Q&A | Meir Javedanfar: How Israelis (Including Iranian Israelis) Read Iran
by TARA MAHTAFAR
23 May 2012 02:36
"Most Iranian Israelis are very pro-Iran, and very anti-regime."[ interview ] Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-born Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv. He specializes in Iranian affairs in areas including intelligence, defense, the economy, and domestic politics. He is the director of the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company (MEEPAS) and coauthor of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran, which examines the background of the Iranian president and the country's nuclear program. In this interview, conducted via Skype, Javedanfar analyzes the escalating tensions between Iran and Israel, Israeli public opinion on a possible military strike against Iran, and the views of Iranian Israelis concerning the "nuclear threat" from Tehran.
Let's start with the human and societal side, which we hear less about. Has Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric against Israel, particularly his denial of the Holocaust, and escalating tensions with Iran, negatively affected Iranian-born Israelis?
To give some background on Iranian Israelis -- an estimated community of 150,000-200,000 -- the first wave of Persian Jewish migration to Israel happened in 1948 after the establishment of the state of Israel, primarily from provincial cities of Iran. These included Isfahan, Shiraz, and Mashhad. The year before and after the 1979 Revolution, there was a second migration wave of Jewish Iranians, especially from Tehran. Many became very successful in Israel, especially in the arts and politics.
There's been a recent rise of "Persian pride" in Israel, unfortunately for the wrong reason. Since Ahmadinejad took office, many Iranian Israelis have felt the need to emphasize positive aspects of Iran, to show that this man does not represent all Iranians. President Ahmadinejad has created a terrible, terrible name for Iran, but thankfully it's been saved by the friendship between Israelis and Iranians in Israel, and also by Iranian cinema, which is popular among Israelis and has done a tremendous job of showing the real side of Iran.
What is your take on how Iranian Israelis feel about the recent escalation in talk of war? Do they view Iran as an existential threat to Israel?
Most Iranian Israelis are very pro-Iran, and very anti-regime. Despite the fact that they suffered from anti-Semitism in some areas of Iran, they still have warm feelings for the country. However they want this regime to go, above all because they see what this regime is doing to Iran-Israel relations and to the people of Iran.
It is no secret that the Shah wanted to develop nuclear weapons. Israel never objected to this once.
Furthermore, we should also remember that Israel supplied weapons to Iran during the Iraq-Iran War.
Iranian Israelis feel that currently Iran and Israel are separated by an unnatural divorce. Iranian-Israeli relations could be and should be infinitely better than they are right now, and they'd help the interests of both countries. For instance, the desert in Iran is expanding -- here we have technology for stopping that because we had the same problem. Peace between Iran and Israel would create many areas of economic cooperation between both countries, especially in areas such as technology (especially bio-technology; Iran and Israel lead the Middle East in producing the highest number of research papers in this field). Other areas include energy, agriculture, tourism, to name a few.
The recent "Israel Loves Iran" campaign was an unprecedented instance of citizen-to-citizen diplomacy connecting the peoples of the two countries. Is there room for more such initiatives -- peace advocacy and promotion of interchange and cultural understanding -- and can civil society organizations play a role?
I believe Israelis would welcome the chance to reach out to Iranian people. But the [Iranian] regime is becoming increasingly paranoid and oppressive, and connecting with Israelis would be detrimental to the safety of Iranian citizens.
The Iranian regime is being portrayed as being hell-bent on Israel's destruction no matter what. I have Israeli friends who tell me they have terrifying nightmares about Iran attacking Israel -- people are afraid.
Has the recent trend of analysis of war scenarios in the media affected public appetite for a war with Iran?
I've never seen this level of public discussion in Israel regarding war. There was no such public discussion about attacking Iraq or the reported attack against Syrian nuclear installations. It is highly unusual. Recent polls have shown that the majority of Israelis would only back an attack against Iran if it's done with the support of the United States. This clearly means that they are against a unilateral strike by Israel.
Are there fears that war could lead to Iranian retaliation that would put Israeli civilians in harm's way?
People are concerned about another war. They see it's one war Israel doesn't have to fight on its own -- so why shoulder all the financial and human resources cost?
The Israeli public is witnessing how sanctions are gaining momentum, how the Arab Spring has turned the Iranian regime into a net loser.... In terms of fighting Iran, it's a distant country with whom Israel has never been at war with.
As much as people don't want the regime to have nuclear weapons, I think there's concern that such a war, if it takes place unilaterally, would be too costly for Israel's economy, and it could tarnish Israel-U.S. relations. The biggest threats would be Hezbollah missile attacks on Israeli soil and attacks on Jewish targets abroad.
The distancing of positions on a strike on Iran between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and top defense and intelligence leaders in Israel has been interpreted in many ways. What is your reading of the dynamics of this rift?
Judging by the recent statement of Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, as far as we know, Iran is not making a bomb yet. If the Iranians show absolutely no willingness to stop producing uranium at 20 percent at Fordow, then those who want a tougher line in Israel will have the upper hand.
No one wants this regime to have a bomb. The question is, What should this tougher line look like? Netanyahu and Barak want more threats and others will want tougher sanctions against the regime.
What is Prime Minister Netanyahu's "redline," given Defense Minister Barak's warning of Iran approaching a "zone of immunity"?
There are two parts of the Netanyahu-Barak concept of Iran that don't make sense: one, the immunity zone, and two, that [Israel] has to go to war with a mad, irrational Iranian regime.
Iran is already in an immunity zone. It has chemical weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Khamenei and the [Iranian] regime have shown they are rational actors because they are concerned about the survival of the regime.
Barak has now tried to improve his narrative on Iran by saying they are "not rational in the Western term" and by that he means that a nuclear-armed Iran would cause a lot of violence and war in the world. He is basically saying that such weapons in the hands of Western powers have never caused them to act in a violent manner, but with Iran it could, as it does not think in Western terms. This is a meaningless argument. Nuclear-armed Western countries have also invaded other countries and caused instability. Look at the U.S. and USSR.
It would make a lot more sense if the government in Israel used the argument that Iran has financed the death of at least 350 Israelis by financing Hamas's suicide bombs during the second intifada, and has repeatedly called for Israel's elimination. Three hundred and fifty dead Israelis is proportionally equivalent to approximately 12,000 Americans. If the regime in Iran had financed the death of 12,000 Americans in buses and cafés in the U.S. and continued to call for America's elimination, would the people of America want such a regime to have nuclear weapons?
What does Israel want to see in the current nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world powers?
The basic minimum requirement for these talks to succeed is for Iran to agree to cease 20-percent uranium enrichment, ship out its existing stockpile, answer all outstanding IAEA questions, and agree to the Additional Protocol [of the IAEA Safeguards Agreement], which would allow a very stringent inspection regime for Iran's nuclear program. Should that happen, I think Israel would agree to lifting of current sanctions and would even go as far as allowing Iran to enrich uranium on its soil at 3.5-5 percent. Until now enrichment on Iranian soil has been a taboo and a big no-no. But recently we have seen Defense Minister Barak saying that Israel would agree to this -- which in itself is a major departure from the past.
Does the current Israeli leadership view the Islamic Republic of Iran as posing an "existential threat" to Israel, or is this rhetoric used to drum up international support for stopping Iran's nuclear program?
Netanyahu's narrative is one of an apocalyptic Iran. I think Netanyahu genuinely believes that if Khamenei gets a bomb, he would use it against Israel. His late father, Zion Netanyahu, said in an interview, "The Holocaust continues until today." He believes that Israel lives in a constant level of existential danger.
Do Israeli leaders believe a U.S.-Iran rapprochement would threaten Israeli interests?
I think if the U.S. can stop any illegal activities Iran is doing in its nuclear program and can ensure that Iran gets a full clean bill of health from the IAEA, I don't think Israel would have any problem. Israel would welcome U.S. efforts in ensuring that Iran does not get its hands on a bomb, be it through diplomacy or sanctions. Although I must say that there is a lot of suspicion here with regard to talks as some people believe it gives Iran time and leverage.
How is President Obama's handling of the Iranian nuclear issue with sanctions and diplomacy generally perceived by the Israeli public?
Obama has done tremendous service to Israel's interests by talking to Iran. He is strengthening moderates in Iran, destroying billions of dollars of regime propaganda that the so-called "Zionists control America, and it's because of them that America does not want to reach a deal with Iran." Most importantly, Obama is reaching out to the people of Iran, which is great became Israelis want the Iranian people to have a stronger voice.
Also, the fact that President Obama tried to offer a deal to Iran to transfer 75 percent of its LEU [low-enriched uranium], and Iran refused it...through diplomacy he demonstrated that it is Khamenei who is not willing to reach out to the U.S., rather than "the Zionists not allowing America to talk to Iran."
The only bipartisan issue among the Israeli public is that nobody wants the Khamenei regime to have nuclear weapons -- this includes those who believe that a nuclear-armed Iran is not an existential threat.
Photo of Meir Javedanfar: Nancy Shurka.
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