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Israel asks: Where do we go from here?

Photo for Israel asks: Where do we

From left: Steven Spiegel, Brig. Gen. Relik Shafir and Saba Soomekh. (Photo: Reina Cabebe/ UCLA.)

Israeli Brigadier General Relik Shafir and UCLA political scientist Steven Spiegel discussed Israel's future in the Middle East in the shadow of the Iran nuclear deal.

Israel's survival, said Shafir, will depend on it remaining stronger militarily than its potential enemies, as well as building and maintaining strong friendships with other nations, including the U.S., Russia and China.

By John Wyman (UCLA 2017)

UCLA International Institute, November 12, 2015 – On July 14, 2015, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which focuses on reducing the capabilities of the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of U.N. economic sanctions. While lauded as a positive step towards de-escalation of tensions between Iran and the Western world, many have serious doubts about Iran’s intentions – especially in Israel, a country that Iran has repeatedly vowed to destroy. 

Professor Steven Spiegel and Brigadier General Relik Shafir shared their perspectives on what should be done now that the nuclear deal is a reality. The discussion was hosted by UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, funded by the NEH Endowment in Jewish Civilization and cosponsored by the Center for Middle East Development, Hillel at UCLA, Y & S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, Israel Air Force Center Foundation and Burkle Center for International Relations.

Spiegel is a UCLA professor of political science and director of the Center for Middle East Development. Shafir is a former Israeli Air Force F-16 pilot who currently serves as the Israeli Air Force’s emergency foreign press spokesperson. The discussion was moderated by Saba Soomekh, associate director of research, Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, and visiting UCLA lecturer in sociology.

Can Iran be trusted?

According to the provisions of the JCPOA, Iran was to begin reductions to its nuclear program on October 18. Once those reductions are complete, the International Atomic Energy Association will inspect the facilities to insure that Iran is in compliance with the agreement. Pending the results of its inspection, the U.N. will begin to lift sanctions. But once the intensity of the inspections are reduced after the first 8–10 years, can Iran be trusted to remain in compliance?

Spiegel believes that Iran will most likely push the limits of the agreement until threatened with the return of economic sanctions, but will comply for now. “This is the time to enhance the U.S. relationship with Israel and the Arab states, to protect them and to signal to Iran that they have to abide by the deal,” he said.

Spiegel proposed a three-part plan for deterring future nuclear aggression on the part of Iran. First, the U.S. and Israel should conclude a formal defense treaty. In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, U.S. Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander, Europe (SACEUR), made this argument by highlighting the fact that Albania, the Philippines and Slovenia all have formal defense treaties with the U.S., while Israel does not. The threat of immediate military intervention on behalf of Israel by the U.S. would go far towards keeping Iranian aggression in check, argued Spiegel. He also stressed that a defense pact with interested Arab states would also be in order as a further warning to Iran.

Next, Israel should be included in intelligence partnerships concerning Iran. Here, Spiegel referred to a proposal from Gary Samore, a former top advisor on nuclear weapons proliferation for the Obama administration and now at Harvard University. He suggested that effective intelligence cooperation could be an important means of enhancing the inspections enumerated in the accord with Iran, where the inspections are already the toughest in history. In particular, Samore proposed cooperation between the U.S., Israel, Germany, France and Great Britain.

Finally, a formal, official economic partnership between the U.S. and Israel could promote entrepreneurial opportunities for both the U.S. and Israel, which would simultaneously aid both economies. It would also add to a complex of deterrence toward Iran, demonstrating again how important Israel is to the U.S. Spiegel pointed to a Forward article written by Ofra Strauss, co-chair of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce, in which she noted that over 1,000 Israeli companies are active in the U.S., supplying over 100,000 jobs in more than 40 states.

“If we don’t take advantage of these opportunities soon, our competitors will,” said Spiegel. He added that according to the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 16, 2014), “Over the next two years, China is expected to surpass the U.S. as Israel’s biggest collaborator in the number of joint government-backed projects.”

The Israeli perspective

Culturally, the two sides of the nuclear negotiations — the P5 + 1 and Iran — are coming from different perspectives, said Brig. Gen. Shafir, and this must be kept in mind when thinking about the JCPOA. Using a marketplace analogy, he continued, “In the United States, [if] you go to buy a shirt, you go to Macy’s. It says ‘$39.99,’ and you don’t argue with the person who’s selling you a shirt because it’s a contract. Whatever price is there, you pay the price because people say what they mean, and mean what they say. . . . There’s this social contract that is part and parcel of Western civilization.

“Anybody who’s been to a bazaar, you ask the seller what’s the price, he says ‘$40’. . . but you learn it probably costs $35. He’s saying, ‘Well, they’re probably going to drive me down,’” he continued. “The idea is you don’t mean what you say, and you don’t say what you mean.”

In addition to a different cultural approach, Shafir said that Iran was coming to the table with immense pressures. Its population, some segments of which are well-educated, is growing and unemployment is high. The sanctions are working, he said. In fact, he suggested that Iran took advantage of the competing desires of the P5 + 1, namely Chinese-Russian competition for cheap oil and escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia, to negotiate the terms of the JCPOA.

Israel, said Shafir, must protect itself from the possibility that Iran will develop nuclear weapons once the IAEA inspectors leave, or further its aggression through a conventional military attack. In order to best accomplish this, he argued, Israel must understand both the importance, and limits, of its power.

In his opinion, Israel appears to be at little risk of a conventional military attack. “Militarily, Iraq is destroyed, Syria is in shambles, Egypt is hardly taking care of itself, Saudi Arabia is having a hard time with the Yemenites, so militarily wise, we’re pretty safe,” Shafir said. Even if a conventional attack were to occur, the Israeli Air Force is one of the strongest in the region, and the “iron dome” and other missile defense systems in place over Israel remain extremely effective.

Despite this, Shafir claimed that the Israeli Air Force was limited in its long-range offensive capability and could not eliminate the Iranian nuclear program should the need arise. The “bunker buster” bombs required to reach its subterranean centrifuges are simply too heavy to be flown on Israeli combat aircraft – only the U.S. Air Force has this capability.


Steven Spiegel, Alan D. Leve and Brig. Gen. Relik Shafir. (Photo: Reina Cabebe/ UCLA.)

Israel’s survival, said Shafir, will depend on it remaining stronger militarily than its potential enemies, as well as building and maintaining strong friendships with other nations, including the U.S., Russia and China.

Finally, he contended that Israel must not place its greatest advantage at risk — the strength and wisdom of the Jewish diaspora — by forcing Jews in the diaspora to choose between supporting Israel or the countries where they live. “We must refrain from stretching that line so that we don’t develop an antithesis to Israel. . . We need to be aware of where we are, we need to be aware of the different interests in the world,” said Shafir.

While the world waits to see if Iran lives up to its part of the bargain, the consensus of both speakers seemed to be that maintaining strong relationships in the region was the best way to mitigate potential Iranian duplicity.