Israel finds itself in unfamiliar territory today. The revolutionary atmosphere building in Iran presents Israel with a prospect it has rarely confronted: a safe bet. With the Obama administration refusing to back the anti-regime protesters, and the European Union similarly hemming and hawing, millions of Iranians who are on the streets, risking their lives to protest a stolen election and a tyrannical regime, have been cast adrift by those they thought would support them. To date, Israel has joined the US and Europe in rejecting the protesters. This should change.
In refusing to stick their necks out – and so effectively siding with the mullahs against the pro-democracy activists in the streets – US President Barack Obama, like Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Mossad chief Meir Dagan, have all rightly pointed out that Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran’s former prime minister and the titular head of the protest movement, is just as radical and extreme as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whom he seeks to unseat.
Moreover, Western officials and analysts point out that Mousavi’s primary backers from within the regime – former presidents Muhammad Khatami and Akbar Rafsanjani – are themselves anything but anti-regime revolutionaries.
What apparently motivates these men is the sense that through Ahmadinejad’s heavy-handed attacks against the revolution’s “old guard,” the presidential incumbent has shunted them aside. They feel slighted. And they are doubly humiliated by the fact that Ahmadinejad has acted with the open support of Iran’s real dictator – so-called “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei. The likes of Mousavi, Khatami and Rafsanjani don’t want to overthrow the regime whose aims they share. They just want to restore their power within the regime.
It is these twin assessments of Mousavi and his backers that stand at the center of Western leaders’ decision to give a wide berth both to the presidential race and to the protests that have arisen in its aftermath.
For Israel, the arguments for staying clear of events in Iran align with those informing much of the rest of the Western world. Israel’s primary concern is Iran’s foreign policy and specifically its nuclear weapons program and its support for anti-Israel terror groups. There is no reason for Israel to believe that a Mousavi government will be more inclined to end Iran’s race to the bomb or diminish its support for terror groups like Hizbullah and Hamas than Ahmadinejad’s government is. As prime minister in the 1980s, Mousavi was a major instigator of Iran’s nuclear program and he oversaw the establishment of Hizbullah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Beyond that, there is the fact that Israel – like the US – is the regime’s bogeyman. If Israel is identified with the protesters, the likes of Khamenei will use this connection to justify their brutal repression.
Finally, there is the distinct possibility, indeed the likelihood, that these protests will go nowhere. They will be brutally repressed or fizzle out of their own accord. So what would Israel gain by sticking its neck out?
While reasonable on their face, these arguments for doing nothing all ignore the significance of recent developments. Consequently they fail to grasp the new opportunities that have arisen – opportunities which left untouched will likely disappear in short order.
The fact of the matter is that with each passing day, Mousavi’s personal views and interests are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Whether he realized it or not, Mousavi was transformed last Friday night. When Khamenei embraced the obviously falsified official election results as a “divine victory” for Ahmadinejad, Mousavi was widely expected by Western observers to accept the dictator’s verdict. When instead he sided with his own supporters who took to the streets to oppose their disenfranchisement, Mousavi became a revolutionary. Whether he had planned to do so or not, a week ago Mousavi became an enemy of the regime.
The significance of Mousavi’s decision could not be more profound. As Michael Ledeen from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote Wednesday at the Pajamas Media Web site, last Friday night Mousavi tied his personal survival to the success of the protesters – and pitted his life against Khamenei’s. In Ledeen’s words, “Both Khamenei and Mousavi – the two opposed icons of the moment, at least – know that they will either win or die.”
For their part, by the end of this week, the protesters themselves had been transformed. If last week they were simply angry that they had been ignored, by Thursday they had become a revolutionary force apparently dedicated to the overthrow of the regime. This was made clear by a list of demands circulating among the protesters on Wednesday. As Pepe Escobar reported in Thursday’s Asia Times, the protesters’ demands include Khamenei’s removal from power, the dissolution of the secret police, the reform of the constitution under anti-regime Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri, who has been living under house arrest for the past 12 years, and the installation of Mousavi as president.
These demands make clear where the protesters are leading. They are leading to the overthrow of one of the most heinous regimes on the face of the earth and its replacement by a liberal democracy.
As far as Israel is concerned, this is a win-win situation. If the protesters successfully overthrow the regime, they will have neutralized the greatest security threat facing the Jewish state. And if they fail, Israel will still probably be better off than it is today. For if the mullahs violently repress the pro-democracy dissidents, the Obama administration will be hard-pressed to legitimize their blood bath by embracing them as negotiating partners.
Were Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to publicly announce Israel’s support for the protesters, Israel would stand to gain politically in a number of ways. First and foremost, it would be doing the right thing morally and so would earn the respect of millions of people throughout the world who are dismayed at their own governments’ silence in the face of the brave Iranian protesters risking their lives for freedom.
Moreover, by acting as the loudest and first democratic champion of the protesters, Israel would catapult itself to the forefront of the campaign for democracy in the Muslim world. Doing so would make it far easier for Israel’s representatives throughout the world to defend against false accusations by self-described human rights organizations that Israel is a human rights abuser.
Beyond that, Israel would be building an important alliance with the Iranian people themselves. Contrary to what the mullahs would have us believe, Iranians by and large do not share the widespread hatred of Israel and the Jews that their regime promotes and the Arab world embraces. Over the years, Iranian regime opponents – from the students to the trade unionists to women’s rights activists to minority Kurds, Azeris, Ahwaz Arabs and Baluchis – have all appealed to Israel for support. Israel Radio in Farsi, which broadcasts into Iran daily, has more than a million regular listeners.
Were Netanyahu to explain that the same mullahs who seek to disenfranchise and repress the Iranian people seek to destroy Israel with nuclear bombs; were he to call for Iran to stop financing Hamas and Hizbullah terrorists who are reportedly now deployed in Iran to brutalize the protesters, and instead invest in the Iranian economy for the benefit of Iran’s people, he would be sending a message that already resonates with the people of Iran.
Finally, Israeli outreach to the Iranian people now struggling to overthrow the regime would expose the Obama administration’s effective support for the mullahs against their people in all its absurdity and moral blindness. What’s more, the administration would be unable to launch a counterattack. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama would be in no position to attack Israel for suppo
rting Iranian dissidents demanding freedom. And their stammering reaction would make their attacks against Jewish building in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria look ever more ridiculous.
Although Israel is far away from Iran, it has significant capacity to help the demonstrators. It could use its communication satellites to break through the communications blackout the regime has attempted to enforce. Its Internet capabilities can be offered to the protesters to reopen closed networks. Israel could temporarily expand its radio broadcasts into the country and allow its airwaves to be used to broadcast events on the ground in real time so that protesters won’t have to rely on word of mouth to know what is happening or where things are leading.
Again, it is more than possible that Khamenei will move to crush the dissidents or successfully buy enough of them off to subvert them. But in the meantime, Israel has a clear interest in keeping the Iranian cauldron boiling. The mullahs can only concentrate on so much at once. If they are preoccupied with domestic dissent, they will have less time to devote to Hamas and Hizbullah. If they are busy quelling armed insurrections by Kurds or Azeris or Baluchis, they will have less time to devote to negotiating the purchase of the S-300 anti-aircraft system with Russia, or keeping tabs on their nuclear scientists. Strategically, Israel stands only to gain – either marginally or massively – from the ayatollahs’ discomfort.
In an interview this week with National Review Online, Iranian expatriate Amir Taheri explained that Iran suffers from a divided psyche. On the one hand, the mullahs view Iran as a revolutionary vanguard of Islam. They do not see Iran as a nation-state. For them, the normal things that make up a life – economic stability, public safety and the hope that one’s children will do better – are of little use as they march forward under the flag of jihad. Israel and the US are necessary enemies.
On the other hand, the vast majority of Iran’s people wish to live in a normal and free nation-state. For them, the revolution means nothing but privation, suffering, repression and death. They do not hate America and they do not hate Israel. They do not seek nuclear weapons and they do not support the likes of Hamas and Hizbullah.
As Taheri put it, “When we consider Iran as a nation-state, we see Israel as its natural ally. The reason is that Israel, like Iran, is opposed to an exclusively Arab Middle East. Both want a pluralist Middle East in which there is room for diversity; a Middle East where one finds Iranians, Turks, Kurds, Christians and Jews, as well as Arabs.”
If Israel extends a hand in friendship to these Iranian patriots, the worst that can happen is that they fail to overthrow the mullahs and we are left to acknowledge that we wished them well. There is no shame in that.
Indeed, if they fail to overthrow the regime, and Israel is compelled to attack their country’s nuclear installations, it is hard to imagine that they will take it personally. Rather, recalling that it was Israel that stood with them first, they would no doubt understand why we were forced to act, and perhaps be inspired to try again to free themselves from the shackles of their hideous regime.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.