Four Middle East experts discussed the challenges facing the region in light of the events of the past year, focusing on current tensions between Israel and Iran and the shift in regional relationships.
On February 22, the Middle East Program hosted the discussion with Ephraim Sneh, Chairman of S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, Netanya Academic College and former member of the Knesset and Deputy Defense Minister; Ghaith Al-Omari, Executive Director at the American Task Force on Palestine; and Trita Parsi, President, National Iranian American Council and former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar. The Honorable Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center, provided the opening remarks for the discussion and stressed the need for the necessary political space for an important conversation which has global implications.
Aaron David Miller, Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar, moderated the discussion. He began by outlining three challenges currently facing the region—Iranian nuclear capability, the Arab Awakening, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue—before turning the discussion over to the panelists.
Ephraim Sneh began by stating that solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the most important issue for Israel, and the Iranian threat directly affects its outcome. With current political discourses in Israel and the United States revolving on whether or not to attack Iran, Sneh made it clear that "no one in Israel is trigger happy for Iran.” Such an attack would bear a heavy price, he said, but the price is worth paying when there is no choice. According to Sneh, the real problem is not Iran having nuclear weapons, but their ideological commitment to the destruction of Israel. Sneh argued that continuing engagement with Iran is futile because it would be at the expense of Israel and the Iranian people.
Ghaith Al-Omari said Arab countries are more worried about a nuclear Iran than a nuclear Israel. He explained that Iran has always relied on its post-revolution “super-narrative” of resistance towards Israel as a mechanism to further its political ambitions. As such, Iran portrays itself as a regional super power as well as the defender of Muslims across the region. This narrative fell apart when the Arab Spring altered regional dynamics, reemphasizing sectarian and ethnic tensions between Persians and Arabs. Al-Omari believes the Syrian conflict and Iran’s silence towards the violence there have diminished Iran’s regional influence and undermines their claim as a supporter of social justice. He concluded by expressing that the outcome in Syria is central in determining which country takes the lead after the Arab Spring.
Trita Parsi articulated the delicate nature of the triangular relationship between the United States, Israel, and Iran. According to Parsi, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a “bleeding wound” that not only provides Israel with an “existential threat” that must be addressed before peace negotiations can resume, but it allows Iran the political space to wield influence and justify its actions. Furthermore, President Obama’s handling of Iran has illustrated that the United States and Israel have divergent approaches. Parsi specifically cited Israel’s zero-tolerance stance in regards to Iran’s domestic uranium enrichment, a stance shared by the Bush administration but on which the Obama administration has been vague. The Obama administration has also purposely demilitarized discourse regarding Iran, which Israel compensates for by repeatedly invoking the need to protect Israel from Iranian threats. Parsi and Sneh debated the most effective method for managing the tension. While Parsi favored continued diplomatic negotiation with Iran, Sneh reemphasized the need for more proactive solutions.
By Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani and Joanna Abdallah, Middle East Program