by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates (September 2012)
Israel, with her back to the Mediterranean, is surrounded by threats on all of her borders.
On her Southern border an attack by Sinai Islamic terrorists which killed 15 Egyptian soldiers was repulsed by IDF forces. In the wake of the attack there was the re-militarization of the Sinai by Egyptian security and military attacks on Sinai Bedouin terrorist enclaves. That led to Egypt positioning tanks and air defense installations in violation of the 1979 Camp David Accords. In May when Israel sent troops to reinforce its southern border with Egypt we made the following prediction:
There is a small Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), including a US contingent, positioned in the Sinai established under the 1979 Camp David Accords to monitor the demilitarized area. Given the rise of terrorist group activities in the Sinai Peninsula and Egyptian statements by political candidates and Muslim Brotherhood leaders for an end to the 1979 Peace Treaty between the two countries there could be a demand for ending the MFO and the remilitarization by the Egyptian Army.
Egypt’s military under Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi has announced that it is planning to insert combat units and anti-aircraft systems in the Sinai. Further, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood concocted propaganda explaining their military’s actions triggered by the attack on the Israel border near Gaza. It blamed Israel’s Mossad for the attack.
Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center, confirmed my May prediction in an article published by the Gatestone Institute, “Egypt Fully Remilitarizing Sinai –with U.S. Help”.
Bryen notes the role of the MFO in U.S. plans:
Egypt has moved forces into the Sinai beyond what was agreed to in the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Getting them in wasn't that difficult – Israel agrees that security in the Sinai has deteriorated. Getting them out again later may be another matter. And how the U.S. positions itself to safeguard the treaty itself will be crucial.
[. . .]
Panetta said no additional troops had been sent to Sinai, but that the U.S. was working closely with Egyptian leaders "to determine what additional help they may need in order to ensure that the area is secured."
To change the mission of the MFO from monitoring the Israel-Egypt peace treaty to helping Egypt secure the Sinai from terrorists/jihadists/al Qaeda is a change that cannot be undertaken lightly – and should not be taken unilaterally. To change the force from the touchstone for both Israel and Egypt into an ally of Egypt in military operations will undermine its status in the future.
The Sinai terror attack and response by Egypt was also a predicate for President Mori to sack the military commander and deputy of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Tantawi and Lt. Gen. Sami Enan. Their replacements Gen. Abdel Fattah Sissi and Chief of Staff Gen. Sedky Sobhi appear to be more subservient to the Muslim Brotherhood objectives. According to the New York Times, Sobhi was the author of a paper while a student at the US Army War College several years ago in which he indicated that the real cause of conflict in the Middle East was one-sided US support of Israel. Morsi, Egypt’s President and self anointed Supreme Commander of Egypt’s armed forces was jailed for several months in 2005 by vanquished President Mubarak.
Morsi is reconnecting Egypt with the Mullahs in Tehran. On August 30th he will be traveling to a plenary session of the Non-Aligned Movement and holding a summit with President Ahmadinejad. Some observers feel this is simply a surfacing of the long term relationship between Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Jonathan Schanzer of the foundation for Defense of Democracies in a November 2010 Atlantic article wrote about the use of the Misr (Egypt) Iran Development Bank founded in 1975 that enabled the Islamic Republic to avoid international oil sanctions. In his article, Schanzer points out a large mural in Tehran of Khaled al-Islambouli the Gama’a al-Islamiyya terrorist who assassinated President Anwar Sadat.
Moreover Schanzer reported in a June 2012 article Iran’s use of the Sudan to send weapons and trainers for terrorists groups across Egypt into the Sinai and ultimately to Hamas in Gaza. Israel has undertaken long distance raids in the Sudan to interdict Iranian-supplied arms convoys. Should Israel undertake a possible unilateral action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, would Egypt somehow be involved to support Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, by launching rocket and missile attacks on Israel’s southern border as part of a counter-attack in a multi-front regional war?
On Al Quds day that concluded the month long observances of Ramadan, the Supreme Leader, and President Ahmadinejad of Iran’s Islamic Republic unleashed a torrent of threats against the Jewish State of Israel should it attack Iran’s nuclear program. Reza Kahlili, ex-CIA spy in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards chronicled the al Quds Day vitriol in a Family Security Matters article:
On this year's Quds Day, [Supreme Leder] Khamenei said, "Light of hope will shine on the Palestinians, and this Islamic land will certainly be returned to the Palestinian nation, and the superfluous and fake Zionist regime will disappear from the landscape of geography."
[. . .]
Senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami declared: “We will burn Tel Aviv 'into ashes”.
The matter of when to unleash a military operation against Iran’s nuclear weapons program is the current divide between Washington and Jerusalem. This despite recent US national intelligence estimates that Dr. Ronen Bergman in a Ynet article suggests Iran has made very dramatic moves towards enriching fissile material for bomb-making and may be on the cusp of entering the zone of immunity. Kahlili indicates that the Islamic Republic may already have nuclear weapons some of which may have been purchased from rogue sources in the former Soviet Union, but may lack the codes for their use. The urgency of preparations by Israel for a possible action is that the zone of immunity may be fast closing or even passed, while US policy demurs effectively saying that until bombs are actually assembled with the means of delivery it will not act.
Iran’s ally to Israel’s northeast, Syria, presents another threat. The sectarian warfare by the Baathist regime of Bashar Assad has resulted in more than 20,000 deaths and countless injuries and destruction. More than 100,000 refugees have taken refuge in Turkey to escape the onslaught by Assad’s military. However, as Israeli analyst Pinhas Inbari wrote for the World Jewish Congress, a stalemate exists and Syria might be split into several regions reflecting the mosaic of the country’s minorities: Alawites, Druze, Kurds and Christians. The Kurds in the country’s northeast have seized control of several towns along the frontier with Turkey giving rise to threats by Ankara that they may possibly intervene to prevent an alliance with Kurds in the adjacent Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdish regional government. The Kurds and other minorities and Sunni merchants would prefer a federated Syria with a weak non-Islamist central government. However, the threat of terrorist control of Syria’s vast caches of WMD (chemical and biological warfare agents) and the means of delivery is of concern to both the US and Israel. Add to that Iran’s recent announcement that it might have transferred WMD to its terrorist proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon has been caught by Shin Bet and National Police penetrating Israel’s northern border trying to foment terrorist attacks by supplying explosives to Israeli Arab drug smugglers in an attempted bomb plot. Hezbollah leader Sheik Nasrallah has added to Iran’s vitriol by threatening to rain Scud missiles on the Galilee region causing upwards of 10,000 deaths. According to the Jerusalem Post, Syria transferred Scuds missiles to Hezbollah in April. Reports in The Wall Street Journal indicate that Israel had considered attacking the convoy that brought the Scuds from Syria into Lebanon. Hezbollah is acknowledged to have upwards of 40,000 plus rockets and missiles. Hezbollah has conducted largest training exercises with members of its terrorist army directed at occupying Israel’s north.
Thus, Israel is beset with existential threats on its surrounding borders and from afar creating Middle East regional war jitters reflected in spikes in both world oil prices and credit default swaps for the Jewish nation’s sovereign debt.
Against this background “Your Turn” hosts Mike Bates, of radio station 1330AMWEBY of Pensacola, Florida, Senior Editor Jerry Gordon of the New English Review, Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President of Research of the Washington, DC- based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington held a radio round table discussion.
Bates: Good afternoon and welcome to Your Turn. This is a special edition of Your Turn. From time to time we do these round table discussions about what is going on in the Middle East and today I have with me in the studio, Jerry Gordon, Senior Editor of the New English Review and its blog, "the Iconoclast". He is also the author of the book, "The West Speaks". Jerry Gordon, welcome back to Your Turn.
Gordon: Glad to be back.
Bates: And Jonathan Schanzer joins us. He is the Vice President of Research with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington D.C. Jonathan, welcome to Your Turn.
Schanzer: Thanks again for having me.
Bates: And for her first time we welcome Shoshana Bryen. She has more than 30 years experience as an analyst of U.S. Defense Policy and Middle East affairs. She is currently Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington. Shoshana Bryen, welcome to Your Turn.
Bryen: Thank you. It's a pleasure.
Bates: Let's discuss what is going on. There are of course war drums beating in the Middle East as there sadly often are. We'll discuss the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program, the possible Israeli strike to prevent it, what the U.S.'s response to that might be, and the Syrian Civil War that is ongoing. I have a question for you Shoshana. There are reports of the remilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula by Egypt. I always thought that the remilitarization was a violation of the peace treaty so is happening and why is it being allowed?
Bryen: The Camp David Accords had two major beneficial aspects for Israel, aside from peace itself. The first was that Israel was going to get natural gas from Egypt under a contract and the second was the Egyptians would be limited in what military capability they could keep in the Sinai. Both of those things have been obviated. Israel had been complaining under the Mubarak government that Jihadi forces were operating in the Sinai. The problem was exacerbated by the collapse of Gaddafi and the release of his arsenal – much of which found its way to/through Sinai and the Israelis had been complaining about security. The Egyptians have used this magnificently to their own end by changing Camp David status quo in the Sinai. After the 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed last week, President Morsi said, “I'm going to do something about security in the Sinai. I'm going to bring in the troops.” He said, essentially, to Israel, “You've been complaining about this for a long time. Here is my answer.” And his answer was to move in enough force to essentially assert Egyptian sovereignty over the whole Sinai in violation of the Camp David Accords.
Bates: If nobody does anything about that, if the treaty is allowed to be violated, does that not negate the treaty? Is it much like a contract that when one party negates the treaty or the contract and the other party doesn't do anything, suddenly that becomes acceptable?
Bryen: I said there were two benefits to Israel (aside from the natural benefit of peace itself). But nothing happened when Egypt cut off Israel's natural gas supply, the first benefit. There was no price exacted from Egypt for breaking that part of the treaty. The Egyptians expect that there will be no price exacted for this either, and so far they are right. The Israelis have protested. They sent a very stiff note, apparently, through the U.S. Government to the Egyptian Government on the specific issue of taking tanks back out of the Sinai. The Egyptians have responded to the Israeli message and while the parties are in discussions. The tanks have yet to be withdrawn. I think the treaty will wither in that regard.
Bates: What about the natural gas supply being cut off? How much of that is directed by the Egyptian Government and how much of that was a result of terrorist attacks?
Bryen: Those are two sides of the same coin. If the Egyptian Government had wished to protect the pipeline, they could have done that. They chose not to so that became their default position. The pipeline was blown up and it was never repaired.
Gordon: Jon, what is the real story behind the Islamist attack that the IDF repulsed and was used as a predicate for President Morsi clean house in both his intelligence and security establishment and more ejection of military leaders from the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces?
Schanzer: It has been a fascinating ride here. Not exactly one that is making me dizzy trying to keep up with affairs in Egypt. I think it's become very clear that the Egyptians have used the Sinai, not only as Shoshana mentioned, to basically exact some leverage and to make sure that there are troops, tanks and anti-aircraft batteries that are installed back into the Sinai. Egyptians were talking very early on during the revolution against Mubarak, and they basically waited for the right time to install those weapons, and this I think is actually quite popular. I don't think the regime is terribly popular inside Egypt, but that was a popular move. The Sinai attacks gave Morsi the predicate to oust the military rulers who had been in control of Egypt since the fall of Mubarak. Tantawi was kicked out. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been eviscerated and the reason that Morsi gave was what happened in the Sinai. Egyptian forces were overrun by a number of rag tag terrorists. He couldn’t abide this. Instead, an Islamist leaning Muslim Brotherhood figure from within the military, General Sissi, who is now Morsi's right hand man in the military. In a few quick strokes, he has reasserted Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai. He has destroyed the military control that Mubarak had built up, and he is now firmly in control. The only question that I have now is whether he begins to challenge some of the cadres from within the Muslim Brotherhood that he doesn't get along with to further shore up his power. We are just going to have to wait to whether he begins to challenge some of the cadres from within the Muslim Brotherhood that he doesn't get along with to further shore up his power. We are just going to have to wait to see.
Bates: Jonathan, Western democracies have the theory, one that I agree with, that the government derives its power from the consent of the governed. The Egyptian military has been very popular among the Egyptian people. What is their reaction to this?
Schanzer: I don't think that the Egyptian military in recent months has been terribly popular. During the outbreak of the Tahrir Revolution the military was still somewhat popular. However, SCAF overplayed its hand. It continued to manipulate. It thought about working with the Brotherhood. It thought about working with other secular players and in the end made friends with no one and lost the trust of the Egyptian people. Morsi came in and struck down Tantawi and fired other top brass. Largely speaking, the Egyptian people shrugged and sort of said, O.K., they got what was coming to them. The military itself has been a venerated institution within Egypt. Now it is without its top brass, without the patronage system that Mubarak had set up where he insured that people got very nice salaries when they were retired after years of loyal service. Without those things the question I have is: where is the glue that binds the military? Is it still there to protect the Egyptian people or will we begin to see it collapse? I fear the latter although right now all we can do is wait and see.
Gordon: Shoshana, there was a revelation in the press this week about the new chief of staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces who apparently had undertaken a course at the U.S. Army War College several years ago and written a paper in which the thrust was that the reason why the Egyptians don't like the U.S. is because of the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. This document surfaced only after the removal of the former high command of the Egyptian Army. Why has it taken so long to find out that you had people inside the Egyptian Army who were basically stealth representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood?
Bryen: Because we continue to tell ourselves that when somebody takes a course at the U.S. Army War College, or any institution of higher military learning, they do it because they want to be like us. So we let lots of people into those institutions. When they leave, we assume that because they have been here they are O.K. politically. They are on our side. They’ve assimilated the ethic of a modern, democratic military – our military. It is not true. The paper was not hidden. It wasn't a secret paper. He showed it to his professors. He made a point which I think many people in the Middle East would agree with, and that is that United States policy is lopsided toward Israel and they don't like it. It's a failure on our part, a misunderstanding about why people come here for U.S. military education. Sometimes they want that education so they can do things with it that we wouldn't approve of.
Bates: We do, we are often guilty Shoshana as a nation of projecting our values on other nations and other cultures. Is it a matter of us just not understanding that the whole world doesn't in fact want to be like us?
Bates: Why do we continuously make these mistakes? Why do we continue to have these lofty goals? I think that representative democracy is great, don't get me wrong but it's not for everybody as is obvious from errors that have been made in the past?
Bryen: It's not that it isn’t for everybody. People from all sorts of backgrounds can be good participants in a representative democracy – they generally are when they come to the United States. My grandfather, and probably yours as well, came here from a culture in which democracy was an unknown quantity. Individual civil liberties, rule of law – these were alien concepts to my Ukrainian grandfather. He came to the United States and became a very good democrat (small "d"). It is possible for anybody to become “like us.” The problem of exporting democracy or “building” democracy abroad is that many people live in places where the leadership doesn't want that to happen. That is not to say that the people are incapable of democracy; I don't think that's true. What happens in a country like Egypt under the Brotherhood, or Iran under the Mullahs, is that the government prevents people from acting upon any desire they might have for individual civil liberties and the rule of law. The government doesn't permit it. The government doesn't want it, for obvious reasons having to do with exercising power.
Bates: Shoshana, let's talk about the rule of law in Egypt. Morsi has said that he will respect the Egyptian Constitution. It is my understanding the Egyptian Constitution is not yet drafted. If the current constituent assembly is incapable of drafting one, he can appoint a new assembly and that could very well be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and there you have an Islamic revolution that is completed constitutionally.
Bryen: Or completed according to their own laws. Not everybody's laws resemble our laws. But yes, the Constituent Assembly that was elected by the Egyptian people – which was 70% Islamist – has now been ruled by Egyptian judges to be illegally constituted. It is not clear now who is going to draft this Constitution. The fact that an Assembly was elected and Morsi was elected does not give Egypt a representative democracy. One of the big mistakes I think the United States makes – or Americans in general make – is forgetting Russian dissident-turned-Israeli Parliamentarian Natan Sharansky's dictum. Shraransky said elections are the crowning glory of a democratic process, not the beginning. So if you rush into elections which end up being majority rule, you will have a majority rule government and that's what Egypt has. It is not a democratic government with checks and balances under the rule of law. It has a majority rule government. Those lend themselves to sweeping powers for the majority and contempt for minority or unpopular people and positions.
Gordon: Jon, you had made an observation that the election of Morsi could lead to something equivalent to the Iranian Islamic Republic that was established in 1979. We noticed that President Morsi is about to take off for a meeting in Teheran on August 30th. When I interviewed Reza Kahlili, the ex- CIA spy inside the Revolutionary Guard, he said there has been a very long term relationship between the Mullahs in Teheran and the Muslim Brotherhood. What are your observations?
Schanzer: I believe that there have been longstanding ties between the Egyptian regime and Iran for quite some time. There is an article that I wrote in November 2010 that talked about a bank called the Misr-Iran Development Bank, Misr, being the Arabic word for Egypt. The bank was founded in 1975 and it endured after the revolution in 1979. It was the way in which the Iranian regime continued to transfer funds back and forth between Egypt. It was the way that these two countries did business. Now, all along the way we continued to hear that, they are Sunni and the Iranians are Shiite and they don't get along. The Iranians named a street after the assassin who killed Anwar Sadat. But, bottom line is they found a way of maintaining ties. They found a way of working together through the country of Sudan, after the revolution there in 1989. Iran was helping to train Muslim Brotherhood linked groups such as the Tunisian Ennahda Movement, Hamas, and Muslim Brotherhood cadres from all around the world. It all happened in Sudan. Sudan was a second Islamic republic, like Iran, on the African continent. It has long served as a training ground that Iran controls and it is right on Egypt’s border. Thus, I don't believe that the ties were ever severed. They may have been strained, but certainly not when you talk about the Muslim Brotherhood which was always an opposition group to the mainstream Egyptian Government. It was in their interest to work with others, and so it's not a surprise to see that the Brotherhood has these ties with Iran.
Bates: Jonathan, regarding Egyptian ties with Iran, Lebanon has been used as a proxy location for terrorist attacks into Israel by Hezbollah. Is there a serious concern that if Egypt's ties with Iran are strengthened it might turn Egypt into another terrorist proxy location?
Schanzer: I think the likelihood is low. There are groups that have had ties to Iran in the past - notably the al Qaeda affiliates of Gama’a al-Islamiyya and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Both were affiliates of Al Qaeda during the 1990's and had ties to Iran. Both were put down brutally by the Mubarak regime, and at this point are shells of their former selves. I don't see them emerging yet again. That said, I do think that there is a significant risk in the Sinai. We know that the Iranian weapons pipeline goes right through the Sinai Peninsula from Sudan up into Egypt and then out across the Sinai to Gaza. We know that the Iranians have been crawling all over that place for many years. So the question is, are they in Sinai? Are they financing some of these groups? Are they trying to help them organize and prepare for attacks against Israel? I don't know the answer to that. I just know that the infrastructure is there. That said I do have pretty good information that these groups operating in Sinai are not necessarily tied to the Iranians. They are tied to the Al Qaeda network. One analyst recently told me after a trip over there that we may see a new Al Qaeda affiliate like Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula or Al Qaeda of Iraq. We might see Al Qaeda of the Islamic Sinai and is quite possible. I don't necessarily think that we are going to be looking at Iranian ties there. Broadly speaking, we are just looking at an area that is ripe and ready for that kind of activity, regardless of who sponsors it.
Bates: You mentioned that President Mubarak kept those terrorist groups at bay. However, President Morsi has a different ideology. He is in the Muslim Brotherhood. He's not such a secular leader. He is driven by Islamist ideology. Is he not?
Schanzer: He absolutely is. I think what remains to be seen is whether all these Islamists are terrorists. This is a question that I think everybody is asking here in Washington. The White House is trying to argue is that regardless of the fact that is part of the Muslim Brotherhood and regardless of the fact that the brotherhood is an ideology that spawned terrorist organizations like Hamas, Al Qaeda: is he in fact a terrorist supporting leader? A lot of people have doubts. A lot of people are predicting that he's going to turn a blind eye, and he has already reached out to Hamas and other groups. We have no reason at this point to suggest that he is a sponsor of terrorism in any way, but we are of course very concerned.
Gordon: Jon, you may recall the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, made this stupendous remark saying that we should not be concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt because it has "secular sides." In view of what we have seen during the course of this past month alone there seems to be rising concern about certain supportive tendencies in the Islamist direction.
Schanzer: Clapper's statement was ill-advised to say the least and I'm being very diplomatic for a change. It was really was one of the more remarkable statements to be made in Congressional testimony in recent memory. The bottom line is that the Muslim Brotherhood is not secular. It doesn't have secular trends. It is a religious ideology that envisions a broader Muslim polity, a Caliphate. One in which Western domination is diminished and Islam rises up to the status that it once held before the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The fact is that the people hold fast to this ideology and it is very much rooted in their belief that Islamic laws need to be implemented. This is not a democratic movement. It could work within a democracy if you have a very strong constitution, if you have very strong institutions. It is quite possible that you could have an Islamic party ruling within a system that is safeguarded. But that is not what we are seeing here. We are looking at a new president of Egypt who is trying to manipulate the system in such a way that it leans toward the Muslim Brotherhood ideology and that it is favorable to it. This is not the kind of polity that we want to see rise up in Egypt.
Gordon: Shoshana, the U.S. in its infinite wisdom in both Iraq and Afghanistan sponsored the development of Constitutions that were embedded in Sharia, the very same doctrine that Jon just talked about. Is that likely to occur in Egypt?
Bryen: Absolutely. People write constitutions based on what they want to get out of government. Our Constitution is designed to limit the scope of government. Other people's Constitutions are there to expand the scope of government. Egypt's will likely be grounded in Sharia.
Bates: What many people in the West fail to realize is that Islam is not just a religion; it is also a political Ideology? Shoshana let me ask this question of you. We'll probably have several follow-ups to it but what is the status of the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program and what are the Israelis likely to do about it and when?
Bryen: The status of the Iranian Nuclear Program is unfolding. Bits of information keep coming out and every time bits of information come out from a reasonably reliable source we discover that the Iranians are farther along than we thought they were. That is one piece of the puzzle. But I would be remiss if I didn't point out that we often attribute to Iranians and North Koreans greater skill than they actually have. If you remember, the North Koreans had us very worried about a launch toward the West Coast of the United States they planned in March 2012. They fired the missile and it fell into the sea in about seven seconds. Therefore, you are always balancing intelligence information that comes out – some of which is true, but some of which is disinformation, and the reality that people can't always do what they claim they can. That is not much of an answer but that's where we are with Iran. We are between those problems.
Gordon: Shoshana, we have had recent reports that indicate there is a paper thin line of difference now between the Israelis and the Americans. The Obama Administration in particular, based on a recent national intelligence estimate as to where Iran stands with regard to imminent development of nuclear weapons. That has been a problem because the Israelis have a totally different view about what they would do given this information versus the United States. What is that issue?
Bryen: The red lines are completely different. General Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made it very clear this week when he said Israelis face the possibility of the destruction of their country and we don't. Therefore, the Israeli ability to tolerate threat is less than that of the United States, and that’s why people keep saying the Israelis will have to strike before the U.S. would strike – and that's true. The Israelis will strike. Do you want to know when they’re going to strike? Is that the question? They are going to strike at the moment they believe the cost of doing it is less than the cost of not doing it. There is a belief in Israel that it is unacceptable for an Israeli government to permit a Holocaust inside the Third Jewish Commonwealth. At some point they will decide it's time to deal with the threat. And by the way, “dealing with” the threat only means putting it off. No one is talking about destruction, only about delaying the program.
Bates: Well, the Iranian President Ahmadinejad said just a few days ago that the whole nonsense about the cancerous tumor that is Israel, the whole Zionist regime, poses a threat. He says he is going to annihilate them. Is this just chest beating for his own people or do you think he really intends to drive Israel into the sea and wipe Israel off the map as he has threatened to do?
Bryen: Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the lectern of the United Nations and said, “We will bury you.” People say what they want their own publics to understand. Ahmadinejad's statements have some of that in them and he’s trying to recoup some of the power he’s lost at home. But there is something else he accomplishes: he has used the world media to focus on the division between the United States and Israel. He says to the Israelis, “We will annihilate you; therefore, you’d better worry about us.” At the same time, the U.S. is saying, “We don't think that it is such a threat, at least not to us.” He exposed the division between the United States and Israel. It was always there, but he’s got us talking about our differences rather than the level of our agreement.
Gordon: Jon, there has been an indication that Iran has purchased nuclear devices and may not yet have the codes to detonate them. Reza Kahlili has indicated based on his sources inside the Revolutionary Guards that the Iranians may have up to six neutron, electromagnetic weapons. Those weapons could be used essentially for a rather crude form of electromagnetic pulse attack against the United States. What do you think the realities of that are?
Schanzer: We have heard from Ambassador Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to Washington that the Iranians now have enough enriched uranium for five nuclear weapons. That is what he said on Fox News a few days ago and I think he's probably realistic when he says that. As for the EMP weapons, let's put it this way: even if the Iranians have accrued nuclear weapons, which I think everybody agrees they have enough material for at least one crude nuclear weapon, that's all you need. If you are able to take that and detonate it over U.S. air space, the area within sight of that would be impacted by the electromagnetic pulse. That basically means that it would wipe out the electrical grid, anything operating on any kind of electronics, electricity, battery, etc., would be fried, sending that entire area back to the stone age. Now, I don't know whether the Iranians have this capability. It is something that been talked about quite a bit here. In the United States there is a fear that we all need to be worried about such an attack. I have not seen any indication that the Iranians are truly talking about the EMP as something they could deploy against us or against the Israelis, but I do know this. I do know that the U.S. and Israel will not resort to that kind of attack. The Israelis will not carry out an attack of that nature where the civilian populations would be impacted in that way. They are still talking about a surgical strike, one in which the casualties would be mitigated and minimized. That is the way the Israelis conduct warfare. We just don't know how the Iranians conduct warfare. We have not really seen them in action. They carry out terrorist attacks in the shadows. The last time we've really seen them engaged in an all out war was against Iraq. It was brutal but it was conventional, largely.
Bates: Shoshana this question is for you. You said something a moment ago that I thought was both brilliant and concise, and I hope I'm not misquoting you. If I do, please correct me. I think you just said in the answer to the question of when will Israel do something that Israel will act when the cost of acting is less than the cost of not acting. Was that pretty close to what you said?
Bryen: That is what I said.
Bates: Very concise. I appreciate that. Here's the question, obviously there will be a cost of acting. There would be a cost eventually of not acting. Now from my perspective the absolute goal is, you can't allow Israel, under any circumstances Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. If that is the ultimate objective then no matter what it takes to prevent that is acceptable. The question is would there be an Iranian response of some sort. Even if it is just terrorist attacks from cells already inside Israel or across the border in Lebanon or perhaps in the Sinai. What would the Iranian response be if Israel were to militarily attempt to stop their nuclear weapons program?
Bryen: Most people assume the first thing the Iranians will want is for their allies – Hezbollah and Hamas – to launch a rocket war on Israel. That is in part because it's not clear that Iran can hit Israel with anything useful from Iran. Iran would like to have it done by proxy. Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets; Hamas has thousands of rockets. Amos Yadlin, former Chief of Israeli Military Intelligence, recently said that of all of those thousands of rockets, only about one thousand are particularly damaging to Israel. The rest are either less precise or less strong, so he sees the threat as roughly one thousand very serious rockets. When you compare that to the possibility of a nuclear attack and you start to understand the threat and response calculus that the Israelis do. Secondarily, I think you are right. There will be terrorism. I would look to South America because Hezbollah has made great inroads in a number of countries there. As you know there are Jews in just about every country in South America, usually small, vulnerable communities. I would think that you would see both rockets and terrorism.
Bates: Jerry, let me throw this question to you. There would obviously be a reaction from the Iranian people as well. Do you think this would unite the people around the regime or do you think it might give them a catalyst to overthrow the regime?
Gordon: Well in my opinion it depends on what the nature of the attack is all about. For example, if Israeli's significant cyber warfare programs basically disrupts the entire command and control network in Iran so that the Supreme Leader, the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitaries are not coordinated you may see a possible popular uprising. Just the other day we had a debriefing with a traveler who was recently in Tehran. The interesting point is that while individuals feel beaten down by this regime some still supportive of not only the United States but Israel as well. They are essentially dismissive of the regime's support for proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah in the region. They believe that their economic status has been worsened as a result of the regime's activities. That means to me that some of the impact of the sanctions have helped in fomenting the reaction of the Iranian people against the regime so there really could be a prospect for cracking it. What are your views Jon?
Schanzer: I agree that the prospect is there, but it is something of a black box and that is just unfortunate. What we saw in 2009 was this spontaneous eruption of anger against the rigged election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. You had hundreds of thousands of people come out into the streets and we did nothing in the United States to help support them. As a result you had people who were beaten, murdered, raped; it was a horrible crack down. Actually the Iranians employed other proxies, including allegedly Hezbollah and Hamas, to put down the green movement. It has gone back into hiding and so at this point it's very difficult to tell the state of play, whether they are ready to come back out again and challenge the regime. We do know that the longer the economic malaise continues the more frustration will build on the street. We don't know whether that means anything in terms of an uprising. I still believe that that is probably the best hope for everybody here in this situation. Having a military confrontation is in no one’s interest. What we want to see is this regime toppled. The Israelis continue to say that it's not so much a problem of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. It is a problem of this regime in Iran getting a nuclear weapon. And so regime change continues to be the best of these options. It is just incredibly difficult to tell whether the Iranians are prepared again to take to the streets
Bates: Is there something the United States could do to instigate an uprising without having a military attack on Iran?
Schanzer: Yes, and there are things that the United States can do. Provide secure communications, for example, to the opposition so they are able to speak to one another without fear of having the regime stalk them. Having public statements from the US president, is also something that we didn't see back in 2009. Letting the people of Iran know that the American Government and the American people are behind them. The sanctions continue and I think that's a good thing. For those who study Iranian history, when the middle class bazaaris, the merchant class, and the middle class clerics get together and they are both angry, it is a recipe for disaster. Repeatedly, that is exactly how you see the Iranians rise up against their own government. It is just unclear whether we are reaching out to the right people. It is unclear whether we're giving them what they need. I follow the debate every day and I think that in terms of the questions that the Iranians have, questions that the Israelis have, the questions that Washington and the American people have, as the gas prices rise, the problem stems from leadership. We need the President of the United States, to let everybody know, what the plan is. What is the deadline? Let us stop guessing, let’s stop talking about it. He needs to say: “Here is what we are doing. I am the President of the United States and this is my plan for what has become the most vexing national security problem of our time.” This would be incredibly welcomed but we have not seen that yet and it is lamentable.
Bates: The President of the United States may not be the person who gets to determine the timeline on this one. There was a report in the Times of Israel that said that Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to attack Iran before the U.S. elections. Do you see any credibility in that?
Schanzer: As Shoshana stated, it's incredibly hard to tell exactly where things are. You obviously know that the Israelis are anxious. The Israelis would like to accelerate the timeline and they want the United States to be on the same page with them. We see resistance on the other side, that not only from the President, but leadership from the Secretary of State. And we are looking at military leaders saying that we are not prepared to take that step yet and that diplomacy has not run its course. The question I have, that is on a lot of people’s minds: are the US elections determining this timeline? If it is the case, then that is exactly what is getting in between the U.S. and Israel. That is what is eroding this alliance at a rapidly alarming pace. It is unconscionable that we would allow something like that to get in the way of what could be a devastating war against Israel. No official is saying we are going to wait until after the election. Everyone is just saying we need to let diplomacy run its course and we don't believe that the time has run out on that clock. There is just a lot of murkiness and I believe that it is incumbent on the White House to step up and to begin to explain what's going on. I for one am getting rather tired of this debate, of all of the sniping, guessing and stress that we are seeing among our allies.
Bates: Jonathan one of the big theories on why Israel would attack prior to the election is because Israel doesn't believe that President Obama genuinely supports Israel. They would be forced to support Israel prior to an election because the Jewish vote in the United States is so critical and if they wait until after election, Barack Obama may just throw up his hands and say it isn’t my problem. I don't need the Jewish vote anymore. I can't run again so could that be a factor?
Schanzer: It is a factor and don't forget that Bibi Netanyahu and Barack Obama do not see eye to eye and have not for a very long time. There is very little trust between these men according to what we've been hearing since 2009. That could be a factor. I do think that seeing some leadership, having Bibi and Obama say something together to the world would allay a lot of fears. It might drive down the price of oil and put Americans’ minds at rest. I think this is long overdue.
Gordon: Shoshana, Syria is in tatters. Israeli analyst Pinhas Inbari wrote a report, “Will Syria Split?” What is your opinion regarding a question of that possibility given what has happened in this bloody 18 month rebellion and is there reality behind a possible federated Syria to protect its minorities?
Bryen: I think Syria is looking more and more like the breakup of Yugoslavia. At one point there were people who tried to put it back together so that they could have one government with minority rights. It wasn't possible; more than 100,000 people died in the Yugoslav wars. I'm not sure Syria is there yet but I think it's very rapidly approaching the point where you will not be able to put those pieces back together. The animosities are too great; the desire for revenge is too great. Federation sounds good but you ended up with five countries with breakup of Yugoslavia and you may have same in Syria. That is what drives the Turks crazy.
Bates: Now economically if that were to happen do the five areas have enough natural resources and economic activity to be viable?
Bryen: Well it's complicated, but if you have the Kurds attaching themselves to other Kurds (which is what is driving the Turks nuts), they cross over interesting natural resource boundaries and so Kurdistan could become profitable and be viable. Alawitestan? I'm not sure that is viable but there are lots of different ways to put it together. Montenegro is not exactly a viable country either but there it is.
Gordon: Jon, what is overarching threat of Syria's huge arsenal of chemical and biological warfare. Have these non conventional weapons been distributed to terrorist groups? Yesterday, the President stepped in to the press room at the White House and said if Syria chooses to use its CBW threats; the U.S. and its allies might act. What is the real threat there and can we deal with it?
Schanzer: The threat is that there are several thousand weapons that are biological and chemical. With the Syrians, it was first revealed almost more than a decade ago and so we've known about it for quite some time. We haven't done anything about it. They are sitting there in bunkers and we are concerned that with all of these defections, no one may be protecting them. We don't have enough intelligence to ensure that they don't fall into the wrong hands. It is a very real threat. The good news is that I don't think the opposition knows where these weapons are. The bad news is I'm not sure we do either. It would be a difficult search for these weapons and quite frankly it is just downright scary to think about whether Hezbollah has them and what they could possibly do with them.
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