You can count Jonathan Spyer as among that group of analysts who doesn’t believe Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear arms program any time soon.
It’s not that he doesn’t believe Iran is a threat – he does – but he believes only the United States has the military wherewithal to seriously put a dent in the country’s nuclear program. Israel can’t do enough damage to warrant all the serious repercussions that would arise should it attack, he believes.
Instead, Israel’s leadership is trying to light a fire under friendly governments to step up the sanctions and put more pressure on the Iranians.
Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, was in Toronto on Nov. 2 as a guest of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
In a wide-ranging interview with The CJN, the British-born analyst said Iran’s nuclear program is not aimed at Israel in particular. Instead, it is a key component in the country’s larger strategic goal of becoming a regional hegemon, dominating the small oil-producing Gulf States and eventually getting a stranglehold on the production of petroleum. That will allow Iran to put pressure on oil-consuming countries and permit it to become a real power on the world stage, he said.
Iran already dominates a Shia arc that stretches through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. Like the ancient Persians, Iran seeks an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, but its strategy is in danger of being set back by events in Syria. There, its Sunni rivals, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are supporting anti-Assad forces that could overthrow the longstanding regime, he said.
Should they be successful, these groups are not going to replace the Assad tyranny, which has killed upward of 30,000 people, with a democracy. Instead, expect a repressive Sunni regime, but one that can hardly be as hostile to Israel as the current government, he said.
Israel and other western states favour a change in regime, since that could be seen as a blow to Iranian ambitions, he continued. What’s more, “the regime that replaces him won’t be worse in terms of human rights.”
Spyer, whose main area of interest is Syria, has first-hand knowledge of the country. He twice entered Syria in 2012 – without government permission – once in February and again in September.
The first time, with the aid of smugglers, he rode across the Turkey/Syria frontier on a horse at night.
In September, he crossed the border in broad daylight and drove all the way to Aleppo. In the six months between the visits, the Assad regime lost its grip on the north. “The Assad regime does not exist” in that area, he said.
While he was in Aleppo, the Dar Al-Shifa Hospital was bombed from the air, with Syrian forces employing primitive barrel bombs stuffed with shrapnel.
“It feels to be like wild flailing by the regime, punishing the people for supporting the rebels,” he said.
The civil war in Syria, along with the Arab Spring has proven a setback for Iran. It can no longer bill itself as the main “centre for Islamic opposition,” he said
Turning to Egypt, Spyer said the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government can be expected to honour the peace treaty with Israel. It must do so to retain western aid and avoid mass starvation.
However, there is “a breakdown of order in Sinai,” of the kind not seen since before the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty, he continued. And Egyptian culture and its education system is dominated by anti-Israel and antisemitic discourse.
He blasted U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy of abandoning longtime ally Hosni Mubarak. “It was not inevitable that the Muslim Brotherhood take over,” he said.
Instead, the United States could have orchestrated a stand-down by Mubarak, after which the army would have handled the transition to a new government, he suggested. The recent attack on the American consulate and safe house in Benghazi, Libya, “shows that Al Qaeda and extremism is by no means finished… and will manifest in the future.”
Islamism, with its anti-western agenda, poses “a danger for women’s rights, minority rights, Christian rights and homosexual rights,” he said.
“These are going to be immensely repressive societies.”
Western governments, which supported the Libyan rebels, have forgotten how to build patron/client relations in the Middle East and retain influence.
“We’ve been handing power and influence to the wrong people… The value of western coin in the Middle East is at the lowest level in generations. Western countries look weak,” he said.