Israel Pulse

Israel surprised by protests in Iran

Article Summary
Israeli security is following events in Iran closely and wondering whether the protests could create a new regional balance.

Despite the tremendous efforts that Israel invests in keeping tabs on what takes place in Iran in general and the regime’s stability specifically, the current wave of disturbances that erupted there took Israeli intelligence completely by surprise. However, much skepticism still remains in Israel’s senior intelligence branches regarding the power and intensity of the protests. A very senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity Jan. 2 that “the disturbances reflect a real internal Iranian phenomenon, but our assessment is that at this stage, they do not endanger the stability of the regime.”

From the beginning of the 1990s a debate long raged at the highest levels of Israel’s security system regarding the estimated life expectancy of the ayatollah-led Iranian regime. Because Iran is viewed as Israel’s most dangerous enemy and the only one that threatens the very existence of the Jewish state in the Middle East, this debate has taken up significant volume in the security-intelligence apparatus and includes a discussion on the Iranian “clock race.’’

The Iranian “clock race’’ means a race against time, and it concerns two time clocks that advance simultaneously. One measures the time that is left until Iran achieves military nuclear capacity, while the other clock measures the time remaining until the Iranian revolution collapses and the regime of the ayatollahs falls. The person who championed the view that the Iranian regime is unstable and likely to fall in the near future as it is losing the people’s support was former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy. This view had additional supporters who felt that Israel’s goals should be to speed up the fall-of-the-regime timetable, while simultaneously slowing down Iran’s nuclear timetable. According to this view, the problem in Iran is not the nuclear bomb but the leadership. Once the Islamic Revolution disappears, the danger will disappear. When Persian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (who ruled from 1941-1979) initiated efforts to achieve nuclear capability, his efforts did not stir up opposition in Jerusalem since he was an avowed ally of Israel.

Recent years have seen the disappearance of the last of the optimists in the Israeli defense system. Vigilant expectations in Jerusalem for the fall of the Islamic regime in Tehran have dissipated. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paints Iran as the ultimate demon that endangers the very existence of Israel and world peace. Thus, the prime minister created an Israeli military option for attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities and attempted to persuade the entire world to join the anti-Iranian/pro-sanctions bandwagon to halt the nuclearization efforts.

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Israel continued to use all the means at its disposal to keep tabs on the stability of the regime, but all the talks about a counter-revolution in Iran came to a standstill. The decisive Iranian victory in the Syrian war anchored Iran’s position as the most prominent power in the Middle East (from Israel’s perspective). The Shiite axis now extends from the shores of the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, to the edges of the Golan Heights to the lower edges of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. So Israel went back to the drawing board to recalculate a new plan and, as described in an earlier article in Al-Monitor, began to prepare for the possibility of a flare-up on the northern front. This time, such a flare-up could include all the players simultaneously: Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Hezbollah and the Shiite militias.

In the middle of all of this, disturbances erupted Dec. 28 in Iran and caught the Israeli apparatus completely by surprise. Yes, Israeli intelligence had detected the way the wind was blowing in Iran and focused on the struggle between the radical wing led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Major Gen. Qasem Soleimani against the relatively pragmatic wing led by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Nevertheless, intelligence never conceived that the fear barriers of the Iranian public would crash all at once, almost overnight.

One piece of special data aroused the curiosity of Israel’s intelligence heads after the elections in Iran in May 2017, and it was not the sweeping victory of Rouhani. Instead, it was the results of the municipal elections: Almost all of the large cities in Iran were won by Reformist candidates — almost 100% of the votes — as opposed to much lower percentages in earlier elections. “Something is happening there, that’s for sure,” a senior Israeli intelligence source told Al-Monitor in June on condition of anonymity. “But we don’t really know what it is. Deep trends seem to be changing, but at this point in time it is happening within the rules of the Iranian democracy game.”

It would seem that recently, the Iranian rules of the game have exploded. The strong underground currents rose from the depths and erupted all at once on the ground. For Israel, this is very good news — although it is too early to know what it will lead to. Iran is Israel’s greatest challenge due to several cumulative reasons. First is the nuclear issue. Second is the fact that Iran is a real regional power with an infrastructure, a developed academia, advanced science, plentiful human resources and an ancient culture — thus, Iran constitutes a much tougher opponent than the enemies Israel is accustomed to in the Middle East. Third, Iran’s technology for weapons development — mainly rockets and precise missiles — has been trickling into Lebanon, Syria and even the Gaza Strip over recent years. Fourth, the Shiite axis has been putting down roots in the space and becoming Israel’s almost only major threat.

According to a diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity, Netanyahu calls the Iranian threat “the paws of the cat.” According to Netanyahu's view Iran is likened to a wily, flexible and dangerous cat that extends its paws of terror in different directions. Hezbollah is one paw, and Assad is now another paw; the millions of dollars that Iran decided to bestow on Hamas now includes the Sunni terrorist organization in the cat’s paws. And we haven’t even touched upon world terror and the events unfolding in Yemen and other places.

On Jan. 3, six days after the demonstrations began in Iran, Israel’s Shin Bet announced that it had foiled a terror cell that was operated directly by Iranian intelligence. A resident of Hebron in the West Bank had been recruited to establish a terror cell by a family relative who lives in South Africa. The relative himself had been activated directly by Iranian intelligence agents. South Africa is viewed by Israel as an Iranian hub for creating and directing terror. The exposure of this cell in the current time period proves the veracity of the cat’s paws phenomenon as being even more developed and diverse than it would seem.

The big question is: Will the astounding events in Iran — in which dozens and even hundreds of thousands of civilians are openly protesting and defying the regime — create a new reality in the Middle East equation? Is it at all possible that the cat’s paws will soon disappear from the world because of the terrible condition of the cat itself?

Israel isn’t placing exaggerated hopes on the goings-on in Iran, but it admits that the intensity of the protests, their continuation and the bravery evidenced by the demonstrators all pose a great challenge to the Iranian government. “No matter what happens next,” an Israeli intelligence source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Iran after this will not be the same country we knew before the demonstrations. The Iranian public has become a very significant factor in the leadership’s considerations. This is a completely new reality.”

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Found in: Iran protests

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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