In this UN act, Iran is the star and Israel is the grump observing from the sidelines

Amos Harel — Haaretz Sept 25, 2013

After more than a month of intensive international preoccupation with the chemical-weapons crisis in Syria, the regional agenda is palpably shifting. Attention will now be focused on the Iranian nuclear project, and more particularly on events held within the framework of the United Nations General Assembly session, which began this week: the speeches of the American and Iranian presidents, the meeting between the foreign ministers of those two countries, and the efforts to find a compromise that will halt Tehran’s march toward acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose “red line” speech at the General Assembly meeting a year ago placed him at the center of the world stage, will have to make do with a supporting role this year. Israel is typecast in the current act of this ongoing theatrical drama as the perpetually grumpy complainer who observes events from the sidelines. “We are the kid who shouts that the emperor has no clothes,” Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, Netanyahu’s close ally, said this week. But the shouting is being ignored.

The star of the General Assembly session will be Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rohani. He has conducted a well-planned campaign in the past few weeks, aimed at presenting the new, moderate face of the regime in Tehran. The main reason Rohani won an absolute majority in the first round in the national election in June is that the Iranian people expect him to achieve one main goal: to bring about a significant relaxation of international sanctions, whose effect on the country’s economy was even more serious than originally anticipated last year. The ayatollahs, who did not intervene this time to falsify the election’s results, have been compelled to go with the flow.

The gist of the deal that Rohani is offering the West is: more limited nuclear ambitions in return for reduced sanctions. The regime wants to retain its ability to enrich uranium, but is signaling a readiness to compromise on the question of demonstrating greater transparency at its nuclear sites and allowing closer international supervision.

Iran has not yet crossed the threshold that Netanyahu delineated in his General Assembly speech last year: what was explained later as the accumulation of 250 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium (almost enough to manufacture one nuclear bomb, after enrichment to a “military” level of 90 percent). To date, the Iranians have accumulated about 190 kilograms. But the latest reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency indicate that Tehran has found a way to leapfrog over the red line: The installation of faster centrifuges for enriching uranium has shortened the distance to the manufacture of a bomb. The concern among intelligence organizations in Israel and in the West is that an Iranian decision to complete the process could lead to rapid progress within months, with the intelligence community spotting the development only when it is already too late.

In the meantime, Rohani is also taking steps domestically to justify his more conciliatory approach, with at least partial backing from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In addition to an unusual release of political prisoners, the regime in Tehran is emphasizing the need to show “heroic flexibility,” which Khamenei himself defines as a willingness to compromise on behalf of the sacrosanct goal of preserving the greatness of Iran. This approach is taking place in close connection with the developments in the civil war in Syria, where the Iranians are mired in a sort of holding action aimed at sustaining the regime of President Bashar Assad and maintaining their regional influence. An Iranian cleric was recently quoted as saying that, “if we lose Damascus, we will not be able to keep control of Tehran.”

At present, the compromise concerning Syria’s chemical weapons, engineered by Russia under threat of American attack − involving removal of the weapons stockpiles from Syria and placing them under foreign supervision − is also being perceived as a kind of dress rehearsal for dealing with the Iranian nuclear project. Despite the marked differences between the situations in Syria and Iran, Western success in enforcing the implementation of an effective plan to eliminate the chemical weapons stockpiles could create an encouraging precedent for a practical compromise on the nuclear project.

From an Israeli perspective, what looms are the considerable dangers that were revealed in Washington’s handling of the Syria crisis: the Obama administration’s disinclination to take military action, its hesitation and zigzagging in the course of working out its approach, its inability to agree on joint moves with its allies in the region and with other Western powers, and the blatantly defiant posture struck by Moscow. In a leak to The New York Times this week, Netanyahu was cited spelling out the tough demands he will put to Iran at the United Nations: termination of uranium enrichment at all levels, removal of all the enriched uranium from Iran, closure of the underground facility at Fordow, and dismantling of the new centrifuges at Natanz. But unofficial conversations reveal Jerusalem’s growing doubts about Washington in the light of President Barack Obama’s moves in the Syria crisis.

The events of the past month have afforded Netanyahu substantial ammunition in his ongoing battle to persuade the country’s top defense personnel to back a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The prime minister is convinced Israel will not be able to count on the West to remove the Iranian threat − hence his recurring message, in recent public speeches: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In practice, the more time that passes since Rohani’s election, the more the likelihood of an Israeli attack diminishes rather than increases. After all, Netanyahu had opportunities to order an attack in recent years, but passed them up. In the mood prevailing in the international community today, he will find it difficult to spearhead an Israeli military offensive in the coming year, even if a compromise is arrived at that is not to Israel’s liking.

Shades of le Carre

Russia is being described as the big winner in the compromise agreement over Syria. But Assad − who continues to retain power, at the price of giving up his chemical weapons − and even the Americans have also chalked up certain advantages. What has hardly been mentioned is that Israel, too, has made gains. Indeed, Israel has, for the time being, benefited the most from Syria’s civil war. If − and this is a very big if − the United States succeeds in enforcing full implementation of the agreement to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons, a significant potential threat will have been removed from Israel: the threat against which the ABC ‏(atomic, biological, chemical‏) defense network was created in the Israeli army and the civilian rear over the course of decades.

The dismantling of the chemical weapons in Syria will be added to another huge strategic gain that Israel has achieved without lifting a finger: the continuing collapse of the Syrian army. Yair Golan, the GOC Northern Command, told the newspaper Israel Hayom last week that Assad’s army has used up nearly half its stockpile of steep-trajectory missiles and rockets in the civil war, an arsenal that was created mainly for use against Israel. To the moral lip service being paid by the Israeli leadership in the form of calls to stop the massacre of Syria’s citizens, we can juxtapose the truth: The campaign in Syria is being fought by two camps that are both utterly hostile to Israel. Their mutual attrition, with no victory in sight for either side, is beneficial to Israel. The instability in Syria is dangerous, as is the concentration of Global Jihad terrorists along the Golan Heights border, but both of those developments are overwhelmed by the erosion of Syria’s military capability, conventional and unconventional alike. Israel has no reason to wish for a victory by either side.

In its September 30 issue, The New Yorker carries a fascinating profile of General Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds Force, the long arm of the Iranian government and its Revolutionary Guard. According to Israeli intelligence, too, Suleimani led the joint Iran-Hezbollah effort that tipped the scales this year in the Syrian civil war and prevented the fall of the Assad regime. Iran, which viewed Assad’s possible removal as an existential threat, gave the Syrians a loan of $7 billion, sent hundreds of military advisers and thousands of Hezbollah troops to Syria, and is supplying munitions to the regime on a daily basis via transport planes. For the past few months, Suleimani has been conducting his activity from a fortified compound in Damascus, from which he issues directives to Assad’s personnel, Hezbollah commanders and Shiite militiamen from Iraq who have arrived to assist in the Alawite regime’s battle for survival. “Syria is the frontline of the resistance,” Suleimani said recently, adding, “We will support Syria to the end.”

According to the New Yorker article, by Dexter Filkins, the Iranian general is short and evokes Karla, the Soviet spy master from the Smiley novels of John le Carre. Filkins notes that when he mentioned Suleimani’s name to former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, the latter responded by saying, with irony, “a very good friend.” Dagan told Filkins, “He [Suleimani] has ties to every corner of the system. He is what I call politically clever. He has a relationship with everyone.” The article identifies Suleimani as the brains behind some 30 attacks by Iran and Hezbollah on Israeli and American targets around the world in the past two years − though most of the attacks failed. General James Mattis, until recently the commander of American forces in the Middle East, told Filkins that without the aid of Iran and Suleimani, Assad’s regime would have collapsed months ago. Suleimani “has every reason to believe that Iran is the rising power in the region,” Mattis said. Suleimani is also said to be a hardliner on the nuclear issue, fearing that any concessions to the West will be taken as weakness.

Secondary arena

As Israel was monitoring developments in Iran and Syria, the Palestinian arena flared up briefly during the past week, with two Israeli soldiers killed in the West Bank: Tomer Hazan, who was abducted and murdered near Qalqilyah on September 20, and Gabriel (Gal) Kobi, a combat soldier from the Givati Brigade, who was shot by a sniper while doing guard duty in Hebron. For the time being, the General Staff is taking the proximity of the two events as a random concatenation of circumstances, and not as a portent of major escalation in the West Bank. This assessment has mandated relatively limited measures of response: more checkpoints and reinforcements in Hebron, together with an intelligence-oriented pursuit of the assailant in the city.

The reason Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon approved the army’s recommendations is that they do not want to have Israeli punitive actions in the territories spoil Jerusalem’s arguments in the international arena − particularly at the General Assembly − which will focus on incitement in the Palestinian education system and the refusal of the Palestinian Authority to condemn the recent killings. In the meantime, a bone was thrown to the right-wing faction in the government in the form of a promise to let Israelis occupy a Hebron building called Beit Hamachpela, which settlers bought from a Palestinian, though legal difficulties could delay fulfillment of that promise.

Senior defense establishment figures stated Monday that the PA was showing “complete incompetence” in fighting terrorism and that it is Israel alone that has foiled all the planned terrorist attacks this year against Israeli targets in the West Bank. This is a sharp departure from the previous Israeli line, which generally acknowledged, albeit reluctantly, the effectiveness of the security coordination with the PA. Is this change of tone accepted by the professional experts, or is it mainly a publicity ploy, aimed at the General Assembly meeting? The experts prefer to remain silent and not tread into this verbal minefield. However, when asked recently before the latest attacks, neither Shin Bet nor IDF officials revealed any particular concern about the level of PA cooperation.

It’s clear that in the meantime, despite the two serious incidents, the tension is not being translated into a violent, wider-scale confrontation. The interesting shift in the West Bank remains tactical in character: There has been a rise in the number of attempted attacks, but those behind them are generally not members of organized terrorist groups, but rather ordinary people taking their own initiatives. In most cases, they are inexperienced amateurs. That makes it easier to apprehend them − as in the case of the suspect in the Hazan murder, who was caught immediately − but makes it difficult to formulate a prior intelligence warning, as these are people in whom the Shin Bet security service has not previously taken an interest.

The attacks in the West Bank this week cannot be ignored, but they took place in the shadow of far-reaching regional shifts. The tremors of the Arab Spring continue to be felt, for example, and to foment changes as frequent as they are unexpected. Examples are the renewal of the close ties between Israel and Egypt following the military coup in Cairo, the consistent improvement in relations with Jordan and the heavy pressure Cairo is bringing to bear on the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. The PA, too, has, for the time being, a number of common interests with Israel; for Ramallah, the struggle against Hamas still appears to take precedence over the possibility of reigniting the intifada. For now, the West Bank remains a secondary arena as compared to other fronts in the region.

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