international analysis and commentary

The Iranian (and Turkish) model in Israeli eyes

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Shortly after the Egyptian revolution had successfully ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Iran sent two naval ships through the Suez Canal en route to Syria – the first such move since the Iranian revolution in 1979. According to leaders in Tehran, this was in the framework of “brotherly meetings” between the two states. Concerned Israeli media obviously interpreted it as a much more ominous Iranian attempt to increase its status as a regional military power. The Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was quoted stating that this “is a provocation that proves that the self-confidence and audacity of the Iranians are increasing from day to day.” The New York Times reported that an Israeli official called this development a “new footprint in the region.” These statements seem to suggest that the Israeli threat perception of Iran is changing for the worse since the Middle East uprisings began. How do Israeli analysts assess the Iranian threat at present?

The Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) argued that Tehran is trying to portray the revolutions as an Iranian achievement in line with its own revolution in 1979, and that the protests are indeed a window of opportunity for Iran – an opportunity to weaken the moderate Sunni front and ride the tide of the “Arab street”, presenting the achievements of the Islamic Revolution as a model. This, according to the INSS, could tip the regional balance in Iran’s favor.

A common fear among the Israeli public is that mass protest movements which started as pro-democracy uprisings could easily be hijacked by fundamentalist forces. Turkey is often seen as a precedent, though not in the benign manner that most observers have in mind: it is an example of how democracy can be exploited by Islamists. “Unfortunately,” wrote far-rightist Lieberman on The Jerusalem Post referring to Ankara, “recent events in Turkey are reminiscent of Iran before the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Like Turkey, Iran was among Israel’s closest allies and the two nations held good relations between both governments and people.” Since the Netanyahu government came to power however, the important relationship with Turkey has deteriorated, and the crisis reached its peak in the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident. Efraim Inbar, Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), claims that Turkey’s “foreign policy reorientation changes the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of the radical Islamist forces.”

Furthermore, Israel fears that it will now be easier for Iran to smuggle weapons to Hamas through the Egyptian border or that Tehran might even wage a proxy war against Israel through Hezbollah in Lebanon. Minister of Defense Ehud Barak stated, as reported on Haaretz, that “we must be prepared for any test,” an opinion shared by the newly appointed head of the Israeli National Security Council Yaacov Amidror, considered by many as an ultra-hawk: “Advice we have heard from certain countries in Western Europe (suggesting that the uprisings could lead to a wave of democratic revolutions) should not be followed,” Amidror said. “There’s no immediate fear of any security escalation. The main question is: In the long term, will we be ready for all scenarios?”

Besides Tehran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, the Jewish State continues to perceive the Iranian nuclear program as the existential threat. In a recent report, the INSS stated that Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon and retiring Mossad Chief Meir Dagan assume that Iran will have a nuclear device in 2015 or even earlier. However, Israel’s military option seems less likely than ever before: an Israeli military attack against nuclear installations in Iran would mobilize Arab populations against Israel and potentially increase the power of more radical forces in the newly democratizing countries. The Netanyahu government now sees some hope for increased international pressure on Tehran. The Prime Minister recently stated that “pressure should be placed on Iran as forcefully, as openly, and in as a determined fashion as it is put now, for example, on Libya.”

As in the case of critical issues such as East Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, many Israeli analysts seem to perceive the main Western players in a negative light also with regard to overall developments in the region. David M. Weinberg, Director of Public Affairs at BESA, argued that “Israel cannot allow ill-advised Western leaders or ill-willed pundits to propagate new myths that make Israel the fall guy for Western fears of a crumbling Middle East. Back to Iran.” Emily Landau, Senior Research Associate at the INSS, pointed out in a newly released report that there is “insufficient understanding in the West about how to encourage Iran to be serious about negotiating, especially when Iran seems to gain much more – without paying too high a price – with its tactic of playing for time.” A technique that ironically has been used, in different circumstances, also by the Netanyahu’s government on the issue of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as, for decades, with regard to the ambiguous Israeli posture about its nuclear capabilities: “If Israel,” as noted by Yair Evron, author of Israel’s Nuclear Dilemma, “ended ambiguity and declared a nuclear capability, the Egyptian leadership in particular would come under great public pressure to react to a declared Israeli capability. It would also provide Iran with an additional formal pretext for its nuclear weapons project.”

These challenges notwithstanding, some Israeli analysts do hope that the Arab revolutionary wave will reach Iran and revive the Green Revolution of 2009. While Netanyahu claimed that Tehran might be “immune to all the pressures of democratization,” the Tel Aviv University based Center for Iranian Studies identified the following dilemma for Iran: on the one hand, “the riots in Tunisia erupted merely a year and half after the Iranian regime suppressed its own popular demonstrations following the re-election of President Ahmadinejad on June 12, 2009”; on the other, the fallen Arab regimes had for years suppressed Islamic movements, which are potential allies for Iran.

Most Israeli scholars agree that Iran is exploiting the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to its advantage, while the US is perceived as failing to support its allies. Ely Karmon of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism stressed that “Obama’s administration’s handling of the crisis and its abrupt rebuke of President Mubarak, America’s most important Middle Eastern ally, while in June 2009 Obama didn’t support the Iranian masses which rose against the theocratic regime, projects a very negative US image to other Arab leaders and raises serious concerns in Israel too.”

To sum up, the picture is mostly bleak. The Obama administration is perceived as slack on the Islamist threat; Turkey is turning away from Israel; Egypt and others might now follow suit. As a result, Israel feels more and more isolated in the region, which heightens its threat perception of Iran. In addition, since the Goldstone report on the Gaza war in 2009, Israel also faces increasing international pressure.

In the evolving regional context, new Israeli moves to restart the peace process, or at least avoid provocative measures on the settlement issue, will make it easier for future democratically elected governments in neighboring countries to retain the peace treaties. This, in turn, will prevent a complete diplomatic isolation of Israel, with likely moderating effects on the perceived shift of the balance of power in Iran’s favor.