An Israeli Perspective On Iran And The Middle East
BMI attended a speech titled ‘The Changing Geopolitics of the Middle East and Israel’s Security’ by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London on March 19, 2012. Meridor, who is concurrently Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy, divided his talk into four themes – the Arab Spring, Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians. Unsurprisingly, given current international tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme, Meridor devoted a considerable amount of time to this topic, both in his speech and in the questions and answers session afterwards.
A Nuclear Iran Would Mean A Different World
Meridor stated that the nuclearisation of Iran would mean a ‘different world’. He identified three ways in which this would make the region more dangerous:
- A regional nuclear arms race would ensue.
- Some of Iran’s neighbours would be forced to align with Iran out of fear.
- Extremist religious groups in the region would be emboldened by a nuclear Iran.
Meridor outlined how Iran’s fierce rhetoric likening Israel to a ‘tumour’ in the region frightens the Jewish state, but he also pointed out that most Arab countries want Iran to be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. On that subject, he noted that even though Arab states came to regard Israel as a nuclear power decades ago, they have largely refrained from seeking to go nuclear. The implication is that Arab states are more uncomfortable with a nuclear Iran than a nuclear Israel.
Meridor refused to identify red lines or deadlines that could trigger military action by Israel. He also refused to speculate about the impact of an Israeli strike on Iran’s domestic political situation. However, he emphasised that Israel’s fears of Iran stem from its regime rather than the Iranian people, noting that prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the two countries had enjoyed good relations stretching back to the ancient Persian king, Xerxes, who had a favourable attitude towards Jews.
Israeli fears of Iran’s rhetoric are exacerbated by the fact that Tehran acts on its words. He cited attacks against Israeli diplomatic personnel in Georgia, India, and Thailand in February 2012, which he blamed on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s Qods force, under the command of Qasem Soleimani. Furthermore, given that pro-Iranian groups attacked Israeli targets as far away as Buenos Aires as far back as 1992 and 1994, Meridor believes that Iran would strike against Israeli interests abroad, in the event of conflict.
Meridor was asked if nuclear proliferation fears could be assuaged by the creation of a Middle East nuclear-free zone, one in which Israel too would denuclearise and subject itself to international inspections. He maintained Israel’s long-standing position of neither confirming nor denying its possession of nuclear weapons, but also raised the question of why denuclearisation should be limited to the Middle East. However, Meridor fears that there would be a high risk of participants of a nuclear-free zone violating agreements.
When asked if there is anything that Iran can do to soothe Israeli concerns, Meridor suggested that Tehran also needs to convince Arab countries of its good intentions. But he also clarified that Israel needs verification that Iran’s nuclear programme is not being used for military purposes, through intensive inspections and monitoring. On the subject of whether sanctions and cyber warfare can force Iran to back down, Meridor seemed to think that Iran does occasionally bow to realpolitik and reason. He cited Iran’s acceptance of an internationally mediated settlement to end the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 (although we note that this only emerged after eight years of war and hundreds of thousands of casualties). Meridor also pointed out that unlike North Korea, which seems content to live in an autarkic bubble, Iran was too sophisticated a society to accept living in isolation.
While Meridor had nothing to say about China’s possible role in resolving the nuclear stand-off, he stated that Russia needs to do more to pressure Iran and Syria to comply with international demands. India, too, needs to consider pressuring Iran; New Delhi is in a unique position, because it is a friend of Israel that is also friendly with Iran.
Finally, when asked whether a nuclear Iran was preferable to a regional war (resulting from military action to prevent Iran from going nuclear), Meridor unsurprisingly said that both were highly undesirable outcomes, but that a nuclear Iran would be a game-changer, because it would give Iran greater freedom of action by making it feel ‘untouchable’.
The Arab Spring: Still Early Days
Meridor freely admitted that neither Israeli nor other foreign intelligence agencies saw the Arab Spring coming, and that if told on January 1, 2011 what lay ahead, most of them would have found the idea unbelievable. Subsequent events showed that more humility is required in forecasting. Meridor noted that the Arab Spring is still in its early days, and that while most of the slogans in Cairo’s Tahrir Square promoted Western ideas, political Islam is evidently rising. Tunisia’s transition seems to be proceeding smoothly, but Meridor wonders what sort of Egypt will emerge after the 2012 presidential election. For Israel, the future of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty is of paramount importance, for it has prevented hostilities between the two countries for more than three decades (Jordan is the only other Arab state to have a peace treaty with Israel, signed in 1994). Overall, Meridor is hopeful that the Israel-Egypt peace treaty will stay the course, noting that Egypt has no real interest in conflict with Israel. While he recognises dangers in the new Middle East, he also sees opportunities for more Arab countries to quietly increase their contacts with Israel, especially because of their mutual fear of Iran.
Syria: A Key Ally Of Iran
Meridor outlined three reasons why events in neighbouring Syria are of concern to Israel. Firstly, there is the humanitarian aspect of attacks on civilians in Syria. Secondly, Israel wonders who or what will come after President Bashar al-Assad. Thirdly, because Syria is Iran’s only real ally in the Arab world, a break in the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah alliance would probably improve Israel’s security.
The Palestinians: New Negotiations Needed
Because he devoted so much time to discussing Iran, Meridor did not say much about the Palestinian issue. He feels that while the lack of negotiations is bad for Israel, this is not necessarily good for the Palestinians. Meridor does not see their relationship as a zero-sum game. However, the decline of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the rise of Hamas has complicated matters, because Hamas, like Iran, believes that Israel should not exist.