Integrating the Middle East without the Ayatollahs

Following a series of confrontations between Israel and assorted Shi’a militias in the region, Iran’s top general Hossein Salami, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), issued yet another threat in Israel’s direction. With an unwarranted bravado, he claimed that destroying Israel is now an “achievable goal”, thanks to Iran’s technological advances. While the threat of wiping out the “Zionist State” may appear laughable, given Israel’s nuclear capabilities, superior military, and intelligence infiltration of the Islamic Republic, the fact that Iran is able to make genocidal statements on public TV with nary a reaction reveals several interesting observations.

First, the regime’s reprehensible rhetoric has become sufficiently normalised and mainstreamed that few are shocked when a high-ranking official comes out with such comments. President Rouhani’s interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, for instance, elicited very little pushback on the hateful comments coming out of various officials. That may be because it is obvious to the mainstream cable networks that Rouhani himself is a pawn of the Ayatollahs and as such holds little significance in the decision-making process, but also likely to the fear that any concerted scrutiny or interrogation of Iran’s incitement to violence can cost the network access in the future and that the high ranking officials will find more accommodating hosts instead.

For that reason, whenever regime officials do come on Western media, they largely go unchallenged. Incredibly, Rouhani also accused the US of supporting terrorism and even threatened to designated a non-profit organisation, United Against Nuclear Iran, as a terrorist organisation. Did such outrageous statements cost Rouhani access to the Western media? On the contrary, the eviller and more outrageous a regime is, the more eager cable networks appear to pander for access. If Rouhani could come on Fox News and make wild accusations against the US, threats to Israel by the regime apparatchiks are even less likely to carry any real-world repercussions for these individuals or their masters in Tehran. And the more such rhetoric is normalised, the more acceptable it is to push the red line, not only in terms of tough words but in terms of action.

This has allowed Iran and its proxies to experiment with attacking Israel. Despite the pushback from Israel’s air force, this was one way to see how the world would actually react to incursions against Israel. Despite some outrage, the reactions have been surprisingly muted. The reasons for that have been twofold: first, at this stage most are aware of Israel’s vastly superior military prowess and are not worried that it can stand up for itself. Second, however, these incursions come in the midst of the anti-war drumbeat that the regime propagandists have been hoisting upon Western doves, isolationists, and assorted individuals unfamiliar with Iran’s long-standing policy of manipulating the public opinion in the West, nor of its bluffing to cover for its own inadequacies. Increasingly, the regime is using such rhetoric, in combination with the threats of war if its demands are not met, to alienate the US from her Middle Eastern allies, including Israel, at least in the court of public opinion that can eventually pressure the government. Despite the generally broad support for Israel in the US, Iran is counting on the rise of isolationists and their sway over the White House.

Another issue is that such rhetoric is increasingly rejected by other Middle Eastern states and even much of Iran’s own diverse population. Clearly Iran is appealing to its proxies, but it certainly must be aware that to the extent Iran may be riling up its own base, obsessive vexation with Israel is losing popularity across the Middle East, where Iran is either seen as a greater threat or with increasing liberalisation and pragmatism, younger generations see more opportunities in at least doing some business with Israel having seen how various developing countries have benefited from the partnership. In other words, the rise of self-interest and exhaustion with spending money and support on nebulous causes abroad seems to be of greater immediate interest to many. Iran is actually increasingly in danger of losing support, as Israel’s value appears to be increasing even if most are still cautious about any public discussion of it. What is clear is that fewer Middle Easterners would be willing to engage in direct warfare with Israel or even to fund causes related to that goal. Why then, would Iran risk further antagonising peoples already wary of its excessive interference in their affairs to call for what largely amounts to another potential conflict?

First, at this point, while Middle Easterners may not volunteer to join the Shi’a ranks to fight Israel they are not yet positioned to actively and openly defend it either, for the most part. The fact that Bahrain authorities and others have recognised Israel’s right to self-defence is remarkable, but that is something Iran would use to antagonise not against Israel itself but against the Bahraini authority. In other words, Iran is looking to corner any potential open supporters of Israel and use their pushback to rile up its own base against them. Israel is being used as a justification for further regional chaos and as a litmus test of dedication to the version of Islam Iran claims to be peddling. (Even if most authorities in the region wouldn’t recognise it as such at all). In other words, Iran is trying to force everyone in the region to choose sides – and anyone who is left in the middle, too inconvenienced to stand up for themselves will ultimately be seen as not having a “protector”).

In a normal world, no one would have to choose sides in doing business with various states. However, Iran’s version of reality is more similar to the way organised crime operates; it seeks to partition the region based on ideological loyalty tests. Being anti-Israel in public is seen as the price to be paid for the potential for being left alone or even being able to derive some benefit from a relationship with Iran. That is why, increasingly, states who do not wish to see Iran’s further ideological encroachment into the region will increasingly have to align themselves with Israel, not only for the practical purpose of defense or business alliances but as a way of making clear that the region will not allow itself to be picked off little by little. Neither it is to Israel’s advantage to allow Iran to utilise the chaotic situation in the region, the decades of indoctrination, and the weakness or instability of some governments to push forward with its agendas, even if Israeli population is not at an immediate risk of an all-out assault by Iran or its proxies. If Iran is going to be pushing for polarisation over support of Israel, this is an opportunity for Israel to help unite the region by providing its support for a shared vision of a peaceful and prosperous the Middle East, in which Iran-backed extremism has no place.

The US-backed MESA (or “Arab NATO”) has not worked out thus far for various reasons, but a less formal alliance centred not around agendas being pushed by the White House, but around pragmatic realities on the ground could play that role. In that sense, Israel is better positioned than the US as it has no agendas that could sidetrack any potential alliance. It will not be pushing to bring the Anti-Terrorism Quartet and Qatar to work together if they are not willing or ready to do so, rather, it will work on the terms of each of its partners in building trust and in taking practical joint steps to counter Iran. Furthermore, it should not be an exclusively Arab enterprise; the rich diversity of Middle Eastern cultures should be embraced, promoted, salvaged from the grips of intolerance and extremism, and brought back into the fold through cooperation on vital matters, starting with the immediate security needs. That means that anyone who shares in the common vision should have a place at the table, provided they are sincere and have a record of firm commitment to countering Iranian hegemony and looking to create an integrated Middle East, rather than thriving on factionalism.  Even if nothing else comes from it, at the very least, a coordinated response to a common threat is more likely to succeed than disparate diplomatic engagements and reactive responses to attacks. This alliance should at the very least focus on two actionable agendas:

  1. Shared intelligence gathering in preventing future threats to all members of this informal alliance.
  2. Developing a strategy to counter Iran’s ideological outreach through a mixture of humanitarian/development actions, and cultural and educational activities.

Engagement with the non-Persian nations in Iran is vital to the success of any such agenda. First, they are open to working with Israel. Second, Israel already has contacts and ongoing working relationships with Ahwazis, Kurds, Azeri Turks, and others, which means it has some level of trust and credibility vital to any close defence cooperation. Mossad was instrumental in preventing attempted assassinations of the heads of Ahwazi organisations in Europe, which Iranian terrorists had planned in Denmark. Furthermore, unlike Western countries that have focused almost exclusively of building relationships with Iranian reformists, the MEK, and monarchists, Israel has been following the events in the peripheral regions of Iran and has been keeping track of ongoing protests, scuffles, and humanitarian and human rights issues plaguing those territories.

It is well-positioned to advance the relationship in conjunction with Arab states in the region. Given that over 50% of Iranian population is non-Fars, without a close relationship with non-Persian nations no progress of any kind can be made, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to forge stronger relationships that can yield more educated populations that can eventually contribute to a developed and successful region far beyond the inevitable fall of the Islamic Republic. Closer integration between these nations and Israel will help ensure that in the future this transition is likely to be peaceful and will have a direction in facilitating important trade and educational opportunities vital for any successful society – and previously denied to these nations by the Shah and by the Ayatollahs. Such a relationship, down the road, will also contribute to a better historical and cultural understanding of the region’s history and will advance and further better relations between different nations, based on common interests and shared values, not just immediate goals and threats.

In the past, Israel had a Periphery policy of engaging with ethnic and religious minorities (non-Arabs and non-Muslims) in the region to counter hostile Sunni majority states. That policy once included the friendly pre-revolutionary Iran, among others. However, as detailed in Yossi Alpher’s, “Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies”, the policy was uneven and ultimately failed and, in some cases, even backfired. Christian Maronites in Lebanon, for instance, backstabbed Israel, creating more problems than they solved, while Israel proved to be once an unreliable ally to Kurds because during that period of time it was not well-positioned to come to an active defense of anyone without also antagonising some of the major state actors in the region. By now, however, Israel had been slowly rebuilding its relations with the Kurds and had been lending both practical assistance on the ground and vocal calls for a recognition of a Kurdish state.

Furthermore, the shift in the policies of various states: the fall of the anti-Israel Bashir in Sudan, the increased aggression by Iran, the destructive civil war in Syria, which has given Israel an opportunity to form relations with at least a portion of the Syrian population, has shifted the calculus.  While there is no such thing as a perfect ally, overall the non-Persian nations in Iran don’t have any incentive to fall back on the regime as the regime has given them nothing but persecution, and have all the reason to work for longer-term relations with Israel. It is also unlikely that they will be put under much pressure abstain from furthering these relations by their Gulf allies. It is rumoured that Israel is discussing a non-aggression pact with these states, not because there is any real danger of an attack, but as a diplomatic step to advance relations and to calm some sceptics and critics of these growing alliances.

(And even if this is just hearsay, such step should be considered as a reasonable and practical compromise between no relations and full normalisation, which would allow for an increase in intelligence sharing and joint defense & security training exercises and operations). Israeli expertise, perhaps sub rosa, could benefit the non-Persian nations which have neither the motivation nor the history of being a threat to Israel. Even without a formal pact, working with them would bring the growth of goodwill, counter Iranian propaganda, and further cement and integrate Israeli presence in the region, responding to Iran’s illegitimate incursions with welcome and legitimate involvement.

The other issue, of course, includes joint countering of Iranian propaganda. Ongoing uprisings in Iran and Iraq, where the population has demanded that Iranian forces should leave and where Baghdad has cracked down on independent and foreign media that has not been openly pro-Iran, show that Iran is basing its legitimacy not in popular will or support but in sheer force and indoctrination through the universities, payoffs, and radical mosques it has been funding in Shia regions, and even beyond. The other aspects of its agenda have been to accuse any opposition of being terrorists or of being in line with terrorists. For instance, it has in the past accused Ahwazis of being aligned with ISIS, or of being separatist terrorists, and had recently blamed Israel for creating or supporting ISIS – a convenient ploy of justifying its aggression as a fight “against” terrorism and to claim legitimacy in that it is supposedly being threatened by “ISIS” and its backers.

In the past, it has blamed Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia for supposedly backing the attack on the IRGC military parade (IRGC was later designated as a terrorist organisation by the US), while also arresting Ahwazi political activists en masse and threatening them with mass execution in retaliation for the attack, the responsibility for which ISIS did claim later. Given Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism around the world, including in Europe, these charges are ironic, to say the least, but also are a way of shifting blame and obfuscating the issue among the naive, the fellow travellers, the leftists, and isolationists who can justify non-interventionism by the popularity of conspiracy theories propagated by the regime.

Joint countering of extremist ideology, fake news, and conspiracy theories would be far more effective given Israel’s success in gathering and analysing relevant information from around the world and given the non-Persian willingness in supplying accurate intelligence and countering false historical and political claims by the regime. Likewise, potential for educating children, particularly among the Azeri Turks, which are the most populous of the groups will make them far less likely to be swayed by the opportunity presented in working with the regime and thus more likely of seeing a successful future for themselves and their families in the future country without the Ayatollahs at the helm. They remain a decisive factor in the existence of the regime; without the buy-in from the Azeri Turks, the institutions of the bureaucracy would collapse unto themselves. Furthermore, Israeli participation as a neutral party will be helpful in overcoming many of the internal divisions deliberated furthered by the regime; infiltration of the opposition movements by regime apparatchiks will become increasingly less likely.  

It is time to take a firm and public stand in not only opposing the Islamic Republic’s aggressive and imperialist agenda, but in promoting a vision of a secure, peaceful, free, and prosperous Middle East where hatred, bigotry, and extremism have no place. Many of the sectarian divisions will take a long time to overcome, but this is a good place to start, and Israel can play a role in it in embracing those who are already open and are reaching out in friendship.

Irina Tsukerman is an American lawyer and analyst based in New York. She has written extensively about foreign policy and security issues for a variety of local and international think tanks. Her writing has been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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