Provocations: Switzerland and Iran

29 November 2009

Provocations: Switzerland and Iran

By Gwynne Dyer

There are only four minarets in Switzerland: one for every hundred thousand Muslims in the country. Swiss Muslims keep a low profile, so as not to excite the numerous people in the country who hate and fear them. But since those people are numerous, a political party can prosper by demanding a referendum on whether further minarets should be banned in Switzerland. With luck, that will provoke protests and demonstrations by Muslims.

There is only one nuclear power station under construction in Iran, at Bushehr, and none that are operational. The fuel for the Bushehr reactor will be supplied by Russia, under a contract that was signed long ago. So when the Iranian government orders ten new uranium enrichment plants for reactors that have not even been designed yet, you may safely assume that it is trying to provoke an attack on Iran.

“Provocation” is no longer a fashionable word, but the tactic it describes has never been more popular. The 9/11 attacks on the United States, for example, were meant to provoke the United States into invading Afghanistan.

During the late 1970s and the 1980s, Osama bin Laden watched Washington lure the Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan and cripple it in a long guerilla war. (Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser in 1977-80, still boasts about it in his after-dinner speeches.) Bin Laden fought in that war, supported by American money and weapons. With 9/11, he planned to do the same to the Americans themselves.

Even those officials in Washington who understood bin Laden’s strategy could not avoid falling into the trap, because American public opinion demanded a prompt military response to the outrage. What makes provocation so effective is that it often works even when your opponent knows what you are up to. He has to act in order to retain credibility with his own political clientele.

So let us consider the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which sponsored the referendum on 28 November that banned the construction of new minarets in the country. The SVP has become the largest party in the Swiss parliament by playing on popular fears that immigrants are taking over the country. About twenty percent of the Swiss population are foreign residents, attracted there by the country’s prosperity, but only five percent – some 400,000 people – are Muslims.

Muslims have nevertheless become the main target for the SVP’s anti-immigrant propaganda, because they inspire more fear than the others. During the referendum, the SVP plastered on every flat surface in the country with a poster showing a Swiss flag covered with six black minarets (which looked remarkably like missiles), with a black-clad Muslim woman in full niqab gazing on the scene. Religion, weapons, an oppressed woman who was probably going to produce lots of Muslim babies – it had it all.

The SVP won 29 percent of the votes in the last election in 2007, which is embarrassing enough for the Swiss. In this referendum, it got 57 percent of the votes, so it has clearly found the right button to press. Its ultimate goal, however, is to provoke Switzerland’s Muslims into protesting publicly against its policies. If they can be lured into doing that, the backlash among the Swiss could give the SVP complete dominance in the next election.

The next election is probably what is driving policy in Iran, too. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the conservative clerical faction with which he is allied lost most of their political credibility during the rigged elections and the subsequent street protests last spring. They have stabilised the situation by killing dozens of protesters in the streets and jailing and torturing hundreds of others, but that is only a temporary solution.

The only thing that could rebuild popular support for the present government is a foreign attack on Iran. That can only come from the United States and/or Israel, and what would motivate them to do such a thing? Well, we could announce that we are going to build ten new uranium enrichment plants.

Think about it. Why would Iran ANNOUNCE such a thing in advance? Hitherto, it has always kept what it is doing in the nuclear domain secret as long as possible. Besides, it simply lacks the resources to build ten uranium enrichment plants at the same time, or even five. Moreover, it knows that this announcement will panic those in Israel and the United States who obsess about Iranian nuclear weapons. So what’s the point?

The point of the provocation is to get the Americans and/or the Israelis to attack Iran. The country is too big for them to invade, so the attacks would just be air strikes. Whatever they destroyed could be repaired after they stop – and they would stop. Iran can shut the Gulf to all tanker traffic by using sea-skimming missiles, and the world cannot do without Gulf oil for more than a few weeks.

If the US or Israel attacks Iran, Ahmadinejad and the clerics will be in power for another ten years. That’s worth putting up with a few bombs for. The decision has been made in Tehran. Now Washington has to decide if it is going to fall for the provocation.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“During…clientele”)