What Israel should do about Iran

Author Kamran Bokhari, Tamir Libel
There are two major reasons why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should pull back from his hard-line opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal.

First, Iran is on a path toward international rehabilitation, whereby the United States and its European allies will increasingly be working with Tehran on regional security in the Middle East. Second, geosectarianism is reshaping the regional strategic environment to where the bulk of the threat to Israeli security will be from Sunni as opposed to Shiite actors.

Ever since the signing of the July 14 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a large number of serious voices from within Israel’s security establishment have come out criticizing the Netanyahu administration’s opposition to the deal. Many of these critics hold the view that the threat is not from a nuclear Iran, but rather an Iran that is on the path toward international rehabilitation. Intuitively, an Iranian regime unencumbered by sanctions indeed has far more room to pursue its anti-Israel policies. However, it is important to take stock of the constraints upon the Islamic Republic in light of the nuclear deal.

It is unlikely that a Tehran that has made the strategic decision to end its international isolation will engage in activities that could reverse its current course. More important, Iran needs to focus on rebuilding its economy. And on the foreign policy front, it is facing serious crises throughout its sphere of influence, which will preoccupy Iranian strategic planners and thus limit its ability to alter the balance of power currently in favor of Israel. It is interesting to note that those very forces (Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and the many other Salafist-jihadist militias that have their epicenter in Syria) that threaten Iranian interests are a bigger threat to Israeli national security. While Tehran is working to limit the extent to which these entities undermine the fabric of its regional sphere of influence, Israel faces a far greater challenge from these forces, which pose a direct threat to its national security. Furthermore, Tel Aviv has very few tools to deal with them. Jacky Hugi has argued in these pages that it is in Israel’s interest that the Syrian regime survives, because its collapse will destabilize Israel’s northern frontier.

In recent years, Israel has had to deal with threats from Lebanon’s Hezbollah as well as Palestinian Hamas and other smaller groups. The key thing here is that these two nonstate actors have been sponsored by various states, in particular Syria, whose influence ensured that Hezbollah and Hamas operated within certain boundaries. However, we are now in an age where the Arab world is experiencing the weakening and collapse of states coupled with the rise of jihadi nonstate actors of various stripes. While the situations in Egypt and Jordan are currently not as bad as that in Syria, the growing inability of Cairo and Amman to control their territories is a bigger threat to Israel than an Iran on the path toward rehabilitation. The geosectarian struggle between the Iran-led Shiite camp and the Saudi-led Sunni Arab camp is exacerbating the chaos brought about by state meltdown and growing transnational jihadism.

The nuclear deal is a way for the United States to establish a balance of power between these two sides, which is all the more complicated by the fact that Washington is relying on Turkey to play a lead role in bringing order to the growing regional chaos. For Israel, though, the stakes are much higher given that it does not have the advantage that the United States has of being an extraregional player. Thus, the Israelis need a much more sophisticated approach than their current one, which is heavily focused on opposing the nuclear deal, especially now that the Obama administration succeeded in preventing Republicans in Congress from striking it down — without having to resort to a presidential veto.

Therefore, it is only logical that at a time when Washington is restructuring its regional policy to include Iran as a de facto partner, and the major threat to Israel comes from radical Sunni nonstate actors (which Sunni state actors seem incapable of controlling), Israel should try to establish a back-door, covert and direct communication channel with Iran. While a rapprochement of sorts between Israel and Iran is unlikely in the foreseeable future, both sides still have much to benefit from institutionalizing concrete coordination mechanisms. Israel would have better prospects to sort out escalations with Hezbollah and Hamas before they develop into bigger crises, thereby ensuring the maintenance of stability. Instead of negotiating with these groups through ad hoc third parties, Israel could benefit from having a backchannel with their patron. Creating a mechanism for dealing with the threat from the Iran-led camp will allow Israel the bandwidth to focus on devising a strategy for dealing with the much more critical threat from Salafist-jihadi entities, who by undermining Sunni Arab states are weakening the structures that Israel has relied on for its security. Such Israeli-Iranian communication would also complement American efforts to manage a region with Tehran as a major participant in regional diplomacy. After much bad blood between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations, such a course of action could be a major step in reharmonizing US-Israeli relations.

Pulling back from the almost singular focus of opposing the nuclear deal could thus aid Israel on two fronts. It would first and foremost help realign Israel’s relations with its main great power patron, the United States. It would also be a way for Tel Aviv to more effectively manage the twin emerging threats to its national security: an ascendant Iran and the jihadist nonstate actors gaining ground on its doorstep. The choice to achieve these objectives is Netanyahu’s to make.

Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/09/iran-israel-communication.html#ixzz3n1C0xISK