2016 EMF Conference Part 7: The Role of Iran in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greater Middle East – Brigadier General Dr. Ephraim Sneh (Retd.) 5-7 December, 2016
EMF Conference Part 7: The Role of Iran in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greater Middle East
Brigadier General Dr. Ephraim Sneh (Retd.) – Chairman, the Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, Netanya Academic College
EMF Conference 5-7 December 2016
Amidst widespread instability in the Eastern Mediterranean, local powers are using various means in order to increase their influence and boost their presence in the region. In particular, Iran’s profile has been raised as a result of a nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions, as well as due to Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts. The deal has been praised by some as a great diplomatic achievement which will lift Iran from the pariah state status, what will ultimately have a positive impact on the Eastern Mediterranean and the greater Middle East. Others however have expressed great concerns regarding Iran’s growing engagement in the region and penetration of the Eastern Mediterranean, seeing it as a prelude to greater instability.
Christodoulos Pelaghias (C.P.): Good morning and welcome to the East Mediterranean Forum. My cohost this morning is Marta Murzanska and with us we have Dr. Ephraim Sneh, retired brigadier general with the Israeli Defense Forces. Dr. Sneh, good morning and thank you for being with us.
Ephraim Sneh (E.S.): My pleasure as always.
C.P.: Dr. Sneh, you were very kind to join our discussion on Iran and its general role in the Eastern Mediterranean. So let me start with a question. It’s been more than one year after the nuclear deal with Iran. In your view, how has this affected Iran’s behavior and its objectives in the region?
E.S.: The deal didn’t change the goals of Iran, didn’t change the behavior. Because the entire nuclear deal between United States and five so-called powers and Iran ignores the strategy of Iran in general. Ignores what are the real ambitions of the regime in Tehran. They concentrate on one of the tools of this regime to obtain its objectives, and this is the nuclear project. And they succeeded to postpone, fully, to postpone the building of Iranian nuclear bomb, but to remain, to keep all the rest of the policy as they were intact. What I mean by this is the strategic goal of the regime in Tehran is to be an Islamist superpower, the defender of Muslims wherever they are, and to be – not only to be a hegemon in the region – to be a superpower. And the famous quotation is of the previous president: the setting sun is America, the rising sun is Iran. This is the ambition. And since the Iranian leadership are very, very smart and pragmatic in pursuing their imperial ambitions, they decided, since they’ve suffered from a growing economic pressure called the sanctions, they decided to sacrifice for a while the nuclear project in order to gain more achievements in other domains which all of them serve the final strategic goal. It concentrated in enrichment of uranium and production of what is called heavy water – a fissile material for the bomb. But all the rest – no change, no sanctions, nothing. What they have in mind is to buy time by the nuclear deal and in this time to advance in other domains and territories in order to achieve the final goal. Okay, so they… America – the Obama administration – gave them actually a respectable status around the international and the regional table, for instance regarding Syria, which we should refer to it, but they legitimized a regime that given its human rights record, its terrorist activity, everything, does not deserve legitimacy but the contrary. They have to be a pariah regime. And America gave them legitimacy, and as we know, in a way mitigated what remained from the previous sanctions. For instance, if they had problem now to comply with the new policy of the international banks, the administration facilitated them not fully comply, but to live with it.
Now, let’s see what are they doing and how it affects countries in the region, including Cyprus.
And I will start with Lebanon. Iran completed its takeover of Lebanon. The president of Lebanon is a close ally of Hezbollah, the militia which controls actually everything in Lebanon – the government, now also the presidency – and they turned Lebanon to an Iranian province. You cannot take a decision in Lebanon without the consent of Hezbollah, which is obviously a proxy of Iran. Hezbollah has no status if you remove the link with Iran, militarily, as I mention. So just at your doorstep, Cyprus, you have an Iranian province which inside their soul despises Christianity, considers them – the Christians – as infidels, as godless.
Now, Syria. Since Bashar al-Assad, who will remain in power, and this will be almost for sure the outcome of the new Putin-Trump understanding, and of course, because of the heavy, massive Russian involvement, Assad will remain in power. Assad owes a lot to Hezbollah and to Iran. Iran kept him alive. He owes his life to Teheran. He owns his life to Hezbollah. So Syria will not – no matter what somebody will say – Syria will remain in the sphere of Iranian dominance. Not influence; dominance. Because Assad lives at the mercy of Khamenei and Putin. Period. So, Syria, what will remain from Syria, will be an Iranian – Russian base – but also Iranian base at our doorstep, in the shore of the Mediterranean. And that’s the way how Iran through continuation of the policy of intervention and subversion succeeded to have a foothold along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean: from the boarder of Turkey to Israel, including Lebanon. And I will speak later even about tiny Gaza.
Now, Iraq. Again, the government in Iraq is more and more under the influence of Iran. This is a Shia government. The Shiite militias trained, supported by Iran, they are playing a major role in all the military operations against Isis, but to expand the rule of Baghdad over the country. You see them in the north, you see them in the west close to Jordan – an ally of the United States, a moderate country – and they threw this militia, they get closer to the border Iraq-Iran. So, actually Iran took over Baghdad, let alone the southern Shiite provinces.
Now, one of the aspirations of Iran since the taking over of Iraq is to couple the oil production of Iran and the oil production of Iraq, and to take the combination of the two above the Saudi oil production, and to take the role of Saudi Arabia as the one who calls the shot in the global oil market. But for all other strategic purposes the taking over of Iraq is a strategic, historic goal of Iran.
Yemen. What they succeeded recently to do is to use the western shore of Yemen which is the eastern shore of Bab el Mandeb and militarily to take the possible control of this critical maritime pass way. They succeeded to hit Emirati ship and to open fire on several American warships, something that was never done before.
Even in Palestine they try to hug the Hamas, to support it and to activate a proxy of their own in Palestine, which is the Islamic Jihad, which is there. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, this is an Iranian proxy. And this organization becomes more and more active.
They try now to use the distress of the Kurds to mitigate their dependence on Turkey and to open them an oil pipeline to Iran, and by doing so to increase their influence in Kurdistan. So what we see is a policy of subversion and political expansion in all the region, and it is backed by a very, very ambitious conventional military buildup.
In the last fifteen months since the Iran nuclear deal they several times tested their long-range ballistic missiles which are capable to carry the bomb and to be used as a leverage over countries which are 2,000 kilometers away. They gave to the Russians a shopping list of military equipment of ten billion dollars, including anti-aircraft systems – the most advanced – and the most advanced version of the Russian jet fighters and long-range bombers. So to sum it up, Iran continues its military buildup, its support of terrorism and its subversion in any regional country that they are able to penetrate. And the list, as we see, is very long. So what’s happened is that Iran has come to the East Mediterranean, they have direct access to East Mediterranean through Syria and Lebanon, and at the moment they want to do so with their long-range missiles, with their coast-sea missiles they can become a military player in the east Mediterranean.
And now I will answer your questions.
C.P.: You say these are the objectives of Iran. But what about its proxies? I mean, do they share this worldview of Iran, or are they opportunistically benefiting from Iran’s help and maybe at some point will not continue to march with it?
E.S.: The only important proxy which is not Shiite and is Sunni, it is Hamas. But when Hamas needs arms and money, they say, “Put aside the Shiite-Sunni divide, let’s go with the Iranians.” And the Iranians say, “Though they are Sunni, we shall support them because they give us access to the house of Israel.” So this is, I think, the only exception. The Houthis are a version of Shiites, let alone the Shiites in Lebanon, but these are the two classical examples how Iran uses Shiite minorities in various countries as a basis to build a strong and powerful militia. Whoever serves their interest, they extend their hand to him. The best example: the Christian general Aoun, which is now president of Lebanon, is their proxy. So generally, the proxies religiously, and of course politically, they are part of the Iranian, let’s say, core ideology or religion. But others, in spite of the Sunni-Shiite rivalry, they go with it.
Marta Murzanska (M.M.): I wanted to ask you about Hamas. What are the relations between Hamas and Iran at the moment, especially in the context of the conflict in Syria?
E.S.: Hamas, since it is politically isolated, on one hand they enjoy a very open support of Turkey – Turkey is the political sponsor of Hamas. But Turkey and Qatar is not enough, and they keep all the time open channel today to Iran, mainly to receive arms and financing, which they badly need. So this is the dependence of Hamas on Iran. Hamas also has other sponsors, which is Turkey and Qatar.
C.P.: Coming back to the previous points that you had made. We were discussing the proxies and how far they would follow Iran. One of the elements of Iranian policy is nationalism. There is a strong Iranian nationalist element. It’s not just religious. Does this create a limit to how far Hezbollah, or the Iraqis, or the Syrians, and so on, will march side-by-side with Iran?
E.S.: Let’s make no mistake. The alliance, the connection of Hezbollah to Iran is very, very profound. It has nothing to do with Lebanese nationalism. They are totally bending the national interest of Lebanon toward what is important for Iran. They are the proxies in the full sense of the word. They don’t care about any other interest but the Iranian. And the best example: what destruction, devastation and suffering they brought on Lebanon just because they served the goals of Iran, for example in 2006, in the years before after 1982. So there is no contradiction between the proxies to Iran and any nationalism, Iranian or other. The Houthis want to take over Yemen, so they don’t see any contradiction between their aspiration to take over Yemen, or at least big part of Yemen, and the Iranian nationalism. It is nothing to interfere with their ambitions. So Iranian nationalism, which is no doubt an ingredient, a certain ingredient in the Iranian policy and ideology, does not deter other nations to work with it.
M.M.: You’ve mentioned Hezbollah’s complete alignment with Iranian interests in the region. But how do the Lebanese people perceive it? For example, has the Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria affected its position in Lebanon in any way?
E.S.: There is a great deal of resentment in Lebanon, even among the Shiites, about the service which Hezbollah gives to Iran, and the price the Lebanese are paying. By the way, Hezbollah lost hundreds of people in Syria in the war. And people are not satisfied with this. In the beginning they even tried to hide the fact that Lebanese are coming in coffins back to Lebanon. They didn’t disclose the names, they made their funerals almost secretly. Why? Because the Lebanese people, including the Shiites, don’t like to be the spear of Iran. But through the methods of brutality Hezbollah imposes its will on the Shiite community in Lebanon, and on Lebanon in general. They are stronger. They enjoy the massive support of a regional power, which is Iran. The Sunnis led by Hariri, the Christians, they don’t have anyone on whom to lean. The West did not decide to support the Christians, to support the Sunnis. They enjoy some Saudi support. But not the extent and the forceful way the Iranians did it to Hezbollah. So the rest of Lebanon suffers, but Hezbollah imposes its will on the entire country, and they govern the country absolutely.
M.M.: You’ve mentioned that with the recent presidential elections in Lebanon, Lebanon has become even more dominated by Iran. What can that mean for Israel?
E.S.: For us it didn’t change a lot, because more than 100,000 rockets and missiles were deployed in Lebanon targeted in our towns and villages long ago. The election of Michel Aoun as the president of Lebanon gave an official and symbolic evidence to a reality that we are watching twenty years and more – that Lebanon becomes a province of Iran, and from our point of view a launching pad for missiles and rockets. Thousands of them were aimed at targets in Israel in 2006 and now the number is more than 100,000. The numbers of missiles per capita in Israel is higher – targeted at us – is higher than any other country in the world, even in the days of the Cold War. It’s unprecedented.
C.P.: Where does Qatar come into this whole picture?
E.S.: Qatar plays a policy of its own, and they can afford to do so given the immense wealth they enjoy, but they have put themselves against Saudi Arabia, against the other Sunni members of the GCC. Their major partner is Turkey, and they use their influence to promote a strategic interest that is contradictory to those of the other Sunni countries. And they have, I would say, open channels with Iran. They cooperate in many issues, they are not militarily partners of Iran, but they do not consider themselves as opponents of Iran.
C.P.: But this new military base that the Turks are establishing in Qatar – does that affect the relationship with Iran or not?
E.S.: The Qataris are playing in all the quarters. They are walking simultaneously on two rocks. And they are walking on more than two rocks. They maintain their contacts with Turkey, they maintain their contacts with Iran, and they are still members of the GCC, which is the alliance of the Sunni Gulf countries. But the bottom line, especially given their support of Al Jazeera which is a tool of instigation in the region, they’re playing a very negative role. But remember another ally of Qatar. They host some of the US navy ships in the region. So they’re everywhere. They say they have unlimited sources of money, and they play a role whenever and wherever they can, generally a very negative one.
M.M: I wanted to go back to Iran and specifically to Iran and Islamic State (ISIS). Iran has been trying to portray itself as a credible actor in the fight against ISIS. Can it be perceived as such?
E.S.: They oppose ISIS because ISIS tried to take from them the representation of the Muslim cause. And since ISIS is a Sunni movement, or Sunni army or entity, and they are Shiites, so there is a contradiction between them. But when you judge them according to their ideology, they are not much different. This is the very extremist interpretation of Islam, a very fanatic one. So of course when in their interest it suits them to say we are fighting ISIS. And America is easily falling in this trap and consider them as their partners, specifically in the current situation. But as far as the global vision of this regime, they are the same as ISIS, no difference: that Islam will dominate the world, that the infidels will either convert to Islam or will vanish, to say it in a gentle way. There is no difference, they have the same ideology.
C.P.: How does Israel view the Russian-Iranian cooperation? I mean, you mentioned that Russia is providing Iran with sophisticated weaponry. But more broadly I think in Syria, let’s say, would Israel envision a permanent presence of Russia there, with Iranian cooperation or without it?
E.S.: The Russians are in Syria for an indefinite future. And the bottom line, as far as Israel is concerned, is that the axis Tehran-Damascus is bolstered dramatically by the Russian presence, and (inaudible) will not change it. They are there in order to help Assad who is a strategic ally of Iran, and this axis is now by far stronger than it was before the Russian presence. It makes for us everything more complicated. But Israel keeps good relations with Russia, Prime Minister Medvedev visited Israel just at the beginning of November, and Israel tries to adopt to the new reality. And according to foreign publications, we acted in the vicinity of Damascus militarily only few days ago, in spite of the Russian presence. So if they threaten Israel, we keep ourselves the right to act in Syria in spite of the Russian presence.
C.P.: What do you expect from a Trump administration?
E.S.: The Trump administration is unpredictable and all attempts to forecast may disappoint those who have expectations. But there are several components of the next administration foreign policy which are predictable. One of them is accommodation with Russia. I believe that the importance of the Middle East will be diminished for the next administration, mainly because – again, it’s a forecast – a new administration will encourage the oil production inside the United States, and it will make the Middle East, as far as oil supply is concerned, far less important. So these are the only possible guidelines of a future policy. But it’s too early to predict. We can see surprises of all kinds. At this very moment there is yet no secretary of state. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, but it’s too early to judge.
C.P.: Going back to Saudi Arabia and its rivalry with Iran. How is that affecting Israel, and what is the view from Tel Aviv on that?
E.S.: I don’t know the view of Tel Aviv because in Israel there is no one view. I can tell you only my view. And I advocate this vision for relatively many years. If we solve the conflict with the Palestinians, we can build a very strong alliance vis-à-vis the Iranians: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Emirates, Jordan, Israel. We can all work together politically, economically, militarily. You ask about Trump. Just last week I published in (inaudible) in Washington a piece which calls Trump who says that he wants to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that this is his ambition, I offered him a deal: Palestinian state and the creation of the alliance between Israel and the countries that I’ve mentioned. It gives security to Israel, sovereignty to the Palestinians, and a decreased need of American presence in the region. So maybe he will adopt this policy. But so far, the Arab countries cannot join us substantially in front of the Iranians, because as long as we occupy the West Bank, and there is no Israeli-Palestinian agreement, and there are no two states between Jordan and the Mediterranean, such operation is impossible. And this is the main fault of the Israeli official policy, that the reluctance to reach two-state solution depriving Israel of fantastic regional opportunities.
C.P.: But if I hear you correctly, the only problem between Iran and Israel is the Palestinians. If the Palestinian issue goes away, then revolutionary Iran will hug Israel?
E.S.: They will not hug and they will not kiss. This is exactly the point. The extremist Islam reject the existence of Israel no matter how friendly we are with the Palestinians. They don’t want to see a Jewish state in the Middle East. And this is what makes Iran so damaging to the cause of peace in the region. They don’t say, just give this part of the territory to the Palestinians and everything will be fine. No. They advocate – and Khamenei wrote a book about it – how Israel should be eliminated. So it’s a mistake to think that if we strike a deal with the Palestinians, Iran or ISIS…
C.P.: But you feel that Saudi Arabia thinks differently?
E.S.: They discovered that Israel can be a positive member of the regional community, yes. I know for sure that if we solve the conflict with the Palestinians – and this is the essence of the Arab initiative – all those countries that I mentioned will normalize the relations with Israel. In the year 2002, the then late Saudi king, he proposed to the Arabs to accept his peace initiative, and it was adopted by the entire Arab League. All the countries adopted it, no one objected to the Saudis. And they repeat to say the Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table. And the essence of this initiative was, “If you relinquish the territory, we will normalize the relations between you and all the Arab countries. So as far as I know – and I know – it’s still the Saudi policy.
C.P.: Would you ever envision Iran joining the mainstream of international community, perhaps a post-revolutionary Iran? Or is that too far into fictional thinking?
E.S.: It’s not far-fetched at all. At the moment that the Iranian people will control Iran – not the ayatollahs – at the moment that Iran will be a democratic and secular state, Iran will be an important member of the international community, no doubt about it. And the friend of Israel. But this regime which is characterized by the most obscurant religious philosophy, the most extreme interpretation of Islam with a very antagonistic and offensive nationalism, they cannot serve as a constructive member of the international community when they want to take over everything. It doesn’t go together.
But I emphasize time and again: the Iranian people is our friend. There were good relations historically, since the days of the king Koresh thousands of years ago, there were good relations between Jews and Iranians. And that’s what will happen at the moment when the ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guard will be out of power – it will happen. Unfortunately, the soft policy of the West towards the ayatollahs discourage the Iranian people to stand up and revolt.
C.P.: Dr. Sneh, thank you very much for your very interesting thoughts and we hope to continue the discussion.
E.S.: Thank you.