LONDON — 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 is 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 10 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 U.S. 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 guerrilla 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 to retain credibility with his own political clientele.

So let us consider the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which sponsored the referendum on Nov. 28 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 20 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 of the SVP’s anti-immigrant propaganda, because they inspire more fear than the others. During the referendum, the SVP plastered 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, and 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 stabilized 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 U.S. and/or Israel, and what would motivate them to do such a thing? Well, Iran could announce its was going to build 10 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 10 uranium enrichment plants at the same time, or even five. Moreover, it knows that this announcement will panic those Israelis and Americans 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 airstrikes. Whatever they destroyed could be repaired after they stop — and they would stop. Iran can shut the Persian 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 U.S. or Israel attacks Iran, Ahmadinejad and the clerics will be in power for another 10 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.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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