In his UN address Netanyahu identified the threats posed by Iran to the World, but Israel would be smart to use the Kurdish situation to it’s benefit
Israel will stand at the head of the opposition to Iranian expansionism. This is the message Prime Minister Netanyahu gave in his speech before the UN General Assembly yesterday. While in Israel they continue to debate whether Iran is establishing itself in Syria or not, the Iranians are continuing with their policy of “one step back, two steps forward.” The same political-psychological mechanism that the Iranians applied during the nuclear agreement, is now being used with the issue of Iranian military presence in Syria. Netanyahu, in his speech, addressed those who assumed the deal would “open” Iran and make it more moderate, as if ending its isolation would also change its character. These words are spoken on the eve of the day in which IDF forces intercepted an Iranian-made drone on the Golan Heights.
In his speech, Netanyahu stressed the similarity between the deal with Iran and deals made in the past with North Korea, which turned it into a nuclear state. But Iran, with its ambitions of territorial expansion, is far more dangerous than the isolated North Korea. Iran is interested in maintaining its ability to maneuver between the various interests and to this end, avoids a complete escalation. This method allows it to enjoy both worlds – international cooperation in the political and economic spheres, alongside continuous and consistent action to expand its strategic influence. This is a very dangerous approach to Western opponents, and therefore means bad news for Israel. In this sense, Netanyahu stands as a prophet of anger against his Western colleagues. It seems that the American president also understands how serious the nuclear deal is, although the many efforts required to correct or cancel the existing deal (as Israel requests) cast doubt on this possibility.
In the past month there has been a debate about Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. The skeptics claimed that there are no Iranian forces on the ground. It seems that they in particular are missing the overall picture. Strategically for Iran, it’s ability to operate in Syrian territory is far more important than the fixed assessment of an intelligence officer as to exact location of these forces. The ability to operate in the field, along with the Iranian mentality, will be translated into action sooner or later.
The desire to establish an Iranian Shi’ite presence on the Golan border became apparent already three years ago. In January 2015, a convoy of Hezbollah forces was attacked on the Syrian Golan, killing Jihad Mughniyeh, along with an Iranian general and other Hizbullah members. This was a somewhat painful consequence of the testing of Israel’s nerve. Since then it seems that the presence of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in the Golan has stopped – at least in the sense of poking a finger in the Israeli eye. At the same time, Iran’s strategic direction continues to be clear. Nasrallah, who in the past justified his need for armed militia was that (Hizbullah was) a Lebanese organization whose job it is to protect the country from Israel, has lately been speaking more as a pro-Iranian Shi’ite than as a Lebanese.
Today, the military connection between Hezbollah and the Assad army and Iran is not spoken about in whispers, but is being boasting about. The attitude towards Syria is as that of a natural sphere of operation for Hezbollah. It appears that the Shiite coalition is trying to treat this as a fact that has been determined on the ground and not as one that need be considered anymore.
The Iranians are good at giving their opponents a sense of accomplishment. This is an advantage for them, since a temporary loss in a negligible matter gives the Western opponent a sense of progress and fulfillment. The sense of fulfillment pacifies the opponent, which allows (the Iranians) to move on with their strategic intent. The nuclear deal is a prime example of this strategy, but it does not stand alone.
The failure of the nuclear agreement
According to Netanyahu, the problem with the deal are the restrictions that apply to Iran in the context of developing nuclear weapons, which are confined to a limited number of years. The problem is that during the time of the agreement, Iran can expand its nuclear capabilities even without developing nuclear weapons. At the end of the agreement, such development will be extremely simple and awfully swift.
This is indeed a serious problem, but it is not the only one. Last week, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, was interviewed on Iranian television. Salhi, who was also a member of the negotiating team for the nuclear agreement, was quoted on the MEMRI website as saying that Iran had maintained the ability to successfully develop a military nuclear program in a short time. In the past it has been reported that the reactor was able to produce plutonium, one of the fissile materials needed to produce a nuclear bomb, and the concrete was only poured in the opening of some of the external pipes, not the reactor itself. Salehi stated that these pipes can be replaced within months.
The second way to a bomb is by enriched uranium. According to Salehi, Iran can enrich uranium to a level of 20% (considered military) at the facility in Fordow within five days. As for the nuclear program as a whole, Salehi said, “Know that within six months it is possible to change the structure of the Atomic Energy Organization, but if we want to respond and challenge [our opponents], six months will be considered a long time and we will certainly surprise them.” Iran continues to grow powerful under the surface, so that it will be able to obtain nuclear capability in a short time. All this while honoring the agreement.
The nuclear agreement is a symbol of Iran’s mental-political victory over the West. Iran agreed to supervision in its country and to remove materials from its territory, which is perceived as a great achievement in the eyes of the West. At the same time, it gained the legitimacy to maintain a vital part of its capabilities and to continue to focus on their development, under loose supervision, which operates only in the agreed sites. Iran is counting on the fact that preparations for action against it will take long enough to allow it to advance its nuclear program. So Iran today is in effect possessing those exact capabilities that it was to be prevented from achieving. On the way, international isolation was removed and its economy stimulated. From the Iranians’ point of view, they achieved what they wanted. They did not seek a nuclear bomb, but rather the ability to project power as a country with such a bomb. This way, they received an insurance policy against an Israeli attack, legitimization of agreed activity and the ability to channel resources to struggles in the Middle East.
Obama did everything in his power to ignore Iranian hostility so that the deal could pass. His administration went to great efforts to conceal and cover up the intelligence that surfaced about Iran’s use of Iranian civilian aircraft to move fighters into Syria. Iran, which after the nuclear agreement closed a huge deal with Boeing for the supply of aircraft, increased the number of its fleet of military-grade aircraft – all in the name of honoring the nuclear agreement.
Another successful effort by the Iranians against Western reprisals is the silencing of the media. It turns out that the media, which is supposed to influence public opinion on the Iranian issue, is not entirely capable of fulfilling its role. This can be determined in light of a recent revelation of the practice of Iran’s intelligence services to extort foreign journalists and threaten their families in Iran and abroad for sympathetic coverage.
All of this indicates that Israel is not at the end of the struggle against Iranian expansionism, but rather at its beginning. Netanyahu understands this very well, and his extensive political activity is meant to place Israel in a position that will provide it better ability to handle the growing strategic challenge in the future. Israeli reliance on the expectation that the enemy will be undone by its own actions, is liable to turn out to be disastrous. The Iranian strategy is well tailored to confront the Western democracies in the political arena. When the veil of deception is lifted and the sense of success (of the Iranian nuclear deal) dissipates, the Iranians will already be holding on to exactly that which they were being prevented for obtaining.
Last week, Netanyahu turned the support for Kurdish independence into a matter of public record. An Iraqi Kurdistan can serve as a partial buffer between Iran and Syria. All the neighbors of the Kurdish state, which has not yet been created, have an interest in preventing its birth, including Iran, which has a Kurdish population in the area of the common border. Those who read the map of the Middle East must see the establishment of Kurdistan as an Israeli and American interest. Netanyahu has understood this, and has become the first leader to support independence for the Kurds, but it seems that the Americans have not yet adopted such an understanding. They are busy fighting Isis and continue to entertain the idea of a unified Iraq.
On Monday, the Kurds in Iraq will vote for their independence in a referendum. This, despite the repeated pleas to cancel the referendum by Turkey, Iran, the Iraqi government, and even the United States. To the dismay of the Kurds, in the absence of an outlet for the sea, they will depend on countries bordering it for the purpose of transporting goods. The Turks have already declared that the Kurds will pay a price, and the Iranians have declared that they will not respect the agreements signed with the Iraqi government vis-à-vis those who leave Iraq. Nevertheless, the Kurds understand that this is but a stage of the designing the map in the Middle East, and it is possible that such an opportunity will not be repeated soon.
In addition to being alert and involved in the Syrian arena, it seems that the Kurdish issue is about to become part of the Middle East agenda, and it is better for Israel to contribute its share in the matter.
Alon Tuval is the Foreign News Editor of Mida.org