Security Studies Program Seminar

A Middle East Strategic Overview: An Israeli Perspective

Chuck Freilich
Senior Fellow, Belfer Center International Security Program

May 7, 2008


This talk will cover three issues: Iraq, Iran, and Israeli-Palestinian peace process.


The war in Iraq is still in the making. It is a seminal event in Middle-Eastern history. It will take 10 or 20 years to gain perspective on it.

We need to consider what the war means from a Middle-Eastern point of view. The American domestic debate has naturally focused on the consequences for the United States. The consequences for the Middle East will be enormous, however it ends.

A minimal definition of success is a stable and unified Iraq, which is moderate and has a peaceful foreign policy and domestic politics, not a democracy. What happens if the United States leaves without achieving that minimal objective?

Here are two possible consequences. A Shi'ite dictator takes over, one who may be somewhat less heinous than Saddam, but the result is another repressive Middle-Eastern dictatorship. Or Iraq splinters into three parts. The Turks may then decide to invade, maybe taking Northern Iraq. The Saudis might have to intervene because a Shi'ite dominated Iraq on their border is frightening, due to both their political and theological rivalry with Iran. In this scenario, Iran becomes the regional hegemon, a primary player in Iraq, and might ever take over all or part of it. Jordan won't want a Shi'ite Iranian-dominated Iraq on its border. The Jordanian regime always fears for its security because sixty percent of its population is Palestinian, and now it has one million Iraq refugees. If the Kingdom collapses, Iran comes to Israel's border. These are possibilities.

It's clear that an unintended consequence of the American invasion of Iraq is Iranian hegemony in the region. The United States did Iran a favor by eliminating its rivals in Iraq and Afghanistan and then getting bogged down. Things look good from Tehran: they're getting the nuclear bomb; the United States is tied up in two wars; two enemies are gone, and though American forces are on the border, Iran is not on the list anymore. They are on a roll. The nexus of fundamentalism, WMD, and terror works well. No one has as yet devised an effective response.

The question is who is going to stop Iran if the United States doesn't. No one else will do it.

The conclusion is that US can't disengage from Iraq. Logistically it is easy. But the Middle East's problems will follow the United States home if it leaves.

The next attack is coming. Al Qaeda is not gone. They are making attempts. Or maybe they are biding their time for a bigger attack, perhaps nuclear terrorism.

Disengagement won't solve this problem. It is better to address the issue there than at home. The US presence provokes some anger, but it deters terrorism more.


It's true that Iran poses no direct threat to the United States. It threatens US allies and forces in the region but not the US proper. So why is Iran such a big deal? Why not just use containment and deterrence? It's not because Iranians are irrational. They are extremists, of course, but not crazy. Since the revolution, they have been careful, rational actors with two exceptions – policy toward United States and Israel.

Note that United States is still funding efforts to cause regime change in Iran, but the prospects for success are minimal at best and Iran will have gone nuclear, long before regime change.

If Iran gets a bomb, it will mean the end to the international regime on non proliferation. The Saudis, Egyptians, Turks, Algerians, United Arab Emirates and others will all develop programs. The whole Middle East may go nuclear in fifteen-twenty years and no one knows how to cope with a multi nuclear Middle East.

Iranian nuclear weapons will also threaten the world's energy supply.

And it will be a threat to Israel. The Iranians probably won't try a bolt from the blue attack, they are probably not willing to lose Tehran and other cities. They might try it if it meant thousands dead, but millions? But this could be wrong. Given the stakes, Israel still has to treat it as an existential threat. When God is involved, things become especially worrisome.

Another possible danger: amid a regional conflict, for example the next round between Hezbollah and Israel (it's a matter of when, not if) may cause, Iran might issue a nuclear threat precipitating a nuclear crisis. The United States would have to intervene.

So there are good reasons to deal with the issue. The question is how to deal with it. Everyone prefers sanctions. Outsiders can create tremendous pressure on Iran by not buying their oil, though it would be costly. That would bring the Iranian economy to its knees. Also, Iran imports 40%of its refined oil products and all its car engines, creating great sources of leverage. We could shut off access to the international internet in Iran. Iran is sensitive to sanctions. It's a 2,000 year-old proud civilization that doesn't want to be a pariah. Biting sanctions can be achieved without the Security Council by signing up the right nations, or outside the Security Council. That should be the focus. The next step is a naval blockade. If they shoot, the US can destroy their Navy in minutes and destroy some other targets in the process. Then there are the other direct military options.

The Palestinian Issue

There are four or five options for Israel.

The Annapolis process is a bit of a joke. Condi Rice's idea of a peace plan by the end of the year is unrealistic. Who will sign it? Olmert is maybe going to jail. Even if he stays in power, he heads a weak coalition and is unpopular. Abu Mazan can't speak for the Palestinians. A more realistic goal is to create an “on the shelf” agreement that might be agreed to later by a Palestinian leader with authority, but that's probably not viable either.

So the prospects for peace are not good.

One thing to be optimistic about is Israel itself. Despite all the warfare, the economy is booming. There's a European standard of living. It's the second largest center of high tech firms in the world, in absolute, not per capita, terms. Cultural life is varied and intense.

Dr. Chuck Freilich was Israel's Deputy National Security Adviser for Foreign Affairs. He is now a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center's International Security Program. He is writing a book on Israeli national security decision-making processes and has taught Political Science at Tel Aviv and Hebrew Universities. He also co-directs a Middle Eastern affairs consultancy.


Rapporteur: Ben Friedman

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