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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Former Deputy Defense Minister of Israel: "Its ALL About Iran"

In the Middle East, the threat map is always changing. invited Dr. Efraim Sneh, former Deputy Defense Minister, to talk about the current threats Israel faces. We met Dr. Sneh a few days before the riots in Egypt erupted. Looking at the overall picture, what's the most serious threat Israel faces today?

Dr. Sneh: Israel is facing one main enemy - Iran. With its race to nuclear weapons Iran is an enemy by itself. However, Iran has managed to create 3 additional fronts against Israel – Hezbollah in Lebanon is armed with tens of thousands of rockets from Iran, Hamas in Gaza is armed with thousands of rockets from Iran, and the global Islamic terror Iran supports makes the 3rd front in which every Jewish entity is a target. Israel has to build up its capabilities to address the Iranian threat and its extensions. What's your take on Lebanon and Hezbollah's attempt to take over the government in Lebanon? How will it change Israel's behavior? 
Dr. Sneh: In many ways, Hezbollah has already taken over Lebanon. It has turned Lebanon into an Iranian front base on the border with Israel. Hezbollah already has a majority in the Lebanese. They already had veto rights in the previous government and now they are taking additional steps to put a formal stamp on their control over Lebanon. From Israel's perspective the fact that Hezbollah is in control means the Lebanese government is responsible for all actions against Israel. Hezbollah is no longer a terrorist organization which actions do not represent the Lebanese government. Hezbollah now represent Lebanon. Of course, this should be taken into account when considering the aid the west supplied Hariri's government. The US alone gives Lebanon at least $100M in aid – to give that aid to a government controlled by Iran's proxy will be very dangerous. With Hezbollah forming the new government in Lebanon, is an Islamic revolution the next step?

Dr. Sneh: Iran has created Hezbollah to export the Islamic revolution. Hezbollah has won all its political power using weapons Iran supplied. They are holding a country hostage with those weapons. In 2008, Hezbollah turned the heat on in Beirut, burned a TV station and killed tens of people. They then turned around and said you want this to stop, give us more minister positions and more political power. They got what they want. This is how Iran exports the revolution – through threats and weapons. Let's talk about Iran's nuclear weapons program – there are many contradicting estimations as to how long it will take Iran to build its own nuclear bomb – what do you think?

Dr. Sneh: There are many estimates and at the end of the day the exact estimate does not matter. Iran has the ambition and the capability to build nuclear weapons. If it takes them 3 years or 5 years to get there it makes no difference. It's like a speeding train – the train has left the station and is making its way to the destination. Now it's your decision when and how to stop this train. How can the world stop Iran from building nuclear weapons?

Dr. Sneh: There are 2 main possibilities to stop Iran – the first is to use sanctions that will convince the regime to drop its nuclear ambition. If that doesn't work, the only option is a military strike that will set back Iran's capabilities and will buy us another few years before Iran will reach nuclear weapons capabilities again. Sanctions are a better route since military strike has a high price for both sides. However, since Iran has been under severe sanctions for a few years and is still defiant in its nuclear weapons ambition, a military strike may be the only choice in this matter. What happens if and when Iran succeeds in becoming a nuclear power? How will that change the Middle East?

Dr. Sneh: If and when Iran succeeds in building nuclear weapons 2 main changes will occur. Egypt and Saudia will start their own race to build nuclear weapons. They will not stand aside and allow Iran become the only Muslim state with nuclear weapons. The Middle East will become a nuclear disaster waiting to happen. Israel will find itself living in the neighborhood with at least 3 Arab countries with nuclear weapons. In Iran, there is already an Islamic regime that wants to wipe Israel off the map. Egypt and Saudia both have strong radical Islamic opposition forces that can take control one of those days. These Islamic powers do not share the same values as the west and such Islamic powers will control nuclear weapons.

From Israel's perspective this dramatically changes the balance in the Middle East and not to Israel's favor. This is likely to have direct negative impact on the amount of foreign investments in Israel as well as the number of Jews making Aliya to Israel. Can we compare the situation to the nuclear balance between the US and the Soviet Union in the 1960s?

Dr. Sneh: Many people use this comparison to claim that even if Iran will have nuclear weapons they will not use them. I think this comparison is wrong and irrelevant. Between the US and the Soviet Union there was a balance of power based on mutual deterrence and symmetry. Both countries are large in territory with similar population size. Most importantly both countries were controlled by leaders that did not want to go to war. Look at the Cuba Missile crisis – at the end of the day, both Kennedy and Khrushchev put their foot down and said NO to a nuclear war. Comparing that to the situation with Iran is very superficial. Israel is a very small country in size making it very vulnerable to a nuclear weapon strike. Furthermore, the heart of Israel's economy is located around Tel Aviv. The impact of a strike there will cripple down Israel's vast economy. Iran is a much larger country making it less vulnerable in those terms. There is no symmetry between Iran and Israel and as such there can be no balance of deterrence between them.

If you look at the regime in Iran it is pragmatic only on one issue. When it comes to fighting the West and in specific the Jewish state, Iran puts aside many religious issues for their single most important objective. When supporting Sunni Hamas they overcome the vast religious difference between Shia and Sunni in Islam.  When embracing the Taliban in Afghanistan they put aside religious differences. Iran has a single theological goal and that is to turn the world into an Islamic entity. In their world order there is no room for Christians or Jewish people. When it comes to achieving that goal the regime is very pragmatic. In that view, erasing the Jewish state off the map is not just a crazy statement. It is a real concrete goal in the eyes of Iran.  The regime will be willing to sacrifices millions of Iranians to that end. They can always justify that by claiming they became Shahids and end up in heaven.

In the Shia Islamic culture life is not cherished. Here is another example – in the 2nd war with Lebanon, 50% of the civilian casualties in Israel were Arab citizens. Hezbollah had not moral issue with the fact their missiles killed their fellow Arab brothers. They claimed that all the Arabs that died in Israel are Shahids and solved the moral dilemma with that.

So you cannot talk about deterrence and balance with a regime that's willing to sacrifice millions in the name of a religious war. This was not the case between the US and the Soviet Union.

During the long war between Iran and Iraq, the Iranian regime sent children to clear up bomb mine fields. Thousands of kids were killed that way. So if they don't value the lives of their children will they think responsibly about using a nuclear bomb? Let's talk about Hamas – we are about 2 years after operation Cast Lead – are we heading to another round?

Dr. Sneh: Without doubt – another round against Hamas is just a matter of time. When you reach critical mass you have to act – we can wait a bit but it's not going to last forever. It's the same with Lebanon/Hezbollah. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 some felt we solved the problem but I always said that as long as Hezbollah is in Lebanon we will have to deal with them. In 2006, 6 years after Israel withdrew, we had to fight Hezbollah. It's the same with Hamas. As long as Hamas is in control of Gaza we will have to fight them. Any quiet on that front is only temporary. What's the situation in Gaza from your view?

Dr. Sneh: With the tunnels in full operation, the situation in Gaza is very good. I sat with a Palestinian businessman and he told me let's compete – we both order a refrigerator, in Gaza and in Israel at the same time, and see who gets it first. Hamas uses the tunnels to transfer everything, even fuel for the power plant. If Egypt was to clamp down on the tunnels we might be able to remove Hamas from power. But as long as Hamas transfers everything through the tunnels there is not much that can be done. Do you think Hamas might take over the West Bank?

Dr. Sneh: If the peace process will totally collapse, Hamas might be able to take over the west bank as well. Those that oppose Hamas use the peace process as the reason to object Hamas. If you take hope for peace away there might be a chance for Hamas to capture the West Bank.

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