The Strange Bedfellows of the Iran Nuclear Agreement: Israel and Saudi-Arabia

What the Israel-Saudi-Arabia dissent to the agreement shows more than anything is that it’s no longer just about nuclear weapons but about regional politics.

Netanyahu is doing everything in his power to scuttle the nuclear deal painstakingly worked out in Vienna between Iran and the P5+ partners. Most recently, he welcomed a delegation of 22 Democratic freshman congressional members to Israel, some of whom were on their first trip to the country. This was an all-expense paid trip, one of many that is coordinated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where US legislators are brought to Israel to tour the country and meet with important members of the foreign and defense establishment.

In an almost two-hour long meeting with the visiting members, Netanyahu—who apparently spoke for most of that time himself—expressed a strong opposition to the agreement, while refraining form explicitly telling the members how to vote in next month’s ballot. According to Steny Hoyer, the most senior member of the delegation, Netanyahu “feels strongly about it, so he argues strongly.” However, he did so in a logical fashion, outlining the various sections of the deal one by one, explaining his disapproval.

As House and Senate members are lining up for or against the agreement, it is interesting to note that a similar process is going on in Iran, where President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are being challenged by hardliners, who have recently lambasted the deal on various Iranian TV channels. Apparently, according to one report, when Javad Zarif together with head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, submitted the full text of the deal to the Iranian parliament and proceeded to answer questions, some of its most hardline members pretended to be sleeping. But perhaps even more interestingly, a leading Teheran Ayatollah, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani, proclaimed in his Friday sermon (on July 16) that, “The Zionist regime (Israeli) and Saudi Arabia are angry about the nuclear deal, and this is the best proof of the value of the deal.”

Thus, we have come full circle, and it has to be asked: has it occurred to Netanyahu that he may have been one of the main driving forces behind his now much-hated agreement? Did Bibi not consider that openly addressing congress to convince US lawmakers to oppose the deal was the most effective road to more substantial Iranian concessions? If these things did indeed occur to him, then why would he still want to try to scuttle the deal and why is he risking a new all-time low in US-Israeli relations?

We have all heard the arguments for and against. While convincingly explained by Joe Lieberman in a congressional hearing, simply explaining to Iran that US domestic legislators were “not sold” on the deal and that we now have to go back to the negotiation table is not likely to be very effective. In fact, as this report claims—and as Zarif himself has pointed out earlier—Iranians are well aware of how US domestic politics works, and most likely, a rejection of the deal in congress would mean a retaliatory rejection by the Iranian Parliament. Just about the opposite of an approval to go back to the negotiation table. Indeed, most of those critical to the deal seem to understand that the alternatives, short of using force, are not going to produce an ideal outcome given the circumstances and the progress that has already been made in the negotiations. That should also be obvious to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

In fact, such an outcome may even be preferable to Netanyahu. Because he has probably decided that it was not all about nuclear weapons after all. In fact, it was more about regional politics. Looking at Saudi Arabia’s reaction makes this point clear. According to former IAEA director Hans Blix (and I paraphrase from a conversation that I had with him in 2005), “most Middle Eastern politics could be explained through the lens of Iranian behavior.” When asked why Saddam Hussein had presided over the destruction of his country’s nascent WMD stockpile but then refused to admit to it to the IAEA, he explained, “because Saddam wanted Iran to believe they still had them.” Thus, similarly, Saudi-Arabia is more afraid of a denuclearized Iran that has the money to influence the region’s politics, than a defiant and rogue, but poor, Iran that acts as the world’s favorite Pariah, and that can legitimately be “squashed” and checked at only a moment’s notice.

Although Israel’s certainly has not dropped its concern over Iran’s nuclear capabilities and breakout time (nor should they), Netanyahu’s posture shows that he prefers deterring Iran’s nuclear capabilities over a more complex verification and monitoring regime that promises an enhancement in US-Iranian cooperation and Iranian conventional capabilities. For Iran, this agreement does indeed give them the tools to regain their economic strength and dominate the region, a prospect feared by Saudi-Arabia, with a large Shia minority. For Israel, while an economically strong Iran is not necessarily a threat, an economically strong Iran with strengthening commercial relations with both the US and Europe, is. Under such circumstances, a strengthening of ties with Saudi-Arabia may be Israel’s best bet. And it’s indeed what is happening: Iran and Israel recently officially admitted that they have held secret talks—no less than five times over the past 17 months according to this report. According to Shimon Shapira, a retired Israeli general and an expert on Hezbollah, the Israelis and Saudis have discovered they share the same problems and challenges, as well as answers.

However, there is one slight problem, Saudi-Arabia does not recognize Israel and does not plan to do so in the near future. Full cooperation, say the Saudis, would only be possible if Israel accepts and implements Saudi-Arabia’s proposal for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Arab Peace Initiative. So Netanyahu is effectively stuck between a rock and a hard place. But one can always dream…wouldn’t it be nice (and a bit ironic) if a peace with the Palestinians would be the side-effect of Israel’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal?


Are security concerns important for the Israeli-Palestinian relationship?


Is the Israeli policy toward the Palestinians in the West Bank driven by security concerns or are there mostly other reasons for why Israel maintains the territorial status quo with respect to the 1967 borders?  What has Netanyahu done to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations and what is his new government expected to do in the near future? Given their obvious negative impact on Israel’s security, why does the Israeli government continue to allow civilian settlements in those areas?

While the recent Israeli elections showed that Netanyahu’s political support has begun to slip, there is also evidence that most Israelis are happy with his foreign policy decisions and share his skepticism regarding the seriousness of the Palestinian partners.  But Israel is deeply divided between “hawks” and “doves” and the division regarding what to do with the territories acquired in 1967 stems from ideological and religious factors rather than security. These issues and others are addressed in a piece published today with the International Security Network, in Zurich, Switzerland.


U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak during visit to Iron Dome defense system launch site in August 2012/REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool

The reaction to the Arab revolts that began in 2011 was more skeptical in Israel than in other countries. This is because most Jewish Israelis agree that the net effect of the fundamental changes in the Arab world will be negative for Israel’s security. What Israelis do not agree about, however, is how the country should best respond to these changes. While there are those who argue that Israel should engage with its neighborhood in order to lessen its toxic image in the Arab world, many Israelis take the more hawkish view that the country should retreat and focus on enhancing its military capacity to counter future threats.

Although equipped with one of the most sophisticated intelligence gathering appa­ratuses in the world, Israel was just as sur­prised as the rest of the world when the Arab Spring erupted in February 2011. How­ever, while most countries reacted with guarded hope and anticipation, Israel’s re­action was one of deep skepticism, laced with a certain fear and trepidation.

In one of his first public announcements in response to the Egyptian revolution, Is­raeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned that the Arab revolutions may turn out to mirror that of Iran in 1979, in other words, the end result would most likely be Islamic, radical, anti-Western, and, most importantly, anti-Israel. In a major attempt to spread understanding about Israel’s dilemma, Netanyahu called to­gether his ambassadors to Western coun­tries and instructed them to emphasize the importance of the stability of the existing Arab regimes. In November 2011, in a “told-you-so” manner, he reminded the Israeli Knesset and the world that his warnings and predictions had indeed been fulfilled. The Arab transitions were neither democratic nor peaceful, and increasingly hostile to the West in general and Israel in particular. The Arab Spring, he said, had be­come an Arab Winter.

While it is clear that Netanyahu represents a side of Israeli politics that has been es­pecially skeptical towards the changes in the Middle East, early public opinion polls showed that a majority of Jewish Israelis shared this perspective. And indeed, it is hard to deny that Israel is now less secure in its neighborhood than before. How­ever, while most Israelis agree that the upheaval in the Middle East has had real negative security consequences for Israel, the understanding of those consequences and what should be done about them var­ies between two approaches that can be described as two schools of thought: the threat-dominated perspective and the op­portunities perspective.

Although most Israelis agree that the Arab revolts have far-reaching consequences for Israel’s security, the understanding of those consequences and what should be done about them vary roughly along the Israeli left-right political spectrum. Those on the right, heavily represented in the current political establishment, focus al­most exclusively on the “threat” coming from the rise in uncertainty in the region, and prescribe increased Israeli isolation and preparedness as a response. Those on the left, more commonly found in academ­ic and intellectual circles, acknowledge the threats, but focus more on the opportuni­ties that are brought by the change, and thus recommend engagement with the emerging regimes in order to increase Isra­el’s chances that the new Middle East will be a friendlier place.

The main areas of concern described in the full analysis are outlined on the map below:

Major Israeli neighbourhood concerns

For the full analysis of these two approaches and their policy implications, the full document can be downloaded from the website of the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, by clicking the thumbnail:

It’s the Balance of Power Stupid!

Israel may be afraid that Iran is acquiring a nuclear bomb, but what its leadership is even more afraid of is the changing Balance of Power in the Middle East.

When the Middle East erupted into chaos in the Spring of 2011, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu warned the world to curb its enthusiasm, predicting that the Arab revolutions would most likely turn out to mirror the one in Iran in 1979, in other words, the end result would be Islamic, anti-Western and most importantly, anti-Israel. Since that time, Netanyahu continues to remind the world that he was right and that his warnings have been fulfilled. The Arab transitions, he claims, are neither democratic nor peaceful and the Arab spring has turned into an “Arab winter.” While the recent anti-Western violence across the Arab and Muslim world may have partially confirmed Netanyahu’s gravest predictions, it is far from clear what kind of long-run impact the possible failure of Arab democracies would have on the region in general, and on Israel in particular.

I would like to argue that neither the rogue violence coming from the Arab world, nor Iran’s possible acquiring of nuclear weapons present much of a threat to Israel’s ability to defend itself.  Even if Israel has a lot to lose if Islamic regimes that are openly hostile to Israel continue replace the “stable” dictators, what really threatens Israel’s long-term security is the changing balance of power in the region and the possible decline of U.S. power. Such a decline and subsequent retreat would reduce Israel’s maneuverability and hurt its ability to project a credible deterrence capacity in its neighborhood. Much of Israel’s foreign policy at the moment could in fact be explained by a desperate attempt to halt or even reverse such a U.S.  decline.

To read the entire article please go to the Times of Israel

U.S. interests in the Middle East (Map by Laura Canali/Eurasian Review of Geopolitics)

The Mutual Misunderstanding – America, Islam, and the First Amendment

Photo: Mohammed Abu Zaid/AP Photo. Protestors in Cairo scale the walls of the American embassy.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding in the Muslim world about American society and how it works, something that has become glaringly obvious in the week that followed the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya and three of his staff. As the world reacted to the initial attacks in Libya and Egypt, a spokesperson for the Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, condemned the violence and issued condolences to the US government, while also calling on the Obama administration to prosecute the “madmen” behind the US made video that is said to have sparked the violence. In response to the video (but before the violence) the US Embassy in Cairo issued a statement, condemning the “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

The statement of the US Embassy and the subdued US response to the continued violence during the past week illustrates the American dilemma in trying to improve its relations with Muslim countries in the Middle East while also preserving its own national interests. On the one hand, the US image suffers from decades of direct support to authoritarian dictators who suppressed Islamic political movements and basic freedoms. On the other hand, the US is a country defined by its civil liberties, allowing the administration has very little control over “free speech” content that is produced and published by private Americans on the Internet.

In societies where technology is relatively new and still largely controlled by the authorities, it becomes quite natural to believe that what appears on the internet from across the Atlantic has government backing and represent the united sentiments of all Americans. In addition, for the “Arab street,” it may appear strange that a superpower that has propped up their countries’ militaries and invaded three countries in the Middle East since 9/11 has no power—or willingness—to control its own population’s “hateful outbursts” against “other” religions.

Such a reaction shows that the biggest misunderstanding about American society in the Arab world is probably about how the principle of freedom of speech and religion works. While there are plenty of anti-Islamic fear-mongers in the US, Islam is not generally considered an “other” religion; it is one piece of a mosaic of religious traditions in the United States, all of which get criticized and bashed by those of other or no faith as a result of the imperfect society/democracy that we live in.  While Islam may have been unfairly targeted more recently (especially as a result of 9/11) Muslims are not alone in feeling like they are always on the defensive about their faith. While hate speech can be prosecuted in the US when it targets individuals, the principle of religious freedom in the US allows Americans to attack each other’s religions and Deities almost indiscriminately, as long as it doesn’t lead to attacks and persecution against individual members of those faiths.

This is why, for most mainstream Americans, one quick glance at the absolutely absurd controversial movie trailer “the Innocence of Muslims” would have been enough to realize that this one could not possibly be considered serious enough for anyone to get up from the couch to defend or attack religious freedom. Yet, as soon as it was translated into Arabic and went viral in the Arab world, it was understood as an orchestrated American attack on Islam and Muslims in general.

As violence is spreading in the Middle East, one wonders what, if anything, can be done to prevent similar episodes in the future? What can the US do to ameliorate relations with the Arab and Muslim world in order to prevent a further deterioration of the situation?

The classical answer—sending troops—will not be sufficient this time around. Instead, the US may need to take a hard look at its own national security strategy in order to formulate a more effective policy for improving the US image with the Arab—and Islamic—street. Such an approach will need to have both long-term and short-term elements and include a serious evaluation of how the US fundamental rights of freedom of speech and religion affects people outside of our borders. How can we explain to people, whose freedoms have been suppressed by US-sponsored dictators, that the US is not a “dictatorship” in its own country and is therefore unable to prosecute anyone who expresses anti-religious sentiments in a “public” forum, including the Internet?

One way would perhaps be to take a longer-term perspective, adopting a broader view on the first amendment that would allow a discussion about how such expression affects the religious sensitivities of those religious groups targeted. While the hate speech prohibition in the US protects individuals from persecution on the basis of their religious or ethnic/personal identity, it does not protect those communities from attacks that they themselves may consider the worst kind; blasphemy. In other words, we need to be aware that hate speech may be experienced differently from religion to the next.

Curtailing freedom of speech on behalf of national security is extremely controversial and is certainly not advocated in this piece. However, having the discussion about how something that we take for granted affects those outside of our borders would benefit both sides of the Atlantic while doing little harm.

NY Times/Damien Cave: An American woman protests the planned Gainsville Koran burning by photographing her daughter with a peace sign.

However, should the US have this discussion alone, or can we expect the Muslim world to meet us half way? Muslims also need to be aware that the recent spread of violence against US and other Western embassies in places as diverse as Tunisia and Australia does not improve the image of Islam in the eyes of non-Muslim Americans. Further, it is understandable that some Americans have a difficult time seeing how the burning of Korans and the making of insulting videos are any worse than flag trampling and church-burning in the Middle East. While some Muslim bloggers have pointed out that the timing of the Libya attack (on September 11th) was proof that the attack was orchestrated by Al-Qaeda and did thus not represent the mainstream view of Libyan Muslims, such an explanation does not fully carry over to the subsequent mass demonstrations and violence in other places around the world.

Moderate Muslims thus also have a difficult task ahead; to convince their societies that confrontation and violence is not likely to improve anything but will only make matters worse.

Israeli Identity and Its Security Dilemmas

Photo: Flickr

Religion is fundamental to Israeli identity politics and cannot be separated from the country’s geography or society, argues Tova Norlén. This, however, does not translate into uniform thinking when it comes to defining Israel’s security dilemmas.

To read the whole piece go to the International Security Network website here

The Election Update: What’s Next – An Arab Spring or Egyptian Winter?

Photo: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

The Constitutional court met on Thursday to determine the constitutionality of the presidential exclusionary law, a parliamentary law that bars members of the former Mubarak regime from participating in the presidential elections. If the constitutionality had been upheld on Thursday, Ahmed Shafiq, the former prime minister under the Mubarak regime, would not have been allowed to remain as a candidate in this weekend’s run-off against the Freedom and Justice party’s (MB) candidate Mohammed Mursi.

While allowing Shafiq to stay in the race, the supreme court also reviewed laws concerning the election of the Egyptian parliament, in effect invalidating about 1/3rd of the seats in the lower house, and as a result, dissolving parliament. With no parliament, the SAC will again takes on broad legislative powers, to the detriment of Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is widely expected to win the presidency.

To read the full analysis, see my article in the Times of Israel.

Photo: Nasser Nasser/Associated Press