By Judie Jacobson ~
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Dr. Uzi Rabi is director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and also chairs the university’s Department of Middle Eastern and African History. His areas of specialization include the modern history of states and societies in the Persian Gulf, state building in the Middle East, oil and politics in the Middle East, Iranian/Arab relations and Sunni/Shiite tensions.
Previously, Rabi served as vice director of the S. Daniel Abraham for Regional and International Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is regularly invited by the Knesset to deliver updates and briefings on current developments in the Middle East.
Rabi discussed Israel’s possible response to the continuing threat of a nuclear Iran, as well as other issues relating to the Middle East, in a conference call with journalists, hosted by The Israel Project.
Q: Can you start by giving us a quick synopsis of what is happening today in the Middle East?
A: I would say that 2011 was really a dramatic year in the Middle East. We had the phenomenon of the Arab Spring; barriers of fear collapse and new formulas for who will rule are in the making. We have to just stay put because this is not the end – we are in the middle of the process. I think that some other Arab states, including monarchies, are not immune when it comes to the winds of the Arab Spring. We should also be aware of what I call the geo-strategic revolution in the Middle East. Arab states are getting weaker and we have non-Arab players coming to the fore – especially Turkey and Iran. So, we have a very different Middle East than what we had in the 20th century and those who deal with the Middle East must be equipped with a different set of tools and insights, because many of the tools and insights we used in the previous century are not valid anymore.
Q: Would it be better for Israel to continue its black ops, using special forces and stealth against Iran, as opposed to an all out massive bombing on its nuclear sites?
A: All the activities you mentioned are related to what we call the “shadow war,” and Israel, it would be safe to guess, is already there — maybe with other parties — in the war against Iran. In 2012, we are getting into a kind of very strict timetable. There are many declarations coming from Israeli top officials saying that August or September is the month when we will cross the point of no return in terms of the nuclear program. I do believe that Israel should actually further examine all other methods before actually launching an attack.
Q: We keep hearing that sanctions “are beginning to bite” – but we don’t see any sign that sanctions are having any effect in the way that really matters, which is slowing down Iran’s nuclear program. Do you still think they might have the desired effect if they’re harsh enough?
A: I think that the sanctions, if fully implemented – and I’m talking about the new set of sanctions that were offered by the European Union and by the Americans — target the two main engines of the Iranian economy: the banking sector and the oil sector. If fully implemented, I think that would give the Ayatollahs in Iran second thoughts, because that would create a problem for Iran’s economy. Iran would have to find another buyer for 1.1 million barrels a day out of 2.4 that is exports every day. On top of the socio-economic difficulties and the economic deterioration in Iran, the Ayatollahs will see that as something that damages their very survival. If they understand that, I think they would behave in a different manner. What counts is whether the West is going to come up with full implementation of the sanctions.
Q: To what extent do you think Arab intelligence agencies in Sunni Muslim countries are helping Israel counter the Iranian bomb threat? Is there any back door communication between Saudi Arabia and Israel in countering the threat from Iran?
A: Well, this is something that everybody surmises. There is a Sunni/Shiite breach in the Arab world — look at what’s going on in Iraq in the aftermath of the American withdrawal. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that behind the scenes there must be some contact and connection between Israel and some Sunni Arab states, because most of them see eye to eye with Israel as to how dangerous Iran and the Iranian nukes are.
Q: How imminent a threat do you think Hamas and Hezbollah would be to Israel should the Israelis carry out a military operation against Iran?
A: That is part of the modus operandi that Iran has actually established in recent decades. Hamas and especially Hezbollah were considered [Iranian] proxies that could be used if the day comes. I think that in the case of Israeli military attacks, we will have retaliatory acts coming from Hamas or Hezbollah. A third front could be Sinai. Now, with Mubarak gone, Israel is viewing Sinai as a possible terror state that should be monitored.
Q What will happen to the relationship between Israel and Jordan should Israel attack Iran?
A: It could be very pricey in geopolitical terms. This is something that would damage the Jordanian/Israeli and Egyptian/Israeli relationships. We are experiencing a really bad time in terms of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, and Israel and Egypt. All these things should be taken into consideration.
Q: How easy would it be for an Iran with nuclear weapons to arm terrorist organizations? How could the world prevent Iran from giving terrorist organizations access to these kinds of weapons?
A: This is part of the whole question. In the end of the day, Iran will go nuclear. The whole issue is: how Iran will behave with this nuclear capacity. Sanctions, military attacks…all these moves are designed to achieve one conspicuous goal: To make Iran understand that if they are going to perform badly with nukes as to actually provide that knowledge to terrorist organizations or whatever proxies they may have throughout the world, this will be interpreted as a pretext for war. It is a very lethal combination. People like Ali Khamenei and the military leaders of the past Iran who one way or the other are carrying Messianic visions, to let them have this weaponry in hand would create a very dangerous combination for the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Q: Where do you think events are heading in Syria? And how might events in Syria affect the Iranian situation?
A: This is a crucial question. What we know we have in Syria is a recipe for an ongoing bloody civil war throughout 2012. In the end, I think [Syrian president] Bashar-al-Assad will not prevail. So, what we will have here I’m afraid to say, is what is described as the dynamics of a failed state. Syria can be broken up to pieces. We’re going to have a no-man’s land here that can be a haven for radical Islamic movements. All in all, this is something that all parties take into account — but all parties have their own calculus. Take for example Turkey or Saudi Arabia — Sunni states: They are willing to let Bashar go and have a post-Bashar Syria because they interpret this as a blow which is going to be inflicted on Iran and would curtail an Iranian march into the region and Iranian hegemony in the region. So, we have a lot of things that are related to the Syrian case. We have chemical biological weaponry in Syria and we don’t know who is going to put their hands on that. And so on. Syria is going through a process of Lebanization or Balkanization and that’s why everyone is going to have its own calculus there.
Q: Can you comment on the recent agreement between Hamas and Fatah to form a new unity government and move ahead with new elections in Gaza?
A: I’m not sure elections will take place. I think the mutual suspicion and animosity between Hamas and Fatah is still there. Even if elections are held and even if Hamas gets the upper hand in the West Bank, I don’t see that Fatah members are going to actually give up or hand over their weaponry or ammunition. What we have here is a kind of a move that some other outside players – like Jordan’s King Abdullah and maybe King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — would like to see. The notion is pretty clear: if we have one Palestinian voice we can promote the peace process. I hope that’s what’s going to be. If there is only one voice – if Israel could actually get close to what we call the Palestinian mainstream — there could be a kind of interim agreement that would make the whole region a little more stable than ever before. I have to say though that the Israeli Palestinian conflict — important as it is — is not the only conflict in the Middle East. There is a very sensitive period [in the Mideast] because we have the Sunni/Shiite rift, and we have some other conflicts; the notion that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is the one and only, and if you are going to solve that you are going to solve the problems of the Middle East, is just not so.
Q: Will Egypt remain a peace partner with Israel?
A: Egypt is going through a dramatic change. We are going to have a very different political system in Egypt, we know that. Parliament is being taken by the Islamists – by the Muslim Brotherhood, but also by the Salafis. The next coalition would be, in my opinion, the Muslim Brothers and some liberal forces or parties. The next president is going to be one that comes not from ranks of Muslim Brothers, and this tells everything. The Muslim Brothers do not like Israel – that’s for sure — but they definitely know that the peace treaty brings with it a lot of benefits for Egypt’s crumbling economy. If they would like to make the economic situation in Egypt better and start addressing the problems that gave birth to the Arab Spring, I think we are going to see here an extension of the peace treaty. They are going to request opening up some of the articles of the peace treaty, but not to the extent of calling it off, because this is something that brings in a lot of foreign aid from the Americans and the Europeans, and Egypt badly needs foreign aid for the time being.