Israel's vocal support for Iranians protesting the regime will lay the grounds for ties with a future democratic Iran, whenever that may come.
LONDON — It may be early to declare an end to the latest bout of anti-government protests in Iran, which began in mid-May. As late as May 30, Iranians were chanting Death to the Dictator at a football match. So far, the only foreign leader to openly voice support for protesting Iranians has been Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. On May 29, he referred to the suppression of protests in Iran in a speech in which he urged the world to hear the voice of Iranians opposing the Islamic Republic.
Bennett said the oppression of Iranians and constant threats to the security of Israel and its citizens had the same roots — namely a regime that spends Iran's resources not on the welfare of Iranians, but to pay for regional terrorism.
Even protest slogans in Iran, he observed, lambast these regional interventions, such as "Leave Syria Alone, Think of Us Instead" (Surieh ra raha kon, fekri be haal-e ma kon) says a familiar one, or "Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, My Life's for Iran" (Na Ghazeh, na lobnan, jaanam fada-ye Iran).
Ancient relations between Persians and Jews
Bennett has mentioned discontent in Iran several times in recent months. In late October 2021, he toldThe Times that Israel's strategy toward the Iranian regime was like the Star Wars doctrine, which the United States used against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Designed as a shield against Soviet ballistic missiles, countering it became so costly it ended up bankrupting and hastening the end of the communist regime.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by this singular support given to Iranians. Speaking last year to the newspaper Israel Hayom, Iran's exiled crown prince, Reza Pahlavi, made a point of recalling that relations between Iranians and Jews went back to the 6th century B.C, when the Persian monarch Cyrus the Great freed the Jews held in Babylon. Those ties, he said, would revive with the end of the Islamic Republic.
The Revolutionary guards and militiamen who fire on Iranian protesters are the same as those acting against Israel and its allies in the Middle East. Many of the forces sent to Syria to fight alongside Hezbollah under the label Defenders of the Shrine (Modafe'an-e haram) are known to have taken part in suppressing protests inside Iran.
Israeli security agencies have been warning Israelis not to travel to regional states, especially Turkey and Cyprus, where Iranian regime agents are thought to be planning to strike at Israeli citizens. The regime has a history of punitive actions against exiled opponents in Turkey and anywhere else it can reach them.
Iran's Revolutionary guard take part in military exercises near the the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran in December 2021.
The regime meanwhile keeps hidden and open relations with a range of countries, at times even against the national interest. It has spent billions of dollars on its nuclear program and likely even more on digging bunkers and on enrichment and centrifuge-building activities that violate the Non-Proliferation regime. To these we must add the cost of the sanctions its activities have entailed.
Iranians cannot stop these, especially when they ignore what the state is doing. Ordinary Iranians barely find out how the country's resources and petrodollars are spent, and who is supervising the spending. Parliament has even legislated to absolve the armed forces, information ministry and Atomic Energy Organization of the need to be transparent in their activities.
Israeli security agencies have been warning Israelis not to travel to regional states.
One factor in the Islamic Republic's ability to survive growing public discontent over 43 years is the furtive arrangements it makes with countries that claim to defend democracy. One of them was the 2015 nuclear pact. Already in 2009, in protests against the fraudulent results of elections that year (which declared the sitting president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, re-elected), Iranians expected the West's support. Protesters chanted Obama, Obama, You're Either With Them Or With Us! (Obama, Obama ya ba una ya ba ma), but the Democratic U.S. president finally chose to rescue the regime, handing it billions of dollars of frozen monies. It duly spent them on boosting its nuclear and ballistic capabilities, and paying for militias in the Middle East.
Reviving nuclear pact has a price
Iranian officials point at Israel as the obstacle to another deal with the West. The Israelis say a deal would mean billions of dollars flowing back into the regime's coffers so it can threaten regional states.
Israel has practically identical or very similar reasons as ordinary Iranians for wanting to be rid of this regime. It threatens the very life of the land known as Iran, as surely as it does Israel. Iran and Israel are its common enemies. So if Israel is indeed blocking the end of sanctions on the regime and its Revolutionary guards, it is effectively serving the interests of millions of Iranians.
In an article published in the Wall Street Journal, the Iranian dissident Hossein Ronaqi says lifting sanctions against the regime and the Guards would be a betrayal of Iranians. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran had good relations with Israel. The two countries even played soccer in Tehran in 1970. This can happen again, if and when this regime collapses.
Iranians must seek by all possible the aid of those countries whose intention, one day, is to have the highest level of political and economic relations with a lawful, democratic Iran that respects international norms. Today, those states can help them by means including channeling technology or media coverage to amplify their voices.
This may have been the message borne by a delegation of Iranians living in the United States and E.U. countries who recently visited Israel. The Shoshana 2022 delegation including jurists, journalists and academics, told their hosts they opposed the revival of the nuclear pact as harmful to U.S., Western and regional interests, and to Iranians themselves.