Israeli coalition takes shape/ Iran’s foreign policy goals

May 1, 2015

Israeli coalition takes shape/ Iran's foreign policy goals

Update from AIJAC

May 1, 2015
Number 05/15 #01

This Update leads with analysis of recent news from the negotiations to assemble a new government in Israel following the March 17 election. With the negotiations scheduled to finish by May 7, Washington Institute expert David Makovsky notes that a narrow centre-right coalition appears to be taking shape (Netanyahu has just signed agreements with two key coalition partners) – despite some rumours over recent weeks that a national unity government might be being considered and discussed. Makovsky corrects those who assume that this will mean right-wing policies on settlements and other issues related to the Palestinians, and identifies a number of other policies on which there are likely to be fissures within any such government. For this knowledgeable look at where things stand in the coalition negotiations and the likely implications, CLICK HERE.

Next are two pieces on expectations about future Iranian foreign policy in the wake of the framework of a nuclear deal agreed on last month. 

First up, three scholars, Soner Cagaptay, James F. Jeffrey, and Mehdi Khalaji, writing in the New York Times,  look at the historical roots of Iran’s hegemonic aspirations – going back to the 16th century Safavid dynasty. They note that Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution, “fused… nationalist claims of past Persian glories with a millennial ideology to create a single Islamic state militancy.” They warn that expectations that Iran will now abandon its regional ambitions in the wake of a nuclear deal and become a responsible actor are almost certain to be disappointed, not least because the regime derives its legitimacy from the Iranian revolutionary project. For their argument in full, CLICK HERE.

The final entry deals with recent statements by the polished and sophisticated Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, who seems to be making it clear that Iran is not looking to reconcile or create a new era of goodwill with the West. American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead notes that Zarif is publicly rejecting American understandings of the nuclear framework, taunting the US Congress and issuing what appear to be veiled threats in response to American claims that sanctions can “snapback” if Iran is caught cheating. Mead also notes recent Iranian behaviour in seizing the Marshall Islands merchant ship, M/V Maersk Tigris, and suggests Iran may even be deliberately trying to sabotage the deal because the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has decided he cannot live with it. For Mead’s analysis in full, CLICK HERE. More on the Maersk Tigris from Mead is here and here.

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By David Makovsky

PolicyWatch 2415, April 28, 2015

Israel’s next government may have a turbulent start given its relative lack of political moderates, but a rightward trajectory on settlements and other issues is not guaranteed.

The preliminary outlines of Binyamin Netanyahu’s fourth coalition are beginning to take shape ahead of the May 7 deadline for forming Israel’s next government. While final coalition agreements with the individual parties have yet to be signed, it will likely be a right-of-center government comprising 67 members of the 120-seat parliament, and its projected composition offers early indications of Israel’s near-term priorities and direction.

Led by Netanyahu’s Likud faction (which won 30 seats in the March elections), the coalition will likely include the following parties: Kulanu (10 seats), Jewish Home (8), Shas (7), United Torah Judaism (6), and Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home) (6). The resultant government is expected be more hawkish on foreign policy, more ultraorthodox in composition, and more populist in economic orientation. These dimensions will create challenges for Netanyahu, who is well aware that when it comes to foreign relations, it is easier to govern from the center than from the right.


Netanyahu’s past modus operandi was to win elections from the right, then try to edge toward the center when building his coalition. During last month’s campaign, however, declining poll numbers led him to believe he had to box himself in to garner enough votes. Accordingly, he made clear that he did not want a national unity government with the rival Labor Party, alleging that the policy gaps were too wide. Although this won him adherents on the right, it meant he would not be able to incorporate key leftward voices in his coalition.

In his past two governments, Netanyahu was careful to include a prominent leader and party from the center-left, especially when it came to the Palestinian issue. In 2009, it was a fifteen-member faction led by Labor’s Ehud Barak. And in 2013, he secured twenty-five coalition seats by naming Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as co-chief negotiator in the peace process and including Finance Minister Yair Lapid as another voice counseling moderation. This time, however, Labor leader Isaac Herzog has made clear that his party will not be a fifth wheel in a right-leaning government, an idea he also resisted during the previous government.

Yet the right’s apparent triumph may not be as complete as some believe. For example, members of the Jewish Home settler faction will no longer be in charge of the Housing Ministry as they were in the previous government, when they immediately created tension with Washington over settlement policy. Affordable housing inside sovereign Israel was a central issue in the campaign, so the party most associated with lowering the cost of living — Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu — has been pushing to take over the housing portfolio. Accordingly, Kulanu member Yoav Galant is now expected to head that ministry. During the election, Kahlon reiterated his belief that Israelis should not settle beyond the major blocs adjacent to the West Bank security barrier; the question is whether the new coalition’s settlement approach will reflect this view, in practice if not in stated policy. The previous housing minister, settler leader Uri Ariel, will reportedly take over the settlement portfolio in the Agriculture Ministry, but this move is a step down, so it is unclear what resources he will have at his disposal.

Indeed, Jewish Home’s representation in the coalition has shrunk from twelve to eight seats, and the two ultraorthodox factions are too consumed with economic woes and religious agendas to focus on nationalist issues like settlements. When Netanyahu begged the right to vote for him in order to avert a Labor victory, Likud’s support sharply increased at Jewish Home’s expense — in fact, at least ten of the thirty Likud parliamentarians personally owe their seats to his last-ditch campaign drive, so he should hold sway over a good portion of his list when it comes to settlement policy.

As for the peace process, it is interesting to note that no one protested when Netanyahu recently lifted the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues, which had been frozen when the Palestinian Authority joined the International Criminal Court earlier this month. It is unclear whether the silence was due to Netanyahu’s increased influence or his realization that the twilight between two governments is ideal for policymaking, since rivals do not want to cause problems while waiting to be appointed.

Going forward, the question is whether the new government can align its settlement policy with Netanyahu’s postelection clarification that he remains committed to a two-state solution. President Obama is skeptical of that clarification, so an Israeli pledge to avoid further settling beyond the blocs adjacent to the security barrier could ease friction with the White House. Beyond that, however, expectations of a new peace initiative are low, due in no small part to the mutual distrust between Netanyahu and PA president Mahmoud Abbas. European governments might take action of their own, since some officials believe that a new right-wing government in Israel means direct negotiations are futile. Yet they also privately acknowledge Abbas’s complicity in the current impasse, so Washington will likely urge them not to push for an imposed UN Security Council solution — at least until Netanyahu’s new government can offer its own peace initiative.

One issue that will likely be unaffected by the right’s increased prominence is Iran. Given his visceral views on the subject, Netanyahu has personally guided Israeli policy toward Iran, and this will likely remain the case given that Moshe Yaalon and Avigdor Liberman will stay on as defense minister and foreign minister, respectively. Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett initially had his eyes on the Foreign Ministry, but the party’s drop in seats led him to seek the education portfolio instead.


At least three fissures are apparent within the emerging government. First, two key Likud members, Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin, have supported the controversial Nationalities Bill, which essentially states that if Israel’s Jewish and democratic values come into conflict on a given issue, then its Jewish character should hold sway — a position that has raised worries inside and outside Israel given its potential implications for non-Jewish minorities. Kahlon says he will oppose such legislation, pointing out that Likud founder Menachem Begin himself placed a premium on civil liberties.

A second fault line has emerged between Liberman and the ultraorthodox, who could use their new position in the government to block legislation that would ease conversion rules for hundreds of thousands of non-Jews from Russia. The Chief Rabbinate expedited such conversions under more moderate leadership in the 1970s, but it is now under greater ultraorthodox influence. This issue greatly concerns Liberman because his Yisrael Beitenu is the main party of secular Russian immigrants. Yet even if Liberman’s faction left the government, Netanyahu would maintain a thin majority in Knesset.

Third, incoming finance minister Kahlon may spar with Netanyahu because he believes the prime minister’s policies have benefitted business interests at the expense of people struggling to enter the middle class. If the two leaders can work together on creating greater economic competition (e.g., by moving away from a system in which Israel has only a handful of banks), they could help address concerns about national monopolies and crony capitalism. Thus far, Kahlon has successfully held out for key bureaucratic levers in finance and housing, believing they are indispensable to success.


Israel’s next government may have a turbulent start due to its relative lack of political moderates, not to mention Netanyahu’s ongoing tension with the Obama administration over Iran. Ultimately, the world will judge the new government on its policies — and given Netanyahu’s increased leverage and right-of-center coalition choices, people will likely attribute these policies to his personal imprimatur rather than to coalition constraints.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute.

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By Soner Cagaptay, James F. Jeffrey, and Mehdi Khalaji

New York Times, April 26, 2015

The announcement last month of a preliminary agreement between the United States and Iran has led some to believe that Tehran will now enter the international system as a responsible actor. But such optimism ignores the fact that Iran’s current government still bears the imprint of a long imperial history and longstanding Persian regional ambitions.

Iran is a revolutionary power with hegemonic aspirations. In other words, it is a country seeking to assert its dominance in the region and it will not play by the rules. Yet, the Obama administration hopes a nuclear agreement will have a “transcendental effect” on Iran and convince it to abandon its imperial aspirations in return for a sense of normalcy.

The world has lived with hegemonic powers in the past. Russia, France, Germany, Japan, and Britain all had similar aspirations before World War I. It was such powers that pushed the world into war in 1914 and again in 1939. Nazi Germany sought to dominate Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga River, reducing other countries to vassal states and establishing complete military, economic and diplomatic control.

In the wake of this ruin and chaos, the post-World War II order led by the United States established rules for the international community that sought to keep such powers in check. Even today, countries with hegemonic tendencies, like China, acknowledge the legitimacy of this international order.

Iran, however, has brazenly defied this international order and continues to expand its reach. It uses an assortment of terrorism, proliferation, military proxies, and occasionally old-fashioned diplomacy to further its dominance.

Although the 1979 Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is often cited as the beginning of this imperial worldview, Iran’s hegemonic aspirations actually date back to the Safavid Dynasty of the 16th century. The Safavids sought to distance themselves from the powerful Sunni Ottoman Empire and refashioned Iran into the preeminent Shiite power (Iran became an officially Shiite country in 1502). In the ensuing centuries, Iran extended its control over Afghanistan, the “Persian” Gulf, Iraq and the southern Caucasus.

Iran halted its expansionism in the 18th century as it went into a decline after debilitating wars against the Ottomans and Russians. During the Cold War, the Shah took advantage of American backing to promote Iranian imperial power once again. He extended financial and military support to Shiite communities and proxies around the Middle East. In the early 1970s, for example, Iran backed the Iraqi Kurds to establish influence in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Similarly, in 1975, Musa al-Sadr, an Iranian cleric backed by the Shah, issued a fatwa declaring the Syrian Alawites, who belong to a heterodox branch of Islam, as Shiites. This act brought the Syrian Alawites into Iran’s permanent fold, with grave repercussions for today’s civil war in Syria.

In 1979, the anti-American leaders of the revolution fused their nationalist claims of past Persian glories with a millennial ideology to create a single Islamic state militancy. However, after the bloody and protracted Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Islamic Republic realized that conventional military doctrine would no longer suffice. In conjunction with Tehran’s doctrine of “exporting the revolution” to nearby Muslim countries, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps developed asymmetric warfare tactics aimed at building Iranian influence through sectarian and political alliances.

In doing so, Iran often acted as the guardian of the broader Shiite community in places such as Bahrain and Yemen. Iran has established a carefully crafted network of Shiite militias: Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis and Iraq’s Badr Corps, among others. Moreover, Iran controls the Shiite clerical establishment and financial networks throughout the Middle East.

Iran is not bound exclusively by sectarian politics. It has also befriended belligerent Sunni actors across the Middle East to bolster its regional status. To this end, Tehran has developed strong ties with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Iran has even made inroads into Sunni Sudan, which it has used to transport weapons to Gaza.

At times, Iran does not care for Muslims, or even Shiites — in the southern Caucasus, Iran has allied itself with Christian Armenia against the Shiite-majority Azerbaijan, which is pro-American. Ultimately, it is not religion but imperial ambition that drives Iranian foreign policy.

History offers few examples of bringing such powers into the international system. Revolutionary hegemonic powers combine the imperialist lust for “lebensraum” seen in Wilhelmine Germany with a religious or millennial worldview that rejects the principles of the classic international order.

In February 2013, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the ultimate decision maker in areas of foreign and military policy, called the negotiations with the West a deceptive trick, proudly adding: “I am not a diplomat. I am a revolutionary.” Khamenei will blame President Rouhani if the negotiations fail or move in a direction that he does not like. His legitimacy stems from the Iranian revolutionary project, and any compromise would be an admission that he does not believe in that narrative of world history.

Iran’s imperial ambitions are not new. Under the Safavids, the Shah and the mullahs alike, Tehran has vied for regional domination. Do not expect Iran to compromise its principles any time soon.

Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family Fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute. James F. Jeffrey is the Institute’s Philip Solondz Distinguished Visiting Fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. Mehdi Khalaji, a Shiite theologian by training, is a senior fellow at the Institute.

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Iran Avoids the Outstretched Hand

Walter Russell Mead

The American Interest online, April 29

In a blustery speech at New York University today, Iran’’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif drew a hard line on the ongoing nuclear negotiations. He started by calling into question American talking points on sanctions relief, which Zarif said would have to be implemented as soon as the deal was signed. Bloomberg’’s Josh Rogin reports:

“[President Obama] will have to stop implementing all the sanctions, economic and financial sanctions that have been executive order and congressional. However he does it, that’s his problem,” Zarif said. “The resolution will endorse the agreement, will terminate all previous resolutions including all sanctions, will set in place the termination of EU sanctions and the cessation of applications of all U.S. sanctions.”

He then moved on to the question of Congressional authority:

“As a foreign government, I only deal with the U.S. government. I do not deal with Congress,” Zarif said. “The responsibility of bringing that into line falls on the shoulders of the president of the United States. That’’s the person with whom we are making an agreement.”

The U.S. would have to endorse this resolution “whether Senator Cotton likes it or not,” Zarif said

(Senator Cotton, for his part, was quick to shoot back on Twitter.)

Zarif ended his remarks with a threat, of sorts:

“If people are worrying about snapback, they should be worrying about the U.S. violating its obligations and us snapping back,” he said. “That is a point that the United States should be seriously concerned about. This is not a game.”

Earlier today we pointed out that the recent Iranian seizure of a merchant ship risked arousing Hamiltonians against the interference with free navigation; by challenging the U.S. so openly on the few remaining points of what even many centrist stablishment figures have come to see as a deal favorable to Iran, Zarif is risking building a strong coalition alongside an already-visible Jacksonian reaction against President Obama’’s accommodative stance – —a reaction that may prove more widespread than Iran’’s rulers are bargaining for.

Is this posturing for domestic consumption by hardliners in Tehran? A quirky negotiating strategy the Foreign Minister thinks of as playing hardball? Are the Iranians really so ignorant of how American politics work? Or is Zarif just trying to torpedo the agreement – —an agreement that the Iranian leadership can’’t live with and will probably walk away from, as Adam Garfinkle has argued is the case on several occasions in our pages? We will know soon enough.

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