Hard Questions, Tough Answers (May 7, 2018) - Iran, Iran, Iran

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses Defense Minister Liberman's comment that "Israel has three problems: Iran, Iran, Iran"; the sense of urgency; the Iranian nuclear archive; Netanyahu's presentation; the argument that Israel is trying to goad Iran into responding militarily from Syria, thereby inviting a strong Israeli offensive against the entire Iranian deployment there; where Trump and Putin fit in; the argument that the threat is exaggerated; and Iran's awareness of all the arguments against reacting now with force against Israel and endangering its presence in Syria.

Q. A few days ago, in New York, Israeli Minister of Defense Liberman stated not for the first time that “Israel has three problems: Iran, Iran, Iran.” Do you agree?

A. I am not a great admirer of Liberman and often disagree with his strategic judgment. Obviously, Israel also has an existential problem with the Palestinian issue, not to mention the rule of law and attacks by the ruling coalition on the fundamentals of Israeli democracy. But if Liberman’s intention is to place the Iranian threat at the top of Israel’s list of strategic concerns, he is absolutely right.

 

Q. Why the urgency? There is no current Iranian nuclear threat and Iranian forces in Syria are fairly limited.

A. Last week we witnessed an attack, attributed by the US to Israel, on an Iranian missile base in Syria. It was followed in less than 24 hours by PM Netanyahu’s highly controversial graphic presentation of Iran’s nuclear archive, obtained in a clandestine operation in Tehran by Israeli intelligence. With a Trump decision regarding the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 expected within the week, Israel’s actions did indeed convey the sense of urgency.

A number of issues here require a deeper look. Was the archive Netanyahu presented authentic? Did he present anything new? What were his objectives? Turning to the latest attack in Syria, is Israel trying to provoke Iran into responding militarily and is this wise? Where are the Americans and where are the Russians in all this?

 

Q. Let’s take the archive first. . .

A. I would offer two arguments for the archive’s authenticity. First, Israel’s Mossad would not get involved in such a far-reaching forgery (full disclosure: I am a former Mossad official). Second, and more significant, those claiming this is a forgery are primarily western-based apologists for Iran--not Iranian officials themselves, who tend to dismiss the archive as “old news” and Netanyahu’s presentation as grotesque and trivial, which is different.

Indeed, there was little new in the archive as presented by Netanyahu beyond the simple fact that Iran lied in the past when it claimed it did not have a military nuclear program. Since those involved in the 2015 nuclear deal, the JCPOA, acted in any case on the assumption that the Iranians lied and that the deal therefore required foolproof inspection mechanisms, even here the archive provided little more than confirmation. Nor did Netanyahu claim or prove that Iran was violating the JCPOA.

(Incidentally, Israel also lied in the past about its nuclear program. . .)

Then too, the cartoonish way Netanyahu presented the archive to the world and the fact that he presented it in English, point to a principal audience of one: President Trump, who is known to respond best to graphic rather than written briefings. This presumes that Netanyahu designed the presentation to further motivate Trump toward withdrawing from the JCPOA, a move the Israeli prime minister is known to favor. On the other hand, by providing graphic proof--even rehashed graphic proof--of Iran’s contingency nuclear plans, Netanyahu perhaps inadvertently reinforced the motivation for sticking with the JCPOA precisely in order to delay an Iranian bomb for years to come.

This begs an additional question, which applies to Israel and the US equally. Suppose the JCPOA is weakened by US withdrawal and Iran reciprocates by pulling out and renewing its nuclear program, which we now know to be quite advanced. What do Israel and the US plan to do? Preempt and attack Iran? If that is the case, why don’t Trump and Netanyahu say so?

Or have they bought into the groundless arguments of people like John Bolton and to some extent Netanyahu himself to the effect that a renewal of sanctions will create such an economic crisis in Iran that the regime will fall and “good guys” will take power. This wishful thinking has no foundation in either current intelligence or global experience. It also recalls a famous statement by Pakistan’s then-leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1965: In an interview with the Manchester Guardian, Bhutto stated that if India built the bomb, "we will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.” The Pakistanis did get one. No one should count on regime change or economic setbacks to prevent Iran from getting one.

 

Q. Do you see anything cleanly positive in Netanyahu’s presentation?

A. Definitely, if taken together with the earlier attack on an Iranian base in Syria, which reportedly killed Iranian al-Quds Force soldiers and destroyed the 200 medium-range missiles they had transported to a bunker on the base and were planning to use against Israel. Here a triple Israeli punch delivered a strong deterrent message to Iran: first, your military deployment in Syria is transparent in the eyes of Israeli intelligence; second, Israel has the means to penetrate munitions bunkers and blow them up at the magnitude of an earthquake on the Richter scale; and third, Israel is capable of pulling off a major intelligence coup in the heart of Tehran, under your noses.

One could of course argue that Iran’s defense establishment knew about the stolen archive back in January, when it disappeared. So much for the surprise deterrent effect. But the Iranian public only found out when Netanyahu made his presentation. And the Iranian public, wary about sacrificing its sons to a war 1500 km from home, could have some influence here.

Add to this Netanyahu’s success last week in persuading the Knesset to award him the authority to declare war, in consultation only with the minister of defense, in undefined “extreme” circumstances. Leave aside that this is a gross violation of democratic and parliamentary principles. It sends a message to Iran that, unlike a few years ago when Netanyahu was restrained from attacking Iran’s nuclear project by his own security chiefs and fellow ministers, in future he can ignore them and force through a decision to attack. Given that the Iranians were already paranoid about Israel, this combination of Israeli actions and initiatives should give them pause.

 

Q. And if it doesn’t? A number of Israeli security experts argue that Israel is trying to goad Iran into responding militarily from Syria, thereby inviting a strong Israeli offensive against the entire Iranian deployment there. This brings us back to the urgency issue.

A. In other words, if deterrence fails, then launch a preventive or preemptive attack. IDF Chief of Staff Eizenkot and PM Netanyahu, both of whom have been admirably cautious in addressing threats from the chaotic north until now, reportedly favor goading Iran into responding. Indeed, by Sunday night the Israeli public was being told to prepare for a limited revenge attack on military bases in northern Israel by short-range missiles, fired from Syria by one of Iran’s Shiite proxy militias.

The problem here is that this describes an Israeli “war by choice” along the lines of 1982 and 2006, both preemptive wars fought in Lebanon with highly problematic outcomes. Israel is not facing an existential threat. Why provoke when we can deter and deter until Iran’s and Hezbollah’s missiles simply rust away without being launched, or alternatively wait until the Iranian existential threat materializes and fight a war the entire world will recognize as justified?

There is merit to this argument against preempting. On the other hand, unlike the PLO in Lebanon in 1982 and Hezbollah there in 2006, Iran is not a non-state actor with limited means. It is a Middle East power. If Trump and Netanyahu have their way, it may soon be a nuclear power. It is committed to Israel’s destruction. How long should Israel wait?

"We are determined to stop Iran's aggression in its early stages, even if it this involves a conflict," Netanyahu stated on Sunday. "Better now than later. Nations that were unprepared to take timely action against murderous aggression paid much heavier prices afterwards. We do not want escalation, but we are prepared for any scenario."

 

Q. Where do Trump and Putin fit in?

Note that in dealing with Iran in Syria Israel cannot rely on Trump beyond bombastic verbal support. Here, conceivably, Israel’s brinkmanship is designed to persuade Trump to commit US forces to remain in Syria. True, there are only around 2,000 of them and they are in eastern Syria, far from the Israeli-Iranian front. But their presence impedes Iran’s ability to move forces and munitions from Iran via Iraq to Syria. Keeping them there certainly can’t hurt.

Perhaps of greatest importance from the diplomatic-strategic standpoint--more even than Israeli-American coordination--is Israel’s need to finesse its way with the Russians. They threaten to provide Syria with ever-more sophisticated air defense weapons that conceivably could in the near future constrain Israel’s freedom of maneuver and protect Iran’s deployment there. This and other issues are presumably on the agenda for Netanyahu’s upcoming meeting with Putin, in Moscow this Wednesday, May 9.

Can Putin be convinced to persuade Iran to back off? Failing that, will he agree not to interfere when Israel attacks Iranian targets in Syria (thus far he has indeed stood aside) and not to give Syria weapons systems that could hinder Israel’s attacks? One worthwhile Netanyahu objective might be to persuade Putin that Israel now grudgingly acquiesces in the Assad regime’s survival--truly a “no-brainer” at this point, despite the ill-advised threat on Monday by Energy Minister Steinitz to topple or even kill Assad if he allows Iran to stay. Israel’s only gripe regarding Syria should be with Iran.

Last week Russia’s ambassador to Israel, Alexander Shein, stated that Moscow is “concerned” about Iran’s presence in Syria and that Russia does “understand the reasons Israel feels obligated to carry out such actions in the first place.” That’s a good start.

 

Q. For many months you have been warning against the Iranian existential threat from Syria. Maybe you’re exaggerating? Periodic threats to eliminate Israel by the Iranian supreme leader and Iranian generals might be mere bombast for domestic consumption. President Rowhani and FM Zarif are moderates. Iran’s presence in Syria is legal and legitimate. All relevant actors know they will lose by going to war.

A. Supreme Leader Khamenei and al-Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani have exclusive responsibility in Iran for the country’s push westward. Iran has reached the Mediterranean, where Persian forces have not been based since the Sassanid Empire which ended in 651 CE. This is a revolutionary regional and even global development. The Islamic Republic not only rejects Israel’s legitimacy and vows its destruction (Khamenei recently pledged to bring this about within 25 years). It also sees Israel as an ally of Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia that Iran also vows to bring down.

Personally, I don’t trust the many Iran apologists in the West who believe Israel is exaggerating. If any country has a moral and historical right to take seriously existential threats from neighboring rulers who covet territory and seek weapons of mass destruction, it is Israel. Netanyahu is wrong about the JCPOA--cancelling will only hasten Iran’s nuclear project--but he is right about Iran in Syria.

 

Q. Iran is presumably aware of all the arguments against reacting now with force against Israel and endangering its presence in Syria . . .

A. Indeed, it may opt for alternative responses to an attack on Israel from Syria. It could rely strictly on a limited Hezbollah attack from Lebanon or invoke, via a proxy like Hezbollah, attacks against Israelis and Jews abroad. There is ample precedent for the latter option, e.g., the 1992 Israel embassy attack and the 1994 Amia bombing, both in Buenos Aires. The Diaspora should be on alert.

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