An Israeli orientalist, expert on Iran, a researcher at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem Vladimir Mesamed answers EADaily's questions about the situation in Syria and the region.
The situation in the Middle East is increasingly tense. More and more countries are actively involved in the Syrian conflict: this is Israel, and Russia, and Turkey, and Iran, etc. What threats can you see for the region from recent developments?
When there is an aggravation of such intensity, the global picture of the world changes. In Israel, they see the threat of Iran's penetration. The Islamic Republic of Iran has approached the borders of Israel (through Syria - EADaily). And for us it is a terrible situation. When we talk about the Iranian nuclear program, we do not think that Iran will necessarily drop an atomic bomb on Israel. There are many other factors, because for many years Iranian society was told that Israel is the main enemy of the IRI.
In Iran, everything is decided by the clergy. Rather old Mullahs are in power in the country. They do not always comprehend the realities of our time and therefore they are capable of taking some extreme measures.
We have always believed that we are not bordering Iran, we are far from the IRI, and we are safe. Syria and Lebanon are between us. Therefore, the Iranian threat (and it exists for the South Caucasus as well) seemed quite abstract. But now, when Tehran takes an active part in the Syrian campaign and Iranian forces are located practically throughout Syria, and even can establish their military bases, they in Israel understand the scale of the threat.
We raise this issue at meetings, including with Russian high-ranking officials: whether it is possible to somehow "push aside" the Iranian presence near Israel, because they are in a 10-kilometer zone up to Israeli borders, the Golan Heights. Recently, we had shot down an Iranian drone. And reacting to this, Israel decided to fire at several targets. That day we all thought that the war was starting, and in the Iranian direction, not in the Syrian one.
Iran is a first-order threat in Israel. But this is also an additional factor of the Sunni-Shiite confrontation. Saudi Arabia is very tough against the Iranian nuclear program like other Sunni pro-Western regimes are. They believe that Iran is trying to become a regional superpower. And in 2009, then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran is a world superpower. And they have certain grounds for thinking so, considering development of the technologies.
This all frightens the Sunnis, who are concerned about possible Shiite domination. Let’s take Iraq as an example. The leadership of the Shiites is already unconditional there. Under Saddam Hussein, the Shiites were persecuted, and now it is on the contrary. Besides, let's take Syria. If Bashar al Assad, supported by the Iranians, remains in power, then the Alawite minority, which is only 8% of the country’s population, will again rule the country with the Shiite ideology.
And what can Israel do to stop the "Iranian threat"? I'm asking about maximum measures, because Israel has nuclear weapons.
As we used to say, "according to Western sources" Israel has nuclear weapons, about 200 atomic bombs ready for use. In Israel, we neither confirm this information nor refute it.
So can the nuclear weapons be used?
Yes, it can. And it could already have been applied a couple of years ago. But we would not want this, because it will cause a domino effect all over the world, starting from the Middle East.
We are trying to work and use other ways that are not loudly spoken about. In addition, Israel is not alone now. The government of US President Donald Trump, despite all his shortcomings, still supports Israel quite seriously.
But is a nuclear strike still the most stringent response to Iran which is not opposed in Israel?
Yes, it is. But this, of course, will be a disaster.
Baku cooperates quite closely with Israel, although there is still no embassy of Azerbaijan in your country. Can Azerbaijan, given the Shiite population and sharing common borders with the Islamic Republic of Iran, promote dialogue between Israel and Iran?
Yes, we are much told about this. Israel is generally considered an achievement that over the past 25 years we have been able to establish relations with many Islamic countries. In 1991, there were only two Islamic states which Israel maintained relations with. Now they are already ten. This is a breakthrough, even if it is a relative one.
On the other hand, the same Azerbaijan votes against Israel at all world forums. This is Islamic solidarity. But we are trying to find allies in the Islamic world, we are trying to appeal to President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, we are trying to work through Azerbaijan.
Baku is rushing between the West and Iran, but is doomed to be in normal relations with the IRI, although this does not always work. But Azerbaijan is an Iranian substratum that was a part of Iran. Azerbaijanis are people who live on both sides of the border. One can say that "Iranian Azerbaijanis" and "Azerbaijani Azerbaijanis" have changed much in almost two centuries and are very different, but in any case, this is one nation.
By the way, we would, of course, welcome the installation of Israeli military bases on the territory of Azerbaijan; this is the most convenient place to attack Iran. This was much said during the visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres to Azerbaijan in 2009. But this did not happen.
Let's move away from the South Caucasus and turn to Central Asia. Are the developments in the Middle East a threat to the countries of this region?
The main threat is, of course, the spread of radical Islam. This is also the "Talibanization", which some time ago seemed to be over. The authorities of the Central Asian countries are trying to control Islam, but radical Islamization "from below" is coming.
Interviewed by Mamed Mamedzade, specially for EADaily