Israel won’t be shy about making its views on the Iran deal heard on Capitol Hill, Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold indicated, in his first major interview since taking up the post last month. While Israel needs to express its concerns with civility, he stressed, the government is gearing up to firmly advocate its position in discussions with all the relevant players in the US government. “We’ll do it respectfully, but we have to tell the truth,” he said.
Speaking to The Times of Israel Sunday, as the Iran nuclear deal, bitterly opposed by Israel, was reportedly being finalized in Vienna, Gold framed the imperative to thwart Iran’s ambitions in global terms, and invoked the Cold War. “Imagine you could stop the Soviet Union in 1945 from getting nuclear weapons. Imagine you had no Cold War. That would have been a much safer and better world,” he noted. “It’s understandable how it happened, how the Cold War emerged from World War II. But here, with Iran, you have the chance to prevent it. And if you don’t prevent it, you’re setting the stage for the next global struggle.”
Gold, 62, has sought to galvanize Israeli diplomacy in his short period in the job. Since the Connecticut native was tapped for the post in May, he has chalked up several foreign policy breakthroughs: shortly before starting at the ministry, he held a rare public meeting with a former top official from Saudi Arabia; once formally in the post, he flew to Cairo to meet with the deputy foreign minister of Egypt, which agreed to send its first ambassador to Israel since 2012; and he has also held strategic bilateral talks with his counterparts from Turkey and India.
According to other Israeli diplomats, never before has a Foreign Ministry director-general been as close to the prime minister as Gold is to Benjamin Netanyahu, who also happens to be serving as interim foreign minister. Unlike his predecessors, Gold, who immigrated to Israel in 1980, can pick up the phone and call Netanyahu at any time. It is quite clearly Gold, rather than Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who is calling the shots in Israel’s diplomacy, these diplomats say, acting as Netanyahu’s trusted emissary.
The Times of Israel spoke with Gold precisely as the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France and Germany were finalizing the nuclear agreement with Iran so relentlessly and publicly opposed by Netanyahu. Our conversation inevitably focused on the government’s views and strategies regarding the deal.
Gold warned that Iran has ambitions of global hegemony that constitute an existential threat to Israel. And the deal with the P5+1 powers, he said, will likely allow Tehran to acquire a “substantial intercontinental ballistic missile force” and eventually turn it into a world power.
Even though Netanyahu — his longtime mentor — tried openly, including at cost to the relationship between Israel and the Obama administration, to thwart the deal, and evidently failed, Gold unsurprisingly would brook no criticism of the prime minister’s approach. “The story of Iran’s nuclear capability is not over,” said Gold, the author of a 2009 book on the Iranian regime’s bid for the bomb. “So I would not render a final judgment on the prime minister at this point.”
Rather, he hailed Netanyahu, whom he has advised since the mid-90s, as the courageous defender of the entire region, single-handedly bearing the burden of opposition to a deal that all Sunni states loathe but don’t dare to publicly criticize.
“They can afford a strategy of silence when there is one player in the region who is defending not just itself but the entire Middle East,” Gold said. “When Prime Minister Netanyahu stands up and attacks Iran, he’s not just defending Israel. He’s defending Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and all the other Sunni countries.”
The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
The Times of Israel: Now that the Iran agreement is being finalized, what is Israel going to do?
Dore Gold: What Israel must do is tell the truth. If we have a disagreement with our P5+1 partners, we have to go through that process, showing respect, mutual understanding, while at the same time being very clear that the vital interests of Israel are at stake.
I don’t understand the view that exists in the West that Iran isn’t really a problem. When the leadership of a country calls for the annihilation of Israel – I’m speaking about Ayatollah Khamenei, about the top commanders of the Revolutionary Guards and the regular army — Israel has to take this threat with the utmost seriousness.
Is a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat for Israel?
Unquestionably, this is an existential threat. Anybody who looks at the statements of the Iranian leadership has to understand: they want to destroy this country.
If the Iranians had a nuclear weapon, would they use it against Israel?
There are several levels of impact of an Iranian nuclear capability. For years the West has been able to exercise a certain degree of deterrence vis-à-vis Iran when it came to Iranian support for terrorism. Let me be clear: The Iranians supported terrorism, but they also knew that someone would respond if they undertook certain kinds of terrorist missions. For example, the West undertook a deterrent mission against Libya under Qaddafi in 1986. The whole American and Western involvement in Afghanistan came as a retaliatory response to 9/11.
It’s understandable how the Cold War emerged from World War II. But here, with Iran, you have the chance to prevent it. And if you don’t prevent it, you’re setting the stage for the next global struggle
But once Iran gets nuclear weapons, do you really believe that the West will operate against Iran in cases (where) Iran engages in robust terrorist acts? We’re in a whole different universe.
That will be the first impact of an Iranian nuclear capability. Another is, of course, how its various surrogates act.
Additionally, the question of nuclear proliferation is a very serious problem, where the candidates stretch from the Iranian border out to North Africa. And therefore the prospect of nuclear proliferation will undermine the security of the entire Middle East.
Some analysts argue that the West has been so focused on the nuclear negotiations with Iran that it neglected Iran’s support for terrorism, but that as soon as the deal is signed the administration will get tougher on the regime’s aggressive behavior in the region.
What I don’t understand: Why not get tough on Iranian aggression in the region as part of the agreement? It comes from the very same source. Iran sees itself as the hegemonial power of the Middle East. And it’s trying to exercise its influence across the region. It can exercise that influence by having a nuclear weapons capability and therefore change entirely the strategic landscape of the Middle East. It can exercise that influence by giving support to surrogate insurgent forces operating in Middle Eastern countries. And if it does both, it’ll have clearly dominant influence on the entire region.
Prime Minister Netanyahu said the other day that Iran’s ultimate goal is to take over the entire world. Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?
Well, the fact is that Iran now has a terrorist presence in some 30 countries on five continents. Why did it have to have military operations in Argentina? Why is it penetrating all of South America? Why did it engage in terror operations in France and Austria, in Azerbaijan, India and Thailand? I believe that, in fact, the Iranians do have an ultimately global view. Why are the Iranians building missiles of increasingly greater range?
So they have the Shahab-3, with a 1,300-kilometer range, that can hit Israel. Then they acquired the BM-25 missile from North Korea, which comes in two different versions: 2,500- and 3,500-kilometer range. That gets them from Iran to the English Channel. And finally, all the experts are aware that Iran is building space-lift capable rockets — which aren’t just for putting mice into orbit, but are ultimately for giving Iran intercontinental ballistic missile capability.
So you put all that together. You see the range of the missiles and the extent of Iranian support of insurgent groups. It then becomes clear that at the end of the day, the Iranians have global ambitions. Right now, in my judgment, they’re focused on the Middle East. But they are keeping their options open for going beyond the horizon to other continents.
UN Security Council Resolution 687, which is the ceasefire agreement of the first Gulf war, included in the definition of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that had to be eliminated all Iraqi missiles above the range of 150 kilometers. However, it is not entirely clear the new Iran agreement and P5+1 will deal with ballistic missiles. It is certainly possible that Iran will believe that missiles are not covered by the new agreement.
If that happens, in 10 years you could have a substantial Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile force. At which time Iran then could produce the warheads for these missiles. And voila, you would have a world power.
So how is this going to play out for Israel?
If Iran has regional and global ambitions and owns an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and then can enrich as much uranium as it wants — then there’s nothing to hold Iran back from becoming a nascent global power, motivated by radical religious doctrine. That is very dangerous. It seems to me that it would make more sense to try and get Iran to change first, before you allow them to go down the nuclear route.
The strategy being advocated, to turn to Iran to take care of the problem of Sunni jihadism, is completely wrong and ignores the historical development of Sunni jihadism
Imagine you could stop the Soviet Union in 1945 from getting nuclear weapons. Imagine you had no Cold War. That would have been a much safer and better world. You would have never had a Cuban missile crisis. You would have never had a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. All that would never have occurred. Eastern Europe would have been free. It’s understandable how it happened, how the Cold War emerged from World War II. But here, with Iran, you have the chance to prevent it. And if you don’t prevent it, you’re setting the stage for the next global struggle.
The prime minister has been speaking up against this threat, and he clearly deserves credit for the sanctions regime that brought Iran to the negotiating table. But one could argue that he failed in preventing this bad deal. Isn’t that a failure for Israeli policy, that Iran will be a legitimate nuclear threshold state?
The prime minister has made every effort possible to halt Iran. If the prime minister had been softer, do you think that would have gotten better results?
It’s not a question of soft or hard. It’s about whether a different policy might have been more effective.
The story of Iran’s nuclear capability is not over. So I would not render a final judgment on the prime minister at this point.
Maybe a different strategy would have been more successful in fighting this deal? The more harshly Netanyahu criticized the ongoing negotiations, the more concessions the West seemed ready to make.
I don’t think there’s a correspondence. The level of the concessions is based on the perceived need of the Western powers to have this agreement. I just read an article by a former British ambassador to Washington saying that the West should stop investing in Sunni Saudi Arabia and build stability in the Middle East with Shiite Iran. These are ideas that are out there. There is a struggle for ideas. You either engage in that struggle and tell what you believe, or you just give up. I think it’s absolutely imperative we engage in that struggle.
There is the idea out there that the West can use Shiite Iran against the jihadists, especially ISIS [Islamic State]. All the people putting this thesis forward don’t take into consideration that Iran has shown a willingness to be supportive of Sunni jihadists. The best example was right after 9/11, when the US invaded Afghanistan and the Sunni jihadists of al-Qaeda left their Afghan sanctuary and went into Iran where they were shown tremendous hospitality by the Revolutionary Guard corps.
And of course [Jordanian-born terrorist] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi also went from Afghanistan into Iran where he was given sanctuary. Later, he moved into Kurdistan and into Iraq and become the commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which became ISIS. So to depend on Iran to eradicate Sunni jihadism is wrong.
We have also two other cases: the Palestinian cases of Hamas and Islamic Jihad; and the Taliban, all three of which have been supported by Iran. So the strategy being advocated, to turn to Iran to take care of the problem of Sunni jihadism, is completely wrong and ignores the historical development of Sunni jihadism.
Do you believe that the White House makes that calculation: strengthen Iran to fight ISIS?
I don’t know. I’m not speaking about anybody specific in Washington. I believe there are schools of thought that seize the stage and spark the imagination of legislators and officials, whether they sit in Washington, London, Paris or elsewhere. And it’s up to Israel to tell its truth.
We have to raise our concerns in a very honest way, with mutual respect
Ultimately, Israel will be respected for saying its views, as long as this discussion and disagreement is conducted with a level of civility and mutual respect. We cannot bury the severity of the threat and the fact that we have a different view.
Maybe Israel should have acted more like the Sunni Gulf States, who oppose the Iran deal as much as Israel, but voiced their criticism more quietly? They already received compensation packages, while Israel is still out in the cold.
The Sunni states understand and respect Israel’s position on Iran. They can afford a strategy of silence when there is one player in the region who is defending not just itself but the entire the Middle East. When Prime Minister Netanyahu stands up and attacks Iran, he’s not just defending Israel. He’s defending Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and all the other Sunni countries.
The deal is now headed to Congress. Is it in Israel’s interest to advocate for congressmen to kill the deal, or should Israel stay out of America’s internal politics?
According to the US Constitution, foreign affairs are in the hands of the executive branch and the legislative branch. The legislative branch can reach out and seek the views of foreign powers, as they have on multiple occasions about contentious diplomatic issues.
To the extent that Israeli officials are asked about their views, they should inform members of Congress what Israel thinks. But again, this should be done in a manner that shows respect and cooperation with the executive branch. Israel certainly is expected to give its opinion to all the branches of the US government that have a role under the US Constitution on foreign affairs.
When should Israel start talking about security guarantees and compensation packages?
If the prime minister decides to raise those issues, he’ll do it at a time he thinks is relevant. But we’re not raising those issues at present. Right now, we will study the deal very carefully and we have to raise our concerns in a very honest way, with mutual respect.
Allies can disagree. In the past, there have been major agreements reached by the US government with the Soviet Union that had enormous implications for the security of the NATO alliance: the  Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the various SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks] and START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] agreements.
It is natural that when the US engages in diplomacy that affects its close allies that these allies have their own unique perspectives. There were huge disagreements over the deployment of Pershing missiles and land-based cruise missiles in Europe, which required the US had to come to understandings with its allies, as part of a discourse with them. And now that kind of discourse is entering the Middle East.
Israel and the Arab states have to have this discussion with their American allies. We will engage in that discussion. We’ll do it respectfully, but we have to tell the truth about what we think.