I'm not an expert on Iran. I don't speak the language, and my visit there was long ago. However, one cannot live here for more than 40 years without being exposed to a great deal of media reports and commentary, as well as a number of individuals with Persian backgrounds and language, some of whom maintain continuing connections with Iran.

 
The summary of impressions is that Iran is more complex than suggested by news snippets of mad mullahs, covered women, politicians who proclaim and crowds that and chant threats against evil Zionists.
 
Estimates are that 10,000 Jews remain in Iran. The number dwarfs the numbers of Jews living in other Muslim countries, where there used to be substantial minorities. There are limitations on Iranian Jews, but not severe persecution. With care in choosing their route, Iranian Jews can travel internationally, including family visits to Israel.
 
Additional aspects of Iranian heterogeneity appear in other ethnic and religious minorities, as well as political dissidents and irreligious Muslims who get along while exercising discretion. It isn't the kind of life that would be acceptable in the west, but it is not a simple, harsh, and totalitarian society.
 
Iranian officials repeat their assertions that Jews have a protected place in their country, including a reserved seat in the parliament. But while Jews have chosen to remain in Iran more than Jews elsewhere in Muslim countries, they have to put up with frequent expressions of more severe anti-Israel diatribes than heard elsewhere in the Middle East. 
 
The dissonance comes not only in chants by mobs, but in pointed threats of Israel's destruction by national leaders, substantial material and financial support of Hezbollah and Hamas, which have identified their enmity of Israel as prime reasons for their existence. The move into Syria of Iranian personnel and mercenaries seems designed to create a swath of Iranian-dependent Shiite controlled territory that will threaten Israel across its northeastern and northern borders, along with lesser threats from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
 
What suggests some wiggle room to Israelis is the possibility that Iran's primary goals are not anti-Israel, but the creation of its own strength among Muslims. The Shiite-Sunni split has been with Islam since the beginning, and there is an even longer history of regional rivalries between Persia-Iran, Babylon-Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
 
Those looking for active warfare in the Middle East can begin with the Iranian-Saudi conflict in Yemen, Iran's pursuit of hegemony in Iraq, and its cooperation with Russia in establishing an anti-Sunni regime in Syria.
 
Against that, Iran's threat against Israel seems marginal and symbolic, more verbal than military.
 
All that sounds guardedly optimistic. Yet there are some lines that Israel might not allow Iran or its allies to cross. 
 
Iranians and others know that Israel has attacked weapon stocks or shipments meant by Iran for its Hezbollah and Hamas allies. Israel also attacked a Syrian effort to construct a nuclear facility. Israel's responses to occasional missiles or shells coming from Syria, perhaps by error rather intention, have been significantly more deadly than its responses to what has come from Gaza by intention.
 
One can presume that Israel has provided some indication to Iran, perhaps via Russia, as to what it would not tolerate. That might include efforts to manufacture missiles in Syria or Lebanon, or to establish a substantial military base with Iranian personnel close to Israel's border with Syria.
 
Reports are that Putin rebuffed Netanyahu's efforts to have Russia limit  Iran. We can't help you; Iran is our strategic partner in the Middle East is the essence of what Putin is said to have told Netanyahu.
 
An Israeli attack against an Iranian installation--even short of a direct attack on Iran--would not be free of counter-threats. Both Hezbollah and Hamas could create significant damage and casualties throughout Israel. Yet counter to that is Israel's record of creating much greater damage and much higher casualties in Lebanon and Gaza. Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has expressed most of his threats against Israel from underground bunkers, where he has lived since the second Israel-Lebanon war in 2006.
 
Israel is not the only wiggler in the Middle East. Wiggling is a craft learned long ago by countries lacking enough power as to be impervious to a strategic threat. In a world with the increasing spread of dangerous weapons and the capacity to deliver them, it's a craft that seems essential to survival.
 
It implies accepting a threat from a declared enemy, and calculating that a counter-threat, but not an attack, is likely to produce a minimum of harm.
 
It doesn't make us comfortable, but allows a continuation of what has been achieved.
 
The 11 years since the Second Lebanon War and the three years since the last Gaza operation, along with the relative quiet on northern and southern borders, suggest the weight of Israel's military responses when provoked.
 
We should understand the tactic of Iranian leaders to express their sense of threat from Israel. It may not be justified, but it can help them cement their constituencies. 
 
As any fan of American football knows, the best offense is a good defense. Or maybe the best defense is a good offense.
 
Israeli leaders have been wise to avoid explicit threats to Iran, of the kind that Donald Trump makes to North Korea. However, Israeli officials have been clear in their concern to obtain weapons that they say are in defense against Iran. 
 
What the Middle East does not need is a situation where all sides in potential conflicts increase the fever and provide their antagonists an excuse to escalate further toward actual warfare. A Trump-like character speaking in Hebrew, Farsi, or Arabic is the last thing needed in these parts.
 
Comments welcome


-- 
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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