The Perfect Iranian Storm on the Horizon

Published by Michael Totten at Pajamas Media 25/8/10:

Jonathan Spyer is not your typical Israeli journalist and political analyst. He has a PhD in International Relations, he fought in Lebanon during the summer war of 2006, then went back to Lebanon as a civilian on a second passport.

I can’t say I felt particularly brave venturing into Hezbollah’s territory along the Lebanese-Israeli border, but it takes guts for Israelis to go there. If Hezbollah caught him and figured out who he was, he would have been in serious trouble.

No one he met in Lebanon knew where he was from. Everyone thought he was British. And no one in Israel but his friends and colleagues knew he went back to Lebanon on his own. He decided, though, that he may as well “out” himself on my blog. His secret journey will soon be revealed anyway when his book comes out in November called The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.

We met in Jerusalem this month and discussed his two trips to Lebanon—with and without a passport—and the perfect Iranian storm brewing on the horizon.

MJT: So why did you go back to Lebanon?

Jonathan Spyer: Lebanon is a fascinating place, and I wanted to visit for all sorts of reasons. I especially wanted to get back to where we were during the war. There is a green valley, which I imagine you know very well, between the towns of Khiam and Marjayoun.

MJT: Yes, I know where you’re talking about.

Jonathan Spyer: We were down there in that valley during the war, and our tanks got shot up. I wanted to get back there and look at it from Khiam. I hired some guides in Beirut and asked them to take me. We took the coast road down, then drove all the way across southern Lebanon to the eastern sector. And I stood in Khiam and looked down into that valley.

We got stuck there because of a cock-up. The infantry in our division were supposed to capture Khiam. There were 300 Hezbollah men there. We were operating at night. After a series of screw-ups, our column of tanks ended up heading through that valley toward Israel with 300 Hezbollah men looking down on us in the morning. So you can imagine what happened.

And to make it even more ludicrous, we weren’t even moving at the right speed. The steering mechanism on one of our tanks was broken, so we had to drag it with reinforced cables. We were going about five kilometers an hour. We were hardly moving at all. And we got blown to bits by Hezbollah’s missiles. Our armor is pretty good, though, so only one of our guys was killed.

An Associated Press photographer was also in Khiam at the same time, so the AP has a photograph of our tanks in flames. [Laughs.] I’m laughing because I found that photograph on a pro-Hezbollah Web site, and this tough revolutionary guy was on there boasting and saying “the people in those tanks died horrible deaths!”

MJT: Yes, I know where you’re talking about.

Jonathan Spyer: We were down there in that valley during the war, and our tanks got shot up. I wanted to get back there and look at it from Khiam. I hired some guides in Beirut and asked them to take me. We took the coast road down, then drove all the way across southern Lebanon to the eastern sector. And I stood in Khiam and looked down into that valley.

We got stuck there because of a cock-up. The infantry in our division were supposed to capture Khiam. There were 300 Hezbollah men there. We were operating at night. After a series of screw-ups, our column of tanks ended up heading through that valley toward Israel with 300 Hezbollah men looking down on us in the morning. So you can imagine what happened.

And to make it even more ludicrous, we weren’t even moving at the right speed. The steering mechanism on one of our tanks was broken, so we had to drag it with reinforced cables. We were going about five kilometers an hour. We were hardly moving at all. And we got blown to bits by Hezbollah’s missiles. Our armor is pretty good, though, so only one of our guys was killed.

An Associated Press photographer was also in Khiam at the same time, so the AP has a photograph of our tanks in flames. [Laughs.] I’m laughing because I found that photograph on a pro-Hezbollah Web site, and this tough revolutionary guy was on there boasting and saying “the people in those tanks died horrible deaths!”

Jonathan Spyer: I wrote back and said, “Listen. With the exception of one person who was killed, the people in those tanks all got out, hid in the fields for over an hour, and got back across the Israeli border. All of them were operational again within 48 hours.”

Anyway, we were stuck in this field beneath Khiam for about an hour. We hid in an irrigation ditch. They were growing tomatoes and, I think, corn down there. We had the body of our friend with us on a stretcher.

Hezbollah was firing mortars at us. And a ten-man Hezbollah squad came down out of Khiam to take a look. Every tank in the area laid down a carpet of fire, and they turned around and went back. It wasn’t worth it for them to try to go down there, and it saved us from getting into a fire fight.

After an hour or so, we got picked up by an armored vehicle which just happened to be passing by. At first I thought, “Great, they’ve finally sent someone to come get us,” but no. They hadn’t. A group of armored engineers just happened to be in the vicinity. We stood up like guys on a desert island and yelled help help! [Laughs.]

Our friend’s funeral was the next day. We had the night off. I came down to Jerusalem and got drunk. And the next day I was back in the war.

So I was very interested when the chance came along to go back to Lebanon. My professional interest in Lebanon— which has become one of the most important professional aspects of my life —dates from then.

MJT: Whose idea was it for you to visit?

Jonathan Spyer: A journalist friend of mine up there invited me. He said, “Do you want to come to Lebanon?” And I couldn’t say no. Of course I wanted to go to Lebanon!

We spent most of our time in Beirut, and we also took a trip up to the Cedars. And I said I wanted to go to the south. He didn’t want to go, but he knew some guys who could take me. They showed up at 6:30 in the morning in a beat up car, and off we went.

I partly wanted to go because of my military experience, but mainly because I’m a Middle East researcher who takes a particular interest in Lebanon. I wanted to see what is—as both of us know—a different country. You head down the coastal road, you get past Tyre and Sidon, and you enter a different country.

MJT: It’s true.

Jonathan Spyer: The topography is different, including the human topography. The posters you see are totally different. The atmosphere is totally different.

MJT: It’s like a fanatical Iranian province.

Jonathan Spyer: That’s right. And you have to experience it to understand just how strange and extreme the situation actually is. Between Beirut and Tel Aviv there is this enclave of Iran, this strange dark kingdom. And I found it fascinating.

At the entrance to one of these towns, there’s an old piece of the South Lebanon Army’s armor, a T-55 tank I think. And Hezbollah put up this huge cardboard statue of Ayatollah Khomeini.

MJT: I know exactly where you’re talking about. I have a picture of kids playing on that very tank.

Jonathan Spyer: I also saw Iranian flags down there. That’s how blatant and obvious it all is.

MJT: You don’t see the Lebanese flag in the south.

Jonathan Spyer: Right. Only the Hezbollah flag, the Amal flag, and the Iranian flag. It was a real eye-opener. I knew this already, but it’s something else to see it in person. And it’s also interesting how that part of the country interacts with the rest of Lebanon.

It was my first experience visiting a society that functions like the old Soviet bloc in at least one way. People have an acute sense of this unseen power which is both nowhere and everywhere. People in that part of Lebanon always have to be careful, even if they don’t always exactly know why. They understand why in the larger picture, of course, but even with everyday things they have to be careful.

MJT: You don’t feel that in the rest of the country.

Jonathan Spyer: Right.

MJT: I don’t. Not in Beirut or anywhere else Hezbollah doesn’t control.

Jonathan Spyer: Only in the south. In Beirut, it only surfaced when I spoke to people about going down to the south. I’d be hanging out in these lovely bars and restaurants with lively people enjoying these nice airy evenings, and as soon as I’d mention that I was going down there, they’d suddenly become serious and say, “Don’t do it.”

Jonathan Spyer: Right.

MJT: I don’t. Not in Beirut or anywhere else Hezbollah doesn’t control.

Jonathan Spyer: Only in the south. In Beirut, it only surfaced when I spoke to people about going down to the south. I’d be hanging out in these lovely bars and restaurants with lively people enjoying these nice airy evenings, and as soon as I’d mention that I was going down there, they’d suddenly become serious and say, “Don’t do it.”

MJT: I’ve had that experience lots of times.

Jonathan Spyer: And I’d say, “Why not? Tell me why I shouldn’t go down there.” They’d say I should check in with Hezbollah or the Ministry of the Interior.

And I’d say, “Well, what if I don’t? What if I just head out of the city? What’s supposed to happen to me if I just go?”

No one actually knew.

MJT: Right, they don’t. No one will tell you you’re going to get kidnapped or killed or beaten up or anything else. They just think it’s a bad idea to go down there.

Jonathan Spyer: They just say, “You shouldn’t do that.” To me, that’s power. It’s real unseen power. Any force that can put that kind of fear into people is something we need to look at.

It’s not exactly like the Soviet bloc, but it’s similar. In communist countries they had the ostensible government, but the parliaments didn’t have any power. The Communist Party and the security services had all the power. Lebanon reminds me of that in some ways. There’s the ostensible government which takes out the garbage and educates most of the citizens, but there’s another force that wields the hard power.

MJT: It’s totalitarian down there in South Lebanon.

Jonathan Spyer: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MJT: There’s no other word for it. It’s not just authoritarian.

Iran itself isn’t even totalitarian anymore. It used to be, and the government wants it to be, but it has to contend with massive unrest and civil disobedience now.

Jonathan Spyer: The Iranian regime has the same ideology as Hezbollah, but it’s acting against the wishes of the population it’s controlling. It’s like Poland in 1988. But I don’t think that means the Iranian government is going to fall any time soon. I don’t think it’s Poland in 1988 in that sense.

MJT: You think it’s more like Czechoslovakia in 1968?

Jonathan Spyer: I think the difference between Iran today and Poland in 1988 or Iran in 1978 is that in those cases they had a decadent and exhausted ruling class. What they’ve got now is a hungry and fanatically devoted ruling class. Its project is implausible in the long term, but for the foreseeable future they are willing to kill. They’ve killed before, and they got into power by killing. They’re quite prepared to kill lots of people to stay in power. To get through this, the Iranian opposition will need something very strong indeed. And I’m not convinced that the Green Movement is anywhere near that strong yet.

MJT: If the government fell tomorrow, though, would you be surprised?

Jonathan Spyer: Actually, I would be. I’d be pleasantly surprised, but I’d be surprised.

MJT: I won’t be surprised if it falls or if it doesn’t. If the North Korean government fell all of a sudden, that would surprise me. There’s no indication whatsoever that that might happen. If the Iranian government falls, though, no one can say it came out of nowhere or that there was no evidence that it might happen.

Jonathan Spyer: Sure, I know what you mean.

MJT: You’re right, though, that the government and armed forces are willing to fight. The revolution in Romania that overthrew Ceausescu started out like the one last year in Iran, but it was over in a couple of days because the army turned on the government. The whole thing barely lasted 72 hours, and the army itself put Ceausescu on trial and executed him.

Jonathan Spyer: The people most prepared to wade up to their knees in blood end up holding on in revolutionary contexts. When governments fall it’s often because a bunch of other guys are more determined and ruthless. Maybe the revolutionaries have better ideas for how to govern, but in order to get there they have to be prepared to go further than the state. And right now in Iran I don’t see that.

The government’s ideology and modus operandi is much more typical of the Arab world than it is of Iran’s. It’s almost like they’re occupying the country, even though they are Persians. Their style isn’t Iranian at all.

With Hezbollah, it’s different. They’ve managed to hook into the pathologies of much of the Arab world. And I’m sorry to say it’s not just a product of the regimes on top with sophisticated and cynical people below like in Poland and perhaps in Iran. The Arab world, I’m sorry to say, is not really like that. The people believe in this stuff just as much as the big men on top do.

MJT: They do. There’s lots of support in Syria for the government’s campaign of resistance.

Jonathan Spyer: Yes. Neither of us have been to Syria, but you and I both know someone who has.

There really is a visceral hatred of Israel there. There is also a less visceral but nevertheless real hatred of America and the West. And also among the Palestinians here.

MJT: In Lebanon, of course, it’s much more complex.

MJT: I’ve had that experience lots of times.

Jonathan Spyer: And I’d say, “Why not? Tell me why I shouldn’t go down there.” They’d say I should check in with Hezbollah or the Ministry of the Interior.

And I’d say, “Well, what if I don’t? What if I just head out of the city? What’s supposed to happen to me if I just go?”

No one actually knew.

MJT: Right, they don’t. No one will tell you you’re going to get kidnapped or killed or beaten up or anything else. They just think it’s a bad idea to go down there.

Jonathan Spyer: They just say, “You shouldn’t do that.” To me, that’s power. It’s real unseen power. Any force that can put that kind of fear into people is something we need to look at.

It’s not exactly like the Soviet bloc, but it’s similar. In communist countries they had the ostensible government, but the parliaments didn’t have any power. The Communist Party and the security services had all the power. Lebanon reminds me of that in some ways. There’s the ostensible government which takes out the garbage and educates most of the citizens, but there’s another force that wields the hard power.

MJT: It’s totalitarian down there in South Lebanon.

Jonathan Spyer: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MJT: There’s no other word for it. It’s not just authoritarian.

Iran itself isn’t even totalitarian anymore. It used to be, and the government wants it to be, but it has to contend with massive unrest and civil disobedience now.

Jonathan Spyer: The Iranian regime has the same ideology as Hezbollah, but it’s acting against the wishes of the population it’s controlling. It’s like Poland in 1988. But I don’t think that means the Iranian government is going to fall any time soon. I don’t think it’s Poland in 1988 in that sense.

MJT: You think it’s more like Czechoslovakia in 1968?

Jonathan Spyer: I think the difference between Iran today and Poland in 1988 or Iran in 1978 is that in those cases they had a decadent and exhausted ruling class. What they’ve got now is a hungry and fanatically devoted ruling class. Its project is implausible in the long term, but for the foreseeable future they are willing to kill. They’ve killed before, and they got into power by killing. They’re quite prepared to kill lots of people to stay in power. To get through this, the Iranian opposition will need something very strong indeed. And I’m not convinced that the Green Movement is anywhere near that strong yet.

MJT: If the government fell tomorrow, though, would you be surprised?

Jonathan Spyer: Actually, I would be. I’d be pleasantly surprised, but I’d be surprised.

MJT: I won’t be surprised if it falls or if it doesn’t. If the North Korean government fell all of a sudden, that would surprise me. There’s no indication whatsoever that that might happen. If the Iranian government falls, though, no one can say it came out of nowhere or that there was no evidence that it might happen.

Jonathan Spyer: Sure, I know what you mean.

MJT: You’re right, though, that the government and armed forces are willing to fight. The revolution in Romania that overthrew Ceausescu started out like the one last year in Iran, but it was over in a couple of days because the army turned on the government. The whole thing barely lasted 72 hours, and the army itself put Ceausescu on trial and executed him.

Jonathan Spyer: The people most prepared to wade up to their knees in blood end up holding on in revolutionary contexts. When governments fall it’s often because a bunch of other guys are more determined and ruthless. Maybe the revolutionaries have better ideas for how to govern, but in order to get there they have to be prepared to go further than the state. And right now in Iran I don’t see that.

The government’s ideology and modus operandi is much more typical of the Arab world than it is of Iran’s. It’s almost like they’re occupying the country, even though they are Persians. Their style isn’t Iranian at all.

With Hezbollah, it’s different. They’ve managed to hook into the pathologies of much of the Arab world. And I’m sorry to say it’s not just a product of the regimes on top with sophisticated and cynical people below like in Poland and perhaps in Iran. The Arab world, I’m sorry to say, is not really like that. The people believe in this stuff just as much as the big men on top do.

MJT: They do. There’s lots of support in Syria for the government’s campaign of resistance.

Jonathan Spyer: Yes. Neither of us have been to Syria, but you and I both know someone who has.

There really is a visceral hatred of Israel there. There is also a less visceral but nevertheless real hatred of America and the West. And also among the Palestinians here.

MJT: In Lebanon, of course, it’s much more complex.

Jonathan Spyer: Except in the south. In the south, Hezbollah holds power not only by force, but by consent. It doesn’t ask permission from people, but it has their consent.

MJT: It’s limited, though. I’ve talked to Lebanese Shias who support Hezbollah only so far as Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t impose an Iranian-style regime on the country.

Jonathan Spyer: Except in the south. In the south, Hezbollah holds power not only by force, but by consent. It doesn’t ask permission from people, but it has their consent.

MJT: It’s limited, though. I’ve talked to Lebanese Shias who support Hezbollah only so far as Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t impose an Iranian-style regime on the country.

Jonathan Spyer: Sure.

MJT: So Hezbollah’s support is limited and conditional. But it’s there.

Jonathan Spyer: And Hezbollah is smart enough to understand that.

MJT: Surely you saw uncovered women in the Hezbollah areas.

Jonathan Spyer: Of course.

MJT: But you don’t see that in Iran.

Jonathan Spyer: Right.

MJT: Hezbollah could force women to cover themselves, but it would lose some support if it did.

Jonathan Spyer: You see more Palestinians here wearing the headscarf than you do amongst the Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon. Go to any street in east Jerusalem, and most of the women will be wearing the headscarf. I was only in Beirut for a few days, but I saw far fewer headscarves there than I do here.

MJT: It’s strange, isn’t it?

Jonathan Spyer: In the early 1980s, before the first Intifada, it just wasn’t like

that in the Palestinian areas. You didn’t see many headscarves then.

MJT: They’re much more Islamicized now, aren’t they?

Jonathan Spyer: There’s a popular return to religion in many Middle Eastern societies. During the last couple of decades, after the failure of so many secular nationalist projects, people have turned back to what’s familiar to them. And in this part of the world, that’s religion.

MJT: The secular regimes have indeed failed spectacularly. There are a few exceptions—like Tunisia, for instance—but there aren’t very many.

Jonathan Spyer: In the Arab world, the failure of these regimes really does deserve to be described as spectacular.

MJT: Tunisia is a lovely Mediterranean country, but next door Libya is almost as hellish as North Korea.

Jonathan Spyer: Tunisia was the first Arab country to call for recognition of Israel. What’s really striking is that the Arab regimes with the biggest and most ambitious visions are the ones that failed most spectacularly.

MJT: The stronger the ideology, the more catastrophic the failure.

Jonathan Spyer: I think it’s hard for Arab intellectuals to come to terms with this. The big projects they most wanted to see are complete failures. I mean, none of them get excited about the Gulf emirates.

MJT: They’re not revolutionary.

Jonathan Spyer: And what they have to face up to now—and you know this very well—is that the three most powerful countries in the Middle East are not Arab.

MJT: Yes.

Jonathan Spyer: Israel, Turkey, and Iran. This is difficult for Arabs to deal with.

MJT: Many have a hard time even admitting it. I pointed this out years ago and got all kinds of grief in my inbox from Arabs who said I had no idea what I was talking about.

Jonathan Spyer: I’m sure.

MJT: They said I’m a stupid American who knows nothing of the Middle East, but they’re in denial. The only Arab country calling shots right now is Syria, and that’s only because Bashar Assad is a sidekick of the Persians.

Jonathan Spyer: A Palestinian friend of mine just the other day was telling me how Turkey and Iran are competing with each other to be the standard bearer of the Palestinian cause. Iran, with its sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah, and Turkey, with its flotillas, are the two countries with all the creative ideas. What do the Arab states have next to that? Nothing. Arabism’s flagship cause is championed by two non-Arab states.

How Syria fits into all this is one of the biggest divides here in Israel. There are those in the defense establishment who believe Assad’s championship of the resistance is entirely cynical and instrumental, and they want to pry him away from Iran.

MJT: His foreign policy is just instrumental and cynical, but I don’t believe for a minute he can be pried away from Iran.

Jonathan Spyer: I don’t either. And I’m glad that the people around the prime minister don’t buy it.

MJT: How do you know they don’t buy it?

Jonathan Spyer: Because I know some of them. The people around Netanyahu don’t believe this is possible.

MJT: I’m glad to hear that, because I’ve met lots of Israelis who do. And I think they’re crazy to think that. A lot of Israelis simply do not understand Syria.

Jonathan Spyer: Absolutely. They aren’t naïve people by any means. On the contrary. But they find it very hard to accept the irrational and ideological elements in Middle East politics. They themselves are not irrational or ideological. They’re extremely rational, and they assume everyone else is, as well. And so they make massive errors.

MJT: It’s a common problem all over the world. Lots of people assume everyone else is just like themselves. Americans often assume most people in the Arab world want what we have. I’ve met plenty of Arabs who believe the United States is involved in these dark conspiracies like their own governments are.

Jonathan Spyer: Yes. Arabs often think they’re being mature and sophisticated by talking this way, but in order to have a proper, grown-up, three-dimensional understanding of American foreign policy you need to understand that the idea of America is one of the things that informs American foreign policy. If you don’t understand that, you won’t be able to understand what the U.S. is doing and why.

And some of the planners and thinkers here in Israel still believe that everyone at the end of the day wants the same things they want. That isn’t the case, and you will make grave errors if you assume that it is. I’m not a fan of Netanyahu’s prime ministership down the line, but he does have people around him who understand the role ideas play in this region. It stops us from making the kinds of errors that, for example, Ehud Barak made in 2000.

MJT: I thought Barak’s withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon was the right thing to do, and so was offering Arafat a Palestinian state. I supported both, and I still do even in hindsight, but we have to be honest about the results of those policies. War followed both, and Israelis will have to be extremely careful about withdrawing from the West Bank and the eastern half of Jerusalem.

Jonathan Spyer: Absolutely. Many people still say we all know what the final settlement is going to look like, so we just need to get the two sides together and work it out. To that I say, “No. You don’t know what the final status is going to look like. The final status you have in mind is what you came up with by negotiating with yourself.”

I was an early skeptic of the Oslo peace process.

MJT: Why? I wasn’t, but you were right and I was wrong. What did you see then that I didn’t?

Jonathan Spyer: We all get things wrong in the Middle East, but that time I was right. I’m not saying I was some kind of genius—I was just a kid—but I did manage to call that one for whatever it’s worth.

All you had to do at the time was be interested enough in Arab political culture to listen carefully to what the other side said. That’s all it took. Once you did that, you’d have to be a moron not to see what was coming. Most people weren’t doing that.

MJT: It’s the same in the U.S. today. Too many people don’t want to listen to what’s being said in the Arab world. A lot of it is deeply disturbing. I could be wrong, and I don’t like to psychoanalyze people, but I think that’s the problem. They’re afraid of the implications of all this crazy talk in the Middle East. So they pretend they don’t hear it, they explain it away, or they say it’s not serious.

Jonathan Spyer: I think that’s right.

MJT: I don’t like what I often hear either, and I don’t know what we should do about it, but I’m aware of it, and it’s there whether I like it or not.

Jonathan Spyer: That’s the bottom line. And from there you have to build a rational policy. You may not like it, but what else can you do?

Israelis were exhausted by a half-century of war before the peace process started. Every family in the country was shaped by it. There was an immense longing in the 1990s for peace, normalcy, and the good life. We had an intense will and longing for that. So when the Oslo crowd came to town and said, “You can be born again, you can have peace with the Arabs,” people bought into it.

They were idealists, and they were rationalists. If a note of triumphalism creeps into my voice, it’s only because I remember how arrogant they were during the 1990s when they thought they were right. They were extremely contemptuous toward everyone at the time who was trying to warn them. We were described as anachronisms from a different century.

MJT: That’s what I thought at the time.

Jonathan Spyer: Okay. Fine. It’s okay.

MJT: I was young. I wasn’t writing about the Middle East then.

Jonathan Spyer: Sure. It’s fine. Everyone gets this place wrong.

MJT: No one has ever been right consistently. I don’t think it’s possible.

Jonathan Spyer: It’s not.

MJT: This place is too weird.

Jonathan Spyer: [Laughs.] Yeah. It is.

MJT: It took me years to understand how this place works just on the most basic level because it’s so different from the part of the world I grew up in. I first had to stop assuming Arabs think like Americans. Then I had to learn how they think differently from Americans. I still don’t fully understand them, and I probably never will.

Jonathan Spyer: It’s hard. I used to try to figure it out by extrapolating from the Jewish experience, but it doesn’t work. Their response to events is totally different. It’s useless. You have to throw this sort of thinking into the trash or you can’t understand anything.

MJT: When the U.S. went into Iraq, I thought Iraqis would react the way I would have if I were Iraqi.

Jonathan Spyer: Sure.

MJT: But they didn’t. But I wasn’t only projecting. I knew they weren’t exactly like me. They’re Iraqis. I guess I expected the Arabs of Iraq to react the way the Kurds of Iraq did, and the Kurds reacted the way I would have reacted. But the Arab world isn’t America, and it is not Kurdistan.

MJT: The Arab world has its own political culture, and it’s not like the political culture I know, or even like other Middle Eastern political cultures.

If the Palestinians had a Western political culture, the problem here could be resolved in ten minutes. If you Israelis were dealing with Canadians instead of Palestinians, you would have had peace a long time ago. And if the Palestinians were dealing with Canadians instead of Israelis, there would still be a conflict.

Jonathan Spyer: That’s exactly right. And that’s why it’s so frustrating sometimes when people say, “If only the two sides could sit down and talk.”

Israel has had its own moments of nationalist madness and score-settling and that sort of thing, but there’s less and less of it over time. Even within my living memory Israel has matured astonishingly. People here are a lot more disenchanted, a lot less likely to get carried away and follow political leaders.

MJT: I’ve gotten that way, too, recently, but it doesn’t come naturally. I am an optimist by nature, but the Middle East has taught me the pessimistic and tragic view of the world. I hate it, but it is what it is. A person can’t be an optimist for very long here without being unhinged from reality.

Jonathan Spyer: Cynicism isn’t a good thing, but neither is silly idealism. We have to walk a tightrope in order to keep this country viable. We have to be sufficiently skeptical and realistic, yet we also have to be open-minded and keyed into the 21st century high-tech society.

Jonathan Spyer: We have to maintain a balance in order to continue this project in the midst of people who hate us. And I think we’re doing quite well. We’re managing it. The North Korean government just has to sit on people. England has America looking after it if things go badly, so in the meantime the English can go on being post-modern. Here it’s tricky. We can’t just be Sparta. We have to be free-thinking people.

People here love life. You can feel this intense vitality in the air. It’s one of the reasons why people love it. I know people who don’t like this place politically, but they like being here. Nobody ever felt that way about East Germany.

MJT: It’s like that in Lebanon, too. It’s a crazy place with incredible problems, but it has this wonderful energy. Beirut does anyway.

Jonathan Spyer: Life crackles in the air there like it does here. I think that’s proof of health. And I don’t feel that in Western Europe.

MJT: I want to know what you think about an Iranian nuclear weapon. It’s everyone’s favorite topic to speculate on, though nobody really knows anything.

Jonathan Spyer: Nobody really knows, but I’m of the school which says if they get a nuke they will use it to become the dominant power in the region.

MJT: I think so, too.

Jonathan Spyer: I’m not of the school that says they’ll use it the next day against Israel.

MJT: I’m not of that school either, but I can’t dismiss it entirely.

Jonathan Spyer: I’m afraid none of us can dismiss it entirely. We would be rash indeed to dismiss it entirely. But if I’m reading the Iranian leadership right, they want to stick around on earth for a while and wield massive amounts of power. They want to build an oppressive system stretching all the way to the Mediterranean.

MJT: The guy who’s in charge of the Iranian branch of Hezbollah said that’s exactly what they want to do. They’re trying to build a new Persian Empire.

Jonathan Spyer: We hear this constant refrain from Iranians that they have a real civilization, that they aren’t like Jordan and Qatar. They’re more like China and India.

MJT: They’re right about that.

Jonathan Spyer: They are. And it’s a dangerous thing when people have a feeling of historical justification and want to bring the world to order again. We’ve had experiences with that. It’s a worrisome combination. I think those ideas wedded to nuclear weapons is unacceptable. And I’m of the opinion that either the West or Israel will come to the conclusion that a nuclear Iran is worse than the military action needed to stop it, and will therefore take action.

MJT: Even with Barack Obama as president? He’s not doing at all well in the United States at the moment, but he’s going to be around for a while.

Jonathan Spyer: I don’t want to speculate about Obama, but if there is a rational national-security set-up in the United States which can influence the president on matters of crucial national interest—and I assume there is something like that—my sense is that system will, at a certain point, kick in and say we can’t afford to have an Iran with nuclear weapons. At a certain point, I think we’ll get to that stage. It’s not the end of the world if we don’t, but we’ll be facing a massively changed Middle East, and a massively dangerous Middle East.

MJT: How do you think that would change the Middle East?

Jonathan Spyer: The Iranians will have a free hand for the kind of subversion they’re already engaged in. We could well see countries falling to Iranian subversion. More likely, at least in the short term, we’ll see countries accommodating themselves to the new big man on the block, and that will of course include the Gulf states.

Jonathan Spyer: There are a certain number of countries in this region—and we could both name them—that will always accommodate themselves to the strong horse. They just have to figure out who the strong horse is. That’s why they get really nervous when they’re not sure who it is, and that’s why they’re terrified now. They don’t know who’s on the way up. Is America really a sunset power in this region, or is that a bunch of propaganda coming out of Tehran? America really does seem to be disengaging.

MJT: But to what extent, and for how long? We could turn that around in an instant tomorrow, and nobody would be able to stop us.

Jonathan Spyer: Yes.

MJT: Obama could say we tried to be nice, and it didn’t work.

Jonathan Spyer: The United States, at the end of the day, has core national interests in this region. And once the Americans understand that they really are threatened, they will have no choice but to be more assertive, regardless of the ideology of a particular president at a particular time.

MJT: The entire world has an interest in stability in this region.

Jonathan Spyer: Yes.

MJT: We’re just the only ones who can do much about it. So we’re stuck with the job whether we like it or not. And most of us don’t.

Jonathan Spyer: If the U.S. leaves a void here, the secondary powers in the region—Israel, Turkey, and Iran—will begin tussling with one another for dominance.

MJT: That could be extraordinarily dangerous.

Jonathan Spyer: All three are young, hungry, countries. Jostling between these three won’t be pretty. So I think the U.S.—acting for the sake its own interests as well as those of the rest of the world—will have to reassert itself. Maybe I’m too optimistic. If that doesn’t happen, I think Israel will step up.

MJT: What is it that U.S. policy-makers don’t currently understand about this part of the world? If you could have their ears for five or ten minutes, what would you tell them?

Jonathan Spyer: I’d tell the current bunch in power that they need to ditch this sophomoric idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to the region’s malaise.

They need to get that out of their heads. That’s not what I’d want to talk about. That’s not even an adult conversation. Once we can clear that up, we can talk about something serious.

A perfect storm is brewing in the Middle East. We’re experiencing the convergence of two historical phenomena. The first is the rise of Iran, which we’ve already talked about. We have an ambitious ideological elite committed to radical Islam and the expansion of power. Second, in country after country in the Middle East, various forms of radical Islam are becoming the most popular and vivid forms of political expression. We have Hamas among the Palestinians, Hezbollah among the Shia of Lebanon, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, and the Muslim Brothers in Egypt.

We have an ideological wave from below with a powerful and potentially nuclear-armed sponsor on top. That’s the picture I’d want to place in the minds of the people in Washington. It’s the key regional dynamic through which most smaller processes have to be understood.

So if you like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and want to talk about that, now we can tackle it in a rational grown-up way. The Palestinian national movement has split—most likely permanently—into two camps. And the most powerful of the two is that which results from this convergence of a popular Islamist wave on the one hand and a hegemonic state sponsor on the other. These two phenomena have completely transformed Palestinian politics. They have completely transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And they have completely transformed our options.

We could also talk about Lebanon. Or just about anything else. And again, we have to look at it through the prism I just described. That’s what I’d say to them if I had five minutes.

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