Hard Questions, Tough Answers (July 2, 2018) - Netanyahu’s strategy toward Iran (and Syria)


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.



Q. Iran is witnessing widespread demonstrations concerning the economy and a water shortage. The Trump administration is determined to escalate economic pressure. Some of Trump’s advisers openly advocate regime change in Tehran. Where does Israel stand?

A. Leaving aside for a moment Israel’s confrontation with Iran in Syria and PM Netanyahu’s active opposition to the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal of 2015, Israel’s contribution to the Trump administration’s current campaign against Iran appears to be limited to media stunts. Every month or so Netanyahu addresses the Iranian people by Facebook. He speaks English, with Farsi subtitles.

In late May he told Iranians they were “brilliant” and could partner with Israel to better the world. The problem, he added, is “the regime” which wastes billions on adventures abroad. In early June he offered Iran water conservation technology and the Israel Foreign Ministry opened a Farsi language website demonstrating how Israel desalinates and recycles. In late June Netanyahu praised the Iranian soccer team’s performance in the World Cup in Russia: you displayed courage on the soccer field and courage on the streets of Tehran demonstrating against the regime, he told Iranians.

Netanyahu’s talks are accompanied by gimmicks: a soccer ball, a pitcher of water. Needless to say, his tone as usual projects a rhetorical style that some of us find blatantly insincere. Nowhere does he call for the regime to be overthrown. Rather, he tells Iranians to pressure their regime to change its order of national priorities--away from Syria and Hezbollah and in favor of domestic needs.

How do Iranians react? I doubt Netanyahu really cares. This, basically, is his contribution to the Trump campaign against the regime in Tehran.

Q. Israel’s strategy is not regime change?

A. To the best of my understanding, Israel’s strategy toward Iran derives from the Israeli security community’s perception that Iran is increasingly looming as the primary strategic threat to Israel and to parts of the Sunni Arab world. The threat is in Israel’s eyes existential, i.e., Iran--as expressed repeatedly by its religious/political and military leadership (Khamenei: “Israel will disappear within 25 years”, the late “moderate” Rafsanjani: “Israel is a one-bomb country”)--wants to eliminate Israel’s existence. In view of the recent history of the Jewish people and bearing in mind Iran’s consistently aggressive rhetoric and behavior, Israel will not buy into claims by Iran apologists that this is just loose talk, politicking, etc.

Iran currently intends to destroy Israel over a period of years or decades by extending its hegemony deep into the Levant, all the way to Israel’s northern borders, there to mount missile and terrorism threats while it builds up a Shiite and allied attacking force, and by developing nuclear weapons and missile means of delivery. The Israeli intelligence establishment, including many chiefs who favored the JCPOA or acquiesced in it, is convinced that Iran has long-term hostile intentions toward Israel, nuclear and otherwise. I would submit that the intelligence chiefs have hard and convincing evidence for reaching this assessment.

The Sunni Arab states, which for the first time in 70 years have ceased to threaten Israel’s existence, are sufficiently concerned with their own perception of the Iranian threat to consider in some way making common cause with Israel against Iran.

Indeed, because of Iran but also following seven years of revolutionary chaos and in view of Palestinian disarray and division, the Sunni Arab states are also increasingly ready to downgrade the saliency and urgency of the Palestinian issue. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman pressures the PLO leadership to make new and far-reaching concessions that the Palestinians reject out-of-hand. A Palestinian solution might still be the pre-condition for normalization of Arab-Israel relations, but not for cooperation against Iran or for that matter against ISIS.

All this is accompanied by the advent of an administration in Washington that prioritizes the Iran threat, downgrades the Palestinian issue, heavily favors Israel, and seeks to encourage a local coalition of forces including Israel to oppose Iran.

Irrespective of the Arab and US background factors cited above, Israel, meaning the Netanyahu government, most of the parliamentary opposition and the security establishment, defines the Iranian threat as preeminent. Because it is existential in the immediate sense, the Iran threat by far overshadows threats posed by Palestinians, whether long-term demographic and therefore political, short-term attacks from Gaza, or terrorism.


Q. So what is Israel’s strategy?

A. The strategy, accordingly, is to remove the Iranian threat. Not remove Iran and not remove its regime. Remove the threat. This is an objective commensurate with Israel’s assets and capabilities compared to, say, the United States, which under Trump may indeed seek to remove the regime.

While any means for realizing the objective of removing the threat can be contemplated, recent years are illustrative of what the Israeli security community has in mind: superior intelligence, cyber, sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program, advertising deterrent capabilities, attacking Iran and its allies and proxies in Syria, and working with any and all willing partners--from Russia to Saudi Arabia.

This means of course exploiting the convenient confluence of interests diverting attention from the Palestinian issue. But the Iran strategy would have been pursued regardless and if necessary without allies and accomplices. Moreover, Saudi and UAE military capabilities and readiness to take on Iran militarily are hardly factors that Israel can depend on.

What is apparently not contemplated is equally interesting and illustrative. Since 1979, Israel has barely dabbled in the notion of regime change. The late Uri Lubrani, over 40 years ago our last-but-one “ambassador” (technically, head of trade mission) in Tehran, used to say, “give me $100 million and I’ll bring down the ayatollahs’ regime with satellite broadcasts”. By today’s standards, that sounds like a cheap solution. No one in the establishment bought the idea. Everyone understands that a replacement regime could be worse and that Israel could pay heavily for its involvement. Israel learned from its Lebanon adventure in 1982 the dangers of engaging in this sort of counter-productive meddling.

I see no person of influence in the Israeli security establishment advocating that Israel try to undermine the Tehran regime or arguing that Israel is remotely capable of doing so. True, Iran has ethnic minorities that might dislike the regime, but with the exception of the 1982 misadventure with a faction of Lebanon’s Maronites, Israel has never leveraged its links with regional minorities to try to overthrow a regime. Netanyahu can beam clips to Iran expressing friendship for Iranians and condemning the regime and the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs can open provocative websites, but there is no major regime-change propaganda offensive that I know of.

As for a military attack, while a few years ago Netanyahu (and Ehud Barak) apparently were in favor of targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, the security chiefs were able to veto the idea, recognizing that the result would just be a bigger Iranian nuclear program and could be an unwanted war.


Q. And the Trump administration’s strategy?

A. Given that Trump is not a strategic thinker and some of his advisers are blowhards driven by ideology rather than hard intelligence, it is not easy to divine the administration’s strategy. Certainly Israel is on its own in opposing Iran in the Levant: it has to lead, to liaise primarily with Putin rather than Trump, and can’t depend on a do-nothing Arab coalition conceivably recruited by Trump.

If anyone is going to engage in regime change and/or a military attack, it will be the US. This would be a bad idea; it would almost certainly replace a very problematic regime with an even more extreme one. Still, if this transpires, some in the Israeli establishment may want to join in out of solidarity while some will demur and counsel that this could prove counter-productive. We saw something similar in the lead-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, when leading Israeli strategists and spokesmen talked in two voices (e.g., Netanyahu egging Bush on, Sharon counseling caution). Despite constant claims to the contrary by some in the US, Israel was not a primary factor in the Bush 43 decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

It would be foolish for Israel to follow a militarily-aggressive US lead that would involve it in warfare on Iranian territory (as opposed to the Syrian arena on Israel’s doorstep). Nor would Israel’s Arab neighbors--with the possible exception of the brash and impulsive Mohammed bin Salman--be particularly happy about such an adventure lest they be dragged in and for fear of Israel becoming too strong and ambitious. But Netanyahu’s close association with Trump cannot be ignored, particularly if the Israeli prime minister is convinced that such an operation will go a long way toward achieving the objective of removing the Iranian threat, at least for coming decades.

Here we should trust the judgment of the Israeli security community, which is ably and independently led. Netanyahu would have to listen to the security chiefs. And he would have to consider Russia. Thus far Netanyahu has very ably worked with Putin to avoid Israeli-Russian friction in Syria while enabling Israel to take on Iran there. This is an achievement not to be readily compromised or placed at risk.

Following eight direct bilateral meetings with Putin and a few with Trump since Sept. 2015, Netanyahu knows that Putin is an accomplished strategic thinker and Trump is not. Netanyahu undoubtedly recognizes that in Syria, the fight against Iran depends on Russia, not the US. Note for example the current situation in southwest Syria near Israel’s border, where the US is deferring to Russia and abandoning Syrian opposition groups it once supported. How would Russia react (in Syria? elsewhere?) to dramatic Israel-US military collaboration against Iran? Israel has to factor this in regarding any decision concerning Iran.

One cannot of course ignore the fact that Netanyahu and his right-nationalist, settler-messianist political majority exploit the Iran threat in order to advance an agenda of absorbing more and more West Bank land. Ultimately, this will be disastrous for Israel by turning it into a conflicted bi-national state. But that is not the topic at hand. And Iran clearly has bigger plans for Israel/Palestine than merely ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hence it supports Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which share its absolutist outlook, not the PLO.


Q. Israel and Iran were once allies...

A. Forty years after the fall of the Shah, many Israelis and, I dare say, a few Iranians still have a warm place in their hearts for one another. This is not to say that a change of heart by Tehran should be anticipated. But rather to note that if, at some point in time, the powers-that-be in Tehran decide once again that Israel is their natural ally against a hostile Arab world, Israelis might very quickly say “no hard feelings”. At that point the Sunni Arab states, which have hardly become overnight Zionists, should make sure they have given Israel adequate rationales and incentives to stay friendly. Q. Trump advisers Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich just attended yet another MEK Iranian opposition rally in Paris and promised that the Tehran regime would fall soon. A. The MEK, also known as the People’s Mojahedin and the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has little or no support even among the most disgruntled Iranians. Giuliani and Gingrich are paid handsomely for their speeches, apparently with Saudi money, as was John Bolton prior to his appointment as national security adviser. The recent Paris meeting featured an audience of young Eastern Europeans bussed to Paris in return for a free weekend there. The MEK, now based in Albania, revolves around a Marxist-Islamist personality cult; its leader, Maryam Rajavi, supported Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 1980s. If this is Trump’s notion of an alternative to Iran’s Islamist regime, it is truly ludicrous.


Q. And Syria? How do you understand Israel’s current strategy regarding the Russian-Syrian campaign to reclaim for the Assad regime all of war-torn southwest Syria up to the Israeli and Jordanian borders?

A. Trump has abdicated any role in the future of Syria’s regime. The Russian presence in Syria dictates Israel’s strategic need to collaborate with Moscow if it hopes to repel Iran. Accordingly, Israel has no realistic alternative but to acquiesce in the restoration of Bashar Assad’s rule in Syria’s southwest. Note that this is transpiring in the most cynical manner: the current anti-rebel offensive means that Russia is blatantly and brutally violating ceasefire and de-confliction agreements it brokered with Syrian rebels in the southwest a year ago, with US, Jordanian and Israeli agreement. Assad remains a butcher who has gassed and murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people and expelled fully half Syria’s population from their homes. The current campaign in southwest Syria involves yet more atrocities.

Yet for Israel to oppose this campaign would be foolhardy. It would do so without allies and would have to face off against Russia. Rather, Netanyahu and the IDF are maintaining the prudent stance toward Syria of recent years. Israel is vastly increasing and upgrading its aid to any Syrian who makes it to the Syrian side of the border fence. In recent days 5,000 have arrived and received tents, food, water and medication, some of which is reportedly coming from Sunni Arab sources that side with Israel against Iran. Severely ill and wounded Syrians are brought to Israeli hospitals. Without declaring it openly, Israel is apparently protecting this expanding enclave across the border. It has presented to Syria, via Russia, two clear and reasonable conditions for its forbearance: restoration of the 1974 UN-administered demilitarization zones on the Syria side of the Golan border, and removal of Iranian and Iranian proxy forces far from Israel’s borders.

Jordan has also closed its border to refugees. What is transpiring in southwest Syria will get worse in the days and weeks to come. It is unpleasant to contemplate. It is realpolitik at its ugliest. In view of Russia’s participation, only totally different behavior on the part of the Trump administration could conceivably make a difference.

Of course Syria will be on the agenda when Trump meets Putin in Helsinki in mid-July. Don’t expect an outcome even seemingly as benign as in Singapore: Putin is a far more experienced negotiator, strategic thinker and manipulator than Kim Il-sung. Trump has no strategic understanding of Syria or any related issue.