Israel's Worsening Security Dilemma

Nov 28, 2011

Jogging along the Mediterranean coast in Tel Aviv or on Horev Street in Haifa one sees the love Israelis have for their children. Observing a father holding his daughter on his shoulders on the way to school or a mother giggling with her baby girl at a falafel stand reminds me of the fragile nature of these idyllic family scenes. At any moment the peace can be shattered. One has only to visit Israel's border with Lebanon to realize that on the other side are Hezbollah fighters armed with rockets, determined to wipe Israel off the map.

The day I arrived in Israel on a recent trip, the 1000-to-one swap of Hamas terrorists for Gilad Shalit was front page news. While celebrations at Meron, the Shalits' home, took center stage, the security and military leaders of Israel continued to look at a worsening security dilemma for Israel. The country is essentially facing two critical -- and opposing -- timelines. In one the Islamic Republic of Iran acquires the nuclear bomb. In the other, freedom and democracy take root in Iran. Which will it be?

Israel is not alone in its security dilemma. For the Arab states of the Persian Gulf a nuclear Iran could signal the beginning of a policy of blackmail by Tehran and a further weakening of stability in the region. However, the threat to Israel is much more profound. A clerical regime armed with a nuclear bomb poses an existential threat.

The Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, made his contempt for Jews clear in all his writings: "From the very beginning, the historical movement of Islam has had to contend with the Jews, for it was they who first established anti-Islamic propaganda... they are wretched people who wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world." It should therefore come as no surprise that the heirs to Khomeini's legacy call for wiping Israel off the map. They invoke a nuclear-armed Iran as the "beginning of the end of the Zionist state."

Even so, Israel would be wrong to resolve this dilemma with a military response. History suggests that helping secularists in Iran gain control of their country is the best guarantor of Israel's security dilemma. Indeed, the 2,500-year-old history between Iran and the Jewish people shows that historically secularists have welcomed ties to the Jewish state whereas Islamists have opposed cultivation of closer ties to Israel. As long as there were shahs ruling Iran Jews were welcome members of Iranian society, in keeping with the precedent set by Cyrus the Great. In 1958, David Ben Gurion sent a letter to the Shah in which he mentioned Cyrus's policy towards the Jews as the foundation of a strategic alliance between the two countries. The Shah replied: "The memory of Cyrus's policy regarding your people is precious to me and I strive to continue in the path set by this ancient tradition."

What can Washington do to address Israel's security dilemma? Serious consideration should also be given to the wishes of the Iranian people. The people of Iran hold the key to America's long-term strategic interests in the Middle East and to Israel's short-term security threat. Public opinion polls conducted since 2003 have identified the following two concerns among the Iranian people: 76% would like a "fundamental change" of the political system and 80% would like to see this change effected through a referendum. Continuing demonstrations in Iran's major cities following the contested elections in June 2009 suggests that the people of Iran do indeed want a change of regime. As the gulf between the Iranian people and the regime widens, Washington should focus its efforts on making this divide permanent. Indeed, the national security interests of Israel, the United States and its Arab allies coincide with the wishes of the Iranian people.

The strategic implications for Israel and the region of a new democratic regime in Iran are significant. Tehran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction would be tabled, as would its support for terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda. Tehran's strategic partnerships with Moscow, Caracas, Damascus and Havana would come to an end. Together with responsible members of OPEC, Tehran could once again play a moderating role on world oil markets. Equally important, the broadcasting of massive demonstrations against an Islamic government via Arab satellite networks would demonstrate to the Arab/Muslim world the faltering of Islamic fundamentalism and possibly encourage other democratic forces in the region to challenge theocratic extremism.

A free and democratic Iran would go a long way in addressing Israel's worsening security dilemma.