Among Netanyahu’s reasons for backing Iran protests: aligning with Trump
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Among Netanyahu’s reasons for backing Iran protests: aligning with Trump

PM overrules some of his own security advisers, believing demonstrators need to know the Mideast's only democracy supports their struggle, source says

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House on February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (AFP/Mandel Ngan)
US President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House on February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overruled some of his most senior security advisers in expressing support on Monday for Iranian protesters, The Times of Israel has learned.

Netanyahu broke his five-day silence on the wave of anti-government demonstrations both because he wanted to support the Iranian public in its struggle and because he felt it was important he remain fully aligned with the US administration, a well-placed source said.

In his first public comment on the matter after Iranians started taking to the streets Thursday in angry protest of the regime, Netanyahu passionately backed the protesters’ “noble quest for freedom.”

Before the video was published, the prime minister and his staff held an in-depth discussion on how Israel should best react to the unrest, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Dismissing concerns by some of his security advisers, who argued that official Israeli support could harm the protesters’ cause, Netanyahu ultimately decided to speak out, according to the source.

“I heard today Iran’s President [Hassan] Rouhani’s claim that Israel is behind the protests in Iran. It’s not only false. It’s laughable,” he said in the clip, issued in the evening on his social media accounts and distributed to journalists on several channels.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sits during a meeting with Pakistan Army Chief General in Tehran on November 6, 2017. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

One of the three main reasons for Netanyahu’s decision was his conviction that Rouhani’s accusation should not go undisputed, the source said. Israeli silence could have been interpreted as a tacit acknowledgement of involvement.

Furthermore, the prime minister felt that the Iranian people needed to know that the Middle East’s only democracy supports their struggle against the oppressive regime, according to the source.

“The Iranian people are smart,” Netanyahu said in the video. “They are sophisticated. They are proud. Today they risk everything for freedom.”

Perhaps most importantly, the prime minister felt it was important for Jerusalem to remain in lockstep with Washington on crucial regional issues. In light of upcoming discussions over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the future of the Iran nuclear deal and the Syrian civil war, Netanyahu has been seeking to align himself with the administration of Donald Trump on these matters, the source said.

In sharp contrast to the Obama administration, which hesitated to back Iranian protesters during a previous round of unrest that began in 2009, the current White House has taken a clear anti-regime stance.

In this Monday, June 15, 2009 file photo, hundreds of thousands of supporters of leading opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims there was voting fraud in the election, turn out to protest the result of the election at a mass rally in Azadi (Freedom) square in Tehran, Iran. Iran is marking the anniversary of the end of the 2009 protests it calls “the sedition”(AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

“The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom,” Trump tweeted on Monday. “Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!”

It was the last of a series of statements made by US officials in support of the protests.

In contrast, Netanyahu in his video Monday criticized “many European governments” for remaining silent “as heroic young Iranians are beaten in the streets.”

“That’s just not right. And I, for one, will not stay silent,” he said.

Some Israeli analysts, however, took issue with the prime minister’s decision to back the Iranian protesters, arguing that the last thing they need right now is the official support of Israel’s leader.

“Let’s be clear: Netanyahu’s analysis might be spot on, but this kind of PR gesture is self-serving and doesn’t help the cause of those protesting in Iran,” tweeted Gabriel Mitchell, the US representative of Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

Earlier on Monday, leading Israeli politicians, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, had declined to comment on the current unrest in Iran, arguing that the Iranian people are best served if Jerusalem remains quiet.

“I don’t see advantages in Netanyahu’s reaction. I don’t understand why he did it,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, where he focuses on Iran and the Arab Gulf states.

“I do see disadvantages,” he added. “Why connect Israel with that? The Iranian regime already says, ‘Look, it’s the Israelis who are behind this wave of of protests.’ Why would we give them more ammunition?”

A more democratic Iran is in Israel’s interest, Guzansky went on, and Jerusalem should look for quite ways to encourage change in this country. “But official Israel should be quiet.”

Why would you do that? It’s stupid

Guzansky, who used to hold the Iran portfolio at Israel’s National Security Council — a body operating within the Prime Minister’s Office — said that in his current role he closely monitors the Saudi reaction to the unrest in Iran.

“It’s silence; not a word; nothing,” he said. “And why would they say anything? It would immediately put the spotlight on them. Why would you do that? It’s stupid.”

Netanyahu’s statement was counterproductive, agreed Meir Javedanfar, an Iran native who teaches about his home country at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and the Meir Ezri Center for Persian Gulf studies.

“It’s best if Israeli politicians, especially the prime minister, and especially Netanyahu, don’t comment on these issues — because he’s not a very popular figure, even among the Iranian opposition,” Javedanfar said. “In general, if foreign statesmen show support for the people of Iran, the regime may use it to say that the people [calling for change] represent that particular foreign government, be it Israel, the US or England.”

Rather, foreign governments should focus on condemning the regime’s abuse of human rights, including considering imposing new sanctions, said Javedanfar, who left Iran in 1987, eight years after the Islamic Revolution. “But to say that they support one group or another in Iran is something the regime can use to its advantage.”

Iranian protesters chant slogans at a rally in Tehran, Iran, December 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

On the other hand, Ze’ev Maghen, who chairs the Department of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said that Netanyahu had acted in Israel’s strategic interest to bolster the current protests, arguing that Iranian leaders will blame Israel and the West either way.

“They accuse the Israelis and the American and the British of being behind this regardless of what the Israelis and the American and the British say or don’t say. They always do it,” he said.

Netanyahu thus did the right thing for Israel and for Iran, as the public’s unhappiness with the regime “is some kind of a trend in the direction that might lower the hostility and the tension between Iran and Israel,” Maghen said.

All analysts interviewed for this article agreed that Netanyahu’s full-mouthed support for the protesters did not occur in a vacuum, but rather was inspired by Trump’s position on the matter.

“Under Obama, Iran had managed to get the support of America and China and Russia, all at the same time,” Maghen said. “Now that there is that change, Netanyahu and Trump are lining up together against Iran and the ayatollahs.”

The current demonstrations in Iran are fundamentally different from those of the so-called Green Movement in 2009-10, which were the result of alleged irregularities during presidential elections, Maghen said.

“In 2009, the most you heard was ‘Death to the dictator,’ but these were still statements against a particular person. Now we hear for the first time in these demonstrations slogans that seek to undermine the very basis of the Islamic Republic.” Today, protesters “across a wide swath of cities in Iran” are calling for a return to an Iran before the Islamic Revolution, he added.

“Netanyahu is picking up on this as well, and saying to himself: There might be a chance here, not to get a reformist candidate in — like Rouhani, who is kind of semi-reformist — but to actually cultivate regime change, which has been the goal of the Americans and the Israelis all along.”

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