Iranian nuclear technicians 248.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Images of violent clashes between protesters and the authorities in Iran are continuing to flood the Israeli media, but both the defense and academic communities here are suffering from an acute shortage of Persian-speaking experts on Iran who can interpret the scenes of unrest and provide in-depth analyses of internal political affairs.
As reported by The Jerusalem Post in May, just weeks before the Iranian elections and the accompanying wave of turmoil, a special team of analysts headed by longtime Defense Ministry official and Iran expert Uri Lubrani was disbanded.
The Post has learned this week that Lubrani's staff was made up of two Persian-speaking analysts recruited from the ranks of the intelligence community. They were tasked with analyzing Iran's internal political situation.
Before the team was disbanded, Lubrani - a former ambassador to Iran - presented its work to Defense Minister Ehud Barak. A third Persian-speaking analyst was fired from Lubrani's office in 2003 due to budgetary constraints.
A source familiar with these developments, speaking on condition of anonymity, said efforts to understand Iran's internal political world fell far short of what was needed.
"With this clumsy approach, no one thought that this [wave of unrest in Iran] would happen. I'm not saying Lubrani's staff could have changed the world, but they could have been activated during this time, and their input would have been better than nothing," the source said.
"This office could have obtained certain results. But it faced constant budget cuts. It was fighting for pennies while we are facing an existential threat," he added. "The office did good work."
In general, the source said, petty organizational politics and cronyism were getting in the way of serious efforts to understand Iranian society and internal Iranian tensions, while Iran experts from outside the defense establishment stood little chance of being recruited.
"Some are thinking about political interests, not the national interest," the source charged.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak's bureau declined to comment.
Senior government officials acknowledged that over the last decade, the thrust of Israel's focus on Iran has been on its nuclear program, diplomatic ways to stop it, and its military capabilities.
Only a fraction of the resources has been dedicated to studying and analyzing the country's political, economic and social processes, one official said.
For instance, within the Foreign Ministry, while there is a complete division, the Strategic Affairs Division, that spends much of its time concentrating on the Iranian nuclear issue, there is only one person in the ministry's Center for Policy Research who speaks Farsi and monitors Iranian internal developments.
Inside the Prime Minister's Office, meanwhile, Uzi Arad has emerged as Binyamin Netanyahu's adviser on Iran. However, Arad is also head of the National Security Council, Netanyahu's National Security adviser, and chief foreign policy adviser.
What this means, the official said, is that outside the military and the Mossad, there had not been an abundance of available information on the political developments taking place inside Iran. The official said he did not know the resources available to Military Intelligence and the Mossad on these issues.
By the same token, the official said that in all fairness, it was necessary to note that no country - not the US, France, Russia or Turkey, all of whom watch Iran very carefully - had predicted the recent developments.
In academia, the picture is not significantly better. Depending on whom one asks, no more than 10 bona fide Iran experts work at Israeli universities today.
Dr. Meir Litvak of Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies said that while the number of doctorate students specializing in Iran was rising, they would have a difficult time finding jobs after receiving their PhDs.
Litvak said the problem was not specific to the field of Iran in academia.
"There are fewer than five academic specialists on Iraq. Small budgets, a lack of facilities, and a dismissive view of the importance of understanding the Middle East mean there are few of us," he said.
"We live in the Middle East, for better or for worse. Sometimes I have the feeling that the political echelons think they can ignore this fact. In reality there is a critical need to understand our region," said Litvak. "This is not just a question of Iran."
Dr. Soli Shahvar, director of the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, described the shortage of Iran experts in Israeli academia as "severe."
He added that "when you say 'experts,' it is important to keep in mind that there are growing numbers of people who define themselves as experts. I would humbly suggest that there should be a filtering of self-proclaimed experts, since many of them did not research Iran."
Shahvar said that unlike in the US, where academic experts were consulted by policy-makers, decision-makers in Israel were not usually informed by expert opinion when it came to Iran.
"After 9/11, the US woke up and realized it was lacking the ability to deeply analyze problematic countries. It began recruiting experts who spoke the needed languages," Shahvar added.
However, Israeli-Iranian Middle East analyst Meir Javedanfar expressed his frustration over "being frowned upon" when attempting to present his view of Iran.
"Our failing comes from the fact that the threat from Iran is in some cases blinding the analysis. Because of the threat and because of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's constantly hostile remarks against Israel, the level of analysis coming out of Israel has been skewed in some cases," Javedanfar said, speaking by phone from the US.
"From a personal point of view, as someone who has lived in Iran after the revolution, and as someone who is as much Israeli as he is Iranian, people who try to be objective and look at both sides of the situation in order to give a clearer picture to the Israeli public are sometimes frowned upon as being too sympathetic," he added.