February 29, 2016 - Reformers in Iran, cessation of violence in Syria, a port for Gaza: is moderation about to triumph?


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 whether the reform camp, allied with President Rouhani, is poised to triumph in Iran's elections; what are the advantages and drawbacks of a seaport for Gaza and who opposes it; Alpher's forecast on the matter; and whether we can say it's "good news" that the Syria cessation of hostilities appears to be holding, however partially and tenuously.

Q. Is the reform camp, allied with President Rowhani, poised to triumph in Iran’s elections?

A. At the time of writing, final results were not expected to be announced for another 24 hours. In any case, some contests would be deferred to a run off in April. Meanwhile, here are some thoughts, and cautions, regarding the way this election should be judged.

First, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to hold ultimate authority. And the Revolutionary Guards continue to control the security establishment and much of the economy. None of them were up for reelection. All remain extremist.

Second, from Israel’s standpoint it is hard to find “good guys” here, at least not in the short term. Nothing decided in this election will remove Iranian influence from Syria or weaken Iran’s control over Hezbollah. The fact that al-Quds force commander Qassem Suleimani--the man leading the Iranian hegemonic effort in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen--endorsed one of the so-called reformist candidates says it all. Israel’s Sunni Arab neighbors in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE would concur with this assessment.

Iranian leaders will not cease calling for Israel’s demise and Iranian support for terrorism will not cease. Even assuming, with not a little wishful thinking, that Mssrs. Rowhani and Zarif would like to call a halt to Iran’s violent hostility to Israel, that task would undoubtedly remain last on their list in terms of Iranian political values and sensitivities.

On the other hand, under current circumstances anything that can be termed an electoral achievement for those supporting the deal that mothballs Iran’s military nuclear program is a good thing for the Middle East.

Third, as the returns are announced, don’t confuse all those who have been labeled “reformists” for the purposes of these elections with true reformists. Because the real authorities in Iran arbitrarily ruled out the candidacy of many genuine liberals, the moderate camp was obliged to encourage reformist voters to support blocs of candidates that included quite a few hard liners. As Tehran University political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam explained on behalf of the reform camp, “we had to choose between bad and worse”.

By the same token, don’t confuse reformist victories in Tehran and other major cities with a reformist landslide. Iran’s cities are known to be more liberal than the countryside, which is why the real authorities have gerrymandered electoral districts to favor the elected representatives of rural areas numerically.

The ultimate question to ask is: will these elections tilt Iran even a little bit toward moderation? On Monday that seemed possible. But it will take time to digest the election results and put them to the test of Iranian politics.

Q. The Turks, the Hamas regime in Gaza and key actors in the Israeli security establishment all appear to support the idea of a seaport for Gaza. What are the advantages and drawbacks of this initiative and who opposes it?

A. Supporters of the initiative argue that a seaport would enable the Gaza Strip to achieve a significant degree of economic independence and, accordingly, would stabilize the Strip politically. The very fact of a port construction project would inject hope and vital employment opportunities at a time when a United Nations agency predicts that by 2020 Gaza could become unlivable and unsustainable. The IDF chief of intelligence, Major General Herzi Halevi, has openly advocated the project, along with additional liberalization measures along Gaza’s border with Israel, as a strategy for reducing the likelihood of an explosion of unrest that would be directed against Israel and provoke more warfare.

The port project would almost certainly strengthen Hamas rule in the Strip. But IDF Intelligence argues that the alternative is a more extremist Islamist regime--and not the relatively moderate Fateh that rules the West Bank. Port advocates claim that it would be possible to construct a Gaza port--on the Gaza coast, on an artificial island off the coast, in nearby Cyprus, or even on Israeli territory--with Turkish financing and adequate arrangements for Israel to filter imports from a security standpoint.

Gaza port detractors in the Netanyahu government, beginning with Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon, believe it would be impossible to deal adequately with Israeli security needs in a Gaza port and that the port would facilitate a Hamas military buildup much like that of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Some on the Israeli political left point out that, by solidifying Hamas rule in Gaza, port construction at this point would constitute a setback for a two-state solution based on a unified (West Bank + Gaza Strip) Palestinian state under PLO rule.

In this regard, there are two strong opponents of Hamas in the Arab world that oppose the port idea: the Fateh rulers in the West Bank, and the Sisi government in Cairo. Both have strong reservations about a project that strengthens Hamas. Fateh wants to restore its own rule in the Strip and fears the long arm of an aggrandized Hamas in the West Bank; the Egyptians oppose Gaza-based Hamas because of its support for ISIS terrorists based in neighboring Sinai and because it is a satellite of the Muslim Brotherhood whose rule in Egypt Sisi toppled.

This brings us to broader tensions between Egypt and Turkey. One of Turkey’s conditions for renewing ambassadorial relations with Israel is granting it access to Gaza and relaxing Israel’s border restrictions on the Strip. A port, which Turkey would presumably pay for, would satisfy this condition. But the Erdogan government in Ankara with its Islamist orientation is an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is an offshoot, while Cairo views the Brotherhood as a primary enemy. Hence Cairo, which has radically enhanced its security cooperation with Israel and just sent its first ambassador to Israel in three years, is wary regarding both Israeli-Turkish rapprochement and the port idea. Israel, for its part, would like to enhance relations with both Cairo and Ankara and sees both as potential customers for its Mediterranean gas reserves, alongside Cyprus, Greece, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Thus the port project has to be understood as but one dimension of a complex set of issues that involve Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt, Turkey and even Cyprus and Greece as players, and Islamist terrorism, a Palestinian state and Israeli gas sales as key issue-areas. There are several circles to be squared here, a task made harder by the fact that Hamas--the potential beneficiary of Turkish and Israeli largess--refuses to talk directly with Israel and continues to preach its ultimate destruction.


Q. Your forecast?

A. Egypt remains the key. Because of Cairo’s immediate proximity and overall traditional leadership position in the Arab world, and in view of the ongoing chaos in much of the Arab world including neighboring Sinai, improved strategic relations with Egypt are likely to remain Israel’s overriding concern. This means that, absent Cairo’s acquiescence in the port project, Israel will strive to persuade Turkey to accept a rapprochement based on a reduced economic package for Gaza comprising far-reaching relaxation of border restrictions but no port. Conceivably, a Turkish link to Israeli gas could be thrown in, though not at the expense of energy cooperation with Israel’s other Mediterranean partners: Cyprus, Greece and Egypt itself. This concept, by the way, at least partially explains PM Netanyahu’s urgent and public emphasis on the strategic rationale for Israel to move ahead with its gas development plan even if this means more expensive gas for Israel itself and higher profits for the entrepreneurs currently working the gas fields in the Mediterranean.

One more factor bears emphasis. While no one can or should deny the need to alleviate the severe economic hardships experienced by nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza, it is very unlikely that enhanced economic well-being there would reduce the danger of conflict with Israel sparked by Palestinian Islamic extremists based in the Strip. Both intifadas (1987-1993 and 2000-2005) began at times of relative Palestinian economic prosperity. Even the 1936 Palestinian revolt against the British mandate took place under conditions of prosperity in Mandatory Palestine. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is political and increasingly religious--not economic.

We should help Palestinians to live better. That serves our own economic interests and enhances our international position. But we should have no illusions that economic well-being will reduce Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Q. The Syria cessation of hostilities appears to be holding, however partially and tenuously. Good news?

A. Any measure that stops or reduces the slaughter in Syria is good news. But for the moment, this looks more like a timeout for resupply and R&R on the part of the combatants and an opportunity to deliver minor humanitarian relief for civilians than something approaching a long-term breakthrough to peace. Here it is important to bear in mind that hostilities have ostensibly ceased in less than 40 percent of Syria--i.e., western or “useful” Syria, and not the eastern desert areas dominated by the Islamic State or pockets of territory in the west held by al-Qaeda affiliates--and that warfare between extremist Sunni and Shiite groups continues in neighboring Iraq.

In following the course of events in the coming days, here are two sets of potential developments to keep an eye on: factors for success of the cessation of hostilities, and factors for failure.

The list of potential factors for success begins with signs of movement toward constructive peace talks between the Assad government and the most inclusive list possible of rebels. Then comes a cessation of the flight of refugees and conceivably--here and there where homes have not been destroyed--their return to their towns and villages. Another positive factor would be agreement to turn the cessation of hostilities into an agreed ceasefire or even an armistice--significant transitions in terms of the legal nuances of the laws of warfare. Thus far, none of these developments appears likely.

The first and foremost factor leading to failure would be the fog of war: accidental violent incidents or miscalculations by one party or another. Next would come deliberate violations of the cessation of hostilities by a party that feels itself sufficiently rested and resupplied and that perceives a chance to gain military advantage by exploiting surprise, most likely in and around Aleppo but conceivably also in Syria’s far northwest and southwest (near the border with Israel).

Then there is the issue of the highly complex and tenuous lay of the land and disposition of forces: with Aleppo nearly encircled by the regime and its allies and several key highways recaptured by the regime but threatened on all flanks by rebels, this is not a situation that can be frozen for long. Nearly every battlefield actor feels it cannot acquiesce in this new status quo. The Syrian regime needs to retake control over many tactically important pockets of resistance. The rebels--moderate, Islamist or otherwise--are not ready to end their attempt to dislodge the regime. The Turks can’t tolerate Kurdish autonomy on their southern border with Syria. The Russians have not stabilized their Syrian ally nearly enough. The US and its allies are hardly finished with ISIS. The Saudis still threaten to intervene on the ground. This means that either a peace initiative moves forward quickly or the freeze will collapse into violence.

The odds weigh strongly in favor of a return to violence, with the Russians, the regime and their Shiite allies led by Iran launching a major offensive. The likely objective would be to recapture Aleppo, almost certainly completing the city’s destruction in the process, and to take back more ground around Idlib in the north and Deraa in the south. If they succeed, they will happily accept another cessation of hostilities and will be in a far better position to dictate terms regarding governance over Useful Syria in renewed peace negotiations.