NEW YORK — Intelligence on Iran’s nuclear project is no longer subject to dispute in Israeli government circles, according to Moshe Ya’alon, vice prime minister of Israel and minister of strategic affairs.
Instead, the focus of the discussion is on how to meet this challenge, Ya’alon said while addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Jan. 25 at the Union for Reform Judaism in New York.
“We believe it is so important not just for the safety of the State of Israel; it is so important for the safety and security of the entire world,” he said.
Building a case that the Iranian regime is the prime instigator of instability in the Middle East and that its objective is to undermine the West—in particular the U.S.—Ya’alon invited the Western world to unite in pressuring Iran to stop its nuclear program.
“We believe the Iranian regime should be confronted by the West, led by the U.S,” he said. “What we propose now is to put such pressure on this messianic and apocalyptic regime that they will face a real dilemma.”
The dilemma he described is simple: Iran can choose between continuing its efforts to gain military nuclear capability, and survival of its regime. Ya’alon expressed confidence that Iran will choose survival. From 2003-2004, he explained, Arab leaders were looking at the American offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq and worrying about who the U.S. might target next. As a result, he said, Iran suspended its nuclear program for two years in 2003 and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi decided to give up his military nuclear project without a single shot in 2004. Realizing in 2005 that the U.S. administration had lost interest, Iran renewed its nuclear efforts.
According to Ya’alon, it is not too late to pressure the Iranian regime to give up its nuclear program—through political isolation, crippling economic sanctions, and the knowledge of a credible military option—thereby ensure survival of the regime. “We believe those sanctions that have been approved by the European Union, and on Hill in Washington, should be imposed as soon as possible,” he said. “The sooner the better.”
During his briefing, Ya’alon carefully developed an argument that indicted Iran as the main instigator of the region’s instability, and at the same time cited a “well-known conceptual failure … that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the core of instability in the Middle East.”
“We can identify Iranian fingerprints in any conflict in the region,” said Ya’alon. “Afghanistan is an example; the Iranian regime supports certain elements, by money, by weapons, by terror knowhow, and by training.” More generally, he noted that conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims—taking place in the 7th century, well before Israel was founded—are often at the root of current Middle-Eastern problems.
Iran, he said, is stirring up these conflicts wherever it can. Deeply involved in the politics in Iraq, for example, it supports both the Shia militia and the Sunni elements to fight against one another.
“This is not to the advantage of the Iraqi people, not to serve the interests of the Iraqi people, but to challenge America and the international world order,” said Ya’alon. He also talked about Iran being involved in developing a terrorist infrastructure in Latin America as a challenge to the U.S., potentially as a way to smuggle a dirty bomb into this country. Iran’s activities in Middle East and further afield are meant, he said, “not to challenge Israel, but to challenge the Great Satan, America. When they call it the Great Satan, they mean that it is Western civilization, led by the U.S.; and in this case, Israel is a part of that.”
Israel, maintained Ya’alon, is a bastion of the West in the Middle East and fully identified with Western values. “I believe we are on same page with the U.S., our European allies, and other Western powers like Canada and Australia—those countries who share with us the same values and we believe share the same interests.”
Ya’alon also discussed the recent democracy protests, portraying their consequences as a “geopolitical earthquake” that is challenging Western civilization, threatening democracy, and bringing about a collapse of the nation-state system. “There are those who call it the Arab spring, but to us it seems more like an Islamic winter,” he said. “These are dramatic events that we shouldn’t underestimate.”
In the Middle East, he suggested, Western ideas like democracy are being used as a cover for other, more worrisome trends. “Hamas used democracy, exploiting the democratic rules of the game in order to gain power and impose a nondemocratic, Islamic regime in the Gaza Strip,” he said. He also cited the Iranian Revolution of 1979 in which the liberals who participated were arrested and executed when the Islamists came to power.
Ya’alon urged a cautious approach to the consequences of last year’s protests in the Arab world, suggesting that in several cases Islamists have usurped democracy. “We should be careful of current developments in the Middle East,” he said. “We believe democracy should be reached by education rather than by elections.”
Standing against this picture of a Middle East foundering on religious conflict, Ya’alon said, quoting Netanyahu, “Israel is what is right about the Middle East, not what is wrong about the Middle East.”
Given Ya’alon’s belief in the importance of imposing sanctions as soon as possible, in particular on the Iranian central bank, he is not overly concerned about the potential economic consequences of such sanctions. “Without hesitation, I would say it is better to have a spike in oil prices now as a result of sanctions than a spike if God forbid Iran is nuclear, gaining hegemony in Arabian peninsula, and dominating oil production,” he said.
To avoid a military option, he added, “We have to convince Iran that we have the political stomach to go on.” Nonetheless, he concluded, “We might face the possibility of a nuclear bomb in several years, and the West should be ready.”