Israeli Expert on Iran: Claim of Existential Threat a Fig Leaf for Occupation

Q&A with Prof. Haggai Ram, head of Middle East Studies Department at Ben-Gurion University.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu illustrates Iran's nuclear ambitions as he addresses the UN, September 27, 2012.
Associated Press

Q. You have researched Israeli-Iranian relations for nearly 30 years. When did the “Iranian threat” become part of the Israeli discourse?

Ram: It started in the ‘90s. The first prime minister who exaggerated Iran’s capabilities was actually Yitzhak Rabin. As the Oslo Accords coalesced, the Rabin government began marking Iran as threat No. 1 on Western civilization and its outpost in the Middle East, Israel. Oslo followed years of pumping us with “you can’t make peace with Arabs.” Suddenly it turned out to be possible. I don’t know if it was done conscientiously, but they needed to find something else, and Iran was very ripe for Israeli leaders. Basically, since 1996 they have warned us that in a year, Iran will have a nuclear weapon.

Let’s assume they are on the way. Are they intending to use nuclear capabilities to destroy Israel?

In my opinion, the answer is a sweeping and unequivocal no. Most historians of the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979 point out that Iranian policy is not dictated by messianic or religious considerations but rather pragmatic ones based on state interests.

Is Israel at all in Iranian consciousness? We believe that we keep them very busy, of course, but is this true?

The generation living today in Iran didn’t know Khomeini and didn’t live through the Iranian revolution. It is sated with conflicts and slogans. They had a bloody war with Iraq that, not through any fault of their own, left behind a scorched earth in everything tied to society and economy. What the young generation and the middle class really care about is the economic situation, their future and taking care of Iran’s burning problems, which don’t have a thing to do with Israel.

Listen, with all due respect, they are not our friends. They support Hamas and Hezbollah. Now they are stirring revolution in Yemen. It’s no Switzerland.

Clearly. Iran does not feature among the Zionist supporters. But there is a huge distance between this and the way we built this straw man. We should not overstate Iran’s involvement with the Shi’ites in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Those who are determined to put a heavy Iranian shadow over these places are doing so mainly for political reasons. Iran’s involvement in Yemen is immeasurably complex. The Iranians deny involvement, but it is clear Tehran is assisting the Houthi rebels. Intervention in Lebanon, Iraq and now Yemen derives from utilitarian considerations. I see it as part of an effort to restore the Islamic Republic’s status as a regional power to be respected. It is certainly not tied to a revolutionary Shi’ite passion, or imperial ambition and certainly not to any desire, which is mainly imaginary, to destroy Israel.

In your view, where is the mistake?

It is in the ethnocentric approach that somehow everything is tied to us, which confuses and distracts from the main principle. To say Iran poses an existential threat to Israel is wrong, if not a deception. Israel has bigger and more dangerous enemies. Pakistani nukes, for example, worry me personally much more than Iranian nukes. Pakistan is an unstable country. It is fertile ground for the growth of Islamic radicals. And if its nukes all in these hands it will be bad and bitter.

Iran serves as a fig leaf to the real danger to Israel’s fate – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even Ehud Barak told Haaretz in an interview when he was defense minister under Netanyahu that he encouraged him to keep negotiating with the Palestinians – not for the sake of negotiations themselves but rather that in the end, if Israel decided to attack Iran, the pressure and criticism against Israel would be reduced because Israel would be seen as seeking peace. The whole Iranian issue, be it with Ariel Sharon, Barak or Benjamin Netanyahu, is meant in the end to distract attention from Israel’s central problem – the occupation and the defense budget.

Did you see Netanyahu’s speech in Congress?

It was totally clear that the speech was spin. Anyone who knows Netanyahu says he is terribly complicated and very clever, and that he examines things at depth. I may be speaking out of ignorance, but he looked like a very uncomplicated man, let’s put it that way. As someone who is an expert in Iran, it strikes me as ridiculous. Netanyahu makes a complete analogy between the Palestinians, ISIS, Iran and Al-Qaida. So, either he is an ignoramus who doesn’t recognize the political and historical reality as it is, and doesn’t understand the different political and historic phenomena that are changing, or he is a cynical ruler who is exploiting these things for his goals.