Former Israeli Ambassador Rabinovich examines Iran policy in Tucson talk

Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Itamar Rabinovich and Guy Gelbart, director of the Weintraub Israel Center, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on Oct 29. Rabinovich’s lecture drew a crowd of more than 400. (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)

Whether or not President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are the leaders of the United States and Israel come January, Iran’s nuclear program will still be on the table. Itamar Rabinovich, Israeli ambassador to the United States from 1993 to 1996, presented “The U.S., Israel and the Challenge of Iran: Options and Constraints” to an audience of more than 400 people at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on Oct. 29.

“Iran is an imperial country,” Rabinovich said, raising a provocative question about its current nuclear program: Is it about radical Islam or is it a replay of its traditional imperialist policy?

The Shah of Iran from 1941 to 1979, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, started Iran’s nuclear power program, he said. “The race for the bomb began in 2003. It’s not just about the nuclear issue. I’d like to stress that Iran is not acquiring nuclear weapons to use against Israel. It’s because they want to be a great power. But once they have nuclear weapons they may use them against Israel,” said Rabinovich.

Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria in the mid-1990s and the president of Tel Aviv University from 1999 to 2007, Rabinovich is currently professor emeritus of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University, distinguished global professor at New York University and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is “The Lingering Conflict: Israel, the Arabs, and the Middle East Conflict.”

Rabinovich’s lecture was cosponsored by the University of Arizona Center for Judaic Studies and the Weintraub Israel Center, a joint project of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the JCC.

Offering context for Iran’s role in the Middle East, Rabinovich noted that “Iranian troops are present in Syria on the side of [President Bashar al-]Assad. Iran is very much interested in establishing itself in the western Mediterranean.”

In Iran, “we see a country of 80 to 85 million people with a long imperialist tradition” going back to the Middle Ages. Following the establishment of Islam through the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, from the eighth to the 20th centuries, said Rabinovich, the Turkish and Persian (now Iran) empires controlled most of the Middle East.

The Islamic Revolution and the Ayatollah Khomeini, its supreme leader, toppled the shah in 1979. “Revolutions want to export themselves,” Rabinovich told the audience, noting that Iran is the only Shia Muslim country in the Middle East. The Shia “have been downtrodden” in countries that have Sunni majorities, such as Iraq and Lebanon. “Iran has tried to export itself from the early phases of its revolution” through Hezbollah and Iranian emissaries in Lebanon, he said.

As for U.S. involvement, “when Iran presented a danger to the [Persian] Gulf for the U.S., threatening its energy supply in the 1980s,” he noted, “the U.S. got the bright idea to get Iraq to take Iran on” in a war that lasted from 1980 to 1988.

Former President Bill Clinton’s strategy in the 1990s was a containment policy in the “two radical regimes of Iran and Iraq,” said Rabinovich. By 2000, President George W. Bush changed Clinton’s policy, opting “to deal with the two radical regimes. He chose Iraq, which as we know was not a great success story,” he said.

Why would the ayatollahs want a nuclear weapon? They want to be “a great power. China, Russia, the U.S., Pakistan and India, Israel, all have them. ‘Why not us?’ the ayatollahs asked themselves.”

The Cold War was difficult but we survived, said Rabinovich, noting that former Soviet President Nikita Kruschev allegedly banged his shoe on the table in anger at the U.N. General Assembly in 1960. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is more incendiary than Krushchev, he said, who wanted to save face during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“If you live in the American Midwest you’re not as agitated about Iran having a nuclear weapon [as in Israel] but it’s a danger to everyone,” he said.

Explaining two different schools of thought, Rabinovich noted that former Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert “didn’t make a call about Iran having nuclear weapon. Since 2009, Bibi has been totally preoccupied with Iran having them. He believes it’s an existential threat to Israel.”

In 2010 and 2011, “Netanyahu and Barak made preparations to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program,” said Rabinovich. “The logic was that the U.S. would want to do that themselves. We have limited capacity. There could be U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf. The prospect of [Israel] attacking Iran has been used as a pressure on the U.S,” he said.

“Obama has shifted the language from containment to prevention. That was a good move. During the final debate with Romney,” said Rabinovich, “Obama said prevention is a vital national security issue, not for the sake of Israel but for our own national security interests.” That was important to make clear, he said, showing “it’s not about the Israel lobby in the U.S.”

Going forward, regardless of who is the U.S. president, “under the impact of sanctions Iran now wants to talk,” said Rabinovich. “Do they really want to talk after the election? There is a deal to be made if done by people who understand Iranian negotiation techniques.”

The former ambassador asked the audience to consider four elements in any solution with Iran: “There must be a credible threat of military action, not as a cliché or a phrase. Continue sanctions; don’t soften them until there are negotiations. Let them make an honorable exit. Let them save face. Honor, shame and pride are particularly important in the Middle East.”

Also, if President Obama wins a second term, “he could say to Netanyahu, ‘you have to be forthcoming on the Palestinian issue,’” said Rabinovich. Israel must have “a good and solid relationship with the U.S. and fix its relationship with Turkey,” a key player in the region.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar won’t say it in public, he said, “but they would love to see Iran’s nuclear program destroyed. Then they would condemn us.” Even if negotiations over Iran’s impending nuclear arsenal are successful, “we may be left with Iran as a large hostile power but that’s understandable,” said Rabinovich.

Whoever is the next U.S. president, “sanctions can be very effective if you bring sanctions that can jeopardize the regime,” he said, noting that sanctions have worked in South Africa, Libya and other parts of the world. And, said Rabinovich, there must be “an understanding that you’re going into negotiations with the people who invented the bazaar.”