Mr. Netanyahu’s speech on March 3, 2015 will be marked as the day when an Israeli Prime Minister has pushed the chutzpah so far as to embarrass the President of the United States in front of the whole world. Many commentators and analysts will ponder on such hubris and its arrogance and pretention to make or break US foreign policy.
But why is the Prime Minister of Israel so adamant that Iran is the absolute existential threat to the Jewish people in the first place?
Why, when so many other threats loom all over the Middle East, would Iran be seen by Israel as the most fundamental one to be addressed?
This claim makes little sense when one considers some of the basic rules of geopolitics. It is fascinating how stubborn geopolitical facts can be. One sure guiding principle is the well-known old saying: my enemy’s enemy is my friend – or at least is not my enemy. Another one is: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. Equipped with those two simple rules, you can pretty much understand all the intricacies of geopolitics.
1. My enemy’s enemy is …
As is often the case, two nations which do not share a border tend to be in alliance with each other against the nation that is between them and that has a tendency to claim hegemony in the region. As a classical example, think of the Franco-Russian alliance in the decades that preceded World War I, which aimed at undermining Germany.
Another classical case is the age-old explicit or implicit alliance of Israel and Persia against Mesopotamia. As it is well known from the scriptures, on the river of Babylon, the Israelites, enslaved, lamented the loss of their land in the hands of their worst enemy who had destroyed Solomon’s Temple. But shortly afterwards, Babylon itself was defeated by its enemy, the Empire of Persia, and the Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, liberated the Jews and allowed them to return to the Promised Land and to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. And therefore, Israel’s enemy’s enemy became its most enduring friend throughout the ages.
If you think that this is ancient history and does not apply anymore, think again. In the 1980s, only a few years after an ideologically regressive Islamic revolution had taken over Iran and proclaimed the U.S. to be the “Great Satan”, the new Islamic Republic found in Israel an implicit ally in its fight against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The scandal of the Irangate when US weapons were smuggled to Iran through an Israeli secret channel is a testimony to the stubbornness of geopolitical facts in the region. At that time, it was recognized by Israeli leaders that between two seemingly hostile neighbors, the despot of Bagdad was a far much worse enemy than the ayatollah of Teheran. And therefore, Israel worst enemy’s enemy ended up being, if not a friend, at least not a foe.
Israel has been relentless in demanding action against Iraq throughout the 1990s, and Mearsheimer and Walt have analyzed the role of the Israel lobby in inspiring the US War against Iraq in 2003. Babylon has been crushed and is lying in its ruins. By crushing the devil we knew (Saddam) all kinds of thousands of other unpredictable and deadly devils have been unleashed throughout Mesopotamia… We should have learned a lesson but apparently not… Israel is still not satisfied. It is now pointing at Iran as the next mortal enemy.
How could today’s Iran, which, in the meantime, has become a much more sophisticated and complex society than it was in the 1980s at the height of its Islamist ideology, represent in any convincing ways an existential threat to Israel? Is it because Mesopotamia no longer exists? Isn’t it what Israel wanted? The historical nemesis has collapsed and is now devastated by chaos and anarchy, in the hands of the hordes of barbarians carrying the black flag of a so-called caliphate naming itself Islamic State. And therefore, as in a domino effect, in the absence of the enemy in the middle, the nation further away would seem to become automatically the next enemy in line…
2. Better the devil you know…
Why would the Israeli Prime Minister consider destabilizing a stable nation of 80 million people in the same manner Iraq has been destabilized and destroyed? And why claiming that the #1 threat is Iran when next door, a highly volatile and hyper-violent regime violates all moral and religious commandments and tortures and murders indiscriminately anyone who does not fit its criteria of Islamic “purity” – being Christians, Yezidis, Shi’a Muslims, or Sunni Muslim Women whose behaviors are deemed “indecent” – bringing indescribable mayhem between the Tigris and the Euphrates?
Why would the devil that Israel has known for a very long time be more threatening than the new unpredictable son-of-a-hell devil that just popped up out of nowhere?
The rhetoric professed by the mullahs in Teheran against the State of Israel is indeed a well-known old and tired devil. This rhetoric has been going on for years, for decades even, and is likely to be just that: words, words, words – with no intention to be acted upon. The clerics who rule Iran might be as reactionary and repressive as we imagine they are, their politics for the past 35 years has shown that they are far from being a bunch of lunatics, and that they are concerned about the wellbeing and social improvement of their society. In other words, they are people who have something to lose, and therefore they are people whom we can talk to – hence the round of negotiations on nuclear issues that the US government is engaged in, with indications that the current leadership of Iran might lean towards a compromise. And therefore, it would seem that, as far as devils go, Iran would have become a much more tamed and well behaved devil, one that can be dealt with diplomatically.
So we are back to principle #1: if the real danger is more than ever located in Mesopotamia, then Iran is a de facto ally since it is fighting the same enemy…
3. Why Iran is not an existential threat to Israel nor to the West
Many indicators tell us that today’s Iranian society is far less hostile to the West than it was in the early years of the Islamic Republic. It could even been argued that some of the core values heralded by the West – human rights, women rights, freedom of expression, etc. – are shared by a growing number of Iranians and that the sentiment towards the West and the US is much more positive in Iran than it is in many of the Arab countries.
The social tapestry of Iran is complex and the level of dissidence in civil society has reached a critical mass, as attested by the amplitude of the green wave of 2009, the popular movement of defiance against the ruler of the time, Ahmadinejad. The number of digital activists and dissident bloggers are proof that a vibrant social and political underground is sharing and debating ideas, articles, books, films, promoting the values of openness and democracy, in the defense of human rights and women rights. In this regard, the Iranian society displays more gender equality in education and on the workplace than most other Muslim countries, in ways that might seem paradoxical. The Islamic Republic has made education compulsory for boys and girls equally and as a result, women have reached very high levels of education (60% of university students are women). Iranian women are increasingly working, in all professions including the most highly regarded, as lawyers and doctors – whereas in Saudi Arabia, afflicted by the regressive Wahhabist interpretation of Islam, which has inspired Al Qaeda and ISIS, women are not allowed to drive! Another indicator of the level of empowerment of women in Iran is their access and use of contraception, one of the highest in the Muslim world, correlated with their high level of education, which has allowed women to take charge of their reproductive choices, resulting in a low fertility rate of about 1.9 children per woman, comparable to the fertility rate in the US, and far lower than in Saudi (2.7 children per woman) or Iraq (4 children per woman).
The growing empowerment of women in Iran, as silent and invisible as it might be, is a profound factor of change that will eventually lead to the transformation of the Iranian society, as prophesized by Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer and 2003 Nobel Peace laureate: “A victory for women paves the way for democracy in Iran.” And indeed, women played a critical role in the green wave of 2009 and are among the most active political bloggers and dissidents. It is only a matter of time before the Iranian society engages on the road to social and political reformations, under the pressures of societal forces that cannot be ignored much longer by the ruling class of clerics.
Why would this country, especially considering its current internal evolution, be coined a terrible menace to the equilibrium of the Middle East?
This has less to do with Iran than it has to do with the internal politics of Israel and the political maneuvers of Benyamin Netanyahu, only a few weeks before seeking a reelection.
All the laws of geopolitics and all the facts point at a fake argumentation on his part.
The devil we don’t know, which has been unleashed in the plains of Syria and Iraq under the name ISIS is a far greater threat to the stability of the Middle East than Iran, which on the contrary constitutes one of the most stable regime of the region and which is engaged in the struggle against ISIS on all battlefields.
Therefore it is completely ludicrous that the American Congress and the American people waste a precious time listening to the Israeli Prime Minister crying wolf when the real danger is elsewhere.