Assessing the Impact of Israeli-Iranian Tensions

By: 
Daniel Brumberg

Daniel Brumberg is senior adviser to USIP’s Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, where he focuses on issues of democratization and political reform in the Middle East and wider Islamic world. He is also an associate professor at Georgetown University. He was previously a Jennings Randolph senior fellow at the Institute.

February 14, 2012

Daniel Brumberg is senior adviser to USIP’s Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, where he focuses on issues of democratization and political reform in the Middle East and wider Islamic world. He is also an associate professor at Georgetown University. He was previously a Jennings Randolph senior fellow at the Institute.

 

Israel has been concerned about Iranian nuclear activity for many years, and in the past decade there have been several periods of heightened tensions and talk of war between Israel and Iran. What are Israel’s particular reasons for worry, and what is different this time?

The Israeli population fears that the leaders of Iran ultimately desire the elimination of the Jewish state. This fear has certainly been stoked by the statements of Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who stated during Friday prayers on February 3 that Iran would “support and help any nations, any groups fighting against the Zionist regime across the world, and we are not afraid of declaring this.”

Consider, on this score, that on February 13 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Tehran of being behind car bombings that targeted Israeli diplomats in New Delhi and Tbilisi. The Iranian-Israeli confrontation is heating up.

And yet many credible analysts from Israel’s military and security apparatus have expressed doubt whether Iran actually poses an “existential” threat to Israel. Many of these same experts have assailed the proposition–which largely emanates from Israel’s political leadership—that Israel should launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear sites. No less than Meir Dagan, the former head of Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad, has asserted that he does not think Israel faces an “existential threat.” Still, Israeli leaders are concerned about Iran’s ongoing expansion of uranium enrichment at its deep-underground Fordo site near the Shiite holy city of Qom. Some Israeli analysts fear this move will preclude a decisive military attack, one that would do lasting damage to Iran’s nuclear program.


Are these tensions helpful or counterproductive in U.S.- and European-led efforts to intensify economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran? Is U.S. diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear issue given a stronger or a weaker hand by these developments?

Veteran Iran watchers differ over the diplomatic impact. Some argue that these tensions raise the possibility of some kind of strike, and thus when combined with the growing pressure exerted by U.S. and European sanctions on Iran’s oil sector, could compel Iranian leaders to negotiate. The very prospect of an Israeli attack, the argument goes, could get Iran’s attention--or even, some contend, eventually push the United States to undertake its own strikes.

I myself doubt very much whether the kind of pressure encouraged by all the talk about an Israeli (or American) bombing or missile campaign will compel Iran’s cooperation. Instead, it may draw us down the path of military confrontation. And on this score, there appears to be a strong consensus within the U.S. security and military establishment that a military campaign would bring with it more costs than benefits for the United States and for overall security in the Middle East.

 

How are the tensions affecting politics in Iran with parliamentary elections planned for March, popular unhappiness with the state of the Iranian economy and significant infighting between conservative factions?

The international tensions, in general, and the economic and financial sanctions, in particular, have helped to magnify internal political struggles within Iran’s multi-faceted conservative elite. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has just been called by the Parliament to answer questions about his handling of the economy. Moreover, Iranian leaders have articulated, quite directly, concerns about the impact of the sanctions on Iran’s economy, by implication suggesting that Ahmadinejad may have mishandled this issue. But I do not think these tensions will produce a faction strong enough to push the regime into negotiations, particularly while U.S. policy is effectively running on one track: an emphasis on coercion as opposed to incentives.

I also think it’s unlikely that sanctions will foster a popular movement against the regime. Sanctions have exacerbated the economic problems of Iranian workers and the middle class, and much unhappiness extends across the society. But there is no indication that this is translating into a revival of the Iranian Green Movement. Indeed, Iran’s leaders have used the sanctions to try to rally support, invoking Iranian nationalism to portray Iran as once again the victim of bullying by a U.S.-led alliance of states bent on denying Iran equal treatment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Finally, it’s worth remembering that the historical record on U.S. sanctions against autocratic states is discouraging: The sanctions have not contributed to or forced regime change, and they often provide a pretext for a reinvigoration of autocratic regimes.

 

Is the talk of a possible attack, along with growing Western pressure on Iran, strengthening any particular political groups or politicians in Iran, including the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei?

It plays into the hands of Iran’s hard-line leaders, and Khamanei himself. He has repeatedly used such talk to justify stepping up efforts to stamp out “pro-U.S.” voices in his own society and to justify Iran’s rejection of any U.S. or Western proposals on the nuclear issue.

 

How is the Iranian regime’s view of its position in the region being affected by the Arab Spring and the populist uprising in its ally Syria, as well as the recent Israeli warnings on the nuclear front?

The Iranian regime has attempted to portray the Arab Spring as an “Islamic uprising” that is in line with the cultural, political and geostrategic interests of the Islamic Republic. But that claim has largely fallen on deaf ears in the Arab world. Indeed, it probably has little resonance among many Iranians, particularly those who are fed up with the regime’s economic and social policies. (A joke making the rounds in Iran these days runs: “If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, don’t worry: it’s not the high prices, poverty or unemployment. You are suffering from Islamic Awakening.”)

The situation in Syria has done great, maybe fatal damage to Iran’s effort to frame the Arab Spring as being in sync with Iranian/Islamic interests. Democratic leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are now calling for a change of regime in Algeria, as have the leaders of Turkey. Turkey, along with the United States, is moving forward with plans to provide humanitarian aid to Syria, though Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said that Turkey is not yet calling for military intervention. In this context, reports that Iranian Revolutionary Guards have assisted the Assad regime in repressing the Syrian democratic opposition have only contributed to undercutting Iran’s influence in the Arab world. Israelis may welcome that, but it would be premature to see it as portending Iran’s strategic defeat in the region. Iran has been adept at betting on numerous actors at the same time. It is probably already maneuvering to make sure that it has an open channel to any post-Assad regime. Nor it is clear that such a regime –however indebted to the United States and the Arab League—would embrace a diplomacy designed to punish or exclude Iran.

In 1974, Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, pulled this kind of dramatic maneuver when virtually overnight he switched from an alliance with the Soviet Union to one with the United States. But if and when the Assad regime falls, I don’t expect that Syria’s new leaders will have the geostrategic room, the consensus or the will to make that kind of switch.


What impact, if any, are the international tensions having on Israel’s relationships in the Arab world and, in particular, with the Palestinian Authority?

It is too early to tell. The Arab Spring, and the associated rise via democratic elections of Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt and perhaps Libya (we shall see), has placed great pressure on Hamas to put aside “armed resistance” and pursue a diplomatic approach to Israel—at least for the time being. The recent formation of a power-sharing Palestinian government led by President Mahmoud Abbas may be one indication of the change. Iranian support for Syria has contributed to such pressures on Hamas. Indeed, the recent departure of Hamas leader Imad al-Alami from Damascus suggests that Arab states are putting a lot of pressure on Hamas to break its alliance with Assad. But what all this adds up to is hard to tell. While Israeli leaders see an opportunity in Syria, in a general sense, they are very worried about the election of Islamist leaders in the Arab world.

Moreover, it’s not clear that the current Israeli government is actually willing to take the steps that would be required for a real peace process, one that would open the door to a two-state solution. Given the determination of some members of the Israeli government to pursue the annexation of a large part of the West Bank, it’s not obvious that the current government is ready to take advantage of the openings provided by the Arab Spring to make peace with the Palestinians. As for the latter, the Hamas/Fatah split endures, despite their power-sharing agreement. In sum, I suspect that in spite of whatever opportunities are opening in the region, the stage is not being set for a sustained renewal of the peace process.


Given the populist sentiments unleashed by the Arab Spring, how is the Israeli-Iranian issue playing among Arab publics? Is there more or less inclination now to sympathize with Iran on the issue?

I don’t think the Israeli-Iranian issue is of great concern to the broader Arab populace or to Arab political elites and opinion makers. Their concerns focus on the struggle to create domestic peace and, regionally, on prospects for Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. It is unclear whether Islamist parties in Tunisia and especially Egypt will back a two-state solution that provides sovereignty to both Israelis and Palestinians. The ultimate test of how these Islamist parties respond will not come until the prospect of a two-state solution becomes real. For now, we don’t know because there is no real peace process.

February 14, 2012