Is Iran really the existential threat Israel claims it is? This author thinks not
In his new book ‘Fear and Insecurity,’ Jonathan Leslie says Israeli politicians are blowing Iranian nuclear aspirations out of proportion – and they’re doing it for the votes
Between Iran’s nuclear ambitions, funding of terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, growing military presence in Syria, and attempts to target Jewish communities and Israeli diplomatic staff in the Diaspora, it’s no wonder that many Israelis today view the Islamic Republic as a mortal enemy.
In fact, writes Jonathan G. Leslie in his new book, “Fear and Insecurity: Israel and the Iran Threat Narrative,” most Israelis believe the threat posed by Iran’s extremist regime is “comparable only to that of the Third Reich.”
Leslie thinks those concerns are overblown — and not simply because Israel is responsible for its own share of attacks on Iran.
A consultant and adjunct professor at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, Leslie focuses most of his book’s attention on the narrative Israeli leaders have constructed about the Islamic Republic over the last two decades. He also explores how diplomatic relations have evolved between both countries since the State of Israel was established in 1948.
During the reign of shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, writes Leslie, Israel and Iran developed a diplomatic relationship known as The Periphery Alliance. This saw the two non-Arab nations sharing mutual interests — and allies — during the Cold War, with Israel receiving Iranian oil in exchange for technical and military expertise.
Leslie notes that the genesis of Iran’s nuclear program dates to 1957, when the Shah, with the assistance of the United States, began to develop a nuclear program for prestige purposes. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power with the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, the nuclear program was seen as a decadent relic of the Shah era.
Following the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, however, which saw Iran suffer at the hands of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Iranian thinking changed, leading to a gradual development and expansion of an Iranian nuclear program.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s clerical leaders included Israel among Iran’s enemies, “charging it with oppressing Palestinians, illegally occupying Lebanon, and aligning itself with the United States, among other sins,” writes Leslie.
From the 1990s to the present day, Israel has viewed Iran as an existential threat.
But Leslie claims the two nations’ threat perceptions of each other are asymmetrical. “Israeli leaders [view] Iran as a far greater danger to their state’s security than Iranian leaders perceived Israel to be,” he writes.
Researching the book, the American academic embarked on a field trip to Israel under the guidance of numerous Israeli scholars including David Menashri of Tel Aviv University, Meir Javedanfar of Reichman University in Herzliya, and Yael Berda of Hebrew University and Harvard University. Leslie notes that while official Israeli documents involving strategic security debates remain classified, older state records and other historical studies are not; they detail the early years of the relationship between Iran and the new Israeli state. He also notes that Israel allows access both to unclassified archival materials on relatively recent policy matters as well as the document collections of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Knesset, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Leslie says transcripts of parliamentary debates that discussed Iran in the Knesset provided useful insights into how members of different parties in Israel have viewed the urgency of the Iranian threat across the country’s diverse political spectrum over the last few decades.
The author says he would have liked to have conducted more research in Iran but was not able to do so due to visa restrictions and other safety concerns. He was, however, able to visit Iran for two weeks as a tourist in 2016, where he discussed, informally, perceptions of Israel with many Iranians over the course of his trip. But he was not able to travel freely, set up interviews, or investigate archival material while in Iran.
The American political scientist compares the Israel-Iran conflict to the frozen conflict the United States and the Soviet Union went through during the Cold War. Each cast the other as an existential threat that justified investing massive resources into maintaining a continuous war readiness, while engaging in nuclear brinksmanship. However, unlike “the superpowers’ standoff, which emerged from the ashes of World War II, the origins of the Israel-Iran conflict are not as obvious,” Leslie writes.
The Times of Israel caught up with Leslie via Zoom from his home in Arlington, Virginia, to speak about these and other issues in his latest book, which hit shelves on February 15. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Your book claims Benjamin Netanyahu, as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has transformed the Iran threat from a technical security challenge into a moral crusade, evoking emotional memories of the Holocaust. Are you suggesting that over the last two decades, Netanyahu has exaggerated the Iranian threat as a ploy to win votes?
Jonathan G. Leslie: Yes. I do think it’s more of a political tactic from Netanyahu rather than a true belief that Iran is actively seeking to bring about a second Holocaust. Netanyahu’s image of Iran is based on fiction, fear and emotion, rather than historical events. By drawing parallels between Iran and Nazi Germany, [Netanyahu] has made it impossible to accept the possibility of diplomatic engagement with Iran in good faith. This type of rhetoric proved very persuasive to an Israeli public primed to view Iran as a frightening, irrational and implacable enemy, and it contributed to their acceptance of the notion of Iran as an existential threat.
Still, numerous Iranian politicians, including the country’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have engaged in Holocaust denial. And Ahmadinejad, as you note in the book, once claimed he would “use a nuclear weapon to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.” Are these threats to be taken seriously?
Iranian leaders have been guilty of Holocaust denialism and used inflammatory rhetoric towards Israel. But are the leaders of the Islamic Republic genocidal, and by extension, suicidal? I’m not sure they are. If Iran was to use a nuclear bomb against Israel it would be unleashing nuclear war not only in the Middle East, but globally too, and that would mean the end of the Islamic Republic. This apocalyptic scenario doesn’t fit with their behavior [thus far] as a government and as a state.
In the book, you write that Israel often sees its relationship with Iran “through [a] prism of victimhood.” But there is a documented history of Iran attacking Israeli citizens abroad.
Take, for example, two incidents that you briefly mention in the book’s introduction — the car bomb that killed 29 people and injured 250 at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in March 1992, which Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for; and the AMIA Jewish community center bombing in Buenos Aires two years later, where 85 people died and hundreds more were injured. Islamic Jihad has close ties with Iran and Hezbollah, and an Argentinian magistrate concluded in 2007 that Iran was behind the AMIA attack and responsible for dispatching the murderers.
The attacks took place in the early 1990s. Iran, as a security issue, remained a relatively secondary concern to most members of the Israeli political and security establishment for the rest of that decade. The escalation of the Iran-Israel conflict — and its prominence in public discussions of Israel’s security challenges — is a much more recent phenomenon with roots that can be traced to events in the mid-to-late 2000s, including the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the return of Benjamin Netanyahu to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009.
The book argues that Israelis see Iran as their foremost security challenge, but “Iranians, by contrast, have their own domestic problems and are not focused on Israel in the same way.” However, last June, Turkey detained suspects allegedly working for an Iranian intelligence cell that planned to kidnap and assassinate a former Israeli ambassador and kill Israeli tourists.
Also, this month the chairman of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council accused Iran of violating a UN Security Council resolution and other international treaties by delivering lethal weapons to Yemen’s Houthi militia. This seems to suggest that Iran is not just concerned with domestic issues.
Let me first address the issue of the alleged kidnapping of a former Israeli ambassador and the plot to kill Israeli tourists. The common theme of many of these operations is that they generally seem amateurish and unprofessional, especially when viewed in contrast to much more technically sophisticated and successful operations inside Iran that are presumed to be the work of the Mossad.
There have also been numerous suspected and rumored assassination attempts against Iranian dissidents and other regime opponents living abroad. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), conversely, appears to be outsourcing work to paid agents, who are frequently caught prior to the act. While this is a cause for concern, there is no indication that these activities represent an existential threat to the State of Israel.
With regards to Iran’s international continued support for the Houthis in Yemen, this is part of its larger proxy campaign against Saudi Arabia. It’s well-documented. Iran is not likely to abandon this pursuit as long as it views the Saudis as adversaries. The argument I make throughout this book is the asymmetric nature of the Iran-Israel conflict. Israel sees Iran as an existential threat, based mainly on the idea that Iran will soon acquire a nuclear bomb. Iran, by contrast, does not view Israel in the same light, even though Israel already possesses a [widely assumed] sizeable nuclear arsenal of its own. That is not to say that Iran does not pose a threat or a strategic challenge to Israeli interests, nor does it suggest that Israel should stop working to counter nefarious Iranian activities abroad. So, despite the reports of foiled terrorist attacks and assassination attempts abroad, the Iranian regime’s primary focus is likely still internal.
Let’s speak for a moment about the broader history between Iran and Israel, which you cover in the book. Israel secretly sold weapons to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. How did this shape the diplomatic ties between both nations during the 1980s?
Iran needed weapons and support. The Israelis wanted to supply those weapons for a couple of reasons. Firstly, to counter the Iraqi threat. Secondly, the Israelis, at least in those early years, didn’t believe the Islamic Republic would survive. Israel had hopes that maintaining a relationship with Iran could nourish a comeback with the Shah, via a military coup.
During the 1980s, Iran began developing a new military apparatus known as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The IRGC focused most of its attention and effort on opposing Israel and exporting the Islamic Revolution abroad. How has that developed since — specifically in terms of Iran fighting a proxy war with Israel via Lebanon?
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and occupied the country for 18 years. Groups like Amal and Hezbollah came out of that occupation. Iranians saw it as an opportunity to form a link with Lebanese Shia groups to create a foothold on the northern Israeli border and use that to extend their power.
You also note that from the 2006 Lebanon War onward, the Israeli perception of Hezbollah really began to change.
The Israelis thought the war would be so easy to win. They went into southern Lebanon again and were unable to root out Hezbollah. That became a defining moment for the Israeli military and Israeli politicians, who then began to see Iran as this lurking secret threat that was much closer and more dangerous than they had previously thought.
In the book, you note how in December 2007, the United States released its National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which reported that Iran had suspended its military nuclear program in 2003. That was 20 years ago. What do we know about Iran’s nuclear capability today?
Most of Iran’s advancements in nuclear capabilities have occurred in the last five years following the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the reimposition of sanctions. Those advancements have centered mainly around the enrichment and stockpiling of uranium to levels approaching what would be needed for a bomb, thereby reducing the amount of breakout time needed to produce a weapon. These moves, beyond the limits of the JCPOA, were clearly announced in advance by Iran as specific responses to what they viewed as a prior American violation of the JCPOA.
How real is the threat of a nuclear war between Iran and Israel in, say, the next decade? Could such an escalation lead to World War III?
I don’t think there is a threat of nuclear war on the horizon. Until [the Iranian government] publicly comes out and says, “We have a [nuclear] bomb,” the Israelis are not going to take any action. More importantly, the United States is not going to take any action. For Iran to develop this nuclear program, they are basically going to have to withstand the possibility that they would be bombed out of existence. Remember, in decades past, the Israelis have already done this with the Iraqi nuclear program and the Syrian nuclear program.
Even if the Iranians developed a bomb, the idea that it would escalate into a full-scale nuclear war is unlikely. For the foreseeable future, though, I don’t think relations can or will improve between Iran and Israel. We are on the verge of something strange and dangerous. Based on recent history, it’s probably not anything positive.
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