Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-born Israeli Middle East expert. He lived in Iran until eight years after the revolution. He was educated in British universities and now lives in Israel. Mr. Javedanfar is the publisher and editor of the website Iran–Israel Observer. Previously, he worked as a foreign affairs expert at BBC Persian. With Yossi Melman, Mr. Javedanfar co-authored “The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.” He has briefed officials and academics on Iranian affairs from more than 30 countries. Mr. Javedanfar speaks Persian, Hebrew, English, Spanish, and Portuguese. He sat down with Reza Akhlaghi to discuss Israel’s views on Iran and the country’s upcoming presidential elections.
Which political faction in Iran, in your opinion, is most ideologically distanced from the Supreme Leader and could this ideological distance entail less tensions with Israel, should the faction in question assume presidency in the upcoming elections?
There are already more politicians who are distancing themselves from Ahmadinejad’s antisemitic holocaust denial comments. This includes moderate conservatives such as Tehran Mayor and presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf as well as Alaedin Boroujerdi the head of the parliamentary commission for Foreign Policy and National Security, both of whom openly and publicly condemned Ahmadinejad for his comments on the holocaust.
We must remember that regime policy with regards to Israel is set by the supreme leader in consultation with the IRGC. The same goes for regime strategy and policy with regards to Hezbollah. Therefore, anyone who wants to have a political future inside the regime has to be very careful about what they say with regards to this subject.
The regime’s Israel policy has brought few benefits for Iran. Any simple strategic accounting could show you that Iran has lost far more than it has gained because of the regime’s Israel policy. It seems that there are parts of the regime that are becoming concerned because of the price that the regime is paying for its Israel policy. A policy which has put Iran on the front line of the anti-Israel front in the Muslim world. The recent comments by Ayatollah Rafsanjani stating that Iran is not at war with Israel clearly show a trend in thinking which I believe is gaining popularity among not only reformists and moderates, but also moderate conservatives. One would believe that the price Iran and the regime are paying for its current anti-Israel policy is simply unjustifiable. The fact that even Hamas these days has moved away from Iran and towards Egypt is likely to have strengthened such views.
What form of a post-conflict Syria could reduce the geopolitical rivalry between Israel and Iran?
A Syria which is run by the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be of much concern to both Iran and Israel. It could also reduce tensions, up to a limited extent. A Syria which is divided into different states (Sunnis, Kurds and Alawites) could also reduce tensions like Israel and Alawistan. Both states are going to be grappling with challenges as non-Sunni minority states and could feel threatened by extremist Sunni organizations.
However, it must be noted that the level which such developments could reduce tensions depends very much on Iran’s nuclear program as well as on the Supreme Leader’s Israel policies. If the status quo continues with regards to inside the halls of decision making in Iran, the reduction in tensions because of events in Syria is likely to be small.
What’s your take on the view that far from being about military threat, the discourse around Iran’s nuclear program has become a tool for manipulation by both Israel and Iran as part of their on-going strategic rivalry for regional supremacy?
The current Iranian regime (not the people of Iran) is a military threat to Israel. The Supreme Leader has openly stated that he views both the government of Israel as well as the people of Israel with hostility. Ayatollah Khamenei stated his view after Ahmadinejad’s ally, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, in Septemnber 2008 stated that Iran is friends with all people, including the people of Israel.
While slamming Rahim Mashai for his statement, Khamenei, among other things, called the people of Israel the “dark side of the Zionist army Divisions.”
As well as its verbal threats, the regime has financed the death of hundreds of Israelis in buses and cafes during the second intifada. So when a government with whom you share no border says that you should be wiped out, its president denies the holocaust, and its Supreme Leader does nothing to stop him and finances the death of innocent civilians in your country, then you have every reason not to want this regime to have nuclear weapons.
This is damaging to the people of Israel and the people of Iran. There is every justification for Iran to have nuclear energy. I remember all the blackouts we used to have because of lack of electricity. It is also Iran’s right to nuclear energy. But when the country does not answer IAEA questions such as why it was doing work on a nuclear trigger system in the past and breaks IAEA laws by building the secret enrichment site at Fordo, then it’s not difficult to see why Israel is concerned.
Israel’s point of view with regards to possible Iranian ambitions for a bomb really depends on who is ruling Iran. Israel did not complain about the shah’s nuclear program because he did not threaten Israel. In fact, Israel was developing the Jericho missile together with Iran (it later financed the project) in order to boost Iran’s strategic capabilities and weight in the region. A strong Iran was in Israel’s interest as it neutralized Iraq and other hostile Arab nations. Israel does not want the current regime to have nuclear weapons because of its hostile actions and words, not because of rivalry. Anyone who says it’s only because of rivalry should take a closer look at the Iranian regime’s policy and actions towards Israel.
Israel and Iran have both been working on undermining each other’s interests by utilizing cyber technology. And it is no secret that Israel has a highly advanced information technology (IT) infrastructure and industry. However, for Iran, is there a role played by pro-Russian IT expertise that advances Tehran’s cyber capabilities?
This is not my area of expertise; however, I believe that cyber security is an area which is becoming important to all major regional powers, including Iran and Israel. Even North Korea is investing resources in this field. It is logical that Iran would want to develop its cyber security and cyber technology. Development of this area because of sanctions is likely to have become more difficult for Iran. As a result, Iran is most likely to look to outside expertise to supplement its resources.
Israeli officials have been ardent proponents of the sanctions regime against Iran. Is there a particular election outcome in Iran that could change Israel’s stance on sanctions?
In Israel the focus is on Iran’s nuclear program and related policies proposed by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and approved of or rejected by the Supreme Leader. The president only has one vote in the SNSC. When it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, the president does not hold much sway. Therefore, as long as the Supreme Leader continues with his current nuclear policies, Israel’s stance on sanctions is unlikely to change, no matter who the president is.