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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: February 18, 2013

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This week, Alpher discusses how last week's North Korean nuclear test impacts Israel's calculations regarding Iran's nuclear program, whether we should be concerned, considering President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Cairo earlier this month, posing the specter of Iranian collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood against Israel, and why Russia continues to prevent more serious international measures against the Assad regime.

Q. How does last week's North Korean nuclear test impact on Israel's calculations regarding Iran's nuclear program?

A. The impact is negative. The North Korean test exacerbates Israel's concerns regarding Iran. There are two primary reasons for the Israeli security community to take so seriously an event that occurred on the other side of the world.

First, North Korea is a serial proliferator of strategic weaponry to the Arab and Muslim worlds. The North Koreans sell their missile and nuclear technologies in order to earn badly needed foreign currency--they have few other exports. The list of buyers of nuclear technology in the Greater Middle East over recent decades includes Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Libya, while Egypt and others can be added to the list of recipients of North Korean Scud-type missiles. Now Israel can reasonably worry that Iran may simply elect to buy a bomb from Pyongyang--or, for that matter, that the latest North Korean nuclear test was financed directly by Iran as part of a research and development partnership. Note, too, that North Korea was never seriously sanctioned or punished by the international community for constructing a dangerous reactor in northeast Syria--one that Israel allegedly destroyed in 2007.

Second, despite the international uproar and repeated sanctions, North Korea is proceeding with its nuclear program and by now may have a few nuclear bombs and missile delivery systems with intercontinental reach that strengthen its deterrent against punitive attack. In other words, Pyongyang has crossed everyone's "red lines" with virtual impunity. Even if Iran continues its nuclear program entirely on its own, it can draw encouragement from the North Korean example and assess that success is within its reach. Only an extremely aggressive response to the North Korean test by the international community might persuade Tehran to draw a different conclusion. And that does not seem likely.

Q. Speaking of Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Cairo earlier this month, posing the specter of Iranian collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood against Israel. Should we be concerned?

A. Not particularly. The Ahmadinejad visit was universally (except in Tehran) proclaimed a failure. The Iranian president's charm campaign in Cairo could not overcome the legacy of Sunni-Shiite tension in the world of Islam, particularly as it has been exacerbated in recent years in Iraq's and Syria's civil strife and to some extent in the Arabian Peninsula, where Arab governments accuse Iran of subversion in Yemen and Bahrain. Even if he is sympathetic to Iran--and that's doubtful--Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi can hardly afford to antagonize the United States and the Saudis, both of whom are prepared to work with the Muslim Brothers despite earlier misgivings and, under the right conditions, to bail Egypt out financially. True, Egypt under deposed leader Hosni Mubarak would never have received Ahmadinejad. But the latter's visit within the framework of the Nonaligned Movement, which Egypt heads this year, could hardly be rejected.

Ahmadinejad's message of leadership and the trumpeting to Egypt of the "Iranian model" by him and senior advisers to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, were openly rejected by the deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood's party, Freedom and Justice, and by the leaders of al-Azhar, the most important religious institution of Sunni Islam. The latter told Ahmadinejad publicly that Shiite-majority Iran must treat its Sunni population better and stop interfering in Gulf Arab affairs. A shoe was thrown at the Iranian president--a major insult in Islam--as he was leaving a mosque. Persistent rumors about Egyptian converts to Shiism, and animosity toward fundamentalism in general on the part of the secular portion of the Egyptian public, only augmented the hostility. The Iranian leader even drew a cool response to an offer of an Iranian loan for the cash-strapped Egyptians.

Ahmadinejad's visit to Cairo was preceded by one from Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, during which the Egyptians permitted the holding of a conference supporting the Arabic-speaking inhabitants of Iran's oil-rich southwest, under the title of opposing the "Persian occupation of the Arab Ahwaz land". Ahwaz is the Arabic name for Iran's Khuzestan province. Nothing could have better signaled where Egypt stands.

Even after the Iranian visits, Iran and Egypt still have not restored the diplomatic relations that were broken when Egypt gave shelter to the Shah of Iran after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Tehran in 1979. It may be possible now to describe Iranian-Egyptian relations as a bit more cordial. But as long as the Arab revolutions (all Sunni except for Bahrain) continue and Shiite Iran is seen by the entire Arab world as being out of step, particularly in Syria, no genuine thaw appears likely. Besides, the Ahmadinejad visit to Cairo is viewed in the Arab world as reflecting Iran's concern over its capacity to maintain its current degree of influence in Iraq and Syria in view of events in both countries. That's reason enough for the Sunni Arab world to rebuff Tehran.

Q. Speaking of Syria, Russia continues to prevent more serious international measures against the Assad regime. Why? What is the Russian "hang up" about Syria?

A. I recently had a chance to discuss this with some Russian Middle East experts. When I suggested that Moscow, lobbied by its own Pravoslavic clergy, was concerned about nearly half a million Syrian Orthodox Christians who support Bashar Assad, they hinted that this argument is merely a smokescreen for Russia's real concerns, which are purely domestic. They also rejected the frequently heard argument that President Vladimir Putin is supporting Assad simply to spite the United States within the context of a host of broader global disputes.

There are between 13 and 20 million Muslims in Russia, constituting up to ten percent of the population (Muslim sources put the figures far higher). Many Russian Muslims are located in central Russia in the Kazan-Volga Basin region, and not just on the politically more peripheral outer reaches in the Caucasus. And militant Sunni Islamism is on the rise in these regions; the experts claim that some 40 government-appointed muftis have been murdered in recent years by Muslim extremists in the Kazan-Tatarstan-Volga Basin region alone. Accordingly, Russia fears that either or both of two increasingly likely eventualities in Syria--a takeover by militant Islam and the break-up of the country--would encourage Islamist extremism and separatism in Russia itself.

In this regard, the Russians point to what they view as a western scheme to remove the Gaddafi regime in Libya last year. They recall unofficial American encouragement in the past for anti-Russian democracy movements in Ukraine and Georgia, and express fears about western-sponsored plots against the Putin regime itself--beyond the separatist and Islamist dangers.

Yet why, I asked the Russians, are you prepared to keep company with the Iranians in Syria. Iran, after all, is also an instigator of Islamist-inspired violence, to say nothing of its nuclear program. The Russians reply that there are no Shiites in Russia, hence no danger of Iranian-sponsored incitement, which Iran in any case carefully avoids in Russia and the Russian "near abroad". They seem to enjoy Tehran's "respect", which has deep historical roots. And, for better or for worse, the Russians seem confident that Iran will not succeed in becoming a military nuclear power.

Russia is paying a price in the Sunni Arab Middle East for its policy regarding Syria: it is losing friends among the supporters of the Syrian revolution, and it knows it. That merely emphasizes the acute nature of the Russian domestic Islamist threat in Moscow's eyes.