Israel Doubts Unrest Will Transform Iran: Nuclear Aim, Aid to Militants Continue

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 26, 2009

JERUSALEM -- The storm of protests over the disputed election in Iran may have raised the prospect of a weakened regime, but it has done little to curb Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear program or its support for militant groups in the region.

Israeli officials and academics agree with the Obama administration that the extent of recent demonstrations could prompt significant change in the Islamic republic -- and perhaps pave the way for a calmer Middle East. But they are not convinced that such change is inevitable: If the country's hard-line clerics reinforce their authority, it could quickly end President Obama's hope for dialogue and lead to even more Iranian support for such groups as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas among Palestinians, according to Israeli analysts and government officials.

"I think the true nature of the Iranian regime has been unmasked," Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in a recent interview with Germany's Bild magazine in which he emphasized that a government willing to shoot its own people could not be trusted.

Since taking office in March, Netanyahu has cited Iran's development of nuclear technology and its support for Hamas and Hezbollah as Israel's chief security threats, and argued that curbing Iranian influence is the most important issue in the region. In that conclusion he differs from Obama, who, though also concerned with Iran's possible development of a nuclear weapon, argues that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would undermine one of the main arguments that Iranian and other extremists use to gain public support.

The outcome of the Iranian election -- officially won by hard-line candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and followed by intense protests and a violent crackdown -- has touched off a widespread debate here about the possible impact on Israeli security. In advance of the election, politicians, security officials and others tended to argue that none of the candidates represented significant change in a regime whose ultimate power rests with the six Shiite clerics and six lawyers of the Guardian Council.

Both Ahmadinejad and chief rival Mir Hossein Mousavi were likely to continue pursuing nuclear technology -- purportedly for civilian purposes -- and it was even suggested by some Israeli officials that a victory by Ahmadinejad would be better for Israel because his denial of the Holocaust and other beliefs made it easier to rally opposition.

Now, however, there is discussion within Israel about the degree to which the Iranian threat may be moderating on its own -- creating a situation in which the regime will have to focus more on domestic issues, such as the economy, or on regaining the trust of its people. There is also a sense that making the case for world action against Iran has become easier: Netanyahu pressed the point on his trip to Europe this week, trying to persuade countries such as Italy, which are among Iran's more important trading partners, to reduce their economic ties.

"It is a disturbing signal for Syria and Hezbollah. The weaker the regime is, the less it can provide support," said Eyal Zisser, head of the department of Middle Eastern and African history at Tel Aviv University. "A few weeks ago the notion was that Iran was on its way to taking over the Middle East."

Eldad Pardo, a Hebrew University professor and Iran specialist, said, "It is an extremely heavy blow for Iran's power and image and I would even daresay to Islamic radicalism in general." But Pardo, like others, said he was not convinced of a good outcome. The divisions in Iranian society that became clear during the protests are still unresolved, and he said it was quite possible the country could become more repressive at home and take more risks with its foreign policy.

Support for such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas is ingrained in Iran's revolutionary ideology, which sees the Islamic republic as a counter to Egypt, Jordan and others that have recognized Israel. Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat was initially embraced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after Iran's Islamic revolution, but support switched to the Islamist Hamas movement as the PLO began talking with Israel.

Iran "is going to want to assure them that all is well and it is business as usual," said an Israeli government analyst who specializes in Iran but was not authorized to speak on the record. "The power base of the regime is shrinking. What we should look for is not along the lines of moderation."

Regardless of any change in Iranian domestic politics, the crackdown could influence the Middle East by undercutting public support for Islamist groups and perhaps by pushing others to reevaluate their ties with the country.

The scenes of Muslims being killed by other Muslims for voicing their beliefs will "weaken the argument of Islamists in the region who have been holding Iran up as a model," Palestinian analyst and pollster Ghassan Khatib wrote in the online publication "The damage is irreversible regardless of the outcome" and could affect debate within Palestinian society divided between Hamas and the more moderate Fatah movement.

David Menashri, head of the Center of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the fact that the system in Iran could be so deeply rattled will register among Syrian officials and Iran's other allies. After the victory of a pro-U.S. slate of candidates in recent Lebanese elections, the gradual return of stability in Iraq, and the military weakening of Hamas after its recent war with Israel in the Gaza Strip, he said, the events in Iran may provide an opening for "Obama-ism" to take hold.

"The legitimacy of that regime has been harmed," Menashri said. "This is an opportunity to start solving some problems."

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