy that has been ingrained in the psyche of Israel since its establishment, is detested by these fearless youth who view it as demeaning and counter-productive.

Third, the Islamic awakening: Islamists in many Arab countries are the new emerging power. They have fewer links with Iran, but share its hostility to Israel. Their sponsors in the Gulf States would probably be relieved if Iran lost its nuclear capabilities but would not be grateful to the Israelis and won’t change their ideology accordingly.

Fourth, old players won’t disappear. A defeated Iran would certainly weaken its allies in the region, but would not make them vanish from the scene. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has established itself firmly with a robust financial, economical and social network. The Party of God might abandon the Almighty, but would not disarm and can cause Israel an incurable migraine.

Any successful attack on Iran would be just like the one on Osirak- a Pyrrhic victory.  Following the initial “we did it again” celebration, Israel would soon realize that it had replaced a loud, reckless, distant enemy with one located geographically closer, equally hostile, but not as reckless. Islamic groups in the Arab world acknowledge their inability to fight Israel in the near future, but they haven’t dropped the idea from their long-term agenda- yet!

The era of easy territorial conquest is past. Any future war would be urban, with many potential non-conventional players involved. Sooner or later, Israel would be forced to revise its long–standing strategy.

For years, Arabs and Jews have been locked in a bitter conflict. Rather than focusing on a viable solution, both sides have invested so much in a meaningless cycle of deterrence versus resistance; neither concept is decisive, but both are hollow. Therefore, the conflict is likely to continue until someone is brave enough to break the futile cycle and invent a different wheel, hopefully a peaceful one this time.

Nervana Mahmoud is a British-Egyptian anesthesiologist and a Middle East analyst. She blogs at Nervana and tweets at @nervana_1.