The complexity of the Iran-Israel-United States relations in the wake of Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory.
S. Hesam Houryaband has an extensive background in international, political, and diplomatic affairs with experience working for the Iranian Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, Mission of Iran to the UN, and Embassy of Iran to France. S. Hesam holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and Diplomacy.
P.L. : Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made a controversial speech in the beginning of March in front of the U.S. Congress about Iran’s progress towards acquiring nuclear weapons and the Geneva interim agreement, stating in short, that Iran is close to a nuclear breakthrough and that the agreement will not stop Iran. How close is Iran to acquiring nuclear capabilities and what does it mean for the region and Israel in particular?
S.H.H. : The Israeli Prime Minister’s speech in front of the US Congress contained nothing new, and it sounded like a broken record. In 1992, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, as a member of the Israeli Knesset, stated that Iran was 3-5 years away from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Again, in 1996 he made a speech before the US Congress stating that Iran was close to acquiring a nuclear bomb. And in 2012, he repeated the same rhetoric in front of the UN General Assembly. By Mr. Netanyahu’s account, Iran by now should not only be close to acquiring a nuclear bomb, but have an arsenal the size of France and Britain!
Even the Israeli and the international intelligence community disagree strongly with Mr. Netanyahu’s forecasts on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. However, one thing is certainly clear from the Israeli Prime Minister’s recent speech: it was more destined for the domestic Israeli audience than the international one. That was obvious from the billboards Mr. Netanyahu’s camp put up across Israeli cities praising the Prime Minister for his command of the international crisis, and his eventual victory in the Israeli elections.
That being said, with all the hullaballoo from Mr. Netanyahu, there is a certain element of reality to Iran’s nuclear program and capabilities. If there is one consensus amongst the Iranian political elite from all walks of life, is that the country needs to have some sort of a nuclear program which would give the country a deterrent capability not only in the region, but also internationally. Iran wants to have a program which would allow it to keep all the elements of a nuclear weapons capability short of building a bomb, so that if and when the country feels threatened, it could hold that card in the face of any possible aggressor.
Obviously, that is threatening not only to Israel, but also Iran’s neighbors. Nevertheless, it is an inevitable fact. For more than 30 years, the Iranian leadership has felt that it has been unjustifiably held back from fulfilling its potential as a regional power by the western superpowers. The nuclear program gives Iran the chance to portray the power projection which it deems worthy of the nation’s strategic might.
P.L. : Given the strong, polarizing reactions to Netanyahu’s speech in the U.S., even from President Obama himself, what can we expect in the future in regards to U.S.-Israel relations; changes or more of the same?
S.H.H. : I believe Mr. Netanyahu’s speech in the Congress will further drive away President Obama’s government from the Israeli leader. That does not bore well for a relationship which is already strained due to other political events, specifically the Palestinian statehood and the Israeli settlements. However, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters in the US Congress are vying for the day President Obama is out of office. So, even though the relations might get cooler for the time being, the Republicans are hoping to win the next US presidential election and set the US-Israel relations on the “right” path.
P.L. : With the recent electoral victory by Benjamin Netanyahu and his party Likud, led on a hawkish discourse towards Iran and one that categorically refused negotiating towards the establishment of a Palestinian state, will we see any changes, perhaps an even more hawkish foreign policy for Israel?
S.H.H. : It is certain that the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu will reinforce his hawkish stance a bit, but we must consider that Likud and the other right wingers only secured 54 seats of the 120 seat Knesset, and Netanyahu will be under pressure if he wants to build a coalition government that holds. Also, the elections are over and Mr. Netanyahu will be returning to reality. For that reason, we may see a bit of backtracking of Likud and the Prime Minister’s part to allow comfort zone for the undecided parties to have a say in the future government’s policies, especially with regards to the Palestinian issue and Iran.
P.L. : Besides stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, does Israel have other objectives in regards to Iran?
S.H.H. : Israel has a twofold strategy which coincidentally goes hand in hand, specifically now that Iran and the US are negotiating directly over Iran’s nuclear program. Israel is certainly threatened by the prospects of a nuclear armed Iran, because not only would that take away Israel’s monopoly of nuclear capability in the region, but would also reduce Israel’s strategic depth. But Israel is more threatened by any prospects of a thaw in relations between Iran and the US. Therefore, Israel will avail from nothing to try to derail this warming of relations, even if it means allying itself with its natural enemies such as Saudi Arabia and Sunni Arab extremist groups in the region. And this wouldn’t be the first time Israel has played at this game. Even from the beginning days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Israel had attempted and succeeded in foiling any attempts in normalization of relations between Iran and the United States. Israel understands that if Iran normalizes relations with the US, it would regain its place as America’s primary political and military ally in the region in the days before the revolution.
I personally believe that Tehran’s road to Washington passes directly through Tel Aviv. Israeli politicians are to a point justified to feel threatened from an Iran that is a US ally, because it would mean less military, political and financial aid to the Jewish state. And the Iranian leadership must understand that until they come to terms with Israel, there can be no true relationship with the US, because Israel and its American supporters will always be there to sabotage the normalization talks. Obviously, no one in Israel expects Iran to come out and officially recognize its existence, but a nudge and a wink will go a long way in putting Israel at ease.
P.L. : What is Iran strategy with regards to Israel?
S.H.H. : Iran’s general strategy vis-a-vis Israel to date has been to keep it in check in the region, both militarily and politically. Short of going to war, Iran would do everything to gain leverage over Israel in a regional tug of war. But more recently, Iran has been also preoccupied with neutralizing Israeli efforts in derailing the negotiations with the United States. If the Iran-US negotiations do continue, we will surely see more disruptive and provocative behavior from Israel, which would in turn force Iran to respond in kind.