Vol. 10, No. 36 April 10, 2011
- In the Arab-Israeli conflict, the addition of a religious layer to the conflict is new. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbullah are all religiously-based. When one speaks and acts for God, there is no compromise.
- Iran is a nation of merchants, and it needs the world and its financial system. This gives leverage to those who want to do something about its nuclear plans. If there is leadership, resolve, and persistence, with more sanctions, and more partners in the game, there is a chance that Iran will have to rethink its policy. Europe can do more. The volume of trade between certain European countries and Iran remains quite heavy.
- In the end, this battle will determine the standing of the United States and its power and role in the world in the 21st century. I believe that America has enough power to reinvent itself economically and restore the power that it had, but the perception that Iran is spreading is just the opposite.
- Israel is part of the camp that America has been leading for the last 70 years in terms of values, way of life, and democracy. It is important to us that this camp not lose its power in the world, and that is why a strong America is a very clear Israeli interest, regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans are in power.
The Paradigm of War Has Changed
Compare the United States with its arsenal and al-Qaeda; of course the United States is much stronger. The Israeli army is much stronger than Hizbullah or Hamas, but the wars with Hizbullah in 2006 and Hamas in 2009 did not end in unconditional surrender of the other side. Success does bring deterrence, but not surrender.
Years ago it was important to know what was happening with your neighbor because he could attack you, but Manhattan was attacked from Afghanistan. The whole world becomes a potential enemy or ally. The modern technological era has reduced the importance of borders for barring information, people, or missiles. Nations can no longer control the flow of information. People are much more powerful, while states are less so. This also means that the bad guys become very potent as well.
This has meant a change in the nature of war. Wars are now fought where everybody sees them in real time on television. This puts limits on what you can do in an open world today. The stronger side becomes weaker because everyone can see what he does, while the weaker side becomes stronger because everyone can see what is done to him. It does not mean that the strong side is bad and the weak side is good, but it changes the nature of war.
The players also now include non-state actors. Most threatening to some Arab regimes is the Al-Jazeera television channel. Other important actors that are not states include the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah, and Hamas.
Another new factor is a return to religion in the Muslim world, as in other parts of the world. If you ask people how they identify themselves, in the past you would hear many people speak of their Arab identity as their first identity. Today more people will say that they are first of all Muslim. The Taliban, Islamic Jihad, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hizbullah are all religiously-based. When one speaks and acts for God, there is no compromise. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, the addition of this religious layer to the conflict is new. Egypt’s Nasser never said that he fights for Allah against the Jews, nor did the Syrians or Jordanians. Now one hears from Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas that there cannot be a non-Muslim state here.
The Iran-America Conflict
The most important conflict that is developing in the world today is the Iran-America conflict over the nuclearization of Iran. If Iran does go nuclear, this will have implications for the world order as we know it. First, it may spell the end of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. Some countries, such as Egypt, have said that if Iran goes nuclear, they would too. Others may do it without saying it. In a world in which more countries are going nuclear, rather than giving up on nuclear weapons or playing within the rules, the ability of the superpowers to intervene will be harder and perhaps non-existent.
The alliance between the West and the Arab Gulf area states has been based on those states giving access to oil – a key element in the world economy. At the same time, the West/America is leading the defense of those regimes against radical movements. Those countries have been concerned with Iranian nuclearization, which would mean Iranian hegemony, coupled with the declared Iranian policy of exporting its revolution. If America and the West cannot protect them, they might go along with Iran. Think of a world where Iran and its allies have such an influence over the price of oil.
Out of the 1.4 billion Muslims, the vast majority want, like every human being, a good life and stability, although not necessarily democracy. Yet in all these societies there are minority groups that want to destabilize this way of life and create something new and more religiously observant, as they understand it. They are fighting a battle against Western ideas, such as equality of women, and against basic freedoms, such as freedom of speech. All of them are looking at the Iran-America conflict to see who will win. A victory for Iran is a victory for all these groups. Think of how arrogant Hizbullah may become if Iran wins over America. Think of how arrogant Hamas will be vis-à-vis the PLO.
Iran has added the religious element to the conflict in a very detrimental way, playing its hand through the proxies it has in this area. Hizbullah is a unique phenomenon, a Lebanese party that is also Syrian and Iranian. Hizbullah leader Nasrallah calls himself the personal emissary of Iran’s Supreme Leader. Here you see more evidence of a change from a national to a religious identification. Nasrallah is an Arab and Lebanese by nationality, and a close friend and military ally of a non-Arab, non-Lebanese, Persian Iranian called Ahmadinejad, fighting against other Arabs and Lebanese. This is because Nasrallah and his followers are first and foremost Shiites, which is more important to them than all the other components.
Iran and Syria support Hizbullah with weapons systems, intelligence, training, and an ideology of delegitimizing and liquidating Israel. Hizbullah has 50,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel from the north, more than any other country in the world. Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, which are Sunni, have more than 5,000 rockets aimed at Israel, some of them from Iran and Syria.
Preventing Iranian Hegemony
What is the exact point at which we say that Iran is nuclear? Every day of enrichment, Iran gets closer to its goal. Every day in which they build more missiles with which to launch warheads, they get closer. Every day they proceed with the weaponization process, they get closer. It has not happened as quickly and as successfully as they wanted it to happen, but the world needs to act so that the world order is not totally undermined by an Iranian nuclear capability as well as its possible hegemony within the Muslim world.
This ongoing battle between America and its allies and Iran is of major importance to all of us. We should not ask others to fight for us. However, if there is real world interest in stopping Iranian hegemony and its nuclear capability, then they may do something about it in time.
As the Iranians continue with their nuclear plans, they defy the West, the UN, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran is an ancient nation with a proud history and culture. It is a nation of merchants, and it needs the world and its financial system. This gives leverage to those who want to do something about its nuclear plans. Last year we began seeing some steps that were quite important: UN sanctions, EU sanctions, and U.S. sanctions.
If there is leadership, resolve, and persistence, with more sanctions, and more partners in the game, there is a chance that Iran will have to rethink its policy. The United States has been quite successful in getting the Russians on board for the UN resolution. Somewhat reluctantly, even the Chinese got on board. Europe appears determined in declaring the importance of putting an end to the Iranian attempt to go nuclear, but Europe can do more. The volume of trade between certain European countries and Iran remains quite heavy. An organized world has the ability to act in a concerted manner to make it clear to Iran that it needs to change its policy.
In the end, this battle will determine not only the standing of Iran, but, to a large extent, the standing of the United States and its power and role in the world in the 21st century. Iran says that America is an empire of the past, and that the American economy, the bedrock of American strength, is weak. I believe that America has enough power to reinvent itself economically and restore its power, but the perception that Iran is spreading is just the opposite.
Israel did not need WikiLeaks to know what some neighboring regimes think of Iran. In meetings with an important American politician who was in Israel after having visited six or seven Arab countries regarding the Palestinian-Israeli issue, he said that on average each meeting was 10 percent about the Palestinian issue and 90 percent about Iran. If the countries which oppose Iran get weaker, it is better for Iran. Egypt was one of those countries which stood against Iran with the West. We do not want to see the strengthening of the radical axis and the weakening of the moderate axis.
The role of the free world is to support the Iranian opposition. Not that support will immediately bring them victory, but support is the main source of their confidence in the possibility of victory. Many people who lived in the Soviet Union and fought against the Soviet regime to let the Jews out have said that as long as nobody in the world knew about them, from the time of Stalin to Brezhnev, there was little chance of success. When the world started to know and react, the Jews knew there was a chance of success and this reinforced their struggle.
A Strong America is a Very Clear Israeli Interest
It is important that Iran’s perception does not gain a hold on the thinking of people in the Middle East and around the world. If America takes an openly stated, clear lead and coalesces with its natural partners in this campaign, this can improve America’s role in the world order that all of us want to see. Even though we all have different state interests, we are part of the camp that America has been leading for the last 70 years in terms of values, way of life, and democracy. It is important to us that this camp not lose its power in the world, and that is why a strong America is a very clear Israeli interest, regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans are in power.
Negotiating with Syria?
Syria is the main political ally of Iran in the Arab world. I am one of those few Israelis who think that we should negotiate with Syria, not that I like what the Syrian regime is doing. Will there be an agreement in the end? I know what they want from me, but what I want from them is a full peace, like Jordan and Egypt. They must stop the support of terror organizations, including Hizbullah, and cut away from the Iranian axis. It is an open question whether we can get all of this. It has to do with the strength of America and Iran. There is not just an Israeli-Syrian closed circle; there is a bigger circle of power relationships that needs to be taken into account.
* * *
Dan Meridor was first elected to the Knesset in 1994, serving continuously until 2003. During this period he served as Chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, twice as Minister of Justice, Minister of Finance and Minister without Portfolio in charge of the intelligence community. Upon returning to the Knesset in 2009, he was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on February 3, 2011.