Editor's Notes: Playing chess against Tehran

In an extraordinary interview, Israel’s most senior civil servant, Uri Lubrani, discloses his recipe for ousting the mullahs, and a great deal more besides...

Uri Lubrani 311 (photo credit: Isaac Harari)
Uri Lubrani 311
(photo credit: Isaac Harari)
Uri Lubrani has been advising the leaders of Israel for decades. He started as secretary to Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister. He was adviser on Arab affairs to prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and prime minister Levi Eshkol’s bureau chief and political adviser. He was head of the Israeli mission to Iran from 1973 to 1978 in the heyday of Israel’s relations with Tehran, and predicted the fall of the shah – to Israeli and American indifference and doubt.
Lubrani served as ambassador to Ethiopia and to Uganda, and as a longtime coordinator of Israeli activities in Lebanon. He oversaw the clandestine Operation Solomon airlift of 15,000 Jews from civil-war-riven Ethiopia in the space of a single weekend in 1991. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin appointed him to head the team negotiating the release of missing Israeli soldiers.
From various small offices in the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, he has worked as a special adviser to a succession of defense ministers – valued by some, barely tolerated by others. Today he is part of the office of our minister for strategic affairs, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon.
Rather than dwelling on advice that was heeded, Lubrani, now 84 and doubtless the country’s oldest civil servant, tends to focus these days on insights that were and are being ignored. In a lengthy interview with me and The Jerusalem Post’s military correspondent Yaakov Katz, he offers all manner of provocative assessments, and describes a series of adventures successful and aborted, including a previously undisclosed effort to help resolve Palestinian refugee property claims back in Ben- Gurion’s time. But Lubrani – slower of pace physically, but sharp as ever – reserves his greatest passion for one piece of advice he feels most anguished not to have inculcated: His conviction that more Israelis, indeed all Israelis, need to master Arabic.
“It stuns me and amazes me that in [the Israeli Arab towns of] Taibe and Tira the Arabs can speak Hebrew, but we don’t speak their language. And we want to be absorbed! We want them to think we’re part of this region!”
And that would have helped Israel achieve normalization in this region, we wondered? That would have led to greater acceptance from the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world? That would have meant that Egyptians, when liberated from dictatorship, would be instinctively less hostile to Israel?
“I’m not saying it would have solved everything,” he fired back, hearing our skepticism. “[But] it would have changed our attitude to them and theirs to us, too.”
Lubrani has warned for decades of the dangers posed by Iran’s Islamist regime, and long urged greater international assistance to the domestic opposition that seeks to oust it. Here, he lambastes President Barack Obama for what he considers the delusional effort at engagement, and sets out the steps he urges the West to take to expedite the demise of the mullahs. The regime will fall, he says, but since the West should have every interest in that happening sooner rather than later, it needs to offer unequivocal public rhetorical support to the Iranian opposition, and a great deal of practical assistance, too.
So how do you see the regional tumult playing out?
I have no idea. It’s still bubbling. But it will certainly lead to a considerable weakening of what we call the moderate regimes of the Middle East. It will also lead to a weakening of American influence.
Will it strengthen the more ruthless regimes? Where will it stop?
Again, it’s not clear yet. Is it going to stop in Libya? It could go to Morocco. To Saudi Arabia. Dubai. Abu Dhabi. There are population problems there, too. A Shi’ite majority in Bahrain and Sunnis who control it.
It will certainly encourage [the rulers of some of these regimes] to find agreements with the Iranians. If I were in the Gulf today, looking around me, estimating how much support I’ll get from the US, I’d begin to think of looking elsewhere.
The US presence – the Central Command in Qatar and the Navy Fifth Fleet in Bahrain – won’t prevent that?
Bahrain is indeed one of the most important US naval bases. But look at what’s happening there. I’m not sure whether the Americans are giving them the support they expect.
I look at everything through the eyes of Iran. The Iranians see that area, the Gulf principalities, as theirs. They consider what’s unfolding as an opportunity. The Iranians have a quality that we and others lack: patience. Unlimited patience. And a capacity to absorb. They play chess. They look two or three moves ahead.
You sound rather pessimistic about a push for freedom.
What’s happened in Egypt is absolutely a cry for something more than they had under [president Hosni] Mubarak – which wasn’t a terrible dictatorship, but was a dictatorship nonetheless. But it will take years to play out. And it won’t always meet our interests.
You’re saying it might be good for Israel if the region truly changed, but that the interim is likely to be very problematic, and maybe beyond that too?
Absolutely, we’re in a problematic situation. To my sorrow, in 62 years, we have not managed to root our existence in this area and to ensure that we are recognized as part of it. We have peace deals with Jordan and Egypt that are all well and good, but we know what kind of peace those deals are. They’re not quite what we want.
The most obvious thing that drives me crazy is that we don’t require our children to learn Arabic from the first grade. They can’t speak it. It stuns me and amazes me that in Taibe and Tira the Arabs can speak Hebrew, but we don’t speak their language. And we want to be absorbed! We want them to think we’re part of this region!
It’s our fault that we’re not accepted here?
I’m not saying that [all of us speaking Arabic] would have solved everything. But Ben- Gurion in the first few years of statehood should have required the youth to learn Arabic. In truth, there weren’t actually enough people to teach it. But that should have been the declared aim. We achieved all sorts of things in agriculture and in the military sphere, defying the odds. We should have done the same with Arabic.
It would have changed local Arabs’ attitude to us?
It would have changed our attitude to them and theirs to us, too. I’ll give you a personal example. I grew up in Haifa – a mixed city. My late father had many Arab friends. They would come to our house. After 1948, one of those friends moved to Ramallah and those connections were retained. I was overseas for a long time and when I came home I invited that family to come and visit us. It had been years. They came from Ramallah in their car. It was a wonderful evening. We sent them home to Ramallah. Later that night, the friend called me and said “It was a lovely evening but I’ll never do it again.” I said, “What happened?” He said that on the way home, they came to a Border Police road block. The Border Police checked the car and asked him to open the trunk. He said they slammed the trunk down on his head. He said to me, “Apparently, we’re not yet ready to live together.”
Most of the things we do in the territories can be done with exactly the same result but in a different way: “Excuse me, can we come in?” “Can I move this from here to there?”
That would really make a difference? The Palestinians would hate us less?
Without a doubt. Understand how important respect is to them. More important than money and many other things. Do you know what it’s like for a husband to have his wife and children watch as soldiers slap him in the face? What a blow to his honor? Why the need to do it? It’s a matter of education.
I know I’m a Don Quixote. [Better behavior] wouldn’t have solved all our problems. But it would have solved plenty. And it would at least have lowered the level of hatred – among Israeli Arabs, too.
And that would have made the Egyptians, similarly, like us more? It would have had an effect, by osmosis. Do you think that in Egypt they like to see how we kick the Palestinians? They don’t. They are prepared to kick and hit their own Arabs, but when infidels like us do it, they don’t like it.
And we could have maintained our security control more politely?
Without a doubt. I’m not saying that in every case you can [be polite]. There are some terrible people out there.
And it would have meant, in 2011, that the Egyptian public’s instinctive relationship to us would have been more positive?
Perhaps. I’ll give you another example from my life. I’m not a dove. Far from it. And I feel there is something in the expression that “the Arabs only understand one language.” Okay. But you can translate that language more effectively. I was on a bus one day as a child, between Haifa and the Carmel, with my father. An Arab woman got on, with two baskets. My father told me to stand up and give her my seat. The man sitting behind us butted in, asking why my father had told me to do that. My father said again, “Stand up and let her sit down. We’re going to be living with her for another 2,000 years together.” That stuck in my head.
If we had managed to deport them altogether, I wouldn’t have minded. But we didn’t. They’re here. And if they’re here, we have to live with them in a certain way and we haven’t succeeded in that. We’ve succeeded in many different matters, and we have every right to be proud of that. But on this, we didn’t succeed.
Another personal example. I was in Tel Hashomer [hospital] years ago, visiting a friend. At that time, I would appear quite often on TV since I was the coordinator of government affairs in Lebanon. Suddenly this cleaning woman grabs me. I asked: “What’s the problem?” She pleaded with me, “Please, teach your children to speak Arabic. I come from Gaza. And the soldiers can’t even say the word ‘curfew’ in Arabic. There was a curfew and my son went outside and he was shot.”
You say you’re not a dove. What are your positions on the ’67 lines, on negotiations with the Palestinians?
I always knew that we would have to divide this land. I’m not more of a dove than Ehud Barak – who offered what he offered and agreed to what he agreed. If we could hold more, I’d want to retain more. I’m a Ben- Gurionist. I know we have to push for things that are not accepted in the Arab world. But we also have to find the way to demonstrate that we know we live in a state that has to live together with the Arabs.
I’m opposed to relinquishing all of the West Bank. I want border corrections that will ensure we are not surprised. And I don’t care what people say about that.
Minor corrections?
I favor retaining the Jordan Valley. That’s not a minor matter.
Is it too late to build ties with the Egyptian people? Will they be more hostile the more the people genuinely control their country?
It will certainly be harder for us with a new regime in Egypt. Those days when our negotiations were with a single ruler are over. We’ll need to find ways to build a network of relations based on give and take. We’ll need to give it a lot of thought.
Give and take what?
First, we’ll always have the possibility to give them the sense that we have influence with the United States.
Second, Egypt has very serious economic difficulties. Let’s see if we can create a situation whereby their tourism and our tourism sectors work together. Create a mutual dependence. We can do that with Lebanon, too, when the time comes. I won’t be alive by then, but it will happen. Then there are options for joint industry. We have to give them the feeling that, while they might not love us, the fact is that we are here and are strong and can’t be booted out, and that a certain cooperation will benefit both sides.
And we can overcome their inclination to look in a different direction – toward the Iranians?
I don’t believe they’ll look that way. They’re Sunnis and the Iranians are Shi’ites.
That religious gulf is greater than the gulf between them and us? It hasn’t prevented the relationship between Hamas and Iran.
The rift between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis is deeper than anything else. The Hamas matter is a function of money. Twice in recent years I’ve watched meetings between [Hamas leader] Khaled Mashaal and [Iran’s President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and it’s obvious that Ahmadinejad is the dominant player there.
Let me tell you something from when I was in Tehran. It took me two-and-a-half years before the shah would even agree to see me, but eventually I reached a situation where, if I wanted to see him, I saw him. At one of those meetings, in 1976, I asked him, “Your majesty, could you explain to me, why are you spending so much money on military equipment?”
He looked at me like I was a fool and said, “I need a strong army.”
I said, “Why. You’ve just signed an agreement regarding the Shatt al-Arab [river] with Iraq and thereby solved your key problem on the Iraqi border.”
He said, “Obviously you don’t understand things. I’m going to be attacked by the Arabs.”
I persisted: “You’ve just signed an agreement!”
He said, “It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. I’m certain that the Americans will protect me from the Soviet Union. If the Russians attack, I’m sure the Americans will be there. But if the Arabs attack, the Americans will say it’s a local conflict. So what do you need? You need an army to protect you. And the Arabs will attack.”
This almost endemic antipathy between the Arabs and the Iranians is indescribable. They hate each other.
But in the same way that you have partnerships between the likes of Syria and Iran, strategic agreements, can’t you have that between Egypt and Iran?
Everything is possible. Strategic agreements are not a function of love or hate. But the Iranians – almost 77 million today; when I left it was 30 or 31 million – are going to be a central factor in the Middle East under every regime, whether we like it or not.
Now, this regime regards itself as having been sent by the divine power to stand at the head of the Muslim camp, to face off against the infidels. They consider that this is the moment for Islam to retrieve what the infidels took away from them. Ultimately, they regard Malaga in Spain as being theirs! That’s the way they think. Ahmadinejad makes no effort to hide it.
So how do they get over the Sunni-Shi’ite split to achieve that goal? How do they curry favor among the Arabs? They take the Palestinian issue, the Palestinian conflict, and elevate it into the key cause. That’s what they have done. They created a situation – first with Islamic Jihad and various other extremist groups, and now with Hamas and all of them – where they are the patrons of the cause. It’s all money, and not that much money for the Iranians at that. They have given maybe $500 million to Hamas to date.
But then what would prevent a similar relationship between Iran and Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood are not potential partners?
They’re Sunnis. I don’t see that partnership.
Do you see the Muslim Brotherhood taking control in Egypt?
No. The average Egyptian does not see himself defined as a Muslim Brother...
I must stress that many people know Egypt much better than I do. But I do think that it’s much too early to draw conclusions. My only conclusion for now, for us, is to not talk. Not to create points of friction. Not to insult. Let it flow. In any case, you can’t control it. But I would add that you have to internalize how interdependent the Egyptian army and the Egyptian economy are. It would require a whole other convulsion for that to change, and I don’t see the army letting that happen.
So don’t talk, beyond expressing empathy for the Egyptian people’s desire for freedom?
Right. Unfortunately, we don’t have many tools even to do that.
Let me digress. I have these out of the box ideas sometimes. One of those was to establish our own version of Al-Jazeera. An Israeli-inspired Al-Jazeera in Arabic. One of the people who helped me was a person intimately familiar with Al-Jazeera and its funding, who did a costing [analysis] for me four years ago, but I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to listen...
We know you had problems ensuring funding for Israel Radio’s small Farsi service.
I have had to find them the funding for pencil and printers. But now things have improved somewhat.
So you wanted to set up a TV station of the same power and quality as Al-Jazeera. Let’s hazard the cost: $100m. per year?
Fifty million sterling, actually. Almost as much. Nobody wanted to listen. (Smiles wistfully:) If Teddy Kollek were still alive, and I’d have gone with him to Ben-Gurion...
That reminds me of another idea I once had: To this day I believe that we need to give financial compensation to every refugee who has any claim to property inside sovereign Israel. Not the property, you understand, but financial compensation.
I went to Ben-Gurion about this. I was his adviser on Arab affairs. The head of the Greek Catholic Church in Haifa had a community of 25,000-30,000 refugees in Beirut. He came to me. He said, “At least give them some money. They’re in terrible financial condition.” I said, “Would they accept it? He said, “Of course.” I said, “I want to meet with their representatives.”
So he arranged for us to travel together to the Vatican. I got Ben-Gurion’s approval for the trip. And the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Haifa brought me 20 representatives of the Lebanon refugees.
Not only Catholics.
I had established at the time a rough estimate that the value of property claims of the entire refugee community was a few billion dollars. A lot of money, but still. Reuven Aloni, the husband of [former leading left-wing politician] Shulamit Aloni, who headed the Israel Lands Authority, had given me the estimate.
Yaacov Herzog, [president] Haim Herzog’s brother, the minister at the Israeli Embassy in Washington in the late 1950s, had spoken to [secretary of state John Foster] Dulles, who had told him that the Americans would help Israel with this money.
I showed the refugee representatives the draft agreement and they said they were prepared to sign. But then fate stepped in. Soon after I came back from the Vatican meeting, Ben-Gurion resigned. Then I became the head of [incoming prime minister] Eshkol’s bureau. When he’d found his feet and I went to him with the idea, he rejected it.
This agreement would have applied to all refugees in Lebanon?
Yes, and the idea was that this would be the exemplar agreement, which could then have been extended to all refugees’ property claims. They weren’t prepared to sign off on the nonmaterial claims. Only the material claims. They weren’t relinquishing the political demands.
I also suggested that every Israel legation around the world would have a desk to handle requests. And there would be an office in Israel to check the claims and pay out the money. It would have taken years. But it would have shown that we weren’t bent on taking their property [without recompense]. I felt we had to do something.
I was given the incentive to check if it was possible. It wasn’t simple. But I traveled to the Vatican, alone, with no aides. I was very sorry that it didn’t work out.
Let’s get back to the question of whether the wave of protests will come to threaten the regime in Tehran.
Anything is possible. But I fear that it’s not going to happen at this point, even though it looks like Iran is being affected as part of the wider process of protest. You have to take into account that the regime had prepared for the possibility of a public challenge for a long time – certainly since [the furor surrounding the fraudulent elections in] June 2009, in fact. It took every possible step in advance to ensure that there would not be problems this time. Despite this, despite the fact that they’ve hanged 80 or 90 people in the last two or three months to terrify and deter; that they’ve arrested and tortured and sent people into exile to prevent any organized protest, still people ran in the streets. These kids are heroic. To protest in the street is to court death, and yet they run. But it wasn’t enough.
So what is needed? Millions in the streets?
Yes – and I’d be very happy if it happens while I’m still alive. What’s needed, first of all, is unequivocal support from the West. That isn’t there today – not from Europe and not from the United States. The US is hesitant. President Obama said something laconic when the latest protests erupted, about the irony of Iran supporting people power in Egypt but quashing it at home.
He needs to say that the US supports by every legal means the effort by the Iranian people to achieve freedom and democracy. That the US will invest efforts in this. That the US will invest money in this. That would electrify the Iranians. That’s what he has to say publicly. And we need a decision to the same effect in both houses of Congress.
Is it too late now?
No. It’s never too late. It’s not too late to say, ‘We share the sorrow and the pain borne by the Iranian people because of the regime’s abuse of it, and we’ll do everything to ensure there is no recurrence.’ Practically, I’m much more concerned about regime change than about the nuclear matter. I’m absolutely convinced that the nuclear matter will resolve itself once there is a regime change.
Despite the reports that they’ve overcome the effects of the Stuxnet computer virus?
They’ll always say they’ve overcome it. They’re poker-faced.
What’s needed, along with the public support from the West, is strike action. The economic situation in Iran is catastrophic. You have to ensure that it gets worse. What does that entail? Closing down their capacity to sell oil. And the US can help considerably in this matter if it wants to, by placing sanctions on companies that deal in Iranian oil.
And then you need to encourage strike action, to bring the country to a standstill.
What happens then? What is already starting to happen. Maybe I’m too optimistic. But I see some cracks in the Pasdaran [Revolutionary Guards]. I hear there are defections from the senior Pasdaran.
You must also bring about a situation in which the army – the most neutral organization – will be prepared to do something. The army has a long score to settle with the regime.
All this requires the US to come out publicly. So far, the Americans have been giving the impression that they’re willing to engage. It’s either self-delusion or an effort to sweep it all under the carpet. From the moment that Obama entered the White House, the Iranians have been having a ball with the engagement approach. There’s not a chance in the world that they’ll halt their uranium enrichment. So they are delighted if the Americans think that they’ll meet in January here, in Istanbul in April, we’ll all sit down and talk and nothing comes out of it, and then a spokesman for the Iranian parliament says there is still some chance, and everyone says, Oh look at what he said, and the Iranians buy another few months.
Can’t Israel get the message to the US? To stop engagement. To support the rebels.
Our relations with the US are not so good these days. They say that relations between [Prime Minister] Netanyahu and Obama aren’t good. You would certainly know better than me. They have to reach the final conclusion that engagement won’t work.
It seems that’s not in Obama’s character.
You said it. He doesn’t take no for an answer. That’s the man. That’s his character. That’s his world view. He doesn’t want to make waves.
I was just in Washington, at the conference of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies – FDD. They asked me about the military option. I said I oppose the military option. But for me as an Israeli, it should always be on the table. That’s only for the end of days. When the sword is at my throat, I’ll use it.
Which is when?
I can’t say. I don’t believe the Iranians would have to use a bomb. The threat of them having it would be enough to turn the whole Persian Gulf pro-Iranian and force the Saudis to change course.
They can’t do that now?
What’s missing?
They have to make some kind of demonstrative act – demonstrate some kind of nuclear device and proclaim that they have become members of the club. For the Iranians it would be a very, very important political weapon. If Ahmadinejad and his gang get it – well, that must never happen.
If your plan for bringing down the regime is so clear and straightforward, and the stakes are so high, why the inaction?
People no longer believe in themselves. And who the hell is Uri Lubrani anyway. He’s 84. An alte–kaker. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
But there’s a minister who has apparently adopted you...
I have to warm him up. That takes time.
You’re the crazy guy in the Kirya?
Yes, I’ve become the village idiot.
But Ya’alon must have some time for you if he took you under his sponsorship.
He didn’t say “come.” They told him: “You take him!” Life is more complicated than you may think.
But I get by. I am very pleased to be under Ya’alon’s patronage. I’m very proud of my capacity for patience. That’s something I learned in Iran.
Look at the patience the Iranians have. [Ayatollah] Khomeini, in his will, told them to export the revolution. They decided back then that Lebanon would be their first objective. In 1983, they killed almost 250 Marines, in order to boot the Americans out of that country. And they succeeded. The great [president] Reagan said, Let’s leave. And since then they’ve slowly, gradually built up Hezbollah’s status in Lebanon. And today they are the de facto rulers. And it won’t take long before they take de jure control. And the same will happen with Syria. Syria will become a surrogate. It’s unfolding there already.
And Bashar Assad doesn’t see this?
Assad obviously feels the decline of American influence. And he needs a bolster from the rising power. And the rising power is Iran. It has money.
Even if it swallows him in the end.
He’s convinced they won’t swallow him. But they have patience. So much patience that encourages, in Syria, a process of the Sunnis becoming Shi’ites. There’s a shrine near Damascus that’s important to the Shi’ites – of Sayyida Zeynab [granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad]. All kinds of pilgrims go there from Iran. Slowly, slowly. No hurry. In short, Syria is already on the way.
So what went wrong in 1979 in Iran? People succeeded in bringing down the shah but they didn’t get freedom. What mistakes did they make and what are the lessons for Egypt?
The dominant figure in the 1979 revolution was Khomeini. The vengeful. The initiator. He had a score to settle with the ruling family.
He manipulated the secular opponents of the shah?
They joined up with him. Iran was a dictatorship. The secret services didn’t let anyone raise their head. The only network that worked well, legitimately, was the religious network. There were perhaps 60,000-70,000 villages. Every village had its mullah. Not a policeman but a mullah. And each group of mullahs had a bigger mullah on top of them. All the way up to Khomeini.
And the shah made catastrophic mistakes. He lost his connection to the people. He was sick. He did some things that he should have done more slowly and some of which he should have initiated much earlier. On rights for women, his wife pressured him. The mullahs didn’t like it. It needed to be done more slowly. He should have introduced democratization slowly. Instead, he tried to play at democratizing. He had two parties up against each other; both were run from the same office in his palace. That was nonsense.
So it’s wrong to think there was a secular uprising in 1979?
They rose together. But the dominant factor was Khomeini.
And the regime he built won’t fall without outside intervention?
Oh, it will fall. That will happen in any case.
The question is when?
Yes. And since we burningly need that to happen, this process must be encouraged.
(Interview conducted by David Horovitz and Yaakov Katz)