The Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted Avi Dicter, Israel’s Minister of Public Security and a former Charles and Andrea Bronfman Visiting Fellow at the Saban Center, for a policy luncheon to discuss the growing challenge of Iran in the Middle East.
Dicter began by saying that the recent war between Israel and Hizballah was the first military conflict between Israel and Iran. While Hizballah uses terrorist tactics, namely operating from within civilian areas and targeting civilian populations, Dicter argued that it is not a terrorist organization in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a subsidiary of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Dicter said that it is a mistake to analyze the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without taking the Iranian factor into account. For many years, Iran has tried to export its ideology of an Islamic state ideology to other countries in the region. While Iran failed to achieve its mission in the Persian Gulf countries, it has been successful in Lebanon. Since the 1990s, Hizballah has represented Iran’s interests in the Levant. Also, Iran has used Syria as a platform for smuggling weapons to Hizballah.
Dicter acknowledged that Israel could have fought better against Hizballah during the recent conflict. However, Dicter pointed to Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s statement after the war as an indication that Israel’s deterrence capabilities have not been affected. Nasrallah said that had he anticipated the extent of Israel’s retaliation, he would never have ordered the crossborder kidnappings of Israeli soldiers in July 2006. In addition, Dicter noted that in the Hizballah-sponsored ceremony marking the beginning of Ramadan this year, that no weapons were displayed. He predicted that the Hizballah ceremony scheduled to mark the last Friday (prayer day) of Ramadan (October 20, 2006) would also be weapons free—which it was.
Dicter argued that one of two essential principles in Iran’s pursuit of regional influence is its direction of terrorist attacks against Israel. Lacking the credential of being an Arab country, Iran uses terrorism against Israel to rally public opinion in Arab countries to its cause. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is the second component of its bid to gain sympathy in the Arab world. By developing nuclear weapons, which Dicter believed Iran is capable of doing within the next five years, Iran is attempting to become the dominant power in the Middle East and to replace Egypt as the leader of the Arab world.
Dicter stressed that Hizballah is only one component in Iran’s quest for influence in the region. According to Dicter, Hizballah is the northern component of Iranian influence whereas Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that won the January 2006 Palestinian elections, is the southern component. Hamas was independent of Iranian influence until 2001, at which time coordination between Hamas and Iran began to increase. Until 2004, Hamas had two leaders: external and internal. The external leader was Khalid Meshal in Damascus, and the internal was Sheikh Yassin in the Gaza Strip. However, once Yassin was killed in 2004, Meshal consolidated his grip and began to working closely with Iran. As a result, Iran has managed to establish two channels of influence devoted to attacking Israel: Hizballah in the north and Hamas in the south. Dicter noted that the threat of Hamas, and accompanying Iranian influence, is limited to the Gaza Strip. Israel has been successful in stemming Hamas terrorism from the West Bank because of Operation Defensive Shield, which Israel launched in April 2002 following a wave of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.
Dicter concluded by saying Iran posses more of a global threat than North Korea. Dicter argued that North Korea is more internally focused, and the highest priority of its government is to remain in power. By contrast, Iran is outwardly focused and seeks regional domination. In addition, there is a more coherent and united regional and global alliance working to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons than exists to stop Iran from going nuclear. There are many reasons for this different international attitude to Iran and North Korea, including foreign investment into Iran and Iran’s substantial oil resources, both of which make foreign powers wary of imposing sanctions on Iran. Nonetheless, Dicter warned that a nuclear Iran is a threat not just to Israel, but to the world.
During the discussion, one participant asked whether Israel should push for progress on resolving its disputes with the Palestinians or Syrians, as a means of siding with the Sunni Arab countries in the Middle East (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states) against Iran. Dicter responded that even were Israel to make concessions on the Palestinian or Syrian issues, these Sunni Arab countries would resist aligning themselves with Israel. In addition, Dicter said that Israel must have three preconditions for talks with Syria: Syria must cease hosting Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (a smaller Palestinian terrorist group); Syria must cease supplying Hizballah with weapons; Syria must stop allowing terrorist groups to cross into Iraq to attack Coalition forces.
Some participants noted that many former Israeli prime ministers had not required preconditions for talks with Syria, and asked if the preconditions would prevent any negotiations. Dicter responded that Israel cannot begin to discuss with Syria the nature of a peace agreement or borders while it is being attacked or threatened from Syria or by terrorist groups based in Syria.