Edition 44 Volume 2 - December 16, 2023
Iran, Israel and the Middle East
Iranian dynamics in the Middle East -
Wael Al-AssadWith the rapid changes in the Middle East, all the regional powers are cautiously reassessing their political strengths and weaknesses.
The neo-conservative factor
Arshin Adib-MoghaddamIran, Israel and the US share a "common fate": regional stability cannot be secured without a pragmatic consensus among them.
The significance of the Iranian threat -
Ephraim KamThe acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran may encourage Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia to develop their own nuclear capabilities.
Whither the Persian-Jewish alliance? -
Trita ParsiIsraeli pressure for a hawkish US policy on Iran only strengthens the strategic value of continued involvement in the conflict for Iran.
Iranian dynamics in the Middle East
The Middle East is poised at a unique moment in its long and often turbulent history. With the rapid changes in the security structure of the Middle East, all the regional powers are cautiously reassessing their political strengths and weaknesses and re-evaluating their perceptions of threats and challenges.
Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Israel are the main regional players and are all reshuffling their cards for different reasons. Israel is trying to maximize its profits from the changing security environment, Egypt is trying to preserve and enhance its role in Middle East affairs as the traditional leader of the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is exercising damage-control of the impact of the changing world around it, while Syria and Iran are trying to minimize losses and to gain international acceptance and reinstitution as important elements in any future regional security and stability arrangement.
Iran is a unique case among these players due to a number of internal and external factors. These factors are crucial and important in the game of pull and tug with its Arab neighbors, Israel and the US. Despite violent upheavals, a bloody war with Iraq, internal political tensions, power struggles among the ruling elite, and external threats and pressures Iran has managed not only to survive but also to maintain a considerable degree of political stability.
Contrary to prevailing misconception, Iran has an internal pluralistic and vibrant political and social dialogue, and a diverse and active civil society. A myriad of pragmatists, moderates, traditionalists, radicals and hardliners are all part of the internal discourse.
The major events that emerged after the end of bipolarity and the cold war have heightened Iran's sense of danger and compounded its threat perceptions. The eight-year war with Iraq, a byproduct of US strategy of containment, the nuclearization of India and Pakistan, the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States and its allies, the continuous pressures over Iran in the IAEA to strip it from any potential nuclear capability, the international tolerance and silence over Israel's nuclear arsenal, the adoption of aggressive strategies of preemption are all elements that conspired to change the balance of power in the Middle East and heighten Iran's sense of fear and danger.
Naturally, like any other nation under external threat, security and national pride override any demands for freedom, human rights and democracy. Even in the US people have accepted to curtail civil rights under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Fear is a powerful antidote to freedom.
These threat perceptions and dangers allowed the theocratic government and the Shi'ite hardliner clergy to consolidate their grip over the levers of power in Iran, and to tolerate a limited degree of political pluralism.
The alarming deterioration in security in Iraq as US forces find it difficult to cope has made Iraq a blessing and a curse at the same time to Iran. With the presence of the US, Iran is flanked from both sides by the forces of the only superpower in the world, a superpower that considers Iran a member of the "axis of evil". This is enough reason for any country to be gravely alarmed.
On the other hand, Iraq with its estimated 60 percent Shi'ite Muslim population with strong ties to the Iranian people could be the trump card for Iran to improve its status if it plays its hand smartly. Until now, Iran seems to be playing the cards with finesse and subtlety. Iran has, at least publicly, kept a distance, maintaining a wait-and-see approach, while covertly encouraging Iraqi Shi'ites to do the same until American intentions regarding the shape of Iraq's political future become clearer.
The mounting resistance against the Americans has been coming, until now, from Iraqi Sunni Muslims who are finding it hard to let go of their historic hold on power in Iraq. This situation presents a serious dilemma to the Americans, as the ascent of Iraqi Shi'ites to power could create a power structure in Iraq that might adopt Iran's theocratic example if the Americans mess things up.
It is obvious that this scenario, of two powerful neighboring Shi'ite states, is unacceptable to the US as it moves ahead with its plans to reshape the Middle East. It is also obvious from a security point of view that the US has no intention of allowing Iraq to rebuild its army, at least in the foreseeable future, or of really withdrawing. The US intends to maintain a strong military presence in the form of bases that would serve as deterrence and a subtle threat to any state in the region that should contemplate overstepping its role as perceived by the US.
Such a permanent US military presence would also serve another important goal. It would free the US from reliance on traditional allies in the Arab states and permit it to freely pursue its agenda of its Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative.
Arab-Iranian relations, meanwhile, can best be described as a love-hate relationship. Iran has a mixed record in terms of Gulf and Arab security. Although Iran no longer seeks to export its religious revolutionary model to neighboring and Arab states, many of its neighboring small states, particularly those with a partially Shi'ite population, feel threatened by the sheer size of Iran and its military might. With Iraq out of the game, American military presence is not only welcomed, but also perceived as a security necessity.
On the other hand, there is a sense of fraternity between the two peoples, Arabs and Iranians, as they share a common history and religion. They also see eye-to-eye on the oldest and most sensitive conflict in the region, namely the Arab-Israel conflict. Both are disillusioned by biased American policies toward Israel and the blind strategic alliance between Israel and the US, particularly under the present neo-conservative administration.
The issue of WMDs is also another common area of understanding, as they feel they are being singled out to prevent them from acquiring nuclear technology, even for peaceful use, while Israel is allowed to maintain the fifth most sophisticated nuclear arsenal in the world.
The only obvious winner of this regional political landscape is Israel, which did not hesitate to manipulate the war on terrorism to its advantage by drawing cynical comparisons between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Palestinian struggle for freedom from occupation and quest for an independent state. To further its military superiority, conventionally and unconventionally, Israel is fueling the rhetoric against Iran's nuclear program and its ties to terrorism, exploiting undercurrents of western Islamo-phobia and feeding fears in the Gulf over Iran's conventional military power as a threat to Gulf stability.
The fact is that Iran now is a far less modern military power than it was under the Shah or during the Iran-Iraq war. Most of Iran's military hardware is aging, second rate, and worn down, while it is being denied access to modern weaponry and technology to replace what it has. Iran's weapons imports during 2023-2003 amounted to $500 million in comparison to $2 billion in the years 1996-1999. This level of import is only about 35 to 50 percent of what is required to modernize its forces.
The fears of Iranian military power have been exaggerated politically by the US and Israel to create demand in the smaller Gulf states for three things: an American military presence, new weapons, and a need for a regional security structure or arrangement that includes Israel and external powers, while keeping the balance of power totally in favor of Israel.
This imbalanced status-quo makes peace in the region totally dependant on Israel's interests and good intentions rather than any systematic guarantees for military stability.- Published 16/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Wael Al-Assad is currently the director of the Multilateral Relations and Disarmament Department at the League of Arab States. He has worked for over 30 years in regional and international relations and disarmament affairs. The opinions expressed in this article are his and do not necessarily reflect the position of the League of Arab States.
The neo-conservative factor
In the absence of official inter-state relations between Iran and Israel on the one side and Iran and the United States on the other, there is no avoiding the fact that much of what is happening between the countries is influenced by the activities of "sub-state" institutional actors who have filled the political vacuum left behind by the governments. One side effect of this constellation is that the American foreign policy-making process vis-a-vis Iran is heavily penetrated by neo-conservative functionaries and activists with close links to Jewish lobbying organizations and the Likud party in Israel. Let me frame the review of the evidence for this statement with two concrete questions: How pervasive is the neo-conservative-Likudnik nexus? How much leverage does it have on the power elites in Washington?
One newly established link in the chain of neo-conservative think tanks tied to Jewish lobbying organizations is the Coalition for Democracy in Iran (CDI). Founded in 2023 by Michael Ledeen and Morris Amitay, who used to be executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the organization aims to foster political support for regime change in Iran. Members include Raymond Tanter of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), itself an invention of AIPAC, Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy (CSP) and Rob Sohani who has close personal and political links to the son of the deposed Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi. Ledeen, Amitay and Sobhani joined forces at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in a seminar entitled "The Future of Iran", co-sponsored by the Hudson Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. All three have connections with the media agency Benador Associates that manages both their op-ed placements and television appearances. Eleana Benador represents Richard Perle, James Woolsey, Charles Krauthammer, Martin Kramer and other neo-conservatives tied to the Bush administration.
Influence on the levers of power in Washington is not only secured through lobbying efforts. There is also persuasive evidence for covert activity. In August 2023, it was revealed that classified documents including a draft National Security Presidential Directive devised in the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith was shared with AIPAC and Israeli officials. The document set out a rather more aggressive US policy toward Iran and was leaked by Lawrence Franklin, an "expert" on Iran who was recruited to Feith's office from the Defense Intelligence Agency. An FBI counterintelligence operation revealed that the same Franklin met repeatedly with Naor Gilon, the head of the political department at the Israeli embassy in Washington, and other officials and activists tied to the Israeli state and Jewish lobbying organizations, primarily AIPAC.
Feith himself has longstanding links to Zionist pressure groups. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), for example, honored him and his father for their service to Israel and the Jewish people in 1997. He is also cofounder of "One Jerusalem", a Jerusalem-based organization whose ultimate goal is securing "a united Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel." A second cofounder of this organization is David Steinmann who is chairman of another neo-conservative institution with close ties to Israel's Likud party, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). He is also a board member of the CSP and chairman of the executive committee of the Middle East Forum. Two other cofounders of "One Jerusalem" are directly tied to the Likud party: Dore Gold is a top advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Natan Sharansky is Israel's Minister of Diaspora Affairs.
What makes things easier for the neo-conservative-Likudnik coterie is that it is operating within a pre-existent "anti-Iranian" context. Most analysts would agree that the image of Iran as a country in the grip of endemic revolutionary hysteria has been produced, reified and internalized by large segments of the American and Israeli public for quite some time now. That perspective has it that post-revolutionary Iran is monolithic, ruled by sword-swinging mullahs who are not to be trusted. It is a view openly articulated by many. Richard Perle, Harold Rhode, Michael Ledeen, David Frum and other activists and decision-makers tied to the neoconservative-Likudnik nexus are among them. For Iran, it is typically argued, there can be no reprieve. "When it is in our power and interest," pontificate Perle and Frum in their latest book An End to Evil, "we should toss dictators aside with no more compunction than a police sharpshooter feels when he downs a hostage-taker".
Given that the neo-conservative-Likudnik consensus has acquired all the qualities of a strategic, transnational alliance, it would be naive to assume that its mobile architects have not the means and determination to channel their campaigns into the power centers of Washington's foreign policy elite. Both the US and Israel are receptive to this kind of manipulation, because producing the image of Iran as a rogue actor serves the important function to legitimate their policies in West Asia (demonizing Israel and the United States is equally expedient for the Iranian state, of course). Yet, there is no escaping the fact that all three actors share a "common fate," that regional stability cannot be secured without a pragmatic consensus among them. This inevitable independence demands opening up communication channels for future dialogue. Reaching that stage is dependent on a) the willingness of the United States to engage Iran diplomatically and b) the ability of the Islamic Republic to legitimate detente with both Israel and the United States on the level of ideological theorizing.- Published 16/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is a SOAS academic and author, most recently of "Iran in World Politics: the question of the Islamic Republic".
The significance of the Iranian threat
One of the major developments dominating the Middle East since the early 1980s is the rise of the Iranian threat. It is perceived to be directed at Iran's neighbors, at moderate Arab regimes, at American and western interests in the Middle East, and at Israel. Many Israeli leaders regard the Iranian challenge as the gravest strategic threat facing Israel. This perception emanates from the fear that the likely acquisition of nuclear weapons by the fundamentalist regime in Tehran, which calls explicitly for the destruction of Israel, may result in the attempt to use these weapons against Israel.
For the time being, the Iranian threat directed at Israel is relatively limited. For the last two years Iran has an operational ballistic missile, the "Shehab-3", which can hit targets inside Israel. Iran can also encourage terrorism against Israel--either by encouraging Hizballah to use its large rocket array against northern Israel, or by growing involvement in Palestinian terrorism.
The significant change might occur within a few years--if and when Iran acquires nuclear weapons. Since August 2023, many details of the Iranian clandestine nuclear program have become known. It was revealed that Iran has built a series of undeclared nuclear facilities, and has for many years conducted clandestine nuclear activities related to uranium enrichment and plutonium separation, all critical for the development of nuclear weapons. More importantly, western intelligence communities concluded that Iran was progressing toward nuclear weapons much more rapidly than was previously believed. These communities now estimate that Iran can acquire nuclear weapons within three to four years.
These revelations have brought about heavy international pressure on Iran to stop its suspected nuclear activities. The pressure was exerted by European governments that finally understood that Iran had been cheating them regarding its nuclear program. They were backed by an American demand to refer the issue to the UN Security Council, with an eye to imposing sanctions on Iran for the violation of its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The American administration also indicated that it did not rule out the use of the military option to halt the Iranian nuclear program.
These pressures have been augmented by the changes in Iran's strategic neighborhood following the American military operation in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. Iran is now surrounded on almost all sides by countries with regimes linked to the US, most of which have American forces deployed on their soil. America's determination to use force against radical regimes and the weakening of the radical group in the region have also increased the US threat toward Iran. The American pressures have been translated into a series of demands presented to Iran: end the WMD programs; halt the attempts to increase Iranian influence in Afghanistan and especially among the Iraqi Shi'ites, thus undermining American efforts to stabilize the regimes in both countries; and stop involvement in terrorism and subversion against US allies, and specifically end the ties with al-Qaeda operatives, who fled from Afghanistan into Iran.
Under these pressures Iran has backed down, at least temporarily, especially regarding the nuclear issue. Iran was obliged by the International Atomic Energy Agency to uncover additional components of its nuclear program and accept tighter inspection of its nuclear sites. Moreover, in November 2023 Iran and three European governments concluded an agreement--for the second time--regarding Iran's suspected nuclear activities. According to the agreement, Iran will suspend all its uranium enrichment and plutonium separation activities.
The agreement has deferred the crisis pertaining to Iran's nuclear activities. It also reflects Iran's sensitivity to its international posture. More importantly, the suspension, if protracted, might prolong the timetable for Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. It is clear, however, that Iran's concessions are a tactical move, aimed at easing the pressure on it and driving a wedge between the European and American governments.
The agreement speaks about suspending nuclear activities, not ending them. The duration of the suspension is linked to the duration of the upcoming negotiations between Iran and the European governments regarding nuclear, technological, economic and security issues. There are no indications that Iran has made a strategic decision to change course and abandon its quest for a nuclear bomb. It should be assumed therefore that sooner or later Iran will resume its suspected nuclear activities. If and when this happens, Iran will again face the threat of sanctions, and perhaps even of military moves aimed at halting its nuclear program.
If, despite these pressures, Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the regional rules of the game are likely to change. There are good reasons why Iran will not use nuclear weapons against any country. Iran is probably developing its nuclear capabilities in order to deter other countries--especially the US--from attacking it; and Iran itself is deterred by overwhelming American superiority.
Yet, even if Iran's nuclear strategy is likely to be defensive-deterrent, not offensive--and this remains to be seen--there are still other concerns regarding Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Iran is likely to behave more aggressively toward various countries, including Israel. A nuclear capability would strengthen Iran's status as the cornerstone of radical elements, and is liable to force moderate regimes to align their policy more closely to that of Iran and harm their relations with Israel. And the acquisition of nuclear weapons may encourage Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia to try and develop their own nuclear capabilities, and thus accelerate the nuclear arms race in the region.- Published 16/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Ephraim Kam is deputy head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. His book From Terror to Nuclear Bombs: The Significance of the Iranian Threat (Hebrew, 2023) looks at the issue in its broadest perspective.
Whither the Persian-Jewish alliance?
There is a romantic suggestiveness to the relations between Persians and Jews that has survived the hostility between Iran and Israel. As comfortable as it may be to remember the heyday of Israeli-Iranian ties as such, there has never been anything romantic about the real-political cooperation they enjoyed before the Iranian revolution. Today, the same forces that once brought the two together are fueling a rivalry between them that perplexes those trapped in the romantic memories of yesteryear.
The essence of the Iranian-Israeli entente in the 1960s and 1970s was not the inevitability of a non-Arab alliance against the Arab masses per se, but a congruence of interest formed by the configuration of power in the region. Iran and Israel shared interests because they shared common threats--the Soviet Union and militant Arab states. In the power balance of the region at the time, an Iranian-Israeli entente made sense regardless of the non-Arab make-up of the two countries.
But the balance thrived in a logic of its own in which the very basis of the alliance was threatened if either country managed to improve relations with its neighbors. Since Arab-Israel hostilities ran deeper than Arab-Persian grievances, the Jewish state needed Iran more than Tehran needed Tel Aviv. Correspondingly, any political diplomatic development that undermined the basis of this relationship was more likely to benefit Iran than Israel.
Indeed, Iran--whose relative power was surging in the 1970s and who aspired to play a dominant role in the affairs of the region and beyond--was bound to betray the alliance since Tehran's rapid growth defied the very equilibrium the entente was founded on.
The Shah aptly understood that he could neither obtain nor maintain Iran's position as the preeminent power of the Persian Gulf through arms and oil alone; Iran needed to be seen as a legitimate power in the eyes of the Arabs as well. The Shah realized that Iran could not forever treat the Arabs as enemies and balance them through Iranian military might. Not only was a more conciliatory policy necessary to gain legitimacy for Iran's domination; befriending the Arabs most efficiently guaranteed Iran's long-term security as well.
Improved Iranian-Arab relations, however, could not be achieved while Iran maintained close ties to Israel. Only weeks after signing the Algiers Accord with Iraq in the spring of 1975, the Shah described the need for a new approach to regional affairs to journalist Muhammad Heikal: "We followed the principle 'my enemy's enemy is my friend,' and our relations with Israel began to develop. But now the situation has changed.... I think occasionally of a new equilibrium in the region .... Perhaps [it] can be integrated into an Islamic framework."
Having sealed Iran's hegemonic position in the Persian Gulf in strategic terms through the Algiers Accord, the Shah began distancing himself from the Jewish state in order to win the acceptance of the Arabs. Iran was at its peak. It had befriended Egypt, neutralized Iraq, quadrupled its oil income and taken advantage of Israel's proximity to Washington to establish its unsurpassed position in the Middle East. Iran had simply outgrown much of its need for Israel.
In spite of the Iraq-Iran war, Iran's Islamist revolution intensified and added an ideological motivation to the strategic reorientation away from the Persian-Jewish alliance. Israeli strategists, guided by David Ben Gurion's "periphery doctrine" that propagated alliances with the non-Arab states of the Middle East periphery in order to weaken the Arab states of the vicinity, struggled with the loss of Iran. The common threats to Iran and Israel still existed, as should the basis for cooperation, they reasoned. Throughout the 1980s, Israel unsuccessfully sought to establish ties with Khomeini's Iran, failing to realize the strategic reasoning behind the ideological rhetoric of the regime. However, while Iran rejected cooperation with Israel, the shared threats prompted it to refrain from translating its anti-Israel rhetoric into operational policy.
However, the end of the Cold War also ended the Iranian-Israeli cold peace. The distribution of relative power shifted toward Iran and Israel and formed a new bipolar structure in the region. The defeat of Iraq in 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union improved the security environments of both Iran and Israel--but also left both states unchecked. Without Iraq balancing Iran, the Persians would now become a threat, Israeli hawks argued.
By late 1992, prior to Iran's sponsorship of Palestinian extremists, Israeli Labor party officials began to publicly depict Iran as an existential threat. Rhetoric reflected intentions and, having been freed from the chains of Iraq, Iran was acquiring the capacity to turn intentions into policy, they argued. While the threat depiction resembled prophecy more than reality, it underlined that the peace process had turned the periphery doctrine on its head: to convince a skeptical Israeli public that peace could be made with the Arab vicinity, it was necessary to bolster the threat portrayal of the Persian periphery.
At the time, Iran was keener on peace-making with Washington than seeing to Israel's destruction. Much like the Shah, the mullahs were seeking a key role in Persian Gulf affairs. But now, the legitimacy Iran needed didn't come from the Arabs, it came from America. Tehran believed that its behind-the-scenes cooperation with America in the 1991 Gulf war would be rewarded through Iran's inclusion in the post-war regional security arrangement. But when Washington under Bush Sr. declared that Saddam was saved in order to balance Iran, Tehran concluded that it could only compel the US to accept an Iranian role in the region by undermining American policies.
The American-Israeli push to create a new Middle East order based on Iran's exclusion and isolation prompted Tehran to turn its anti-Israel rhetoric into policy. Tehran began supporting violent Palestinian groups in order to undermine the American-Israeli endeavor by hitting its weakest link--the peace process.
While Iran's obstructionism played a minor role in undoing the Oslo process, Oslo's collapse removed a strategic threat and enabled Tehran to contemplate moderation in its Israel policy. For instance, President Khatami re-adopted Iran's pre-Madrid policy in which Tehran accepted any Israel-Arab arrangement acceptable to the Palestinians.
Currently, if a US-Iran accord can be achieved that grants Iran a key role in Persian Gulf security matters, continued interference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will lose strategic utility for Iran. However, Israeli pressure for a hawkish US policy on Iran--driven by its fears that Washington will betray Israeli concerns in a US-Iran deal--only strengthens the strategic value of continued involvement in the conflict for Iran.
Today, Washington again believes it has to choose between addressing the Iranian conundrum or the Palestinian conflict. But American re-engagement in the peace process while continuing the policy of isolating Iran will repeat Clinton's miscalculation of 1994 and produce the same failure.
Whatever Washington chooses, with Iran and Israel being the two most powerful nations in the region with aspirations for primacy, a Persian-Jewish alliance against a declining Arab world will be hard to revive, regardless of the identity of the Iranian government or the fond memories of the romantics.- Published 16/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliance--The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US and a silver medal recipient of the Council on Foreign Relations' Arthur Ross Book Award.
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