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 The Israeli endgame in Iran

Asia Times
By Brian M Downing

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The international effort to limit Iran's nuclear research has no more ardent a supporter than Israel. Iran, according to some analysts in and out of Israel, is seeking to build nuclear weapons and is almost certain to use them on Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities, making pre-emptive attacks on Iran essential to national survival. The US and European Union (EU) are more skeptical regarding Iran's intentions - as are even many Israeli experts.

Only Saudi Arabia and a few other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states share Israel's alarm and hence support immediate, punishing attacks on Iran. Saudi Arabia is said to have offered overflight rights for Israeli strike aircraft and also help with refueling for their return flights. Strange bedfellows in the affairs of the world. But how enduring will this partnership be? Do the two powers have different endgames in mind? A look at Israeli foreign policy toward Iran over the past 50 years suggests different long-term objectives may be in mind. In short, Saudi Arabia almost certainly wants Iran gravely weakened. Israel does not.

The rise and fall of Iranian-Israeli partnership
Lost in the almost two decades of enmity between Iran and Israel is appreciation that they were allies for many years. Their partnership was based on a shared concern over the power and ambitions of Arab states. The latter opposed the creation of Israel and fought it several times over the years.

Iran under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi opposed those same Arab states. Arab-Persian animosities from distant conquests commingled with geopolitical rivalry, border disputes, and dislike for mercurial populist dictators and Wahhabi zealots. An enduring community of interest with Israel developed and remained a steadfast part of regional geopolitics for 40 years. The shah sold oil to Israel and in return received military equipment and intelligence.

The fall of the shah in 1979 changed many things in the region, but not the Iranian-Israeli partnership. Geopolitical interests continued to triumph over religious differences. Israel proved valuable to Iran during the long war with Iraq - a war brought on by a mercurial populist dictator backed by Wahhabi zealots. Israel continued to sell and service equipment. It was a lesson in realpolitik.

Relations deteriorated in the 1990s as a new strategic situation emerged when the Iraqi military was badly mauled in the first Gulf War (1991). Saddam Hussein's army, already weakened from eight years of war with Iran, took very heavy casualties and his armor was devastated. Saddam, for reasons of his own, ferried off most of his fighter aircraft to his erstwhile enemy, Iran - presumably to keep them safe. Iran has kept them safe ever since.

Iran became relatively more powerful in the region. There was no check on the revolutionary Shi'ite power, and its influence was growing in Lebanon and Syria along Israel's northern and eastern boundaries. With Egypt signed off on a peace agreement and Iraq's military in ruins, Iran became Israel's primary strategic concern. The soundness of this astonishing change in perspective may be debated for quite some time but its importance for ongoing events is clear. Years of partnership ended and a period of growing tension began. [1]

Israel looks ahead
Today, international sanctions are stifling the Iranian economy and punishing air strikes loom, though not as ominously as a few months ago. Saudi Arabia will press for decisive military action including extensive air campaigns on nuclear research targets and key industrial centers as well. It will also seek an effort to fragment Iran by encouraging insurrections in Kurdish, Arab and Baloch regions. This would leave Tehran a gravely weakened country, and Riyadh the undisputed master of the Gulf. [2]

Dealing a devastating blow to Iran from the air and fragmenting its territorial integrity will have considerable appeal among Israeli strategic thinkers. It would be a tremendous security boon for the country and for its long-standing Kurdish allies in Iran, Iraq and Syria. However, adverse implications will readily appear to strategic thinkers looking further ahead than just the next few years. The firm knowledge that wars lead to unforeseen events and that the Arab world is entering a new, unpredictable period will give Israel much to ponder.

The rise of Saudi power in the region could one day lead to the coalescence of Sunni states under Riyadh's political and financial leadership. Saudi Arabia and other GCC states are military nullities of course, but they can use their financial assets to garner support in the region, especially from Egypt, Syria, and Sunni parts of western Iraq. Those countries all have significant military traditions; they all need foreign aid; and they all dislike Israel.

Better, then, to concentrate on halting Iran's nuclear program and even detaching Iran from Syria, but not on gravely weakening and fragmenting the country. Today's nemesis can be tomorrow's ally, as even a look into just the past 25 years will reveal. Iran was once an ally against Arab states and may be one again, if only out of the turbulent dynamics of regional geopolitics that have been made all the more changing by recent wars and uprisings.

The US and the EU seek, at least in the long term (and probably the very long term), to help bring democracy to Iran. From the perspective of Israel, however, a democratic Iran, while desirable in principle, would not necessarily be non-nuclear or friendly. The key to Israeli-Iranian comity was based on geopolitical interests, not the goodwill of a shah or ayatollah or president.

1. See Trita Parsi's masterful Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). 2. See The Saudi endgame for Iran (It isn't everyone else's), Asia Times Online, June 22, 2012.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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