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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Empty rituals and a deadly threat

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Riots may be the relative calm before the storm

It might seem a stretch, but observing the protests convulsing the Muslim world takes me back to the days when I boarded at an Auckland private school.

There was a tradition of performing mass hakas at rugby matches to spur on the first XV. The students were 550-odd Pakeha from comfortable middle-class backgrounds, two Maori brothers and a pair of Tongan princelings, so our hakas were as authentic as the All Black version back then.

Nevertheless, we performed them with fervour, because to do otherwise might have given the impression that we lacked school spirit. (School spirit was monitored and, where necessary, enforced through a system known as "seniority", a Maoist-style euphemism for organised bullying.)

Leaving aside those who murdered the American diplomats and whose agenda clearly went beyond expressing anger over an anti-Islam video, the protesters resemble my schoolmates and me in that they come across as sincere, yet slightly brainwashed. They know that tradition demands an expression of outrage and, by the beard of the Prophet, they're going to put on a good show to ensure the world understands just how truly, deeply offended they are.

The discrepancy between the offence - a trashy piece of black propaganda from the outer reaches of the lunatic fringe - and the reaction reinforces the impression a rather empty ritual is being played out.

There's also an echo of the blue rinse censorship brigade: people with strong views reading or watching something they know will offend them, and then complaining about being offended so vociferously that they focus attention on a production or publication that would otherwise disappear without trace.

We have been here before, and in much more sinister and far-reaching way in the case of the fatwa on writer Salman Rushdie. It may even be that this is the relative calm before the storm: the looming confrontation over Iran's apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.

We're now in the phoney war phase of claim and counter-claim, naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and vows of retaliation if the other side is silly enough to start something. It's reminiscent of the lead-up to the second Gulf War, the difference being that we know Iran has a nuclear programme even if we're not entirely sure how advanced it is or what its objectives are.

There are several troubling aspects to this crisis. First, it appears as if the assessment of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear programme is based on intelligence provided by the same spy agencies who were convinced Saddam Hussein had an Aladdin's Cave of weapons of mass destruction. Not a trace of this arsenal has ever been found.

Second, the most gung-ho advocates of a pre-emptive strike that could trigger war across the Middle East and push the teetering global economy off the cliff are the leaders of the only nuclear-armed nation in the region: Israel. When you look at in that light, it seems we're heading for a potentially disastrous confrontation essentially to ensure Israel retains its regional nuclear monopoly.

Israel has never formally acknowledged it has a nuclear arsenal although the world takes it for granted, an assumption encouraged by the Jewish state's consistent refusal to sign nuclear non-proliferation treaties. The logic seems to be that as long as it doesn't admit to having nuclear weapons, Israel can insist that nobody else in the Middle East should have them.

Third, the view that a nuclear-armed Iran is unthinkable is at odds with the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) which arguably prevented a third world war between the West and the Soviet bloc. Despite decades of intense ideological and geopolitical struggle and numerous proxy wars and potential flashpoints, the Cold War never turned hot because both sides knew the consequences would be catastrophic.

Israeli hawks would argue that rhetoric from Iranian leaders, notably President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, about wiping their country off the map shows we're dealing with fanatics - a nation of suicide bombers - rather than rational people. I find it hard to believe that Iran's leaders are sanguine over the prospect of annihilation that would surely follow a nuclear strike on Israel.

Furthermore, Israel's attacks on an Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981 and a suspected Syrian site in 2007 suggest it will not countenance any Arab/Persian nation having the bomb.

Recently Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu escalated his demands for the Obama Administration to act against Iran, to the point that some commentators accuse him of interfering in the US election. Having observed the Israeli tail wag the US dog for decades, the rest of the world wonders what's new.

- NZ Herald

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