Tag Archives: Israel

As Israel-Iran Cold War Heats Up, Old Friendship Provides Rare Insight into Iranian Strategic Thinking

Former Iranian diplomatic consultant and media professional now turned academic says Israel is not the real enemy of Iran; main goal is to compete with Turkey for regional power.

The Iranian Embassy in London (photo credit: CC BY 2.0 license,  Snapperjack flickr user)

The Iranian Embassy in London (photo credit: CC BY 2.0 license, Snapperjack flickr user)

Filled with a sense of trepidation, I set out on a bright autumn morning in London for a reunion of sorts with an old university friend. Far from a normal social engagement, my companion was Iranian while I have been an Israeli citizen since birth.  This of course wouldn’t have presented such a problem if Farhad Shirazi (not his real name) had been one of the many Iranian dissidents living in the West and a critic of his country’s government.  But in this case, not only did he live in Tehran at the time, but he was also a self-professed supporter of the Islamic Republic.

When the meeting took place late last September, tensions between Israel and Iran were not what they are at present.  The threat of all-out conflict did not loom as large, and the tit-for-tat secret war of assassinations and bombings were also not common-place.  But even back in September when I told friends and family what I was planning to do, they strongly advised me against it.  “Far too dangerous” they said. “You haven’t seen him in years, he’s been living in Tehran all this time, he could have been recruited by Iran’s secret intelligence services or even the Revolutionary Guards.”

They had a point.  As an Israeli abroad, I was potentially a “soft” target and there had been hushed rumors that the Iranians still might be planning a revenge attack for the Israeli assassination of Senior Hezbollah commander, Imad Mughniyah back in February 2008.

But despite the dangers, I persisted, determined to go ahead with the meeting.  I am not sure exactly what was compelling me to do it: was it simple curiosity or a grander notion that such a meeting could serve as a small gesture towards building understanding.  Whatever it was, the main question driving me was how did the regime in Iran really think and what was their real attitude towards Israel?  As Shirazi had apparently risen up the ranks in the state-run media, and moved in pro-government academic and diplomatic circles, I was sure that his perspective would be especially valuable.

Indeed, he did not disappoint.  The young Iranian hadn’t really changed since university and was his usual candid and controversial self, providing insights which broke with normal perceptions of Iran in the West.  In recent discussions he had with high-level Iranian diplomatic officials for example, Shirazi told me that Tehran did not view Israel as its main enemy in the region.  Instead they were far more concerned with the recent emergence of Turkey as a major regional competitor.  In fact, Shirazi said that these officials viewed confrontation between Turkey and Iran at some point in the future as “inevitable”, regarding it as a natural return to the historic rivalry between the Persian and Ottoman empires of old.

“Ideology is merely a tool of influence for Iran”, said Shirazi. “Its not the main factor motivating its behavior on the international stage. Iran’s anti-Israel statements invoking the Holocaust do not stem from some crazy theology propagated by a couple of mad Mullahs sitting in Tehran. Instead it’s the logical result of a cold calculated policy by the political class attempting to pander and win support for Iran in the Arab world.”

At other times in our short conversation, Shirazi had a great deal to say about Israel and how its weaknesses are viewed in Iran. “The problem with Israel, is that it has no self-sustaining organic life-force. It is totally dependent on outside US military aid, and in economic terms, overly reliant on exports – mainly diamonds and a small high-tech sector.  Israel has failed to integrate itself naturally into the Middle East and therefore it can never become a serious regional contender.”

But his criticism was not just reserved for Israel.  He was also scathing of the systemic domestic problems facing Iran.  “Iran simply does not function properly today,” said Shirazi.  “It is a country beset by nepotism, corruption and mismanagement, and yet still has vast ambitions for regional power and dominance in the Middle East.  At the end of the day, the only thing that really works in Iran is oil and security.”

When asked whether there were any limits to Iran’s pursuit of power and hegemony in the region, his response was at once both humorous and ominous: “Its like asking a fat kid if he wants more cake”, he replied.  “There is always the desire for more”.

And so in the end my somewhat irrational fears concerning my personal safety turned out to be unfounded. On a personal level, the friendship seemed to have endured the test of time and the great political tension between our two countries throughout the years. But with the region still in turmoil, particularly in Egypt and Syria, and no end in sight to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the future relations between Israel and Iran today remains as uncertain as ever.

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WATCH: Eugene Kaspersky: Flame virus has opened a “Pandora’s box” for global terrorists, cyber weaponry much easier to produce than conventional military hardware.

In dramatic conference, founder of Kaspersky Labs tells Tel Aviv press corps that release of Flame could usher in “the end of the world as we know it.” Calls on nation-states to cease and desist from cyber weapons development for the safety of future generations


Eugene Kaspersky at Tel Aviv University on Wednesday

Eugene Kaspersky, the CEO of Kaspersky Labs told reporters in Tel Aviv Wednesday (6 June 2012) that the recent discovery of the so-called “flame” virus could mark the beginning of a terrifying new era in cyber-warfare and terrorism.

When asked what the planet would look like after a worldwide cyber-terrorist attack, Kaspersky’s answer was surprising: “Die Hard 4”, he responded, the last instalment of the popular Bruce Willis action movies.  The film’s plot revolves around a group of hackers wreaking havoc on the U.S. by taking control of transportation, infrastructure and military systems.  “In this movie, Hollywood has taught the possibilities of cyber-war to the bad guys”, said Kaspersky.

At the Tel Aviv University press conference, Kaspersky called on the global bodies such as the UN to take steps towards developing a framework of international law and cooperation to deal with the new threat posed by cyber-warfare.  This is the only way to solve the problem says the Anti-virus magnate, as no anti-virus or security software can prevent outbreaks like this from occurring in the future.

However, there are some in Israel who have attempted to downplay the importance of Flame. Zvi Netiv for example, a security expert at NetZ Computing contends that Flame has been “over-hyped”.  In response, Timor Tsoriev, Chief of Staff at Kaspersky Labs, told the Israeli Internationalist that such claims were ridiculous and completely erroneous.

“Flame is a totally unique phenomenon”, said Mr Tsoriev.  “It’s incredibly complex and has been evolving year upon year, going through multiple versions while active in the wild.  “In short, Flame is a masterpiece.  It marks a new and unprecedented step in the development of malicious programs,” he said.

My photo from Kaspersky press conference featured on Times of Israel frontpage, June 6th 2012

In particular both Kaspersky and Tsoriev are worried that terrorists, cyber-criminals or so-called “hacktivists” could get their hands on the sophisticated code of viruses such as Flame, thus unleashing mayhem on a global-scale.  At present many states possess the know-how and capability to develop highly sophisticated cyber-weapons including lesser-known computing heavyweights such as Romania or Portugal for example.  Even states like Iran which may not have the expertise at the moment to develop weapons-grade software, can easily recruit or even kidnap engineers in the future warns Kaspersky.

“I’m scared, believe me” he said, “if we continue developing weapons like this and going down this path, I’m afraid it could be the end of the world as we know it.  The world will become a very different place.”

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LISTEN: Ex-CIA head speaks out at Tel Aviv International Salon Event, “I did not say execute strikes against Iran”.

Former CIA Director, James Woolsey speaking in Tel Aviv on Thursday night, 2nd of Feb 2012 (PHOTO BY DANIEL EASTERMAN)

Director of the Central Intelligence Agency between 1993 and 1995, Robert James Woolsey was considered to be the sole representative of the neoconservative wing under the Clinton administration.  By Woolsey’s own admission he had an almost “non-existent” relationship with the President, participating in high-level meetings with Clinton himself only on very rare occasions.  After leaving the CIA, Woolsey became very active in two major think tanks strongly associated with the pro-Israel and neoconservative movement – the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which he now chairs.

At the beginning of his speech last Thursday night, Woolsey told the packed Tel Aviv audience that contrary to several reports appearing in the media, he “absolutely did not advocate US military strikes against Iran.”  Instead, he proposed that the US send “five carrier battle groups to the Indian Ocean, equipped with long-rang aircraft with accurate weapons; together with the deployment of B1and B2 bombers.”  This show of force would ensure US readiness and present a clear and present threat to the regime in Tehran. “If you can’t tell the difference between cocking a gun and pulling the trigger”, said the former CIA chief, “then I feel sorry for you”.  In a reference to Teddy Roosevelt’s famous saying of “speaking quietly and carrying a big stick”, Woolsey suggested that in this case the best option was to say nothing at all and let America’s military build-up do the talking.

The lion’s share of Woolsey’s analysis on Iran focused on the wider regional implications of an Iranian bomb sparking a fully-fledged nuclear arms race in the Middle East.  “For all practical purposes, the Cold War was a two player game between the US and Soviet Union, with China as a minor footnote,” said Woolsey.  “Even in a difficult confrontation such as the Cuban missile crisis, basically we understood as time went on that both sides simply didn’t want to blow the world up.”

“With Iran we have a different problem”, continued Woolsey.  “If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Turks and maybe a few others will not be far behind.  Under the current NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty), it makes it pretty easy for states in the Mideast and other parts of the world for that matter to cheat.  A two-party standoff is one thing, but a multi-party standoff in which a number of different types of individuals are interacting with a number of different countries in unpredictable ways – that’s something else entirely.  For just that reason alone, we should be willing to do whatever is necessary to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon”.

Referring back to his experience as part of a US delegation negotiating arms control treaties with the USSR during the Cold War, Woolsey described how he got to know the Soviet representatives quite well and quickly came to the understanding that they were essentially rational actors.  “By the mid to late 1960s, you could find more true-believing Marxist-Leninists in the bookstores of the upper-west side of Manhattan than in Kremlin,” quipped Woolsey.  “The Soviet officials I negotiated with didn’t want to die for their Marxist principles – they were more concerned with remodelling their dachas [sic]”.  For Woolsey, the current Iranian leadership by contrast is made up of a group of fanatical Ayatollahs which according to him make, “the Wahabbis of Saudi Arabia look like moderates”.

And yet, here was the apparent contradiction at the heart of the former CIA man’s argument.  While making the point that the Ayatollahs would welcome an age of nuclear instability for bizarre theological reasons, Woolsey also invoked the idea of “the Persians” as the inventors of the game of chess and thus masters of cold realpolitik, strategy and tactics.  In the question and answer session that followed, the audience failed to enquire how it was possible for Iran’s leaders to be both brilliant rational military strategists and crazed religious ideologues at the same time.

With regard to the controversy surrounding the quotes of Woolsey in the media on Iran, towards the end of the event it became clear that it wasn’t so much that the Former Director was actually opposed to attacking Iran, but merely opposed to interfering with the authority of the President of the United States.  “Once you’ve served at senior levels in government, you want to be careful not to stick your nose in the President’s business”, he said bluntly.  “I’m not a supporter of President Obama and I think he’s made a substantial number of mistakes, but I don’t think its up to me as a former senior official to say: do this, or don’t do this.  Get ready to strike Iran I’m willing to say, but to actually strike Iran, I’m not willing to say that”.

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