Putin and Syria; Iran and Israel: Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: September 23, 2013

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This week, Alpher discusses the strategic challenges Israel confronts in the United Nations General Assembly session opening this week, why the Israeli government, alone, is criticizing President Rowhani's moderate statements, how we get from the Iranian Syrian non-conventional weapons issues to attempts to restrain Israel's nuclear potential, and why Russia is so interested in a failed state like Syria, and what consequences we can expect in the wake of two IDF soldiers killed in recent days in the West Bank, and an incident over the demolishing of Arab dwellings in the Jordan Valley that got Israel into trouble with the European Union.

Q. What strategic challenges does Israel confront in the dramatic United Nations General Assembly session opening this week?

A. The challenges embrace Syria and its chemical weapons, Iran's nuclear project, American and Russian interests in the Middle East, and a possible attempt to address Israel's nuclear potential. Of greatest interest is the new Iranian drive to present a softer image, catalyze negotiations over its nuclear project and eliminate economic sanctions.

Q. Then let's start with Iran. Why is the Israeli government, alone, criticizing President Rowhani's moderate statements?

A. Israel has good intelligence on Iran that indicates no slowdown in its nuclear drive. The Israeli security establishment believes that Rowhani's charm offensive has not, or at least not yet, produced any sort of gesture of slowing or shutting down any part of the Iranian nuclear project. Nor has Iran ceased supporting Hezbollah terrorism, Syrian genocide and regime subversion in the Persian Gulf. "Don't be fooled by the Iranian president's fraudulent statements" concerning a lack of nuclear weapons ambitions, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office stated last week.

Netanyahu is obviously worried lest Rowhani succeed in making a deal with the US-led international coalition that falls short of really ending the Iranian nuclear weapon drive, or that meets America's "red lines" but not Israel's, which are more stringent. Netanyahu insists that Iran must halt all uranium enrichment, remove all enriched uranium from its territory, close its uranium enrichment facility at Fordow near Qom, and cease the manufacture of plutonium. There are hints in the international press that Rowhani might offer to take one of these steps in return for a relaxation of economic sanctions. Netanyahu believes the US might suffice with only a portion of these demands.

Hence Netanyahu and additional Israeli government spokespersons are issuing shrill warnings. Statements by Rowhani and other senior Iranians are being analyzed closely for indications that the moderate Iranian pose is a facade: why did Rowhani refuse to reject Holocaust denial while his foreign minister did; aren't attempts by Rowhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei to warn the Revolutionary Guards to stay out of politics an indication that the latter disapprove of the new moderate line and will scuttle it at the appropriate moment?

Washington is listening, and has sent reassuring messages that it, like Netanyahu, will test Iranian good intentions by their final outcome alone. A Netanyahu-Obama meeting scheduled for later this week in Washington is obviously important in this context.

The question still remains, why should Netanyahu "spoil the party" catalyzed by the new moderation of Rowhani and even Khamenei? Even President Shimon Peres offered words of approval for the Iranian statements. Does Netanyahu have to growl angrily even when Rowhani offers Jews New Year greetings? The prime minister of Israel obviously believes that if he doesn't remind the world of Iran's evil-doings, no one will. This appears to reflect an Israeli lack of confidence in the credibility of the Obama administration, exacerbated by the US zigzag over its "red line" concerning Syria's use of chemical weapons. But all these angry protests over Iranian statements of good intentions also hurt Israel's credibility when it comes to the Iran file.

Q. How do we get from the Iranian and Syrian non-conventional weapons issues to attempts to restrain Israel's nuclear potential?

A. It was inevitable that the world's renewed focus on non-conventional weapons in the hands of Israel's enemies would touch upon Israel as well. Last week, Israel and the US beat back an attempt--the first in three years--at the International Atomic Energy Agency annual meeting to demand that Israel join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, fresh from his success in preventing a US attack on Syria by initiating an international program to remove that country's chemical weapons stockpiles and production potential, stated that Israel would now have to agree to get rid of its nuclear potential.

We will undoubtedly now hear more about this in the UN General Assembly. In view of the dangerous instability currently visiting many corners of the Middle East, Israel will presumably be supported by the United States and others in rebuffing these pressures. Even if the Syrian and Iranian non-conventional disarmament efforts pick up steam and begin to seem credible, Jerusalem will almost certainly continue to stand by the nuclear policy enunciated by PM Yitzhak Shamir back in the early 1990s, according to which Israel will agree to discuss nuclear disarmament only when all countries in the Middle East have signed peace treaties with it: a reasonable and rational policy that is nowhere near being put to the test by Israel's neighbors.

Q. Beyond Putin's obvious satisfaction in so publicly "rescuing" the Obama administration from the consequences of its "red line" policy regarding Syria's chemical weapons, why is Russia so interested in a failed state like Syria?

A. The Russian Navy's only Mediterranean naval refueling and resupply station is in Tartus on the Syrian coast. Around 100,000 Russian citizens live in Syria, many intermarried with Syrians they met as students in Russia. And some 300,000 Syrian Arab Greek Orthodox Christians command the interest and even patronage of the Russian Pravoslav Church, which is a powerful political lobby in post-communist Russia. All these considerations undoubtedly influence the Russian position on Syria.

But the most persuasive explanation for Putin's tenacious support for the Assad regime is Islam. The presence--some intelligence experts would say preponderance--of Sunni Salafist Islamist extremists among the opposition to the Assad regime appears to genuinely frighten the Russians. They fear that an opposition victory in Syria will fuel radical Islam in Russia, whose population comprises tens of millions of Muslims. Russian Middle East experts claim that in recent years no fewer than 30 government-appointed Muslim religious officials in the Kazan region of Russia have been assassinated by extremist Islamists. Kazan is in central Russia; it is far from the problematic but fringe Chechnya and Dagestan regions in the Caucasus, though the latter are at least temporarily important due to their proximity to Sochi, the site of the 2014 winter Olympics and an obvious target for terrorists. Syria is the Arab country closest to Russia. Under Assad's rule, Alawite Islam--like Shiite Islam in Iran, another friend of Russia's--is not deemed dangerous to Russia's predominantly Sunni Muslim population. Extremist Sunnis are.

Russia's support for Assad's Alawite regime in Syria and for Iran's Shiite regime comes at a considerable cost in terms of Sunni Arab anger at Moscow and loss of Russian influence in the Arab world. If Moscow makes money from arms sales to Syria--paid for apparently by Tehran--it could be making more elsewhere in the Middle East if it dropped its support for Assad. So its terrorism concerns must be taken seriously in assessing its Syria ties.

Q. Finally, two IDF soldiers were killed in recent days in the West Bank, and an incident over the demolishing of Arab dwellings in the Jordan Valley got Israel into trouble with the European Union. What consequences can we expect?

A. The two soldiers were murdered in unprovoked and premeditated acts in Tul Karem and Hebron. The scrape in the Jordan Valley with a French consular official was a totally unnecessary complication of ham-handed Israeli occupation policies. The only way to avoid all such incidents would be to end the occupation that generates them.

The current attempt to end the occupation is a round of US-sponsored peace negotiations that appear, based on the little revealed by Palestinian leaks, to be registering little if any progress. One important feature of this peace process is the release by Israel, in four groups over eight months, of around 1,000 veteran Palestinian prisoners who were incarcerated before the Oslo process began. One element of pressure exercised on the Netanyahu government to move it into the process was a European Union decision to boycott Israeli scientific research projects with links to the West Bank and East Jerusalem--a decision the EU tentatively agreed to soften under pressure from US Secretary of State John Kerry, as a "reward" for Israel's ongoing participation in the process.

Now some of these achievements may be jeopardized by last week's violent events. The EU's Katherine Ashton is angry over Israel's treatment of a European diplomat engaged in humanitarian activities in the Jordan Valley--even though the diplomat in question actually hit an Israeli officer with no direct provocation. Right-wingers in Netanyahu's government are calling to delay or cancel a second prisoner release in response to the two soldiers' deaths.

Despite the tragedy of the soldiers' deaths, Jerusalem has every reason to avoid an escalation in the territories and maintain the peace process on an even keel at a time when Israel's international image is far from positive, and in view of its need for a minimum of western solidarity concerning Iran and the course of events in Syria. It would be a pity if the Palestinian issue, where Israel's position is so weak as to be virtually indefensible, were to become intertwined with Israel's security needs regarding Iran and Syria--which are legitimate, rational and persuasive. Alpher200x200.jpg