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Israeli intelligence sees genuine, lasting changes in Iran

According to Israeli security sources, the blunt breach of human rights in Iran blocks world powers from advancing on a nuke deal.
Protesters call on the United Nations to take action against the treatment of women in Iran, following the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police, during a demonstration in Times Square, New York, Nov. 19, 2022.

Israel’s intelligence agencies have devoted most of their efforts, budgets and energy for the past two decades to monitoring developments in Iran. While much of the emphasis has been placed on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, weekly discussions and assessments have also been devoted to the stability of the ayatollahs’ regime and prospects of its survival. One of the last optimistic assessments on this score — from Israel’s point of view — was voiced in 2002 by outgoing Mossad Director Efraim Halevy, who predicted that the regime in Tehran was near collapse.

In the ensuing 20 years, at least five Mossad directors and five prime ministers have come and gone in Israel, but Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continues to hold the reins of power. Only now, 35 years since taking office, are some Israeli experts daring to voice guarded optimism regarding changes in Tehran.

Leaders of Israel’s intelligence-security community are mostly united in their assessment that the nationwide protests of the past three months are not a fleeting phenomenon, unlike previous waves of anti-government protests in the Islamic Republic over the past 40 years.

“Present-day Iran is not the Iran of 10 or five years ago, nor of the past year or even three months,” a senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “What is going on there now is deeper, broader and irreversible.”

Former Deputy Defense Minister Brig. Gen. (Res.) Ephraim Sneh described the situation as “chronic." He told Al-Monitor, "This is no longer a local upset or passing illness. What we are seeing is changing the face of Iran and there will be no going back.”

Nonetheless, even Israeli optimists are unwilling to place bets on a regime change in Tehran at this point. “The deep change Iran is undergoing will not necessarily result in a revolution and regime change. Right now, we do not see this happening in the foreseeable future,” said the senior Israeli security source. “The regime still has many tools with which to defend itself and it has not exhausted most of them. We do see possible changes, concessions that the regime will have to make. On the one hand, it is hard for us to see an alternative to the current regime, on the other hand, what was will no longer be. The change in Iran is real.”

The sight of Iran’s national soccer team players refusing to sing the national anthem at their first World Cup match in Qatar Nov. 21 astounded Israeli analysts. “You could almost hear jaws drop in our offices,” said the source. “It was a symbolic act, but it resonated loudly and helped us understand that what is happening now in Iran has not happened previously.”

The source noted that even if the regime scrapped the mandatory wearing of the hijab — which sparked the protests in mid-September with the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for not wearing her hijab correctly and sporting skinny jeans — the protests would continue. “There may be a lull, but the people of Iran have overcome the barrier of fear and protesters are talking about rights, freedom, in opposition to the Islamic state. This will be difficult, even impossible to reverse,” he added.

This view was bolstered by the support for the protests expressed by Badri Khamenei, Khamenei’s sister, who described his rule as "despotic."

While closely monitoring such public opposition, Israeli experts are trying to identify the Achilles’ heel of the regime and estimate its mid- and long-term prospects. They point to three elements still lacking for the protest to overturn the regime.

The first is prominent, charismatic leadership that authorities cannot silence, possibly emanating from Iran’s exiled opposition, as was the case with the fomenter of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. “Right now, the protest lacks a prominent leader and that is a distinct disadvantage,” a senior Israeli intelligence source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

An additional element missing from the protest wave is organized funding of clear provenance.

The third element is the backing of respected clerics. “The public in Iran is not abandoning Islam. Most Iranians are religious people. A religious authority is needed to move the demonstrations up to a more powerful level and provide them with religious justification. For now, such authority is absent,” said the senior intelligence source.

While Israel views prospects of immediate change as negligible, it does not rule it out in the mid- to long-term. “Almost all revolutions are ultimately a surprise event,” a former senior Israeli official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “You wake up one day, and the wall has collapsed. It will happen in Iran too. No one knows when. It could be a matter of months or several years. The only relevant question is whether this will occur before or after Iran becomes a nuclear-threshold state.”

In this regard, officials in Jerusalem do not rate the prospects of a return to nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran very highly.

"This agreement was almost signed a few months ago," said the senior Israeli security source. "What prevented the signing was not directly related to the nuclear issue, but to other issues. The assessment in Israel is that at the moment the Americans cannot afford to sign any agreement with Iran in light of the authorities' blatant violation of human rights, the killing of demonstrators, including 13-year-old girls, and the brutal suppression of the protests."

The source added, "The exposure of the military axis between Iran and Russia, which currently uses drones manufactured in Iran to attack the citizens of Ukraine, also constitutes a significant barrier to progress on the nuclear agreement. Israel believes that all of this — together with Iran's continued involvement in the proliferation of terrorism — will block initiatives to renew nuclear negotiations.”

Meanwhile, Iran continues to enrich its uranium arsenal to 60% level. “It is constantly advancing. Without an agreement, it is only a matter of time before you cross the nuclear threshold. If there is a solution to this situation, it would be better to present it now," concluded the former senior official.

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