Unrest in Iran Poses Dilemma For Israel

Strategic Value: Some Israeli officials and advocates have argued that current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, above, better suits Israel’s strategic goals than his reformist rivals because he better represents the malevolent threat Iran poses.
Getty Images
Strategic Value: Some Israeli officials and advocates have argued that current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, above, better suits Israel’s strategic goals than his reformist rivals because he better represents the malevolent threat Iran poses.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 24, 2009, issue of July 03, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Iran’s descent into instability has confronted Israel and its American supporters with a dilemma in choosing between two competing approaches: one based on human rights, and the other on realpolitik.

Israeli officials might personally be rooting for the fall of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom they view as a tyrant. But at the same time, some fear that his defeat would set back their fight against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As a result, Israelis in official positions have avoided, for the most part, publicly taking sides between presidential candidates as the disorder in Iran has intensified over Ahmadinejad’s disputed June 12 election victory. Still, some public and private remarks have slipped through the cracks, shedding light on the debate in Jerusalem.

“Israel would have had a more serious problem” had Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, emerged victorious in the recent election, said Meir Dagan, chief of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.

In testimony before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on June 16, Dagan said that a Mousavi victory would have required Israel to “explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat, since Mousavi is perceived in the international arena as a moderate element.”

Dagan went on to argue that on the nuclear issue, there is no difference between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, the latter of whom has voiced doubt about the historical existence of the Holocaust and expressed his wish to see Israel liquidated.

Last May, speaking at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel Washington lobby, Ilan Berman, a hawkish Iran scholar at the American Foreign Policy Council, called Ahmadinejad “the gift that keeps on giving,” since his harsh rhetoric compels the world to take him seriously.

In the long term, Iran’s rapidly changing profile could mean a difficult challenge for Israel. If Iran is indeed in the process of change, as most analysts agree, Israel could end up the lone voice advocating a tough stance toward it, while Washington and the world seek ways to reach out and embrace the change.

“Already, in Washington policy circles, the Israelis’ mantra, let’s bomb them, has gone off the table,” said Marshall Breger, a former Reagan and Bush senior White House aide and Orthodox Jew who has been engaged in interfaith dialogue with senior Iranian clerics. “It’s not considered serious.”

For now, Israeli leaders, including Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, have tried to maintain an approach similar to that of the Obama administration as events unfold, condemning the brutal suppression of demonstrators without publicly supporting the reformists’ claims of electoral fraud.

But Dagan’s harsh and more candid analysis did draw detractors in what is clearly an ongoing internal debate. Ephraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad, termed it “simplistic” to say there is no difference between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad on the nuclear issue. “No one can predict what Mousavi would do” if he emerges as the winner of this standoff, Halevy said in a June 21 speech in Jerusalem. Halevy believes there will be “a new ballgame in Iran” if that happens.

For Israel and pro-Israel activists, the crucial question that remains is how events in Iran will affect Tehran’s foreign policy. The Israelis’ goal is to stop Iran from enriching uranium it claims it needs to develop civilian nuclear power but that could potentially be used for nuclear weapons.

No one knows how Mousavi would approach this issue if he gained influence in the end — an eventuality most analysts still consider unlikely.

The only clue thus far comes from an interview that Mousavi gave the Al-Jazeera news network a day before the June 12 elections. He said the West should not expect Iran to abandon its quest for nuclear technology, but he stressed, “What we can talk about, in the international level, is whether we deviate toward the development of nuclear arms.”

This may hint at possibilities for an approach long advocated by Ray Takeyh, a prominent Iran analyst recently appointed to a senior State Department Iran policy post.

Takeyh and others advocate a U.S. “détente” with Iran that would include a negotiated agreement to enforce much stricter control and monitoring of Iran’s enriched uranium. Takeyh argues that this could prevent its diversion to any military use and yet allow Iran to enrich it, as permitted under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Breger agreed that this was likely the direction developments will take if there is eventual progress with any government in Tehran.

“All Iranians believe they have a right to nuclear technology,” he said. “But many moderates are more interested in economic development than in exercising that right.

“As one told me, ‘We want nuclear technology for Iran, we don’t want to sacrifice Iran for nuclear technology.’”

Breger, who served as Reagan’s liaison to the Jewish community, added: “This is a problem for Israel, since as long as there is an Islamic republic, Israel doesn’t want strict inspections, they want regime change.”

The real problem for Israel, he explained, was not the prospect of Iran dropping a nuclear bomb on it — a prospect he viewed as unlikely because of Israel’s own nuclear deterrent — but that “an Iran with nuclear capability, even with no weapons, will constrain Israel’s freedom of action. Israel’s first military principle has always been, they must have total regional military hegemony, or as has been more politely stated, a qualitative military edge.”

“Solutions [to the nuclear issue] that can satisfy the U.S. security needs might not satisfy Israel’s sense of security,” Breger said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.