Because we don’t get Iran, we don’t understand what is happening 

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By David Wurmser

Various senior intelligence sources in Israel over the last weeks have suggested in public that they assess the upheaval in Iran to be serious, perhaps even profoundly altering of Iran’s behavior, but in the end, that they “do not see that the regime is in danger.”2 This Israeli assessment follows weeks of private signaling from the United States that it also did not believe Iran’s regime would fall. That this was indeed the US assessment was publicly confirmed by CIA director William Burns during his with PBS’s Judy Woodruff. 3  Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence, added: “”We’re not seeing the regime perceive this as an imminent threat to their stability and effect,”4 

The reasons for arriving at such pessimism on regime change that Israeli intelligence has given also parallels those filtering out of US governmental discussions as well: lack of centralized opposition leadership; lack of funds, and lack of internal regime defections. A revolution, they assert, needs those conditions to succeed. So it appears that Israel’s assessment reflects Israel’s increasing proclivity to defer to American judgments on the region. 

Apart from the rather unusual nature of such public intelligence assessments, these statements by Israel and the US are demoralizing to Iranians, hand the Iranian regime an unnecessary boost of confidence and squander somewhat the potential for a post-Ayatollah Iranian-Israeli rapprochement. 

So what are we to make of these statements? Are they even right? 

Israel’s intelligence structures are storied, and deservedly so. Only the passage of time will allow for the full unveiling of what Israel’s shadow services have done to understand, follow and comprehend the full nature of the Iranian threat, as well as to sabotage it. Fleeting episodes of assassinations, mysterious work accidents, and occasional top-secret archival transplantations to Israel suggest the parameters, depth and professionalism of penetration of Iran which the Israeli security structure has managed. From personal experience, while it is still classified, suffice it to say in general that the understanding of Israel’s intelligence about Iran has surpassed that of any other country’s already two decades ago.  Nobody else holds a candle to them. As such, it is with great deference and trepidation that one would dismiss their estimates.   

And yet, on the case of Iran’s potential regime collapse, it would be wise not to accept the estimates of the intelligence community as the definitive word. Indeed, on this specific question, there is no reason to believe that either Israeli or US intelligence – from which Israel’s intelligence seems to have derived its assessment — has a particularly superior insight that justifies uncritical acceptance. 

The advantage of an intelligence structure is its access both to vast information, some of which is invisible to the general public, as well as to governmental data management structures that allow for powerful substantive searches or even artificial intelligence assisted analyses.  And yet, assessments on this level of perspective must by their nature be grounded first and foremost in a strong appreciation for the context of culture, ideas and exposure to broad swaths of society – all areas in which an intelligence structure has no particular advantage.  When it comes to broader questions such as strategic interpretation and political trends, students of history (who rely on appreciating the patterns and character of culture), political theorists (who examine political systems over millennia),  and those present on the ground (inhabitants, foreigners such as journalists) have as good a sense of the context and exposure to trends operate as an intelligence officer or expatriate. In other words, there is nothing more informed about an intelligence agency’s estimate about the potential for a revolution’s success than that of a good non-intelligence agency analyst or scholar.  

It is not that US and Israeli intelligence assessments are entirely in agrrement with what the opposition appears to believe. Indeed, there appears to be a rough consensus on several points.  First, Iran’s people are fed up with the regime. They are palpably seething in their anger and their disdain.  And it is universal.  Second, the regime clearly retains the will to kill – which was absent, for example, in the 1989 annus mirabilis of eastern Europe’s liberation.  Third, there is increasing foreign intervention that helps the Iranian regime survive.  Fourth, the population generally is disarmed facing a heavily armed gendarme. And fifth, the opposition is not operating at this point in a mirrored fashion – it does not match the regime’s a centralized authority, structure of well-funded instruments of attack and foreign material support.  

But here the consensus between the US and the opposition, and even the US and Israel, seems to fray. The US also appears to believe that the threat of separatist violence will dampen popular support “to go all the way,” or in the very least will make nation-wide opposition coordination efforts difficult. This, of course, has been a theme pounded into the public debate by Iran’s disinformation networks and mouthpieces in the West. The US and Israeli governments also appear to disagree ultimately as to whether this unrest can lead to a more reformable and malleable government or not. While the US believes apparently that reform is still possible, in contrast Israeli officials and intelligence analysts fully agree with Iranians of all factions, who appear to summarily dismiss with certainty and even irritated impatience any hope of reform.   

It is these insights — over only some of which intelligence services may have some particular unique sources of information – that the US and Israel conclude that the regime is threatened but will survive.  

And yet, that is where the limits of intelligence analysis kicks in and provides an incomplete, and quite possibly inaccurate, picture. 

Those with the most sensitized understanding of where things are headed are the people on the ground in Iran – the people braving arrest, running into bullets and facing possible assassination. Even a cursory survey of opposition communications over the last three months indicate a novel and quite adamant assertion that “this time it is different.”  This sentiment was present in the week after Mahsa Amini died, and even more so now.  Indeed, the Iranian opposition both in exile and in Iran acts with such confidence that they appear to believe it is a forgone conclusion that the regime is finished, is the walking dead, the corpse of which will soon be swept aside. The Iranian opposition universally just dismisses with impatience analyses that compare this upheaval to the several failed uprisings, including the most serious ones of 2009 and 2019. 

The opposition’s confidence is matched by its actions.  The regime, even Ayatollah Khamenei himself, has at several points ominously threatened and demanded the demonstrations stop immediately; no further “or else.” The strategy was to win by injecting fear and terror on top of the fragmented and separatist,  atomized society. As Iranian scholar Damon Golriz has noted, the regime’s doctrine is called (النصر بالرعب  Al-Nasr Bal Raeb) which means winning by terrorizing people into submission, The concept refers to three Surah Anfal (12), Surah Al-Imran (151), Surah Ahzab (26).  Again, as with the separatist question, CIA director Burns admits that he has been rather surprised as well by the resolve of the Iranian people and assesses the “genuine courage” of Iranians. He also noted that his Israeli colleagues also believe that “the people of Iran have overcome the barrier of fear.”   

Indeed, after the issuance of such ominous threats by the regime, the demonstrations generally escalated rather than faded and also led to further uprisings. The government then applied the “or else” – live ammunition, executions in public, horrific and systematic torture and unspeakable brutality on a vast scale.  But this butchery failed to suppress. Rather, it only led to yet further upheaval and intertwining cycles of 40-days (the end of mourning periods in which vengeful violence often follows).  In other words, the government has the will to kill, but the population appears to be little deterred by this and escalates in response.  How does one deter a population over which one has lost the asset of fear? 

Moreover, the separatist demon which seems to be so central to shunting the analysis of Western intelligence onto the sidetrack of pessimism, but the reality on the ground suggests that the regime’s propaganda has captured Western elites, but not Iranians. Indeed, it appears to those on the ground almost entirely the opposite.   

In his interview, while at the same time Western elites bemoan the lack of a unified leadership as an insurmountable barrier to success this round and constantly raise the separatist specter that emerges from this, even CIA director Burns was forced to admit, and even underscore that he is quite surprised by the unprecedented “duration” and “scope” of these protests and that they are “cutting across” Iranian society. In other words, the totalitarian regime’s attempt to atomize society into conflicting entities (e.g. men vs. women, nation vs. diaspora, Shia vs. Sunni, Kurd or Arab vs. Persian etc.) has failed, and it is thus losing its grip in executing the divide-and-rule strategy.  

The extent to which regions are expressing solidarity with one another across ethnicities and sects, and the disciplined unified messaging of all opposition forces is stunning – despite hellbent efforts by the regime and its western apologists to incite divisions among them.  There is even a unified language of symbolism in resistance of victims (Mahsa Amini, Nika Shukarami…), songs (Baraye) and slogans (Zan, Zendegi, Azadeh—Woman, Life Freedom).  All factions of the opposition appear determined to focus on regime collapse as the highest common priority and regard the failure to achieve that as the single greatest obstacle to achieving any other goal they might hold. 

As far as the funding question goes, there is a balancing beginning not because the opposition is getting money, but because the regime is losing it. The spread of strikes and paralyzed economic activity from general unrest is clearly beginning to stress the regime. Critical industries are either fully struck or struck in rolling temporary outages – from oil workers to bazaar merchants.  There are signs this hurts: foreign disbursements of money have declined to regional terror groups, such as the Palestinians.  Indeed, The Plan and Budget Organization of the Islamic Republic announced in an analytical report, a year ago (summer of 2021) already then concluded that if the “unhealthy economic structure of the country” were not fundamentally revised, the Iranian government will be on the verge of bankruptcy by 2024 and three years after that, it will go bankrupt in 2027.”5 

A concerted campaign of tightened sanctions coupled with the widespread climate of strikes could easily snowball if Western governments launch a determined effort. One could only imagine what might happen if foreign governments placed all of Iran’s frozen assets into the hands of the Iranian opposition. 

Taken together, there seems to be a momentum and intensity to the upheaval that has not abated, which to some extent even US and Israeli intelligence do seem to acknowledge. But these intelligence agencies at the same time seem to admit that they are somewhat surprised by this resilience, and did not appreciate – and apparently still do not – appreciate from where it is coming from other than sheer despair. 

Even though US and Israeli intelligence officials admit that there appears to be universal upheaval by all segments of Iranian society, and even they also admit that Iranians are showing incomprehensible bravery in charging regime forces and sustaining the revolt, the assessment of both Israeli and American intelligence communities remains; the regime is not facing an “immediate threat” to its survival, because ultimately they believe the regime’s strategy of repression is effective, and that it has not exhausted its tools of repression and brutality. In the Israeli intelligence estimate:  

“The deep change Iran is undergoing will not necessarily result in a revolution and regime change. Right now, we do not see this happening in the foreseeable future …The regime still has many tools with which to defend itself and it has not exhausted most of them.”6 

In other words, though separatism, lack of funding and fear have not yet stopped the freedom revolution, they eventually will.  Despair cannot ultimately overpower fear – which will set in — and lead (bullets) – which the regime has.  

And yet, revolutions do not automatically happen just because there is widespread despair. Nor is the correlation of forces determinant as the historical record of revolutions suggest. Clearly something else is at work which US and Israeli intelligence structures are not grasping.  But what is this intangible factor that seems to be at work here that drives the opposition’s confidence with such determination, but is entirely missed by the professional analysts of Western governments? Why are those taking to the streets so confident that not only has  fear notworked for the regime, but it will it not work going forward either? 

Reading between the lines, the opposition appears to believe that a Jinn (Genie in Western parlance) has been released from his bottle, and that he cannot be shoved back into his vessel by the regime. Only by indentifying this “Jinn” can one properly understand why there is such resolve and confidence among Iran’s youth who take to the streets. 

Ironically, this “Jinn” comes from the regime itself. The very attribute that gives the regime the will to kill – its obsession with martyrdom raised to the level of being a cult of death – has been so broadly seared through all-encompassing indoctrination of children and adults alike over several generations that it now is bending back to haunt the regime.  

It is apparent that parents in Iran are tired. They are not the agents of this revolution right now.  They love and lost too many children, and with every death, there is deep mourning at the funeral.  The image that raced across the social media on December 8 when the family of Mohsen Shekari was informed of his being hanged – with screaming out of sheer agony on the street – is heartbreaking, haunting and entirely comprehensible. The parents are too worn down to sacrifice yet another generation of children to the cult of death. But that parents are not the ones leading the emerging revolution; they are broken generations.  But the youth are not. 

And this revolution belongs to Iran’s youth. 

Youth are often more absorbent of the world around them and impervious to danger, and the constant atmosphere of worshipping martyrdom has created a generation that at this young age sees the pursuit of an idea as worthy enough for which to die.  The idea for the Ayatollahs for which they hoped all would welcome death to realize was the archaic glorious expansion of a totalitarian form of Islam. But for the youth, such a vision of Islam has no appeal. Indeed, it is a violation of the ancient understanding, so the deal struck in 654 AD is now off. The idea of freedom – perhaps not fully formed, but very real – has replaced it.   

In this climate of constant martyrdom, the phrase “give me liberty or give me death,” which is so familiar but practically has become distant to young Americans has for Iran’s youth acquired a whole new imagery translated locally. “Zan, Zendegi, Azadeh” has become the cultural equivalent of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.”  It is one of those rare moments where the few words of a slogan capture, rather than infantilize, vast volumes of ideas and communicates them across all the people of that culture via a universally understood code. 

So ironically, the very animus propelling the regime to kill and rampage regionally – the obsession with death emerging from a cult of martyrdom – now drives Iran’s youth in seething disdain to risk everything in revolt.  Every time the regime shoots and kills, and every day there is another execution, it not only fails to deter, but the very cult of martyrdom it cultivated now swells to haunt and plague it.  With fear compromised, the central currency of terror upon which the regime relies is lost. 

This distortion is a tailwind driving the revolution to probable success – the regime lacks the means to erase the willingness to die that challenges them — but it is also a blight with which the post-Ayatollah regime will have to wrestle.  The ancient soul of Iran is of light and life, not darkness and death.  The world of Iran’s civilizational creation – the deepest reach of Iran’s soul to this day – is the world which Abolqasem Ferdowsi described and embodied in his works. As Azar Nafisi wrote, quoting her father, in the introduction to a recent translation of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh: the Persian Book of Kings, in the kingdom of imagination Ferdowsi built  

“Rostam, Tahmineh, Seyavash, Bizhan and the other fictional characters … became our brothers and sisters, cousins and neighbors…For Persians, Shahnameh is like their identity papers … Against the barbarity of time and politics, … they created magnificent monuments in words, they reasserted both their own worth and the best achievements of mankind through a work like Shahnameh, the golden thread that links one Persian to the other, connecting the past to the present.”7   

Simply, the soul of Iran is reflected in poetry. The idea of poetry as a vehicle of transmitting identity distant from how Americans understand ourselves, especially our youth. But poetry and songs of Iran, like e-Iran, and terms, like “Iranzamin” capture the deep and unique civilizational emotion that touches Iran’s soul and anchors them to their land – namely something akin to Abraham Lincoln’s “mystic bonds of memory.” 

Shahnameh describes not a conquest and religious conversion of ancient Persia, but a cultural rapture between very different, and indeed diametric opposite, cultures. The refined, urban and wealthy Persia was overtaken by the harsh, stark, simple and nomadic conquerers – Indeed, Ferdowsi —in a warning to the wealthy, urban and technologically superior West across a millennia and half — laments the juxtaposition in this spectacle between the gilded armor and shining military display of the Persian armies which may have looked impressive externally but whose internal will broke so easily from the rust of comfort and then surrendered to the much less armed, much less wealthy and much less clad Arab invaders.   

And yet, the symbolism of this ancient culture offers a pillar of resurrection.  The poplar tree bends in the wind, the origin of the symbol of our “paisley” was a Victorian era fascination with motifs of the orient, so it has been vastly popularized in clothing, carpets, ties and paintings throughout the world.  But this is no more art work for the Persians: it is an allegory of their culture and the moment of surrender that Ferdowsi describes.  The poplar tree, signifying ancient Iranian culture, lasts forever, but it has to bend to the wind, signifying Islam, to do so. 

Inflexible resistance would have only led to its breaking and erasure.  For the Muslim invaders, this was fine.  Although it conceded some to ancient Persia to allow some elements of its culture and its cultural memory to survive, it gained as well since attempting to control this ancient culture was preferable to the business of erasing it altogether. The Arab invaders lacked the numbers to extinguish Persia in all its complexity, vastness and influence, so the deal that has lasted over a millennium was struck.  

Ancient Persian culture, thus, still has a grip on some corner of the Iranian soul, but it has been bent and covered by the greater forces of Islam for millennia. 

So over the soul of light and life, a culture that so worships fire and light, is an overlay that has been imposed. While various forms of Islam, and various phases of Islamic evolution, upheld the ancient deal, this new form of Islam, developed over the last century and imposed on Iran in 1979, has violated the millennium-long understanding with its Persian hosts.  

The totalitarian intrusion into Shiite thought, anchored onto the idea of the Valayat e-Faqeh (Rule of the Jurisprudent) over the last decades has sought to erase the last remnants of Persia, and it is finding that this ambition is likely no easier to have accomplished now than it was in 654 AD. Ironically, while the government of the Ayatollahs tries to spin its new ideology as some deep, culminating expression of Iranian culture, the truth is more likely the opposite. A reasonable argument can even be made that this newest, modern form of totalitarian Islam is the triumph of a Greek philosophical Shibbolet – namely Plato’s idea of the “philosopher king” which is now invested with a religious fervor and pious veneer against which Aristotle argued — over the Persia represented by Cyrus.  

This twisted manifestation of Islam is a world of darkness and death, embodied by the dour, cruel and arrogantly detached leadership of these reigning Ayatollahs. It is undeniable that at the heart of all Shiism is the ongoing pain and reliving of the assassination of Ali in 661 AD, and the following martyrdom of his sons Hasan in 670 AD and Husayn a decade later in Karbala, but this regime of Iran has taken this reverence for their martyrdom and raised it to the single, defining factor of its existence. Theirs is the God of misery, where life is easily bartered for the relief of death, where the hell of earth is traded for the paradise of the afterlife. The value of emulation is taken to the extreme to striving to reach the demise that the founding three suffered. 

This grim, bleak desolation offered by the regime offers little for which to live, while at the same time its diminishing of the value of life instilled over generations also erases the fear upon which the regime depends for survival.  This duality is the Jinn the intelligence communities miss, but which the Iranian people appear to believe has been released from its vessel. 

Something profound is gripping Iran.  A twilight struggle to the death has been joined. The Ayatollahs have violated the old understanding between Persia and Islam. The intensity of the ensuing suppression and the acceleration of their attempts to erase the Persian heart of the nation have now cut so deep that it has forced Iranians, as the trustees of their ancient culture and legacy, who breathe the poetry and stories of their history to nurture their unique soul, into a battle for survival.  And yet, now as then, the forces of totalitarianism attempting to extinguish Persia simply lack the numbers. And they will thus eventually lose.  

And this is the point that both Israeli and American intelligence agencies appear to miss entirely.  It is not their fault. Intelligence operates in a world of stress and short fuses.  They are navigators to a captain in a storm. The captain cannot suffer a long treatise on fluid dynamics from a navigator; he needs an immediate judgment as to what he should do.  Yes, they should appreciate context, but immediacy and urgency does not lend itself well to the contemplation of long-term trends. And yet, in such a moment as Iran finds itself, it is only those long-term trends that illuminate for us where affairs are headed. Intelligence assessments are occasionally the consequence of such careful reflection, but usually, they are of limited value. 

As a final thought, sadly, this cult of death imposed by these totalitarians will bedevil Iran after liberation as well. It has left its scars, and scars are never easily covered, let alone erased. One can only hope that an effort to reawaken the contrasting, ancient soul of Iran — whose passing Ferdowsi documents, memorializes but also embodies — in order to create a relish for life and light to overpower this cult of death will prevail.  Indeed, this effort to erase this tormenting distortion of the soul is going to be the most important but difficult task of the post-Ayatollah Iranian leadership.  

The Israeli-Lebanese Maritime Deal: A Study in Flawed Assumptions 

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By Dr. David Wurmser

The problem with the Israel-Lebanon maritime agreement just concluded is not only its content, but the surrounding arguments promulgated to justify it in the public eye. There may be secret provisions to the agreement that render it an achievement, but the public disclosures of the terms and rationale for the agreement fall far short, and in some cases are flat out wrong or are invented assertions. One might be tempted to excuse these as public roll-out efforts, which are often akin to putting makeup on warthogs, but some of the public statements from Israel meant to justify the agreement go beyond mere spin and become outright misrepresentations. And worse, some reveal a deeper cause for concern about the underlying defense and foreign policy conceptions informing Israel’s security establishment. 

The agreement at least is an historic first…Not. 

The United States negotiator, US envoy Amos Hochstein asserted the agreement as historic since it is the first agreement ever between Israel and Lebanon.1 An impressive achievement indeed, if it true. But it isn’t.  In fact, there was an agreement – several to be accurate – between Israel and Lebanon.  The Rhodes Agreements of 1948 established a de facto demarcation line, which is what was just reset under this agreement although this is heralded as the first such line established between the two nations.  Second, like this agreement, it actually was both sides’ putting their signature to paper through an intermediary, the United States, so this agreement breaks no new ground in terms of tacit recognition of Israel. 

Indeed, there was even a previous peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon signed on May 17,  1983.  This was not a peace treaty dictated to Lebanon by Israel, but one negotiated under the auspices of the United States Special Envoy for the Middle East, Morris Draper. It contained provisions for buffer zones under the control of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and even contained security cooperation between the LAF and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to ensure deconfliction and to prevent third parties from using the territory to trigger conflict between the two nations.  The treaty collapsed because the Syrian government, who occupied Lebanon but had been momentarily thrown on their heels by the Israeli invasion, recovered and toppled the Lebanese government and then installed a puppet regime in Beirut to move parliament under a new Speaker, Hussein al-Husseini, to formally revoke the treaty. Ironically, the previous Speaker, Kamel Assad, had championed the agreement with Israel, and had come from a prominent Lebanese Shiite family in Bent Jbail in the heart of the Shiite community of southern Lebanon, so his ouster became the main target not only of Syrian efforts to sabotage the agreement but of an Iranian campaign to destroy the traditional Shiite leadership of Lebanon and seize from it the mantle of the “Shiite Awakening” (which under Imam Musa al-Sadr’s leadership preceded the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 by a half decade) and to pave the way for replacing the old elite with a new Hizballah-based Iranian Islamic revolutionary monopoly. 

In short, there is nothing new or historic about the agreement.  In fact, it aimed far lower and achieved far less than its predecessor agreements. 

Well, then it strengthens Israel strategically by codifying an American security guarantee…Not. 

The agreement erodes, and even endangers, US support for Israel for three reasons. 

First, it is rather baffling that the strongest ally of the United States in the region should need a security guarantee from the United States bought through confessions to its enemy. Israel says that were it not for the agreement, there could well be war with Hizballah, which is also one of the most inimical and murderous entities to the United States, not only Israel. Lebanon at this point is a captive state dominated by Iran through Hizballah. Standing with Israel against Hizballah and the Hizballahi-run Lebanon should emerge from an inherent American interest and should not require either Israeli concessions or the imprimatur of Lebanon to validate it.  In other words, the agreement does not display tightening and elevating US-Israeli strategic cooperation but reflects the fallen state of those relations – rather than emerging from a strictly bilateral understanding – that it now requires some sort of purchase from Israel’s enemy and a string of Israeli concessions to allow for its codification. 

Second, the agreement ostensibly codifies the red lines and casus belli for Israel’s and the US’s responses if Israel’s waters or fields are again threatened. The fact that the Lebanese government has said it recognizes no such delineation as legally binding only hours after the deal was reached is disturbing enough, but in terms of US-Israeli relations, the true parameters of danger can be illustrated through a cautionary lesson from the end of the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon/Hizballah war of how this “commitment” could easily boomerang to haunt Israel gravely and potentially even cause the United States to cross Israel strategically in the future. After a month of war with Hizballah, Israel was seeking an exit. Israel’s foreign minister at the time, Tzippi Livni, turned both to Washington and to France, since they were seen as able to sway Lebanon, to help secure a ceasefire resolution through the United Nations. John Bolton was the US-UN ambassador, and I was the point of contact for the Vice President’s office. 

France sought almost immediately to craft a UN resolution that would be legally binding – an idea onto which Israel’s security and foreign policy establishment quickly seized, believing that it would finally be able to cap and regulate Hizballah’s presence in Lebanon in such a way that its threatening behavior would be met with an international response.  In essence, Israel tried to substitute its freedom of action and the power of the IDF for an international security guarantee to leash Hizballah and secure its norther border.  

The United States, through the efforts of Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams and US UN Ambassador John Bolton, resisted the pressure of Foreign Minister Livni and the French, and torpedoed this effort. The fear that motivated us – and disturbingly not Israel’s defense and foreign affairs elite – was that it would clearly commit the US to side against the party that was internationally labeled as the violator of the ceasefire.  One does not have to be a historian or Middle East scholar to know that the international community will not declare either Hizballah’s rearmament and redeployment onto the border a casus belli and justify an Israeli – let alone international – preemptive strike.  

And then, a Hobson’s choice would be thrust upon Israel. Either Israel would have to acquiesce without any response to Hizballah’s buildup, or it would have to preempt but risk (really a certainty, not risk) its being labelled the aggressor which would trigger the legally binding provisions of response of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1701.  In short, were UNSCR 1701 legally binding, then Israel would soon have found itself in a situation where it would be unable to act preemptively to prevent further build-up and threatening movements of Hizballah unless it would be willing do so – in the opinion of the international community – in violation of the legally binding resolution to which the United States would have been bound to uphold. To prevent this trap, US Ambassador Bolton stood his ground and forced through a tough but non-binding resolution, much to the chagrin of the French and Israelis. Of course, the moment the ceasefire was signed, Iran began resupplying Hizballah and Hizballah began deploying dangerously toward the south.  One can only imagine how impossible it would have been for Israel over the last 17 years to continuously slice Hizballah down to size as it has by using force – including against depots and shipments, let alone against leadership. Israel would long ago have been subject to the very provisions it had sought to subcontract its defense to a outside entity through legal commitments. 

Unfortunately, the current Israel-Lebanon agreement falls into the very trap which was avoided under UNSCR 1701. In fact, it is an even worse trap since this agreement fails to clearly define the behaviors by Lebanon that would trigger the security commitments. There is a failure in the agreement to define what would constitute a material violation on the Lebanese side, but it does clearly define Israeli commitments under the agreement, many of which are impossible to uphold if Lebanon or Hizballah act without such clearly defined legal restrictions.  As such, this agreement threatens the exact same nightmare scenario as the Israeli-French proposal in 2006, which was rejected as the basis for UNSCR 1701.  

Third, and perhaps most disturbing, is the assumption underlying this – that entangling the United States into a commitment to defend Israeli interests strengthens the Israeli-American relationship and reinforces the American strategic backstop – should not be taken as a given. In fact, it is worth examination. 

For years, Israel’s defense elites have been seized by the conception that the support of the US government is an essential component of any strategic move or substantial military action, the key to which the Israeli government and security establishment believes demanded launching a full court campaign of convincing Washington’s elites in the corridors of power.  

On one side, there is a” Zionist” problem with this outlook. One of the most refreshing and important aspects of the solidification of Zionism and the mooring of Israeli identity was the idea that it represented the rejection of the Diaspora “Galut” Jew – a person whose institutionalized weakness and disempowerment distorted the soul and left him at the mercy of the non-Jewish world and attempting futilely to make peace with his implacable haters. Israel’s defense establishment in recent years seems to be too burdened by the idea that it cannot act without approval from the United States in critical moments. This is most evinced by its belief that the Iran problem ultimately requires an American solution. But if it does, then what happens when the US refuses, or the US simply withdraws from the region, or the US enters an introverted or isolationist stage.  The whole point of Zionism was that Israel’s fate is in Israel’s hands regardless of what others demand of it. 

But on the other side, there is an equally large “American” problem. The support of the American leadership for Israel in America generally comes from the strong foundation of public support and sense of cultural affinity which Israel enjoys broadly in the American population. Part of this emerges from the unique Judeo-Christian roots of American identity which views itself as the New Jerusalem and seeks guidance culturally from its Christianity (even secular Americans still culturally respect their Judeo-Christian foundations).  But part of this also emerges from the respect Israel has earned through its actions and its fierce independence – and distinctly NOT from appreciation of a history of seeking prior permission.  

Indeed, Americans are increasingly displaying signs of exhaustion in bearing the burden for the defense of other nations who appear unwilling to bear the burden primarily themselves for their own defense. Very few American administrations in the last four or five decades, for example, have avoided a welling demand in the public for greater defense-burden sharing from our European allies. Israel has long stood out precisely because it never asked for American troops or entangling security guarantees.  It was precisely the idea that when Israel acts, it does so because it is so important that it bear the burden alone.  This independent determination and willingness to pay the price reminds Americans of themselves and convinces Americans popularly, and thus the leadership particularly, that they should support Israel both during specific episodes and in a more general sense.  

Transforming Israel from strategic asset to albatross – from an independently-minded ally to a dependent obligation – is perhaps one of the greatest threats to public support, and through it the leadership’s support, for Israel that can be imagined. And yet, consistently over the last several decades, Israel’s defense establishment has tried to entangle the United States in Israel’s defense structure, thankfully all stillborn, through various schemes that could damage Israel’s brand image and erode American respect. This includes through the years:  

  • the idea of American guarantees in Judea and Samaria (even deployments to protect Israel) in exchange for Israel‘s withdrawal during the Oslo period,  
  • Israeli acquiescence during the Obama administration in American diplomatic efforts on Iran or to entice Israel to join the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and accept a regional nuclear weapons free zone in the region by offering a nuclear umbrella (Hillary Clinton) in exchange for Israel’s surrendering its reported nuclear capability,  
  • the idea of deploying US troops to the Golan Heights to secure Israeli withdrawal from there in the mid-1990s, and now  

These efforts all never came to be, making this agreement the first to really be accepted by Israel since Eisenhower’s security guarantee to Israel in 1957 for withdrawing from the Sinai. The fate of that guarantee leaves room for anxiousness.  

Simply put, Americans get tired of supporting nations that are not willing to defend themselves, and Israel is in danger through this constant tendency among Israel’s defense elites to slide into that category. 

Equally disconcerting, however, is that while the primacy of maintaining Israel’s freedom of strategic maneuver has been rhetorically loudly tempted by virtually every Israeli politician, it took bold leadership to act on that conviction at the political level since the underlying defense establishment conception is that securing American approval transcends strategic maneuver. This ossified conception has gripped and dominated Israel’s defense elites since 1970, and it has left along the way a horrific trail of failure behind it starting with 1973.  Strategic maneuvers and independence of action, including the ability to launch strategic preemption, is a critical, if not one of the two most critical, pillars of a proper Israeli defense strategy (the other pillar is strategic depth through buffers to allow for mobilization). Dependency and habitual reliance on “the green light” from Washington devastates that pillar. 

Ah, but it reinforces deterrence…Not 

The agreement exposes several deeply disturbing ideas that afflict the Israeli defense establishment about strategy and deterrence, some of which in truth reflect a more broadly-shared decay in Western strategic thinking. 

The logic of the specific agreement as publicly stated is deeply flawed and troubling. All of its logic and assumptions are in one form or another a rendition of the belief that by bolstering Lebanon, you will create conditions for their severing their ties with Iran — or at least reducing them below other national objectives that gravitate toward a Beirut-Tehran rupture. It rests on two assumptions.  

First that deterrence is a foundational strategy, but that the enemy might lack enough value that it renders it impossible to effectively threaten enough to deter. Thus, the more value the enemy is given by Israel which he would lose in war, the stronger the deterrent. This logic has been applied to the Palestinians as well, and it has proven entirely erroneous. The US tried a diluted and tenuous version with the Soviets in the 1970s, and it ended in failure with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan‎.   

Indeed, just this week it was revealed that one of the core conceptions underlying the German government’s support (under Angela Merkel) for the Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline from Russia was that by giving Russia so great an economic interest, it would stabilize Russian European relations, make war impossible, and increase energy security for the European continent – an almost verbatim duplicate of the Israeli arguments regarding the Lebanon agreement.  Of course, we all know how well these German assumptions panned out on February 24, 2022.  

Second, proponents rely on a bedrock assumption that the enemy, in this case Lebanon, has any agency. That somehow it has power of decision to go to war, to make peace, to cease hostility, and that only if the incentives were great enough, then they would really cast the Iranians away and enter the promised utopia. Lebanon is a captive nation and has no agency, as did neither Czechoslovakia, Hungary nor Poland and others during the Cold War. No matter what we would have given the Czechs in 1945-1989, it would never have resulted in their choosing to bolt, because ‎it was not a choice over which they had power to make. So too Lebanon. I have yet to meet a single Lebanese who does not wish dearly to rid themselves of Iran, they do not need a gas field to do so, but they are desperate because they have no power or control over any decision.  

Moreover, if Hizballah’s centrally held value is to survive, and Iran’s centrally held value is to dominate Lebanon through Hizballah, then any attempt to develop a foundation of any sort for Lebanese independence inherently becomes a target for Hizballah’s and Iran’s ire – and their determined sabotage.  In that way, it is precisely because the fields could become a foundation for reducing Lebanon’s dependence on Iran that it raises the latter’s interest in escalating hostilities, precisely to sabotage that movement. In other words, unless Hizballah is already neutralized and Iran’s clench broken, these moves toward building a Lebanese economy of separation will be still born, or even invite attack … unless the moves can be incentivized to be in Hizballah’s and Iran’s interest.  The only pathway for that would be to allow these fields to become a structure for enriching and laundering money in times when they face international ostracism and sanctions.  But that would then mean that this agreement — reached at time when the Iranian people are braving bullets to oust their tormentors – becomes a vehicle whereby Israel has allowed funding for the internally repressive and externally aggressive apparatus (including the Huthis, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, let alone militias in Iraq) serving the Islamic Revolution to be infused with new sources of income.  

Third, is a corollary to the last point.  Could perhaps it arise that if Hizballah financially benefits from the gas proceeds — since no Israeli official has as yet argued that it will be possible to insulate the money from Hizballah skimming ‎– then perhaps it might lead to a split between Hizballah (who will enjoy the revenue proceeds) and Iran‎ (which will not)? But this betrays a highly questionable assumption regarding the interwoven and symbiotic nature of Hizballah-Iranian relations. Hizballah relies on Iran on so many levels, financial being only one. Hizballah’s uniqueness with respect to other Shiite factions in Lebanon has always been that it is essentially an Iranian appendage, but that this quisling status was masked through its alignment with the reigning ideological construct of the Iranian regime, the “Valeyat e-Faqeh” or Rule of the Jurisprudent. The Valeyat e-Faqeh must be understood as a revolutionary movement within Shiite Islam, and thus does not genuinely enjoy the theological support of Lebanon’s Shiite religious establishment. Without Iranian overlay, the clerical establishment of Hizballah would be superseded and wiped out by the older Shiite establishment, much of which still exists in Iraq. Remember the founding charter of 1985 of Hizballah:  

“we, the Umma of Hizballah, consider ourselves a part of the state of Iran…We are committed to the orders of one leadership, represented by the Valeyat e-Faqeh, the Supreme leader.”   

The most prominent clerics of Lebanon, such as the Ayatollah in Tyre, have far greater following and Silsalah (pedigree), oppose the idea of the Valeyat e-Faqeh. They would seek to diminish and subordinate Hizballah clerics’ influence in a heartbeat. The same can be said of Amal against Hizballah. Indeed, in an attempt at subordinating and fusing Amal with Hizballah, Hizballah made Shaykh Subhi al-Tufayli for two years (1998-91) the Secretary General of the Hizballah. Tufayli was a valued student of the father of the Shiite Awakening, the vanished Imam, Musa al-Sadr. But he opposed Iran’s revolutionary reigning theology of Valeyat e-Faqeh, which strongly suggested – given that he was that the most senior and genuine actor that was present at the creation of the Shiite Awakening in the 1970s – that Musa al-Sadr himself would likely have been opposed to the Iran’s definition of Shiism. This profoundly threatened the Iranian regime which was trying to usurp the mantle to itself of being the father of the Shiite Awakening and the successor to Imam Musa al-Sadr.  Indeed, Iran was already on thin ice in terms of the Shiite Awakening since its key strategic ally at the beginning of the revolution in Iran was Yasser Arafat and the PLO, who is largely believed among Shiites to have ordered the assassination/disappearance of Imam Musa al-Sadr and executed him via his ties to Qadhafi in Libya, who was the other Arab leader with whom the Iranian regime established an early strategic partner. As such, the threat of Tufayli’s opposition to the Iranian regime was clear and present, and as such he was removed and ostracized.  Without Iran’s heavy hand, not only would old Shiite patterns almost instantly resurface and consume Hizballah, but Iran’s usurped mantle of leading the Shiite Awakening would be exposed and collapse. 

As such, Hizballah does not have an indigenous basis to survive its competition with other Shiite trends. There is no Hizballah possible without its being an interwoven part of Iran’s dominance, and vice versa, there is no Iran in Lebanon without Hizballah. As such, trying to create a Hizballah-Iran wedge is like trying to seduce an arm to sever itself from a body. Neither Hizballah nor the arm even have a central nervous system and brain independent of the mother body. 

Finally, as a last thought about whether this agreement strengthens Israel’s deterrence. Israel’s government has trumpeted that were there no agreement, then there would be war and that Israeli gas fields would be threatened.  This is all but an admission that Hizballah’s threats against Karish – backed up by the flying of a few unarmed Hizballahi drones that Israel shot down – drove Israel’s government to concede vast maritime rights and even its sovereign territorial waters as essentially a protection payment against the Hizballah mafiosi-like threat.  The logic underpinning the idea that this strengthens deterrence in the future frankly simply eludes me.  

Well, Israel is emerging as a strategic gas player, and this unlocks that potential…Not 

The Israeli government has argued that it needed this agreement to bring its Karish gas field on-line.  Hizballah, sometimes itself and sometimes channeled through Lebanon’s voice, has threatened every Israeli gas find exploration and development until now, and insists that it now has an agreement with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to attack Israeli fields in a future conflict.  Lebanon last year threatened to act against Israel’s giant Leviathan field, at times claiming it was part of its territory and at times because it accused Israel of stealing its gas through horizontal drilling. In short, there was nothing different about the Karish field from all the previous fields, and Israel has in an unencumbered way thus far developed all those fields thanks to the superior defense capabilities of its navy. And in the end, it is the maintenance of those capabilities that will continue to be the foundation for the security needed to develop Karish. It is thus hardly believable that for some reason Karish could not be developed when others were because Lebanon did not green-light it.  Moreover, even the Lebanese admit that Karish was never really on the table in these talks, and that they never seriously claimed Karish.  In other words, it is unclear how this agreement makes it easier in any way to develop Karish. 

Broadening the aperture, one notices that Israel is at the edge of perhaps one of the greatest moments of strategic good luck it has ever faced. The sudden, great dependency of Europe on finding new sources of gas, combined with the presence of gas in Israel and the ability offered to bring yet more gas through Israel to Europe, position Israel to become a critical gas transmission hub of about 60 to 80 billion cubic meters of gas per annum. But Israel is deliberately denying its territory for transmission by:  

  • Sabotaging the UAE’s desire to build a transmission pipeline for gas through the Eilat-Ashqelon pipeline company rights of way,  
  • Pushing export of Israeli gas through Egypt,  
  • surrendering territory in which it is possible substantial more gas may yet be discovered,  
  • Wasting a precious year of exploration by imposing an inexplicable moratorium, and  
  • Pushing the robust evolution of Lebanese gas which will compete with Israeli gas in Europe and could itself offer as the competing‎ location of being a hub for gas from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — thus effectively forfeiting for Israel this immense strategic gift over which it had no competition until the Israeli government created it via Egypt and Lebanon.  

Taken together, there is no way to avoid concluding that out of ideological reasons (possibly environmental), Israel’s government has deliberately retarded and diminished the potential for finding, producing and exporting gas, let alone to position Israel as a vital national asset in becoming the core east-Mediterranean gas hub. 

Indeed, Israel may have just unlocked the potential for a large alternative gas hub structure anchored to Qatar and Turkey just announced its intention to become the new gas hub for Europe (although including Russian gas).  This unlocks the potential for Qatar to lead an effort to connect its own gas structures to the eastern leveraging the Lebanese gas fields to connect to a Turkish-based pipeline structure into Europe. Six months ago, this was not a conceivable state of development since Lebanon was considered too unstable, the legal infrastructure in Lebanon was rickety, sanctions afflicted the development of the fields, as did the irresolution of the demarcation line with Israel. Israel, and Egypt — who is in tension with Turkey and would be loath to build a pipeline that crosses Turkish waters or territory — for that matter, thus had no effective competition for becoming a gas hub. And now, suddenly Lebanon may well emerge as the gas hub, leaving Israeli gas stranded beyond its current structure.  

Competition is a natural part of life, and Lebanon certainly had the potential to become a competitor along these parameters all along, about which Israel could do nothing other than expedite its own development – which it curiously has been extremely slow to do (or even outright eager to halt) over that last year.  But what is mystifying is why Israel, after having spent a year stalling its own exploration and export infrastructure development, decided to remove a pound of its own flesh to encourage Lebanon to compete with itself in a way that may render Israel’s potential hydrocarbons strategic importance for Europe dead in the water. 

In the end, why did the Israeli government agree to this deal, and why does it do so with such gusto? One can certainly attribute it to cynical political calculations — especially given that this is the annual election season in Israel. Indeed, the rise of cynicism is a phenomenon worthy of examination in and of itself because it afflicts many Israeli politicians as ideas and ideologies fade in currency in organizing political parties  

But attributing this solely to election cynicism skims over the depth of the problem herein exposed. The government’s public justifications for the deal are possibly heartfelt and genuine.  Indeed, they likely are since they reflect deeply held, but equally dangerous, flawed conceptions governing Israel’s strategic imagery, the evidence for which stretches back for decades already. One shape or form of the arguments forwarded to explain this dal have appeared at various levels of development as far back as a half century and reflect a serious, long-term deterioration in the solidity and rigorousness of Israeli strategic thinking and analysis.  Moreover, it is not one “conception” that bedevils the planners and analysists, but a collection of conceptions which have remained beyond critical examination because of a stilted historiography, or narrative, of events and Israeli strategic history that prevents either realization or reexamination of thought.  

In other words, what disturbs most about this agreement is not only its terms, but what it exposes about the problematic state of strategic thinking governing Israel’s defense establishment. 

Are Iran’s despotic ayatollahs about to fall?

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By Dr. David Wurmser

After years of oppression, Iranians are fighting back. To succeed, the West must support their struggle 

This article was first published in The Telegraph on October 18th, 2022. Click Here to read the original article.

The murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested and tortured by Iran’s “morality police” for violating the country’s mandatory hijab law, triggered demonstrations in Iran that now in their fifth week with no signs of abating. Iran’s theocratic, militarised, authoritarian regime is under more domestic pressure than at any point since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. 

It is, therefore, imperative to assess how the ayatollahs might finally be overthrown and what kind of government would follow. The key issue is whether today’s widespread protests constitute not merely a new Iranian “opposition,” but a real counter-revolutionary force. 

Starting in Kurdistan province, but quickly spreading nationwide, the protests have increased in size, scope, and sophistication. The regime has responded brutally, but the ayatollahs also seem paralysed by the extent and fearlessness of the demonstrators. Supreme Leader Khamenei knows he has a serious problem, even as he tries to blame America and Israel. 

The hijab protests are direct ideological challenges to the regime’s legitimacy, That is why the stakes are so high, far higher than in earlier protests such as in 2009 against fraudulent elections. Today, the regime itself is under assault. 

The protests encompass all economic strata. It is not merely the revolt of educated, urban middle classes, but the “real Iran,” out in the countryside where Western journalists are rare. These average citizens, appreciating that having economic policies dictated by religious fanatics is less than optimal, have shouted “death to Khamenei,” rather than “death to America [or Israel].” 

Ethnic and religious differences are also important. Iran’s exact ethnic mix is uncertain – minorities are reluctant to proclaim their status publicly – but the best guess is that Iran is only fifty per cent or slightly more “Persian,” with significant ethnic and religious minorities including Azeris, Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and Baluchis. There are meaningful numbers of Sunni and Sufi Muslims. Ongoing government discrimination against the Kurds and other minorities is particularly harsh. 

Recent sympathy strikes by oil workers, amplifying their own economic grievances, are perhaps even more significant. Many remember that the oil workers’ 1978-79 rising against the Shah signalled that his days were numbered. If discontent in the vital petrochemical industry increases, shutting off significant production, Iran’s government would be crippled. 

The Mahsa Amini demonstrations are therefore an accelerant to existing grievances. The interrelationships among the various discontents are complex, but ironically strengthen the resistance by significantly complicating the government’s ability to surveil and suppress the protests. 

Contrary to regime disinformation, however, the uprisings are in fact completely spontaneous. That is bad news for the resistance because their communications across the country are totally inadequate, impeding agreement on day-to-day tactics, let alone broader goals. The good news about not having a centralised command structure is that the regime can’t stamp out the protests merely by eliminating a small number of leaders. 

The demonstrators face hard questions which they must begin resolving soon if they hope to avoid becoming just another footnote to the history of Iran’s Islamic Revolution

To become counter-revolutionaries, the protestors must decide on their ultimate objectives and how they intend to achieve them. Specifically, they need effective mechanisms to develop regime-change strategies and then put their plans into motion. To the extent resistance networks already exist inside Iran, regime opponents must put aside their own disagreements and either join those networks or form more effective ones. Otherwise, opposition political fratricide will doom the larger project. “Divide and conquer” is a concept well known to authoritarian regimes. 

The outside world must also help, starting with offering tangible resources, particularly in communications capabilities. There is a lot of virtue signalling from Western capitals, which stokes the psyches of those doing the signalling, but accomplishes little more. For example, despite supportive rhetoric, the White House is still obsessed with rejoining the misbegotten 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Nor are the British, French or German governments, the agreement’s other Western partners, paying much attention. 

This much change, immediately. Carpe diem

John Bolton is a former US National Security Adviser

Can Israel emerge as a geostrategic gas player despite itself?

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By Dr. David Wurmser

Israeli discoveries of natural gas over the last 13 years are enough to allow not only self-sufficiency but also the potential for enough export to emerge as a geostrategic player in the hydrocarbons sector. If done properly and aggressively, Israel has the opportunity to establish itself as the main natural gas export hub in the eastern Mediterranean, servicing not only eastern Mediterranean gas suppliers, but Persian Gulf ones too, and become the conduit to supply Europe as much as a third of its import needs. And yet, Israel’s policies over the last year have undermined expanding its reserves, retarded and limited the development of its transmission structures, and all but sabotaged its ability to become a hub for gas regionally. Indeed, it seems as if Israel prefers regional plans to make Egypt rather than Israel such a major hub, including subordinating the export structure of its own gas to dependency on Egypt.1 If Israel, thus, seeks to establish itself a strategic player in the natural gas sector – let alone insulate its gas export structure from regional geopolitical instability — it will need to change not only its policies, but its assumptions and attitude.  

Over the last decade, Israel has discovered roughly 200-250 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas. Israel only consumes about 10-15 bcm of gas per annum. There are also other fields that suggest still more finds are possible,  such as the Zeus fields, which taken altogether could indicate Israel has still between 50% to 100% more gas than has hitherto been discovered. This means Israel has a hefty quantity that can be earmarked for export, even under the regulatory export restrictions imposed by the Sheshinski Committee framework.   

Until now, Israeli export has largely been confined to its neighbors.  Currently, Israel exports up to 7 bcm of gas to Egypt per annum and 3 bcm to Jordan. But the quantity of gas discovered is clearly enough to contemplate export to Europe. Two recent developments, moreover, have further focused attention on the potential supply of Israeli gas to Europe. First, the invasion of Ukraine which has resulted in despair in Europe over supply. Israeli gas was seen as an attractive alternative, at least to some extent. Second, Energean, the company exploring and developing the latest fields in Israel announced on October 6 that it discovered another 12-17 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas off its coast in the Hermes field and there is another field that might hold as much as 20 bcm more. 

On top of Israeli gas, there is also the possibility, already suggested by the UAE, of pumping gas from several Persian Gulf lands via Saudi Arabia to the southern terminus of Israel’s Eilat-Ashqelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) in Ramat Yotam in Eilat, and then using the company’s right-of-way to build a gas pipeline (the current pipes carry oil) to transport the gas to the Mediterranean for transmission to Europe via Israel’s emerging export structure.  A potential collapse of Iran’s regime, which partnered with Israel decades ago before the Islamic Revolution to build this pipeline, could as well open up Iran’s vast natural gas deposits for Europe in addition to its natural Asian market. 

In short, Israel has every possibility of becoming a major international hub of export of Persian Gulf and eastern Mediterranean gas, especially when considering the likelihood of more gas being discovered in Cypriot waters. 

These facts and projections of reserves are relatively clear.  But the picture becomes more complex after that, especially concerning the transmission structures.  There are currently no direct transmission structures of gas from Israel to Europe.  The only physical way to export Israeli gas to Europe – which imports from all sources between 150-200 bcm per annum before the Ukraine war– would be through the existing Egyptian-Israeli pipeline structure, which then connects to either the Idku or Damietta gas liquefaction plants for loading onto liquefied natural gas (LNG) ships bound for Europe.  The combined liquefaction capacity of the two LNG plants in Egypt is about 30 bcm. The pipe from Israel to Egypt, however, only holds about 7 bcm per annum, and all the molecules flowing through it are already booked by Egypt for domestic consumption. Although Egypt found a very large reservoir of gas offshore in ENI’s Zohr field, bringing that field to full capacity has proven to fall short of originally expected timelines at this stage. Simply put, Zohr cannot flood Egypt’s market enough at this point to generate export surplus. At this point, it suffices only to offset the increase in Egypt’s domestic demand. And thus, Egypt will need to continue relying on all the gas Israel sends for its domestic use.  

A second gas pipeline to Egypt is being built that will hold up to 11 bcm of gas, but it will take roughly three to four years to complete, and when it does, it is not clear how much of that gas will be consumed by Egypt and how much will be surplus to send to Europe via the two Egyptian LNG terminals.  Egypt’ domestic consumption is growing at a rapid pace, so clearly far less than the 11 bcm capacity of the pipeline will flow to the Idku or Damietta LNG plants for export. 

Moreover, Egypt is politically problematic. It gets along with Israel well enough, but its economy is showing signs of grave danger – even potential bankruptcy. Indeed, JP Morgan estimated that: 

“Egypt’s debt-to-GDP ratio is around 95%. The country is also experiencing one of the most significant foreign exchange outflows this year, estimated at around $11 billion. FIM Partners estimated that Egypt will have $100 billion in hard currency debt over the next five years, including a massive $3.3 billion bond due in 2024.”2 

At the same time, the United States last month announced that it will deduct USD 130 million from Egypt’s annual aid amount as pressure on human rights concerns, which represents a material economic but a much larger psychological hit.3  And thus all coincides with dramatic cost increases in grain and other foodstuffs – price increases over which have led in the past to great upheaval and revolution in Egypt. To survive, it is likely that Egypt will not only face internal pressure to sell its own gas for foreign currency rather than use its export infrastructure for Israel’s, but it will also continue the drift it began under the Obama administration toward Russia’s and China’s orbits.  The pressures that led it in that direction a half decade ago now are exacerbated by the urgency of the current quest to obtain aid, cheap food and regional strategic support (such as in Libya).  Once further driven to seek support from Russia, one can only wonder how long it will be before the phone rings from Moscow telling Cairo that Moscow views with great disfavor Egypt’s being a conduit for exporting Israeli gas to Europe to replace Russia’s.  In short, if Israel’s current export structure to Egypt and possibly Europe emerges and survives then great, but Egypt is is not a structure upon which a fifth of Israel’s economy should depend. 

A small amount of gas could also be compressed at the Hadera terminal (currently used for offloading, not onloading gas) in Israel to load gas onto compressed natural gas (CNG) ships for Europe, but there are very few of these CNG ships left in the world since their transport-capacity-to-cost ration is lower and the amount of gas they can load is quite a bit more limited than LNG ships, although at the ranges that Israel is from Europe (under 2500 km), there may be some cost offsets.4  With current technologies, Israel could only export about 0.5 bcm per year this way to Europe (with about 14 million m3 per ship). 

Combined, under the most optimistic circumstances and assumptions, one can imagine up to 5-10 bcm per annum, about one third of Austria’s annual consumption, being transmitted to Europe. This does not amount to a globally and strategically critical production structure. 

The only way Israel will emerge as either a major or reliable source or even hub for gas is by building direct transmission structures from Israel to Europe. One structure is already in process.  An offshore floating LNG platform is already being constructed to service Israel’s Leviathan field. It could theoretically service a capacity of approximately 15 bcm per annum of export.  Under current plans, however, this will take roughly another four years to build. 

Second, there were plans by the EU and Israel to build a direct pipeline from Israel to Europe at a cost of about Euro 6 billion. Since it is still under planning, it is uncertain how much gas it would transport, but comparable pipelines in the Mediterranean carry about 30 bcm of gas. There could always also be an additional such terminal constructed if deemed economically viable. 

Third, Israel could add a pipeline to Cyprus, and connect to a reinvigorated Vassilikos LNG terminal which like other land-based liquefaction plants could be imagined to reach 15-20 bcm capacity per annum.  This option has been considered but given the lack of urgent interest in Israeli gas internationally until the Ukraine war, this option was shelved for the time being.  

Finally, returning for a moment to compressed natural gas, there is a new generation of CNG ships under design that may work effectively to service medium range routes under 2500 km, which is about Israel’s distance to Europe’s Mediterranean ports.5 Indeed, the EU has given Italian project developer, Naval Progetti SRL, a grant of Euro 12 million to develop such a ship.  These ships may be able to carry as much as 7 bcm per annum per train, roughly half that of an LNG terminal, but with less prohibitive up-front infrastructure costs (potentially using Israel’s already existing Hadera terminal). These ships, however, are not operational yet. 

But for all this to happen, both Europe and Israel need to adjust their current attitude toward their gas sectors. If Europe considers its need for gas from the eastern Mediterranean to be urgent under wartime conditions and Israel appreciates the unique, acute strategic opportunity it has been handed, then the two could conceive of Israel’s gas hub not in terms of peace-time commercial timelines but as a Manhattan-project level effort. With such prioritization, it is conceivable that Israel could become within a few years a hub (with initial levels of robust export already in two to three years) for Israeli, Cypriot and Gulf Gas to a capacity of about 70-80 bcm per annum, which is about half of Europe’s import. 

But therein lies the problem. Europe is shocked, but still coming to terms with what it means and what will be entailed in truly weaning itself off of Russian gas. Moreover, in Israel’s government, there appears to be a complete absence of any sense of urgency to match the magnitude of the commercial and strategic opportunity.   

The spirit animating Israel’s left is alignment with Europe, and the spirit of Europe until Ukraine was toward moving away from hydrocarbons altogether and toward alternate energy sources.  Ironically, while Europe has been jolted into greater sobriety and began to take interest in diversifying its natural gas suppliers, Israel’s center-left government over the last year bought into more deeply the previously failed European concept and discouraged the development of its own hydrocarbons sector. This outdated and originally questionable attitude has led over the last 18 months to the following deeply flawed policies that suggest its new center-left government elected in 2021 was uninterested in developing the natural gas sector beyond what had already been developed:  

In December 2021, the new Israeli government placed a moratorium on all further exploration of Israeli waters for natural gas.6  Israel’s prime minister had said beforehand that he was eager to join the new international climate consensus in pushing for alternatives instead of hydrocarbons. Moreover, his government which relied on leftist parties, who held the energy, science and transport ministries portfolios, with a strong environmental program.  Afflicted by reality, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the Israeli government reversed its decision yet again and reopened its waters for further license tenders and exploration.7 

First, Israel signed a deal in October 2020 to bring UAE gas to the Mediterranean.8 But then a year later in November 2021, only one month before it imposed the moratorium on licensing and exploring further prospects,  the new Israeli government reversed the previous government’s agreement and, citing environmental concerns, canceled the UAE’s deal to use Israel as a major transmissions structure for its gas and that of its neighbors.9 This reversal not only undermined Israel’s credibility, but also limits greatly, if it is not reversed soon, the amount of gas that could ultimately be sent to Europe. If Israel alone must fill the transmission structure with only its gas, then it holds in its entirety about three years of the sort of capacity (assuming it sends every molecule it has to Europe beyond annual domestic consumption) such a robust transmission structure could export to Europe. And that would mean that after three years, neither Israel nor Europe have any Israeli gas left. Even if Israel finds more gas than it has already found, that only extends the inevitable to a total of five to six years. On the other hand, export of gas from the Gulf would transform this niche “bump” of Israeli gas into an ongoing export structure for regional gas for decades, and thus raise Israel to the level of a major global strategic interest. Otherwise, Israel will remain a niche, boutique and transitory asterisk in the history of Europe’s energy mix. 

Then, after Israel reopened its waters for exploration, the United States, which has no real role in the planned EastMed Israel-to-Europe gas pipeline, came out publicly against it and pressed for its cancellation, saying it is both economically unviable, as well as suggesting it is destabilizing since Turkey expressed strong opposition to it because it would go through Greece rather than through Turkey and it would service Greek Cypriot fields.10 Moreover, the pipeline appears to have run afoul of US environmental objectives, according to US Under Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland in June 2022 (four months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine): 

“We believe it is too expensive, not economically viable and will take too long … And frankly, we don’t have 10 years, but in 10 years from now, we want to be far, far more green and far more diverse. When we think about hydrocarbons, both in the U.S. context and in the EU context, we are hoping for a quick transition.”11 

The Israeli government did not respond, let alone push back on this inexplicable US pressure to halt consideration of the Israel-to-EU EastMed pipeline, and appeared at first to be unwilling to cross the United States on this.  However, the government finally relented and signed two agreements – one with Egypt, Cyprus and Greece and one with the EU and Egypt, signaling an intent to realize this option despite US opposition. 

A similarly lackadaisical, if not flailing Israeli attitude seems to inform its approach to the critical question of the northern reaches of its maritime Economic Exclusion Zone (EEC). And now, while the Israeli government has thus far refused to publish a map, it reportedly seeks a deal with Lebanon that would cede to Beirut well over 1000 km2 of surface under which no exploration has been done with the exception of the Qana block (Block 12 in Lebanon). That block alone contains a substantial field laying half in currently claimed Israeli waters (line 1, which had been set in 2011 with Cyprus), or one -third in the parameters of either the Hof (US pre-2022 proposed line) or proposed line (line 23) being worked out only three months ago on the basis of a June 2022 Lebanese claim, but is reportedly entirely removed from Israeli possession in the current plan (line 23/29 amalgam). One can only imagine what else lies in the ceded and unexplored 1000 km2

In other words, the Israeli government has consistently adopted policies that halt exploration and diminish the possession of areas of potential reserves, at the same time it has disappeared in trying to encourage the development of transmissions structures or outright sabotaged them when it came ot U.A.E. Plans. Whatever the merits of the current proposal for an Israeli-Lebanese deal on the EEZ maritime line, its most disconcerting aspect is the attitude it reflects. Israel again displays a lack of determination to maximize and leverage its assets in the gas sector for major geo-strategic objectives, and instead seems almost without afterthought willing to cede areas that could, and by all estimates likely do, contain many more hydrocarbons prospects. 

A month ago, the Israeli government signed with Egypt and Europe an agreement to supply gas to Europe. The optics were impressive, but the reality was empty. The Israeli government has signed agreements for such trade without any policies, nor with the appropriate underlying attitude, that will realize what they signed.   

There has been no governmental urgency to resurrect the idea of a UAE connection to the EAPC structure. Nor has there been any high-level discussion of how to realize, let alone expedite, the EU-Israeli pipeline. There is no discussion about adding a second LNG terminal, and there has been no diplomatic approach to, let alone summit meeting with Cyprus to begin planning to build a structure to connect Israeli fields to Cyprus’ LNG terminal at Vassilikos.  In addition, there has been no indication, nor approach to the UAE, to resurrect the UAE-to EAPC trans-Red Sea pipeline network plan. Moreover, there is no debate in Israel expressing concern about having the core of Israel’s export structure dependent on Egypt’s acquiescence as we enter an era when concerning pressures on Egypt are mounting. 

When one widens the aperture a little, one also sees Israel’s curious and disturbing lack of urgency and lackadaisical attitude as a far broader affliction. For example, consider the behavior of the Israeli government over the last two years toward developing Israel’s port and freight rail structure strategically to establish itself as a major international Europe-to-Asia trade route overland supplement to the Suez Canal at a time when the canal is proving expensive, operating at capacity, slow and every other year shut down for weeks because of accidents.  Modern port technology linked with a high-speed freight rail structure in Israel, which Israel’s rail authority has been pushing for quite some time, had been met with complete disinterest on the political level and has been frankly stalled entirely. The Indian multi-billionaire, Guatam Adani, having apparently a greater sense of strategic importance of Israeli ports than the Israeli government, may have saved Israel from itself by buying Haifa port several months ago.12  This occurred after a year in which the UAE had expressed deep interest in buying the port. The UAE’s sovereign wealth fund had even allotted funds to conduct a feasibility study of vast development for the Haifa port to connect Europe to Asia in trade routes. The Israeli government, as it did with the UAE effort to connect its natural gas structures to the EAPC, simply stalled on this offer until it faded.  Were it not for Adani, who likely will work with the UAE, it is likely that Israel would have through inattentiveness allowed the port to pass to Turkish ownership under an American-supported consortium which had only limited interest in seeing the port emerge as a global east Mediterranean hub for Asian-European traffic. 

Israel clearly wants to be seen as a strategic supplier of gas to Europe, but its aspirations are unmatched, if not betrayed, by its actions.  Those actions seem determined to push Egypt and Lebanon to fill the vacuum being left by Israel. And it seems to be part of a larger baffling Israeli outlook, which simply fails to envision Israel as a major strategic player in any international trade, logistics or transmission structure.  Ben Gurion, who may have labored under many flaws as a socialist but like all Israelis of his generation had an acute sense of national interest and an acute sense of strategy nonetheless, would be turning in his grave.

Iran’s Fatwa against Nuclear Weapons: the Evolution of a Myth 

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By Dr. David Wurmser

At the time of this writing, the Iranian people are rising up across all its communities to free itself from the Islamic Revolution.  It is unclear that the regime will survive. This hope, combined with the horror of its amassed brutality over the last 43 years and the complete disregard for international convention, let alone international law, should remove the option of proceeding with any new nuclear agreement with Iran. Instead, the West should finally reach consensus that the current talks must be terminated. The reliability of any treaty – which is after all a contract under the very international law the regime has consistently not only violated but whose validity it has dismissed – is futile. The regime is not a legitimate interlocutor.   

Indeed, the very act of negotiating with the regime itself validates and enriches the regime at precisely the time that the Iranian people have rejected its legitimacy and are desperately trying to fight the mechanisms of brutality. An agreement would not only signal that the West assumes the regime’s survival, but it would unlock hundreds of billions of dollars to fund the regime’s repression apparatus internally and its instruments of accelerating aggression externally.  In essence it betrays the Iranian people who are trying to free themselves from the deadening hand of this regime. 

Moreover, the regime has consistently used international negotiations to make a withering argument against its own people whenever its internal legitimacy was shaken.  It has argued that the international community does not care about Iranians and Iranian freedom, but only conspires perpetually to weaken the “great Iranian nation.” The symbol of such greatness, they argue, is Iranian nuclear power.  As such, the regime argues, the West is supporting Iranian popular attempts at liberation only as leverage to suppress the power of the Iranian nation and deny its historical greatness, and that the West will abandon the Iranian people the moment the leverage is spent or worthless.  To this end, it points to the statement by the Obama administration in 2009 during the height of the “Green” revolution that it tempers its support for the demonstrators because it has “other priorities as well,” clearly implying the nuclear talks. 

Beyond these valid and overarching considerations, the obsession with continuing talks with Iran over its nuclear program rests on a key assumption: that in the end, Iran does not want nuclear weapons – indeed, feels religiously opposed to such weapons — but only seeks them for a sense of security or a form of leverage on other matters.  One of the most important documents to which western diplomats consistently refer that bears this assumption out is the Fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khamenei in 1997 which specifically prohibits nuclear weapons as un-Islamic.  Between 1997 and 2012, this Fatwa became a backstop of confidence for diplomats who began conceding verifiable and solid restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for a sweatheart nuclear “cutout” deal with Iran that erases lingering past concerns and gives it rights and privileges within the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) far beyond any other P-5 nation (US, UK, Russia, France and China) within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).   

The fatwa stood at the center of US debate in the several years leading up to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, a.k.a. the 2015 “Iran nuclear deal”).  Despite the fact that there has never been a text issued of this Fatwa in public – and thus we do not know with any certainty what it purports to say, its has been the subject of academic and international policy journals analyses. The Iranian regime encouraged highlighting the solidity and importance of this fatwa, suggesting in its propaganda “academic” journals that it was an even more solid guarantee than the NPT itself.  For example, a Kent University Ph.D., Farhad Sirjani, wrote with the veneer of scholarly garb in 2013: 

The Fatwa elaborates and confirms Iran’s commitment regarding WMD ban, on the one hand, and Iran’s insistence on its NPT right to peaceful uses of nuclear technology, on the other. It is concluded that the commitment undertaken by Iran via the Fatwa, is, in some important respects, more comprehensive and more long-lasting than that Iran has undertaken under the NPT. 1 

This fatwa influenced not only the public debate, but policymaking not only at the level of diplomats, but at the presidential level itself under the Obama administration.  For example, on September 24, 2013, at the UN General Assembly’s annual opening in New York, President Obama in his speech said:  

“Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, and President Rouhani has just recently reiterated that the Islamic Republic will never develop a nuclear weapon. So these statements made by our respective governments should offer the basis for a meaningful agreement.”2 

The appeal to this fatwa has once again appeared recently in US government briefings and statements as the United States continues to seek a new nuclear agreement with Iran.  Indeed, so much is it understood by Iran that this fatwa remains a core pillar of the assumptions governing western policy that the Iranian regime employed the threat of rescinding it – strongly suggesting it believed such a threat forms effective pressure on the US government.  As Iranian lawmaker, Sabbaghian Bafghi, said on August 2, 2022:  

“We will ask Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to change his fatwa and strategy on the prohibition of producing nuclear weapons if the enemies of the Islamic Republic continue their threats.”3 

The problem is that this Fatwa has never been published, nor likely has it ever existed.  The core assumption and evidence to which western diplomats cling to allay their fears of Iran’s ultimate intentions for the acquisition and use of a nuclear weapon, in fact, does not exist.  It never did. 

As such, it is important to go back to the evolution of this myth to its origins in the 2008-2012 period to ferret out that western belief in the critical assumption is, in fact, flawed. 


As the negotiations between the P5+1 (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany) talks with Iran in Istanbul began in mid-April 2012, the proceedings and public discourse were both seized with reporting of the issuance (or supposed issuance) of a fatwa, or a religious ruling, by Ali Khamenei, the supreme religious authority in Iran’s current revolutionary regime. The fatwa, Iran’s press reported, forbids the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons – what it called “the three “nos.” 

Iranian officials noisily heralded the fatwa as proof that Iran was not trying to weaponize its nuclear program, and was thus operating within its nuclear rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: 

“The fatwa that the Supreme Leader has issued is the best guarantee that Iran will never seek to produce nuclear weapons, Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani said on Wednesday [11 April] … Khamenei has issued a fatwa declaring that production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are all haram (prohibited in Islam).”4 

Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi highlighted this as a turning point in the negotiations, saying that the West realized that Khamenei’s fatwa against making atomic bombs “had a religious basis and was announced on the basis of Shari’ah tenets and not for political purposes. Taking this into consideration, the West came to the conclusion at the Istanbul talks that a joint framework was needed as a basis for advancing the talks with Iran.”5  

In recent weeks, the West has led an effort to tighten the screws on Iran through toughened sanctions with the hope of compelling Tehran to accept a restraint on its nuclear program, the first test of which were the Istanbul talks. While it may not be the official US negotiating stance yet, the United States has recently defined its red line in public signaling not around the state of progress of Iran’s program, but whether Iran would cross the threshold of weaponization. As such, Western diplomats were quick to note that such a fatwa could be an important benchmark that suggests the current effort of isolating and pressing the Iranian regime is beginning to show signs of success. As the London Telegraph reported, “[Secretary] Clinton revealed that she has been studying Khamenei’s fatwa, saying that she has discussed it with religious scholars, other experts and with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. ‘If it is indeed a statement of principle, of values, then it is a starting point for being operationalized,’ Clinton said.”6 Europeans were even more encouraged: “One of the diplomats, who demanded anonymity because he was sharing information from a closed session, said the Iranians appeared to be moving toward that goal [of discussing their program], engaging in discussion about the peaceful use of nuclear energy and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. He said the Iranian team had mentioned supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s ‘fatwa,’ or prohibition, of nuclear weapons for Iran, in the course of the plenary discussions” which European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton described as “the beginnings of a sustained process.”7 


The saga of this heralded fatwa is neither new, nor is it tied to the current state of pressure under which the Iranian regime finds itself. It dates as far back as 1997, and has been reported before – indeed several times – in the Iranian press or referred to in statements by Iranian officials:  

 In an interview in the German paper, Der Spiegel, in early December 2011, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi added: “Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa saying that nuclear weapons are not acceptable in Islam and that they are banned in Islam. This means that the mass destruction weapons play no role in our defense strategy.”8  

 In an interview on November 19, 2011 with the Italian paper, Corriere Della Sera, Iranian ambassador to Rome, Seyed Mohammad Ali Hossaini, said: “Iran has always aimed for a peaceful, civilian use of nuclear energy, we stated that right at the start of our program. Our highest authorities have always said that they believe the production, storage, and use of nuclear arms is something execrable, or even “haram,” which in Islamic religion is a prohibited action, totally to be condemned and banned. This principle is also contained in a fatwa, a religious precept, issued by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the highest religious and political authority in the Islamic Republic of Iran. And we immediately issued it worldwide. The importance of this fatwa is such that, even if the international community were to give the green light tomorrow to an Iranian nuclear bomb, our government could not build one.”9 

  • During a visit to Slovenia on July 11, 2011, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, said that Khamenei issued a fatwa declaring that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are all haram.10  
  • In September 2004, Iran’s broadcasting authority reported that Khamenei had issued a fatwa – apparently as early as 1997 – stating that the use of nuclear weapons was contrary to and forbidden by Islam, and that this fatwa had been mentioned by Iran’s nuclear negotiator and National Security Council head, Hassan Rouhani, during the talks with the West.11 
  • The Islamic republic issued an official statement at the emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna on Aug. 9, 2005, which was reported through a website, saying: “The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued the fatwa that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took office just recently, in his inaugural address reiterated that his government is against weapons of mass destruction and will only pursue nuclear activities in the peaceful domain.”12 

But is taking weaponization off the table by Iran really the bottom line issued by the highest religious authority in the land?  


Fatwas are serious affairs within a community of believers, and even more so among Shiites who break themselves down into schools of followers headed by one of several religious scholars who have attained the highest form of learning and are worthy of emulation (Marjah al-Taqlids). In Iran’s Islamic Republic, this reaches even greater heights, with the reigning theological premise being that of the Valiyet e-Faqih (Rule of the Jurisprudent) – a concept rejected by most Shiites outside of Iran – in which a ruler is anointed to assume the voice and authority of the occulted 12th Imam in the absence of his return. He is superior to any of the other sources of emulation and assumes the role of supreme ruler with accompanying religious authority.  

As such, it is all the more surprising that ever since 1997 when the original fatwa by Khamenei was ostensibly released, a good number of Iranian leaders have issued fatwas or made statements which seem to directly contradict the religious edict of the unassailable and infallible supreme leader. These fatwas either suggest Iran is contemplating a nuclear weapons strategy, or outright call for Iran to develop, or even use, nuclear weapons:  

  • In 2005, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi published a book titled, The Islamic Revolution – Surges in Political Changes in History. Apparently the publisher, the Center of Publications of the Imam Khomeini Research Institute, released only 3000 copies limited to the seminary in which he taught. On page 337 of his book, clearly referring to nuclear weapons, he wrote: “We have to produce the most advanced weapon inside the country, even if our enemies do not like it. There is no reason that they have the right to produce a certain special type of weapon, but that other nations do not.”13 

Mesbah Yazdi is not only a member of the Council of Experts – the body which chooses the Supreme Leader – but also the founder of the Haqqani school in Qom which trains future cadres of the regime whose alumni form the backbone of the clerical management class that runs Iran’s key political and security institutions. Mesbah Yazdi is one of the most prominent religious figures in Iran and is considered the mentor of President Ahmadinejad and leader of the Mahdist school (those who believe they see the signs aligning that confirm the 12th Imam is on the verge of returning from occultation).  

  • On February 16, 2006, the reformist internet daily, Rooz reported that the late Mohsen Gharavian – a lecturer at the Qom seminaries and a prominent disciple of Mesbah Yazdi, issued a fatwa which read: “One must say that when the entire world is armed with nuclear weapons, it is only natural that, as a counter-measure, it is necessary to be able to use these weapons. However, what is important is what goal they may be used for … According to Shari’ah, too, only the goal is important….”14  
  • On April 24, 2011, the website of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gerdab, published what it envisions the day after Iran’s first nuclear test: “The day after Iran’s first nuclear test will be an ordinary day for us Iranians, but many of us will have a new gleam in our eyes – a gleam of national pride and might.” The article then continued by citing the Koran’s chapter 8, verse 60: “And prepare against them what force you can, and horses tied at the frontier, to frighten thereby the enemy of Allah and your enemy.”15 In tying this Koranic phrase directly to the quest for nuclear weapons, the IRGC publication in essence defines nuclear weapons as a requirement of the Islamic Republic’s constitution, since Article 151 of Iran’s Constitution relies on the authority of that very passage of the Quran when it states: “Prepare against them whatever force you are able to muster, and horses ready for battle, striking fear into God’s enemy and your enemy.”  

One might be tempted to discount these statements, since they are from officials who could be seen as part of the competing faction to the Supreme Leader. But other officials, who owe their allegiance and careers to Khamenei’s sufferance (and thus cannot be considered to be from a “deviant” or competing faction), also have expressed a quest for weaponization:  

  • On December 14, 2001, during the al-Quds (Jerusalem) day sermon, Iran’s former president, Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani declared at the University of Tehran not only that Israel can be destroyed with a single bomb, but suggested that Israel’s likely nuclear retaliation is digestible because the Muslim world would only be damaged by it: “If one day … the world of Islam comes to possess the weapons currently in Israel’s possession [nuclear weapons] – on that day this method of global arrogance would come to a dead end. This … is because the use of one nuclear bomb in Israel would leave nothing on the ground, whereas it will only damage the world of Islam.”16 He added that “It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.”17 
  • On August 22, 2006, at the ceremony in Arak in which Iran inaugurated its heavy water plant, the Deputy Speaker of the Majlis (parliament), Mohammed Reza Bahonar, declared: “The Iranian people is faced by unreasonable forces that possess nuclear weapons, and there is no [force] that can deter them. If they put pressure [on Iran], the [Iranian] people may ask the government to produce nuclear weapons for the sake of deterrence … You [the West] need to fear the day the Iranian people will amass in the streets, demonstrate and ask of its government to produce nuclear weapons in order to counter the threats…”18 Far from paying a price for this statement, Bahonar, who is also the Leader of the Islamic Society of Engineers, was reelected and served in the post until 2011.  
  • An Iranian paper, Asr-e Iran, published an editorial on February 28, 2010, saying: “The truth is that for Israel … the mere sense of insecurity is deadly poison…The truth is that Israel knows very well that even if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it will never use them except in self-defense… Rather, Iran’s possession of such weapons will sow in Israel a sense of insecurity – and this sense alone will be enough to shatter the glass palace of this illegitimate regime in the Middle East. An Iran with nuclear weapons means an end to the dream of ‘secure Israel’ – and this means the exodus of most of the residents of this occupied land… This exodus will include human, financial, and other capital, and, therefore, will be a death sentence for this regime.”19  

These articles by both allies and competitors to Khamenei have never elicited a price or even a reprimand for having so blatantly crossed the Supreme Leader and his fatwa.  


The effort to gauge the meaning and validity of this supposed fatwa is also problematic since no reasoning or context is provided in the reports or statements discussing why such a weapon is, from a religious point of view, materially different from any other weapon, and why it should be thus forbidden (haram) rather than encouraged to fulfill – as the IRGC’s publication, Gerdab suggests – the stipulation outlined in Koranic verse 8:60 and mentioned in Article 151 of the Constitution.  

In the West, we accord not only nuclear weapons, but an entire category of weaponry, a special status defined by the term “weapons of mass destruction,” namely their ability to inflict mass death and realistically contemplate swift, genocidal annihilation. In Iran, however, mass destruction has been sanctioned as part of a sanctioned cult of annihilation and martyrdom. The Iranian regime has issued numerous fatwas which provide the religious justification for not only the permissibility, but the imperative of inflicting mass killing of the enemy, and the acceptance of severe retaliation as a religiously justified risk and cost.20 This is true not only of the competing clerical leaderships surrounding Khamenei and Ahmadinejad – but even the “moderate” camp defined by the likes of Rafsanjani.  

Given the context of other fatwas’ legitimizing a cult of annihilation and martyrdom, it is impossible that this fatwa grounds its special treatment and prohibition of the nuclear weapon in the ghastly nature of the weapon, as we do in the West. And in every mention of the fatwa, only the one sentence appears and there is no discussion, nor any stated reason – as there often are in fatwas in Shi’ism, which generally list both the verdict and the arguments that led to it – why nuclear weapons alone are singled out for prohibition and inapplicable to the Koran’s chapter 8, verse 60 and Iran’s Constitution’s article 151, both of which command Muslims to “muster whatever force you are able” to fight the enemy. 

Other aspects of Iranian rhetoric are also inconsistent with the heralded fatwa. Specifically, Iran suggests rather bluntly how analogous its current situation is to North Korea’s as Pyongyang moved toward weaponization, implying Tehran reserves the right to pursue the path the fatwa forbids.  

Khamenei’s mouthpiece Keyhan drew the most direct analogy on October 13, 2006 in an editorial entitled: “Lessons from North Korea:”  

“What led Korea to this point was nothing but persistence in the face of the U.S., which would not agree to … assure it that it would not act to topple the North Korean government .… The Koreans said many times before that if America would stop its operations to topple their government … then North Korea would have no problem whatsoever with the inspection of their efforts to produce nuclear weapons. But the Americans, with their usual defective mindset … persisted and now it’s over… North Korea has built a nuclear bomb before America’s eyes, despite the great pressure it was under, and despite years of harsh international sanctions – and no one has managed to do anything against it … What this means is that if any country, such as North Korea, concludes for political or security reasons that it must have nuclear weapons, it will ultimately succeed in implementing its wish – even if the whole world does not want it to.”21 

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator of last decade, Ali Larijani – who is now the Speaker of Iran’s parliament – made the connection directly:  

“You have pressured North Korea for two years and consequently it withdrew from the NPT and IAEA…I recommend that you once again pay attention to the conduct of North Korea. After two years … you have accepted North Korea’s nuclear technology… So accept ours now… [A]lthough Iran proposes these peaceful conditions, if you want to use aggressive language, Iran will have no choice but to protect its technological accomplishments by withdrawing from the NPT.”22  

In short, in the view of the Iranian leadership surrounding Khamenei, the United States’ refusal to meet the DPRK’s demands fully not only justified, but left Pyongyang no other choice but to realize its nuclear quest and seek a weapon. Iran’s leaders argue that Iran now finds itself along the same path, implying that if their demands are not met, they too would not only be justified, but impelled, to seek the very nuclear weapons the reported fatwa ruled are forbidden.  


Taken together, it is nearly impossible to reconcile Khamenei’s reported fatwa prohibiting nuclear weapons with the gist of Iranian public statements since the first references to it were made in 1997 – all of which flow in the opposite direction.  

Moreover, the problem is compounded by the fact that that Khamenei’s fatwa has never been seen or published – not in 1997, 2005, 2011, or today. The Iranian press referred to it, and Iran’s negotiators at various P5+1 talks have regularly raised the existence of this fatwa as proof of Iran’s good intentions, but Khamenei has never said or released it in public. It is impossible to properly analyze, or understand the context in which it needs to be understood and followed, or if it even exists.  

Either the fatwa outright is a fabrication for the purposes of willful deception of the West or that the operative phrase is embedded in the context of a larger fatwa which makes the prohibition on these weapons – and perhaps others as well – conditional on theoretical circumstances such as, for example, the age in which Islam has universally triumphed and, the Mahdi has returned. Indeed, were the operational phrase in the fatwa so conditioned, then it would have been perfectly consistent and reinforcing for Mohsen Gharavian to have issued his fatwa on Iran’s right to nuclear first use in 2006. And this would explain why there never was any criticism, let alone sanction taken, by any journalist, institution or official connected with Khamenei or the government against Gharavian or any of the others who suggested Iran has a nuclear armaments concept or should have or use a nuclear weapon. 


As if the drama surrounding its sudden appearance on the scene without accompanying evidence, not least of which is the absence of any publication to date of any official text of this fatwa, makes this entire episode deeply suspicious. The only evidence that we have that such a fatwa exists is that official statements from Iran say it is so, but they too fail to provide any text.  Mohsen Rafighdoost, a minister in the IRGC responsible for a significant part of the nuclear program, said in 2014 he sought to pursue a nuclear weapons option, but was restrained by the ostensible edit – which led quickly to established Western journals, such as Foreign Policy, to seize on the statement as definitive evidence of the edict.23 Of course, it is unclear why the IRGC even had a role in the nuclear program if it was not for military purposes.  

In short, there is no evidence that this fatwa exists beyond dubious statements from officials saying it does.  Moreover, assuming the phantom edict does exist, nobody knows what it actually says since its content has never been published. Whole articles have been written by Iranian propagandists about it and analyzing its importance without ever citing even a single phrase or line from the edict.  

In contrast, there is evidence from other, published and clearly existing fatwas that the Iranian regime does consider nuclear weapons as legitimate. And in the last years, there have been several Iranian officials, such as Abolfazl Razavi Ardakani, who have said it was either temporary and in effect – surprise, surprise — only until the most recent period in which Iran actually reached the technical ability to approach a nuclear device.  

Our Leader’s fatwa that Iran would not pursue an atomic weapon was meant for its time. It is possible that the Leader will change his mind. This is based on the Islamic ruling about whether it is allowed to put stones in the enemy’s river in order to poison him. The answer is that this is allowed if it’s the only way to prevail…. It is possible that the Leader will give the order to enrich uranium to 90%. The Leader knows perfectly well when to give which fatwa. The fatwas of the religious scholars, especially secondary ones, are not permanent. There is a difference between primary fatwas and secondary fatwas. A jurisprudent can issue a ruling and then cancel it 10 years later.”24 

And finally, there are even official statements that suggest that the fatwa never existed. Former Iranian member of the Majlis (parliament), Ali Motahari, said on April 24, 2022 that: 

“From the very beginning, when we entered the nuclear activity, our goal was to build a bomb and strengthen the deterrent forces, but we could not maintain the secrecy of this issue, and the secret reports were revealed by a group of hypocrites.”25 

On balance then, the evidence is substantial the entire tale of Khamenei’s phantom nuclear fatwa is little more than an attempt at strategic deception. Either the fatwa does not exist or exists within a hidden context, the obvious failure of enforced discipline of message, and the absence of any reprimand is likely a result of fissures within Iran’s regime.  

However, since even allies of Khamenei were on record before 2006 suggesting a nuclear weapons quest, the fissures cannot be understood through categories such as “hardliners” or “moderates” over nuclear policy, but a schism between two schools of thought, reflected most starkly by Khamenei on the one hand, and Mesbah Yazdi on the other. Most of the post-2006 statements overtly suggesting a nuclear weapons quest appear to come from the clerics surrounding Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, while those reinforcing the ostensible fatwa came from the traditional clerical elite aligned with Khamenei and his close associate, Ali Larijani.  

While the disagreement plays itself out over the fatwa issue, it is not about the legitimacy of nuclear weapons at all, but about a disagreement over whether Iran should pursue Taqqiyah (deception) and caution against the West because open confrontation could be dangerous, or whether Iran should flaunt its ambitions since the West is toothless and overt confrontation would only expose that weakness.  

Khamenei represents the clerical establishment, who views the preservation of the revolutionary regime and its mundane moorings as the prime directive. While not moderating or compromising, Khamenei and those close to him have consistently chosen to maneuver and be indirect rather than have a confrontation with the West.  

In contrast, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi rejects maneuvering and indirect confrontation as too cautious, and even heretical against the will of Allah. Instead, he and his followers believe the hidden 12th Imam is near his return, and that divine intervention – secured by rigid adherence to principle – is the true source of victory for the Islamic Republic. For example, in his book which discussed the need to pursue the “special” (read nuclear) weapon, Yazdi wrote:  

“In seeking to acquire the technology, Iran must be patient and not be deterred by economic shortages. Divine, messianic support has been the determining factor of the Iranian regime during the various trying periods which have plagued it since its foundation.”26  

In late 2007, Khamenei’s ally, Ali Larijani, who hails from one of the grand, traditional clerical families (the Amelis) of Qom, was forced by Ahmadinejad to resign as the head of the Supreme Council for National Security. His replacement, Saeed Jalili is guided by Mesbah Yazdi. In his first major speech published four days after assuming his new position on October 21, 2007, Jalili attacked previous governments for having “strayed from the principles derived from Islamic revolutionary teachings.” In contrast, Jalili argued that under Ahmadinejad, Iran’s foreign policy has returned to its ideological base and is “avoiding the past experience of sacrificing principles when faced with a challenge…Principles should not be sacrificed … in the name of pragmatism.”27 Jalili even went on to suggest previous policies demonstrated “cartoon-like behavior [which causes] 180-degree turns in foreign policy without any basis.” Jalili then echoes Mesbah Yazdi’s eschatological spin: foreign policy should be coupled “with reliance on divine assistance” and should be based on a theological model which will bring “a good ending in this and the next world as was the intention of the Islamic revolution.” Referring to the previous governments’ suspensions of Iran’s nuclear program to avoid international reactions, Jalili “steadfastly stressed” the need to “return to an ideological and principled approach” in order to shape the nature of Iranian foreign policy in accordance with Islamic “authenticity based on the Prophet’s diplomatic strategy.” He went on to suggest that “pragmatism” should be seen as willful disobedience to the divine Will.”28 

In short, the inconsistency surrounding Iranian governmental statements and the fabrication or selective reporting on Khamenei’s fatwa on the nuclear issue tells us almost nothing about the regime’s theological view of the legitimacy of pursuing nuclear weapons, but it does expose the nature and theological foundations of the fissures within the regime. 

Situation Report: Joe Biden’s Middle East trip

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President Biden spent almost a week in the Middle East recently, during a period of critical regional importance, and manages to depart having alienated nearly every major player.

Iran is reaching the breakout point on a nuclear weapon. Israeli leaders were eager to speak face to face with their American counterparts about applying more muscle into forcing Iran to back down.  The Saudis expected a shift in U.S. policy on both Iran and about the criticism of the Saudi government for the Khashoggi affair. Riyadh was signaling a willingness to turn over a new leaf in the U.S.-Saudi relationship by increasing oil production and moving quickly to establish deeper public relations with Israel.

The Palestinians expected the United States to press Israel into allowing the reopening of the formal U.S. consulate to the Palestinians. The consulate, located on Agron Street (in the pre-1967 western half of Jerusalem), was closed during the Trump administration. Reopening it would signal a shift aligned with American and global progressives and more hostile to Israel. Jordan, in addition to backing the Palestinians, expected the United States to reinforce its demand to erode, or even erase, any Israeli sovereignty over any part of eastern Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount.

Virtually nobody was pleased by the outcome of the trip, however.

The Palestinians and Jordanians failed to understand that while the staff of the Biden administration fully agrees with them, the President was in no position to publicly validate those policy shifts.  American officials indulged and inflated Palestinian and Jordanian expectations but failed to deliver the goods in public.

Then again, the Palestinians have always been hostile, and were never going to be pleased with any U.S. overture.  Jordan, which since 2017 has acted more as an advocate of the Palestinian Authority than a strategic partner, was also inevitably going to walk away dissatisfied. Yet, , the Palestinians and Jordanians did come away with symbolic confirmation at least that the U.S. has walked back from the Trump administration policies on Jerusalem.

The regional countries most critical to the U.S. position in the region – Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE- come away the biggest losers.

The Arab states have been falling over themselves in the 24 hours since President Biden left to appease Iran, with the UAE now seeking to establish diplomatic relations with Tehran. Clearly the message they received from the U.S. was disconcerting. Most likely, they measured up Washington, heard weakness, and are now reacting accordingly.

For Israel, this trip was about meeting face to face with its counterparts in an attempt to avert a weak deal with Tehran and unify the Western ranks toward a far tougher policy on Iran. Israel is in an election cycle, so the government is desperate not to show tension with U.S.  Even so, Israeli officials are now openly admitting the U.S. and Israel are at odds over Iran policy, even as they try to put on a brave face by saying that at least the U.S. was presented an unvarnished and blunt message from the top of the Israeli government.  But actions speak louder than words. Tellingly, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) chief of staff said last night that the IDF is kicking its preparations for a major direct war with Iran into high gear – alone if necessary.

Iran was not the only issue.

Saudi and the UAE are furious over the attempts by U.S. Secretary of State Blinken to force PLO and Jordan into the most sensitive Abraham Accords forums in all facets, including defense and investment, which has caused the Saudis walk back what they were willing to do in terms of normalization with Israel. As Ehud Yaari, the Arab affairs correspondent for Israel’s channel 12, noted, this U.S. effort is a severe blow because it would allow the PLO, which is committed to undermining the accords, to serve as a spoiler, which this U.S. policy will essentially allow.

By the time the President arrived in Saudi Arabia at the end of the week, the atmospherics had already changed from warm expectations to coldness. Whatever remnant of original expectations that the Saudis did deliver on was pro-forma. Israeli flights beyond the UAE could now pass-through Saudi airspace, but no further normalization, and at best a small increase of oil production only without a firm promise publicly from the Saudi side, and no timeline.

Finally, of course, the idea of a regional security alliance, which only a week ago seemed to be already happening, suddenly vaporized the moment the U.S. said that it was going to put itself in charge of shepherding it to completion.  This attempt to insert the U.S. on top of the security ties in the region was perhaps the most destructive failure on several levels. First, it demoted the direct ties between Israel and the Arabs – which were developing nicely without the U.S. — and devastated the confidence the regional players had in such a structure since they have measured up the administration and believe it is not serious about regional defense. Trying to force Qatar –Saudi Arabia’s nemesis–and Jordan –serving as an agent of the Palestinians– was the death blow to the whole scheme.

Notably, under the table, it seems Saudi, UAE, Morocco and Israel are proceeding alone to create such a structure without the U.S.’ involvement.  The IDF’s chief of staff is, in fact, traveling to Morocco today and several top military officials have also been moving around their Arab neighbors as well in recent days.

The final verdict on the trip appears to be that the Saudis, Bahrainis, and UAE trust Israel more than the U.S.

Part III: The foundations of the Jordanian state 

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By Dave Wurmser 

In part one, I described the harsh and increasingly hostile anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric recently employed by Amman, as well as its attempts to champion the Palestinian cause, wrest sovereignty from Israel on the Temple Mount and resurrect a pre-1852 status quo over Muslim, if not even all, holy sites in Jerusalem into some sort of “Vatican-like” status.  I also outlined the accompanying geopolitical shifts in Amman that echo Russian and Non-Aligned Movement narratives rather than its traditional more pro-Western posture. 

In part two I examined the various reactions in the West and Israel to this turn of events in Jordan, and the various options publicly debated over the best way to move forward.  

In this section, in order to examine further whether Jordan should be confronted, indulged/ignored, or appeased I will both: 

  • Describe the shift in Jordan’s policy. Although King Abdallah has never been identified with either anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic sentiment, and even though in fact he has had a deep investment and history of relations with England and the United States, he had until only a few years ago shown little interest in asserting Jordan’s role among Palestinians or in Jerusalem.  Since it is unlikely that something happened that caused so profound a change of heart enough to radically alter his outlook across the board, it is more likely that this shift in policy is a result of pressures and circumstances and a strategic response on how to deal with that change. 
  • Explore the foundations of Jordan’s stability to illustrate how serious a departure this new strategy is and how askew it is of the traditional policies that have secured Jordanian stability. 

Jordan’s shift in 2017 

The first visible signs of a significant shift in Jordan’s strategy in dealing with the Palestinians and Jerusalem, and by extension Israel, occurred six years ago, in the summer of 2017. 

The first Temple Mount Crisis (2017) 

In July 2017, three Arabs from Um al-Fahm in Israel traveled to Jerusalem and used the Temple Mount complex and the al-Aqsa Mosque as a hiding place and base of operations to smuggle and hide weapons  which they would three days later use to launch a shooting attack on Israeli police. Emerging from the Temple Mount through the Gate of Tribes on July 14, the three terrorists gunned down two policemen standing near the Lion’s Gate of the city and wounded two more, one seriously. The terrorists then used the sanctity of the Temple Mount and al-Aqsa Mosque as a haven into which to retreat under the assumption that Israeli police would not follow them in hot pursuit – which is precisely one of the terms King Abdallah is demanding as an absolute from the Israelis (no Israeli police on Temple Mount ever for any condition, even in self defense or hot pursuit).  In 2017, however, Israeli police did follow and successfully neutralized the terrorists. 

As a result of this attack and the ongoing suspicion that the al-Aqsa Mosque could become a weapons storage repository by more Palestinian terrorists, Israel decided to install metal detectors to prevent the flow of potential weapons into the compound. What particularly disturbed the Israelis was that in the investigation of the attack, it became clear that members of the Islamic Waqf willfully assisted the attackers in smuggling and storing the weapons as well as harbored them.  Moreover, when Israeli police raided the Mount to pursue the terrorists, they discovered that indeed the Waqf had begun storing a substantial amount of other weapons as well, and was using the sanctity of the area as cover to prevent Israeli police presence and observation. 

In other words, the danger of the al-Aqsa mosque’s becoming a protected “armory” for the Palestinian factions with the acquiescence of the Waqf was not theoretical.  It had just happened, which is what drove the Israeli government to install the magnetometers and cameras, as well as to close the Temple Mount to everyone for two days to calm the situation and to prevent mass demonstrations on the Mount as police swept the area searching for other arsenals. This closure was a response to the call by the Jordanian-sponsored Mufti of Jerusalem (essentially the head of the Waqf), Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, to all Muslims to come and ascend the Temple Mount and defy the Israelis. The Waqf – instead of being an instrument of administration and a voice for calm — had been caught helping to establish a terror infrastructure and haven and then serve as the cheerleaders for ensuing violence.  

Jordan – who ostensibly was afforded a special status under the Peace Treaty over the Waqf in order to ensure its peaceful behavior and prevent third-parties from attacking Israel – instead immediately responded not with an apology over having failed in what had been expected of it under the Treaty, but with a sharp rebuke of Israel for installing the magnetometers and cameras. Ignoring entirely the events that had precipitated Israel’s action, Amman escalated its rhetoric in the following days and proceeded to continue to expand the Waqf, sided with the Palestinians, took the lead in escalating and further enflaming the crisis, and accused Jerusalem of changing the status quo of the Temple Mount and began to challenge Israel’s right to even be there. 

Into this climate of rising Jordanian-Palestinian incendiary rhetoric and resulting rage – instigated by terrorists, sanctioned by the Waqf and enflamed further by the Jordanian government – it was not long in coming that a Jordanian construction worker, enraged by the course of events, attacked an Israeli diplomat (the deputy head of security in the Israeli embassy) in his apartment in Amman. The result of this attack on July 23, 2017, was unfortunately not only the attacking construction worker’s death but his co-worker as well, a result of the diplomat’s having defended himself.  

This eventually led to a dangerous diplomatic standoff where the Israeli diplomat was prevented from leaving Amman, and was de facto held hostage by the Jordanian government as leverage to force Israel to yield on the Temple Mount, remove the metal detectors and cameras, and allow for further expansion of the Waqf.  Indeed, a few days later Israel yielded to all of Jordan’s demands and removed the metal detectors installed in the access points to the Temple Mount and allowed the Waqf to expand, in return for which, the Israeli diplomat was allowed to return home. 

The return of Naharayim (2018) 

It was reinforced less than a year later by another action seen in Israel as hostile, although clearly it was under Jordan’s rights under the peace treaty. When the eastern Mandatory area had been separated from the western part and made into Jordan in 1921, a small area, which included an island and adjacent land where the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers flow together, was farmed by Jews, who remained in it throughout and after the 1948 war.  Because the final armistice maps showed Israeli control there, the area remained in Israeli hands ever since, even though earlier maps indicated the small strip of land actually should have been considered outside the Rhodes armistice lines as part of Jordan. 

It was a small tract, but it has some importance, especially since it included a power plant – which at one time in the 1920s and 1930s had supplied most of the Mandate with its electricity — and farm in the area of Naharayim on the Jordan River.  In the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, however, Jordan asserted its claim to the land, and solution was found to formally recognize the land as part of Jordan, but that Israel could lease the land in 25-year renewable agreements.  It was assumed that this was a long-term solution that would lay the issue aside for generations, but in 2018, Jordan suddenly gave notice that when the 25-year lease ended, Israel was to leave the area in entirety and simply abandon the 100-year investment in the power plant and fields.  Israel complied because Jordan acted within its rights, but it left a significant amount of bitterness in Israel as behavior unbecoming of two nations in a genuine state of peace. 

Traditional strategic cooperation before 2017 

This episode marked a significant shift in Jordanian behavior. Amman had been careful not to challenge Israeli sovereignty over areas of Judea and Samaria. In return – as enshrined in the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty – Jordanian interests were given special consideration and Jordan granted an outsized role in the management of Islamic affairs on the Temple Mount was tolerated.  It was a strategic relationship that benefitted both parties. 

Prior to 2017, Israel-Jordanian cooperation was instrumental in reversing the chaos and bloodshed that had developed as a result of the Oslo process in 1993 and Israel’s precipitous withdrawal and indulgence of Yasir Arafat. This was especially important regarding Jerusalem.  

Although Jordan had formally severed its ties to Judea and Samaria in 1988, Israel re-involved Jordan deeply as the Oslo process descended into increasing instability and violence. In particular, Jerusalem and Amman worked together to block increasing PLO and Hamas efforts – assisted in this destabilization by the Turkish government — to establish themselves over Jerusalem institutions.  In particular, Israel had learned by the 1990s and 2000s the painful lesson of yielding the Waqf to the PLO’s dominance earlier in the 1990s.   

The Oslo debacle 

In 1994, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Sulaiman Ja’abari, died.  The PLO moved quickly to appoint his successor, Ikrima Sa’id Sabri. Although Sabri was of the Muslim Brotherhood, Arafat had throughout the 1990s simultaneously cultivated , employed, suppressed and controlled Hamas and the Brotherhood. Arafat thus was thus comfortable in bringing into a position of power such a dangerous figure as Sabri, largely because he was confident that he could use Sabri’s talents to enflame and destabilize to his advantage. 

Jordan, however, was having none of this.  Having traditionally held dominance over the appointment of the Mufti, and highly sensitive to threats posed by the PLO from bitter decades of experience, King Hussein appointed another Mufti, Abdul Qader Abdeen, who was beholden neither to the PLO nor to the Muslim Brotherhood.   

In a stark departure from amicable and coordinated Israeli-Jordanian strategies in dealing with Jerusalem for the preceding 30 years, Israel dissed the Jordanians and chose instead to appease the PLO and allow the PLO’s choice, Ikrima Sa’id Sabri – a Palestinian nationalist affiliated with the northern League of the Muslim brotherhood in Israel — to become Mufti of Jerusalem, a perch from which he energized Palestinian violence, threatened Israel, and rattled Amman.   

After then having faced an unprecedented wave of violence in the 1990s and first two years of the 2000s, as a result of this catastrophic misstep, Israel realized its strategic mistake and happily seized upon the Jerusalem provisions of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.  Israel pressed the PLO heavily to relent and bent Jerusalem’s Islamic structures toward Amman and away from the PLO and Hamas. Arafat had effectively used Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and its violence as an instrument throughout the 1990s, but eventually, after Arafat’s demise, Palestinian President Abu Mazen, lacking any real gravitas and facing so serious a threat over the growing and uncontrollable power of Sabri, especially after the PLO lost Gaza to Hamas in 2006, in private happily but publicly grousing, yielded to Israeli and Jordanian pressure, removed Sabri, and replaced him with another Mufti, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein. 

In the great, but very quiet struggle which ensued in the following years, Jordan and Israel cooperated closely to prevent either Hamas or the PLO from weaponizing the issue of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the al-Aqsa Mosque in their internal struggles. Both Israel and Jordan knew that any Palestinian role over the sensitive sites would deteriorate into an internal rivalry and lead to a chaotic situation and violence – indeed, an intra-Palestinian bidding war paid in Israeli blood and Jordanian marginalization – that would threaten both Amman and Jerusalem, let alone their respective interests there (Israeli sovereignty and ultimate control and the lead given Jordan to administratively manage the area).   

Indeed, by the mid-2000s, Israel and Jordan also began cooperating on a far broader strategic threat — the increasingly dangerous Turkish, neo-Ottoman imperial project launched by Erdogan and publicly, unapologetically touted by his foreign minister, Mehmet Davutoglu, and parliament speaker, Mustafa Sentop.  Jordan and Israel together worked to prevent Ankara’s attempt to mobilize Muslims on the Jerusalem issue around Turkey’s new “Khaliphate” and hand the standard of leader of the Sunni world to Erdogan.   

And to be sure, it was quite a war zone. 

In the first decade and a half of the 2000s, Ankara invested effort and coin to challenge both Jordan and Israel and fill the expanding vacuum left among Palestinians as a result of the increasingly impoverished Hamas and increasingly limp PLO. Ankara aimed broadly, but it focused on Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount to replace the Jordanians. In Turkey’s endeavor to invest in encouraging a new leadership over Palestinian Muslims, it focused extensively, not solely, on Hamas as much as on the Northern league of the Muslim Brotherhood under Ra’ad Salah, and … Ikrima Sa’id Sabri.

Prime Minister Erdogan himself became involved, and soon labeled the very presence of Israel in Jerusalem as an insult to Islam and launched a quiet but overt Turkish governmental effort, led by Dr. Sardar Cam (a close associate of PM Erdogan who earlier had headed his office in parliament), to operate a largely governmentally-funded foundation called “Tika” under the ostensible cover of preserving and reinforcing the Islamic heritage of Jerusalem. By 2018, this foundation had spent USD 63 million in Jerusalem.  The local leaders associated with Ankara’s efforts — Shaykh Raad Salah and ousted Mufti Ikrima  Sa’id Sabri – used Turkish support and monies to escalate incitement and organized violent incidents against Israel. Another foundation tied to the Turkish government funded bus services to ferry members of the Murabitun and Murabitaat — both of which are banned organizations in Israel — to Jerusalem to conduct activities, many of which result in Israeli-Arab violence. Another organization, the “Agency for Our Heritage,” operated directly out of Istanbul and spent USD 40 million in the late 2010s. 

Indeed, to help entangle Israel in law-fare, Ankara also sent old Ottoman land registries (some potentially forged) and lawyers to the Palestinians to challenge Israel everywhere on land ownership. 

President Erdogan also has for most of the last two decades employed an increasingly hostile and serious parade of threats.  With each year the rhetoric Erdogan employs against the West and Israel grows. By 2015, he even called on the Islamic world to follow him into organizing an Islamic army to “liberate” Jerusalem, which is essentially a declaration of war.  

While strategic cooperation anchored to the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty functioned well enough to hamper Ankara’s schemes in the first decade, by the mid-2010s, Israel, in an attempt to tamp down Israeli-Turkish tensions, was loathe to continue to decisively confront Ankara and thus allowed Turkey considerable latitude rather than outright shut it down.   

The result was not only an increased Turkish role in many critical places in Jerusalem. It also allowed the reemergence of Ra’ad Salah of the Northern League and Ikrima Sa’id Sabri as voices for Palestinian control and incitement focused on Jerusalem – which not only invited but demanded from Hamas and the PLO a competitive scramble to assert themselves over this most emotive issue.  The situation was essentially beginning to spin out of Israel’s and Jordan’s control. 

To note, though, Turkey’s primary target at the time was not Jordan, but Saudi Arabia. Ankara understood that by taking the lead in Jerusalem through its institutions and foundations, and through the rising fortunes of its allies Ra’ad Salah and Ikrima Sa’id Sabri, Ankara could begin to challenge Saudi Arabia’s claim to Sunni leadership which was emanating from its custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques — the al-Haram Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.   

The intensity of this Turkish-Saudi, intra-Sunni cold war, and the fear that any weakening of Jordan could undermine Saudi Arabia helped shift Riyadh’s perception of Jordan.   From being a traditional rival over the allegiance of the region’s tribes since the late 1910s, suddenly Saudi Arabia viewed Jordan, and indeed even Israel, as a strategic partner in its rivalry against Turkey. Jordan’s partnership in helping Israel prevent the radicalization of Jerusalem institutions by either Turkey, Iran or their local proxies, also strategically helped the Saudis, who had over the last decade found themselves as gravely threatened by Turkey’s neo-Ottoman project – especially the attempt to resurrect the Khaliphate to seize the standard of Sunni Islam — as anyone else in the region.   

The Saudis understood how Turkey or Iran could use of the Temple Mount to open a new, violent and highly emotive front in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict to radicalize the region.  

That this structure of several Arab states working together with Israel (some openly, some semi quietly) seemed to work so well makes it all the more befuddling and disconcerting that Jordan suddenly shifted the foundations of its policy in July 2017 and became part of the confrontation front on Jerusalem against Israel in cooperation with the PLO – and through the PLO’s complete failure and unpopularity to unwittingly opening the door for HAMAS to seize the issue — rather than assist Israel in keeping the situation there calm. 

Why did Jordan do this? 

What is Jordan? 

To properly understand what would lead to such a dramatic and potentially self-destructive move by Amman, one has to examine the nature of what constitutes Jordanian stability, and indeed, what the very purpose and essence of the Hashemite dynasty is. 

To understand the seriousness of the threat, and the gravity of Jordan’s missteps now, one has to first appreciate the geography and foundations of the Jordanian state.  

Jordan, north of Amman, is largely part of the urbanized Levantine Sunni Arab structure, which includes Arab Palestinians. Some of these Jordanians are refugees from west of the Jordan River, but most are indigenous inhabitants of what once was called Trans-Jordanian Palestine (mirroring Cis-Jordanian Palestine which includes all the lands west of the Jordan River). These Arab Palestinians have long-standing and deep ties to their mirrored populations across the Jordan River, such as Karameh with Jericho, Zarqa with Jenin, Amman with Jerusalem.  They are intertwined populations.   

It is not a clean divide. Outside of the cities, some Bedouin tribes have long lived north of Amman, such as the Bani Hassan, who inhabit the areas of Jerash and Zarqa, and the Bani Sakher, who have been in the area of Amman and Madaba. Both thus have a long history in some of those areas North of Ma’an (just south of Amman) and Amman. Moreover, those Bedouin tribes had a history of rejecting the authority of the Ottoman Khalipha, and thus were the primary targets of the Ottoman empire in the 19th century as it tried to settle Circassian and other Muslim populations from the Balkans and other areas of Samaria to break the geographic integrity of those tribes. As such, north of Amman, and in fact Samaria north of Jerusalem, is somewhat of a mishmash of populations emerging from Ottoman policies of internal exile, with urban populations aligned with the Ottomans in distinct tension with the tribes operating outside the cities in the area, and ultimately because of their hostility to the Ottomans aligned with the Arab Revolt and the Hashemites (led by Lawrence of Arabia). 

South of Ma’an, the picture is much clearer. Jordan is the northern-most extension of the realms of the tribes of the Hejaz, among the largest in the northern Hejaz being the Banu Huwaitat of the Banu Laith, who are found primarily in the Wadi Rum area and around Petra.

The Hejaz is the area encompassing northwestern Saudi Arabia, Jordan south of Amman — particularly south of Ma’an – and even southern Israel.  This area is the cradle of Islam and the realm and heartland of Arab history and the dominant tribes – most of which emerged from the Nabatean kingdoms and the Ghassanid Arabs aligned with Rome a millennium and a half ago – are its aristocracy and custodians of its identity. The area includes the cities of Mecca and Medina, and the holy “Two Holy Mosques of Islam” within them — the al-Haram Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.  Thus, the most revered family among these tribes has always been the traditional custodian of the two mosques and the core Hashemite family of the Muslim Prophet himself, Muhammad.  

Clearly, the Hashemite, Hejazi pedigree of Jordan’s ruling family – the Hashemites had been the family in in charge of being the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques until the end of World War I —  has in the past led Saudi Arabia, which took control of the southern part of the Hejaz and supplanted the Hashemites as the Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques in the late 1910s, into tension with the Hashemites and Jordan.  And yet, in recent decades a common purpose of fighting regional forces that threaten both and could undermine the stability of both via destabilization of the Hejaz has led not only to condominium, but even a climate of coordination between the two. In short, the stability of Jordan ever since the rise of Arab nationalism and the threat to Saudi Arabia from the Yemen War (1964) has gradually become ever more a core Saudi interest, with common enemies strategically driving the two into each others’ arms. 

But Jordan also assumed in its north the eastern part of the Arab populations of Palestine.  While Jordan’s ruling family and its reigning pillar of allies are part of a vast north-south alignment of Hejazi tribes, the urban Arabs of Palestine are oriented east-west on both the trans-Jordanian (Jordanian) and Cis-Jordanian (Israeli) sides of the Jordan River and are part of the more urbanized Levant with a complex history very separated from the Hejazi tribes as well as the tribes further east of Jordan, Iraq and northern Saudi Arabia.  Indeed, one can almost think of the Jordan River like a mirror, which were the urban centers in the north and key urban Arab clans on one side have interacted and intermarried along east-west roads with their mirrored equivalents on the other side of the Jordan River, while Bedouin tribes – deeply suspicious of the urbanized Arabs as Ottoman allies – moved about around the cities.  There was, indeed, very little north-south movement or interaction of these urban Arabs of northern Palestine, and very little common identity or affinity passing from north to south.   

This particular east-west orientation of politics among urbanized Arab Palestinian posed both a threat but also opportunity for Jordan and its reigning structure of tribes and families after 1948. On the one hand, it meant that any unrest in Cis-Jordanian Palestine (Israel, Judea and Samaria) could threaten to spread into Trans-Jordanian Palestine (Jordan), but on the other it also meant that Jordan could also use its sway and control over the eastern Arabs of Palestine to control their western extensions, especially by alliance with the Bedouin tribes of the area (Banu Sakher and Adwan being the biggest in the north and in the Jordan Valley, although in conflict with each other, with lesser tribes in the north as well of the Rwala nomads and the Bani Khaled, Bani Hassan, Bani Sirhan, Sardiyeh and Isa).  Against these tribes stood the urbanized populations, which posed a challenge to the Hashemites, especially given their east-west orientation of influence and affinity.   

As such, this complex reality upholds the delicate balance in northern Jordan. Hebron can unsettle Ma’an, or Jericho can rattle Karameh, but so too can the control over the Jordanian-sanctioned elites of Ma’an and Karameh help stabilize Hebron and Karameh.   

The same dynamic as governs Jordan also applies as well to Israel.  

It is precisely this reality – this duality of threat and opportunity to both Amman and Jerusalem – which underpins the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty as both have a vital national interest to work together to ensure calm among the non-Hejazi urbanized (non-tribal) Arabs of both banks of Palestine. Thus, Jordanian-Israeli relations are not based on flowery western notions of peace emanating from a treaty, but on a mutual set of strategic realities that demand from each coordination of the other which long predated any formal peace treaty. 

That is why the only unrest, let alone war, that has ever occurred on either of the banks of the Jordan River among the Palestinian was not a result of a Jordanian-Israeli conflict, but a result of an intrusion by external forces to that relationship that challenged the tribes and the Jordanian-cultivated elites of the big towns. Those external forces included a parade of revolutionary agents of upheaval and disruption of the carefully cultivated balance – the German-instigated Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Soviet-inspired Arab nationalists of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his tentacles (the PLO) in 1964-1970, or through the reintroduction of the PLO after 1993 by the Israelis.   

As such, other than the brief period from 1993-1996 as a result of the Oslo process, the absolute exclusion of foreign actors was a foundation of Jordanian-Israeli relations and the vital interest of their American ally. 

Until now. 

Part IV will examine how a series of missteps – not only by Jordan, but by the US and others – rocked the Jordanian state and made wobbly its foundations. 


Jordan: Stumbling into an Abyss 

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Part II: Reactions to Jordan’s incitement 

By David Wurmser 

In part one of this essay, I described the harsh and increasingly hostile anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric recently employed by Amman, but also its attempts to champion the Palestinian cause and wrest sovereignty from Israel on the Temple Mount, if not all holy sites in Jerusalem into a some sort of “Vatican-like” status.  I also outlined the accompanying geopolitical shifts that echo Russian and Non-Aligned Movement narratives.  

In this second installment, I will examine the reactions in the West and in Israel to this turn of events, which essentially break down into three types: 

  • Those whose patience is stressed to the limit with Jordan at such a sensitive moment and who advocate ignoring Amman’s demands when they are perceived to come at such an expense of Israeli interests that they threaten the essence of Israeli continued control over either Jerusalem or critical areas of Judea and Samaria. 
  • Those who argue that Jordan is acting over the top unjustifiably, but that the larger interests and continued cooperation between Israel and Jordan remain so important that very narrow Israeli interests save but a few truly vital ones should transcend the imperative of maintaining the peace treaty and trying to keep Israeli-Jordanian relations on an even keel. 
  • Those who argue that Israel has only itself to blame and that Jordan is simply reacting to Israel’s failure to satiate Palestinian demands, thereby “weakening” the Palestinian Authority(PA) which puts Amman in an impossible position wherein they have no choice other than to champion the PA. 

In other words, should the reaction be to reject, excuse (but not necessarily accept), or appease Jordan’s demands? 

Reject Amman’s demands 

In 1967, Shai Agnon, as he received the Nobel Prize for literature, ascended the podium in Oslo, Norway and spoke: 

“I tell you who I am. From the midst of a historical catastrophe, when Titus the King of Rome put Jerusalem to the sword and exiled Israel from its land, born I was in one of the cities of the Diaspora.  Mourning was every moment.  But I imagined myself as one who himself was born in Jerusalem.  In dreams, and in night visions, I saw myself standing with my Levite brothers in the Temple, as I sing with them songs of David, King of Israel.  On account of Jerusalem, I have written everything that G-d has given me in my heart and in my pen to write.”1  

In this, the great writer was no innovator, but a link in a long chain, from singing on the rivers of Babylon in the Bible, to the haunting song (“Jerusalem of Gold”) of Naomi Shemer, sung by Shuli Nathan, on the terrifying eve of the Six Day War, when Israel’s rapid victory was still in the future and the very real prospect of another catastrophic destruction of the Jewish people was descending.   

It was a tradition of hope, moored to the mystical attachment to Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, the Western Wall or whatever other name it carried, that focused on that one place, the one site on the globe, that allowed every Jew personally to look beyond the moment of hopelessness to redemption.   

As Rabbi Soloveichik has noted, the irreconcilable mourning over the loss of Jerusalem two millennia ago, mixed with the uncompromising, indeed unquestioned hope driven by the certainty of return (reinforced by the idea that the destruction and exile followed by redemption and return had happened once before 2500 years ago), animated each generation of Jews to not only push on and survive but to harbor an impossible sense of hope and optimism.  As Soloveichik noted, this quite possibly could be seen by a modern psychiatrist as a form of insanity, but it was what drove every Jew in his darkest moments to persevere.2   

The essence was perhaps best expressed not through the words of the lofty intellectual, but through the eyes of a simple 19-year old Jewish teenager who grew up in a community isolated for millennia in Ethiopia which had left Israel in the first exile and had not even heard yet of the destruction of the Temple by Titus and the Roman legions. For her, as she plodded her way with the rest of her community on foot over a thousand miles in a march through the desert which many never survived led by Israeli agents to a collection point where quietly at night they were spirited out to Israel, their desperate journey was not driven by some modern idea of self-determination, but by a primordial cry of the soul. As she said, translated and cited by Rabbi Soloveichik: 

“Until the age of 19, I grew up in a world in which the Beit Hamiqdash – the Holy Temple in Jerusalem – actually existed. I grew up hearing about the Kohanim – Holy Priests – and how they worked in the Temple. I fell asleep listening to the stories about the halo hovering over Jerusalem…We prayed and performed customs that expressed our yearning for Zion. We struggle to keep going despite the terrible conditions…because of our goal to reach Jerusalem of Gold, and after so many generations to stand at the gates of the Holy Temple.”3 

Although there are some Israelis, like Amos Oz, who scoff at this spiritual attachment, the vast majority of Israelis – indeed Jews — believe the idea of return to Jerusalem itself – and by that was meant the Temple Mount, not some modern suburb – both spiritual and concrete was the irrepressible force upholding the beleaguered soul of the Jewish people.  The epicenter of Jewish existence and survival is, thus, the Temple Mount.  

In this context, Jordan’s statements in recent crises denigrating the right of the Jewish people to have any presence or standing on the Temple Mount, obliterating verbally any connection of the Jewish people to that site, strikes not only an emotive and painful chord among many Jews, but is deeply offensive and deserves an angry response.  To many, thus, no modern power, monarch or idea or even superpower stands strongly enough to compete with four thousand years of Jewish history, belief, survival, hope, imagination, attachment – and ultimately essence — to the place because compromise on this is a betrayal of the legacy of about two hundred generations and an action tantamount to suicide.  As poet Uri Zvi Greenberg (1896-1981) wrote: “Whoever rules the Temple Mount, rules the Land of Israel.” 

Indeed, even the annual flag march through Jerusalem and its gates, while described almost universally in the Western press as a modern, indeed very recent jingoist provocation, is in fact an evolution of a ritual of longing conducted for perhaps a thousand years.  As Talmudic scholar, Jeffrey Woolf of Bar Ilan University noted: 

“There is a very long-standing tradition for hundreds of years, perhaps for millennia, of walking around and encountering the various gates of Jerusalem and expressing one’s love for Jerusalem.  People would come from all over the world on pilgrimage, walk and say prayers at every single gate.  And they would [similarly] walk around the gates of the Temple Mount.”4 

And thus, if forced to choose between continued peace with Jordan and the convenience – or even survival — of King Abdallah, many, indeed most Israelis see it as obvious that they, as the roughly two hundred generations before, really can only choose their attachment to Jerusalem over their own or the Jordanian King’s convenience.  

The answer of Prime Minister Bennett — though leading a left-leaning coalition with an Arab party in it (led by Mansour Abbas) and another Arab Party (Ayman Oudeh) outside it providing the buffer votes to allow it to continue – can only be understood in this context.  Accusing Jordan of “backing those who resort to violence,”5 Bennett said also: 

“There is no change or new evolution in the status on the Temple Mount – Israel’s sovereignty is preserved.  All decisions on the Temple Mount will be made by the government of Israel from the context of our sovereignty, freedom of religion and security, and not as a result of pressures from foreign powers or political forces.”6 

The last phrase is a direct rebuke of Jordan’s demands.  Nor was this just PM Bennett. Even Israel’s left-leaning foreign minister, Yair Lapid, was reportedly so angered by the fact that the Jordanian government was seen as fueling rather than calming the tensions, that he considered a much sharper response and course of action against Jordan during the heat of the unrest in April.7 

In essence, as one political commentator epitomized, the thought is growing in Israel that: 

“Beware King Abdullah’s scheming in and around Jerusalem. The Hashemite Kingdom may be an important partner for Israel in maintaining stability along Israel’s longest border, and an ally in the fight against Iranian hegemonic ambitions…But Abdullah today is proving to be a foe in the struggle over Jerusalem, willing to employ historical falsifications, radical rhetoric, and shameless diplomatic guile to undermine Israeli rights at the holiest place on earth to the Jewish people.  And he takes on this task with hands that are not at all clean.”8 

In other words, the more Jordan sides with the Palestinians against Israel, especially on the issue of the Temple Mount, the less use, and thus tolerance, there is among many Israelis of the King’s demands. 

Excusing and indulging Jordan 

There are many analysts, unrivaled in their understanding of Jordan, who countenance patience with Amman, especially in the context of these internal threats. This line of thinking is perhaps closest to the traditional way in which Israeli-Jordanian relations have been understood since the 1960s, or possible even earlier. 

At its core is the belief that Jordan serves several critical strategic functions: 

  • It helps Israel manage the Palestinian population and helps obstruct the rise of radical militia that could challenge both Israel and the Hashemite King. 
  • It provides a stable eastern border. 
  • It prevents the dangerous politics of the Persian Gulf access to Israel’s center (as for example Syria has failed to do regarding Israel’s north). 
  • It provides a cooperative structure to Israel to manage and administer sensitive Islamic sites and assets in Jerusalem.   

The difficulty of Jordan’s position, its inability to digest instability emerging from the Palestinian issue and its serving as a buffer against other very aggressive and dangerous regional forces and nations, is both well understood and considered.  As such, there is quite a bit of elasticity in understanding, indeed tolerance, in this camp that Amman is unwillingly forced to take actions and make statements at Israel’s expense.  While such statements may grate many Israelis, they argue, one must consider the cause and the alternative. Indulging Amman’s rhetoric is a small price to pay for a continued, stable and highly strategic partner across the Jordan River. 

The best formulation of this argument came from Robert Satloff, whose long years of refining his expertise on Jordan demand serious consideration: 

“…Despite – or perhaps because of – the much more open royal embrace of Israel than in years past, …popular opinion – such as it is – was looking for an excuse to lash out.  This is manifested in the 82 out of 109 MPs chomping at the bit to score a political point by urging [the] government to expel the Israeli ambassador, an act which could have triggered terrible downward spiral in this vital relationship. In this moment came the provocative comments by the Jordanian PM … not unreasonably interpreted as celebrating those actions of the Palestinians bent on stroking tensions and promoting confrontation.  Problematic as his words may have been, my assessment is counter-intuitive – i.e., that his remarks were designed to get ahead of the parliamentary mob in an effort to defuse that explosive moment and ultimately protect the fundamentals of the Jordan-Israel relationship.”9 

This is probably the most astute and accurate analysis of what is motivating the Jordanian leadership, none of whom have ever shown any particular penchant for wanton Israel-bashing. In the context of this outlook, one is hard pressed not to feel some sympathy for the Jordanian leadership in navigating its despair.  

The security and diplomatic establishments in Israel, as well as some Jewish journals also advocate such a response, which is indeed very close to the traditional half-century paradigm of Israeli-Jordanian relations (long predating the codification in the 1994 peace treaty) and the spirit behind the strategic and security cooperation clauses of the peace treaty.  

So, it was little surprise that just before the violence during Ramadan broke out, but after the wave of terror against Israel began, a series of high-level Israeli leaders traveled in a concentrated effort to Amman to enlist Jordan’s help in calming the situation, as has always been done to good effect until recently.  One Israeli paper on March 30 noted the bewildering pace of Israeli travel to Amman in this context: 

“Israel has pushed closer to Jordan in a massive effort to prevent an outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence next month that could destabilize both countries. President Isaac Herzog is set to make the first-ever “public and official” visit to Jordan, either by himself or by any of his predecessors since the country’s founding in 1948, …[to] discuss “deepening Israeli-Jordanian relations, maintaining regional stability with an emphasis on the upcoming holiday period, strengthening peace and normalization, and the many latent opportunities in relations between Israel, Jordan and the wider region … Herzog will meet with Abdullah in his palace, just one day after Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited and a week after Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev was in Jordan to meet with the country’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi. Both countries understand that should security ties fail, not only will the king face instability at home, but the Jordanian street violence could spill over the border to Israel.”10 

So as to put emphasis on this point, the Russian withdrawal from Syria resulting from Russia’s redirecting its efforts as a result of the Ukraine war has left a vacuum which is being filled by Iran, placing the IRGC and other Iranian terrorists not only closer to Israel’s border, but also along Jordan’s border.  In the last weeks, this presence has begun to turn into terrorist operations against Jordan, about which King Abdallah said:  

“We want everybody to be part of a new Middle East and to move forward, but we do have security challenges. We’re seeing border attacks on a regular basis and we know who’s behind that… Unfortunately we’re looking at maybe an escalation of problems on our borders,”11 

The King later was more specific: 

 “That vacuum [left by the Russians] will be filled by the Iranians and their proxies..”12 

Jordan’s role as a buffer to the Persian Gulf state system remains a vital Israeli as well as Saudi and US concern. 

The violence in Jerusalem, and Jordan’s apparent encouragement of it, in the weeks following the rapid succession of visits by President Herzog, Defense Minister Gantz and Internal Security Minister Bar-Lev have placed the paradigm informing this effort under great stress.  And to be sure, those who argue that Jordan should be indulged do not deny that Jordan is behaving inappropriately and provocatively, nor do they necessarily embrace the idea of Israel’s conceding to Jordan on Israel’s sovereignty over the Temple Mount.  They simply argue that Israel must not give in to frustration and should instead keep its eye on the larger picture. Is the assertion of Israeli pique and the insistence on the application of its rights fully, they ask, worth jeopardizing the peace treaty, if not even Jordan’s survival, in the larger geo-strategic context?  And is not Israel’s power and societal strength so solid that it can digest this indulgence?  

As such, the conclusion is to counsel Israel to exercise strategic patience and work through the “noise,” to just digest the rhetoric or react moderately with measured response, and to some extent tred lightly in engaging in any further actions that could enflame the circumstance. 

This argument is essentially an appeal to uphold the paradigm of Israeli-Jordanian relations reigning for the last six decades at least. 

Appeasing and leveraging Jordan’s demands 

Those far less sympathetic to Israel seek to exploit Jordan’s weakness and despair, and the threat of collapse, as leverage to further pressure Israel into concessions on the Palestinian track.  Sadly, at this point, it is likely the US government under the Biden administration falls into this category.   

In contrast to the argument made by those who are sympathetic to Israel who believe it is precisely Israeli strength that unlocks the potential for peace and allows Israel latitude of action,13 the Obama administration and indeed President Obama himself – the intellectual forerunner of the current administration – appears to have reversed that concept into policy a decade ago (August 2014) and argued that the central obstacle to peace is Israel’s failure to be more flexible, which is in essence a result of Israel’s immense power and consolidation which tempers its eagerness for peace.14  In other words, Israel is too strong to want peace.   

Thus, the path to peace would necessitate some weakening of Israel not as a consequence of, but as a prerequisite for, achieving peace.   

For this community of policymakers and opinion-setters, the exploitation of Jordan’s despair and the benefits provided by Israel’s central seven-decade long interest in maintaining Jordan’s survival and in a state of peace are highly useful assets into which to tap and to leverage to force Jerusalem to concede.   

As such, the answer of this latter crowd is to demand rather than suggest Israel’s indulgence of Jordan’s hostility, as well as to cede sovereignty in part or in whole.  In fact, Jordan’s hostility ultimately is understood as being a result of Israel’s failure to advance an attainable peace because of its intransigence and ultimately lack of interest in peace. In other words the message to Israel is: “It’s your fault anyway, so deal with it.” Leveraging Amman’s despair to weaken Israel both advances peace, and through that, shores up the Jordanian regime. 

In this context, it was no surprise that the White House issued a statement on April 25, 2022, that essentially sided entirely with Jordan and abandoned any pretense of support or sympathy with Israel’s situation regarding its frustration with Jordan, let alone the issue of the Temple Mount.  Issued after the harshest volleys of statements from Jordan by Prime Minister Kasawneh and Foreign Minister Safadi, the White House issued the following formal communique: 

“Jordan is a critical ally and force for stability in the Middle East, and the President confirmed unwavering U.S. support for Jordan and His Majesty’s leadership… The President affirmed his strong support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and cited the need to preserve the historic status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The President also recognized the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s crucial role as the custodian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. The leaders discussed the political and economic benefits of further regional integration in infrastructure, energy, water, and climate projects, with Jordan a critical hub for such cooperation and investment.”15 

Apart from completely ignoring Jordan’s role in fanning the flames of tension in the preceding weeks, the communique represents a shift in policy in many aspects and is a loaded statement full of coded language: 

  • It recognizes Jordan as the custodian of the Muslim Holy places in Jerusalem.  Jordan was never “the custodian” of the holy places under any agreement.  Under the peace agreement, Israel is committed to giving preferential consideration to Jordanian — as opposed to other nations’ – concerns, and in this context, gives Jordan a special status in helping Israel administer the sites, but no more. Israel never agreed with Jordan in any document to cede its ultimate sovereign control over the Temple Mount. 
  • The US now recognizes the Temple Mount as a whole as a Muslim Holy site, not just the al-Aqsa mosque.  While Israel has allowed the Waqf a role there until now, the whole area was formally never was considered a Muslim holy site other than the al-Aqsa mosque itself. 
  • The “historic status quo” to which the President says the US now supports was never a term or concept until now.  Indeed, the term status quo refers to the situation as it was between 1967 to now, although that has constantly evolved, mostly to the detriment of Jews and Christians. Jordan has seized on this term “historic status quo” and then proceeds to define it in its recent policy paper in the context of the deterioration of Muslim rights since the 1852 circumstance, namely full Muslim sovereignty and control over ALL holy sites.  This concept was reinforced at the end of April by the foreign minister of Jordan, when he called Israel’s presence there illegal and ownership over the Temple Mount as being exclusively Palestinian. 
  • The White House called Jordan helpful in calming rhetoric and preventing provocations. This is an outright inversion of truth. Jordan has not been helpful at all, and in fact, it has been one of the lead inciters over the last months. Indeed, its prime minister praised rioters, condemned Israeli Arabs who work with Israeli authorities, and encouraged more rioting attacks on Israelis in Jerusalem.  One does not need to humiliate Jordan in such a communique by criticizing King Abdallah during his visit, but praising Jordan as a partner in fighting and calming the raging rhetoric is inverted and — since the situation is highly charged (in good part because of Jordan’s rhetoric) and such incitement has led to dozens of dead Israelis thus far — itself incendiary. 
  • And finally, in a completely new jab at Israel, Jordan has for several years been insisting that the resources of the entire Palestinian-Israeli-Jordanian area — including the water of the Sea of Galilee — be shared as a moral obligation. As such when Israel gives Israeli resources to Jordan under an agreement (such as sending large amounts of its precious water from the Sea of Galilee), Jordan regards it more as a payment of an owed debt or obligation by Israel rather than a willing concession. Since Jordan’s new policy sees itself now as the champion of the Palestinians and their advocate and strategic partner against Israel, Jordan also sees itself at the center of authority to properly manage the allocation of Cis-Jordanian (Israel and the Palestinian Authority) and Trans-Jordanian (Jordan) resources, and has thus arrogated to itself the controlling role of being the central hub, rather than Israel (which isn’t mentioned in this capacity), for distributing all of the resources of the area. Astonishingly, the US signed off on this concept in the last sentences of this communique. 

On each point, the US echoed Jordan’s positions and distanced from Israel, ignored Israel’s interests and even showed little if any concession to Israel’s sovereignty. 

Beyond these three basic outlooks, there are several other lines of thought emerging on Jordan. In particular, one should take note of an idea appearing in one of the leading periodicals published in the United States identified with the left side of the Democratic party, which outright called on Jordan to reoccupy the West Bank and make it part of Jordan.16  It is rather surprising that this argument is being made by some closely identified with Jordan since ultimately, it opens the Pandora’s box of the identity of Jordan, which is not only a Hashemite monarchy, but a state anchored to the tribal structures of the Hejaz (more on this in part III).  And while those advocating this reversion to the pre-1967 situation look nostalgically on King Abdallah I’s embracing such a policy in 1950, the author conveniently ignores that Abdallah I’s moves cost him his life and nearly cost his son his throne a few years later. 

At any rate, the basic question behind all these types of responses boil down to one core question: should Israel stand firm on its rights and accept come what may in Jordan, or should it defer its rights and stomach these provocations for the greater good of Jordan’s internal stability and external peacefulness?  

Parts three and four of this essay will examine what the nature of the Hashemite Kingdom is in its essence, what stresses it faces to survive, and how understanding those dynamics could lead to a different, “fourth option” — or perhaps better described as a “scenario” since both the power and propriety of Israel’s or the US’s assuming they can shape Jordan’s future is far more limited than what is often assumed in Jerusalem or Washington at this point. 

Jordan: Stumbling into an Abyss

Post Photo

By Dr. David Wurmser
Flaring tensions between Jordan and Israel, and in particular the escalating, hostile rhetoric coming from Amman, over the “status quo” on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have stunned long-term observers of the situation. Even strong advocates who traditionally defend and even advocate increasing Jordan’s regional role were jarred. Israelis have been particularly shocked by the acerbic determination of Jordan’s exacerbation of this tension. As a result, some now question that relationship.

Moreover, that volley of harsh statements was made by the most senior Jordan officials over recent weeks against the backdrop of the most fatal terror wave Israel has faced in many years, with 20 Israeli fatalities in just over a month, and as hundreds of thousands of Muslims gathered on the Temple Mount to chant, “Khaybar, Khaybar Oh, Jew!; the army of Muhammad is returning,’ which is a blunt reference to the extermination of the Jews at Khaybar by Muhammad in 628 AD. The juxtaposition terror attacks and chants for another genocide of Jews against the verbal assault from Amman amplified the recoil Israelis felt from the substance of the statements and lead many who in the past supported Jordan to doubt Amman’s continued goodwill toward Israel and the resilience of the attending peace treaty.

Israel, the United States and those who view Arab-Israeli peace as positive should indeed be concerned about the survival of the peace treaty. Indeed, Jordan’s behavior in public plunged a dagger into the heart of the reigning Israeli defense concept since 1967; Jordan and Israel shared an interest in preventing the Palestinian issue from exploding out of control and threatening the Kingdom, and thus Amman could be counted upon by Israel to always help calm and manage the fallout of any increase in local and regional tension. Suddenly, Jordan was instead pouring kerosene onto Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

However, the statements themselves are not the problem, nor did this latest episodic flare-up in Palestinian violence cause the emerging “Jordanian problem.” It merely exposed something much deeper and more troubling about the state of affairs in Jordan.

Indeed, both the statements and Jordan’s vulnerability to Palestinian escalations are symptoms of a failing Jordanian policy. Or more accurately, Jordan’s instability and the more provocative and hostile Jordanian policy in fact both reflect and result from an underlying shift in King Abdallah’s strategic outlook. That shift not only is out of kilter with the spirit of various articles in the Israel-Jordanian peace treaty, but contradicts it.

The shift is not recent, but likely occurred between five and ten years ago. And the longer and deeper it takes root, not only will the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty come under further duress, but the purpose of the shift to shore up King Abdullah’s reign politically will fail. The stability of the Kingdom, in fact, will deteriorate further.

Jordan’s tantrum

Since April, Jordan has not only escalated its rhetoric against Israel, but has crossed several red lines in this round of conflict.

Echoing Palestinian incitement

Most particularly, it descended to unprecedented levels when its prime minister, Bisher al-Kasawneh, praised those who attacked the Jews and called those Arabs who work with Israeli authorities as legitimate targets for violence. He praised the rioters as those:

“who proudly stand like minarets, hurling their stones in a volley of clay at the Zionist sympathizers defiling al-Aqsa Mosque under the protection of the Israeli occupation government.”

The term “Zionist sympathizers” cut Israeli hard because it so closely echoed a highly inflammatory statement by the Israeli Arab List leader Ayman Oudeh made a week earlier right after a Christian Israeli-Arab policeman, Amir Khouri, was killed in the line of duty as several Israelis were being killed in a terror attack in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv in March. The verbal assault by Oudeh on Arabs who have integrated into Israeli official institutions like the military and police was a clear attempt to denigrate their memory, especially since he then proceeded to call on Arab police in Israel to resign and resist. Jordanian PM’s Kasawneh’s words – which both praised resistance to Israel and denigrated those police who cooperate with Israel — on the heels Oudeh’s statement were inescapably to many seen as an intentional echo. The statement thus horrified Israelis and emboldened their adversaries.

Moreover, Jordan de facto accepted Israel’s ultimate control over the Temple Mount in the 1994 peace treaty. In return, Israel would prioritize consideration of Jordan’s special and historical role over Muslim holy sites. But Jordan, via Prime Minister Kasawneh’s statement annulled Israel’s legitimacy and erased any Jewish connection to the Temple mount by calling Israelis illegal colonial settlers, a second time a week after the first statement:

Israel has no sovereignty over the holy sites in Jerusalem! It is a Muslim place of worship, and only the Jordanian Waqf has full authority over the management of the compound…This is occupied Palestinian land.”

These were particularly bitter pills for Israel to swallow coming in the wake of a sudden, unexpected wave of Palestinian terror that claimed 20 Israeli lives.

Contradicting the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty

And it was essentially annulling two critical parts of the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. Article 2, paragraph 3 states that: “They will develop good neighbourly relations of co-operation between them to ensure lasting security, will refrain from the threat or use of force against each other and will settle all disputes between them by peaceful means.” The point is so important that the treaty returns, expands and dwells at length on this point again in Article 4, which states:

  • Both Parties, acknowledging that mutual understanding and co-operation in security-related matters will form a significant part of their relations and will further enhance the security of the region, take upon themselves to base their security relations on mutual trust, advancement of joint interests and co- operation, and to aim towards a regional framework of partnership in peace…The Parties undertake, in accordance with the provisions of this Article, the following:  
  • to refrain from the threat or use of force or weapons, conventional, non-conventional or of any other kind, against each other, or of other actions or activities that adversely affect the security of the other Party; 
  • to refrain from organising, instigating, inciting, assisting or participating in acts or threats of belligerency, hostility, subversion or violence against the other Party; 
  • to take necessary and effective measures to ensure that acts or threats of belligerency, hostility, subversion or violence against the other Party do not originate from, and are not committed within, through or over their territory (hereinafter the term “territory” includes the airspace and territorial waters). 
  • ‘Consistent with the era of peace and with the efforts to build regional security and to avoid and prevent aggression and violence, the Parties further agree to refrain from the following:  
  • joining or in any way assisting, promoting or co-operating with any coalition, organisation or alliance with a military or security character with a third party, the objectives or activities of which include launching aggression or other acts of military hostility against the other Party, in contravention of the provisions of the present Treaty.“

In other words, Kasawneh’s statements – echoing Palestinian threats and allowing Jordanian territory to be a haven for factional heads calling for violence against Israel, praising those who attack Israelis by senior officials, and labeling Israeli Arabs who serve in Israel’s defense structures as traitors are all direct violations of the peace treaty.

The second inconsistency with the peace treaty emerged from Article 9, Paragraph 2 of the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace, which says that:

“In this regard (i.e., regarding freedom of access to places of religious and historical significance), in accordance with the Washington Declaration, Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem…When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines.”

While this article benefits Jordan greatly, it also enshrines Jordan’s acknowledgement of Israel’s ultimate control over the area. Kasawneh, in contrast, asserts Israel as a squatter and essentially promotes Jordan as the sovereign authority over the Temple Mount and Israel as an illegal occupier. In both his first and second statements, PM Kasawneh sought to criminalize the essence of Article 9 and through that, the very Israeli control through which Jordan derives its “special role” on the Mount in the peace treaty.

Moreover, this Jordanian behavior followed a particularly intense two-month period in which Israel’s leadership had invested great time and capital in coordinating with Jordan, including by offering major concessions and goodwill gestures to Amman and the Palestinians, in order to ensure that the Ramadan-Passover-Easter holiday trifecta would pass smoothly. Indeed, Israel paid some price in confidence among Gulf Arabs and Egypt by trying to bring Jordan and the Palestinian Authority into Abraham Accords structure at the United States’ behest during the recent Negev Summit in March. As such, Jordan’s turn toward a darker side not only raised doubts about that investment, but humiliated the Israeli government at a highly sensitive political moment, especially those political leaders most involved, namely Benny Gantz, Omer Bar-Lev and Yair Lapid.

Jordan suggests resurrecting the 1852 Ottoman status quo

Another troubling aspect of recent months has been that Jordan’s government drafted a position paper elevating and expanding its “legal” role in Jerusalem and demanding the revival of the “historic status quo.” It then released, or perhaps “leaked” portions to the public, not as an official Jordanian position, but as one of the Jerusalem Waqf.

The document is highly problematic and aggressive in its claims and demands. First, what is one to make of this new concept, “the historic status quo?” Anyone who has visited the Temple Mount since 1967 understands that there has never been a static status quo. It has evolved considerably over the five and half decades since then. And that evolution has invariably been in the Muslims’ favor:

  • There are ever increasing restrictions on visiting the site by non-Muslims, including the banning not only of any religious articles, but even non-Palestinian Authority sanctioned tour books.
  • The Waqf has increased the expanse and intensity of its Palestinian-Arab nationalist and Islamist political behavior, especially after 1994 when it fell under the control of Ikrima Said Sabri.
  • The Waqf also in several periods undertook activities that damaged the archeological, sacred remains of the temple.
  • The Waqf expanded – especially in recent years – the definition of “Muslim holy places” from originally the al-Aqsa mosque alone to now not only the entire Temple Mount compound but even the Western Wall (called by Muslims the al-Buraq wall after Muhammad’s horse which supposedly was tied up there).

The Jordanian document, instead of acknowledging the increasing, restrictive control by Muslims of the entire Temple Mount area, instead furthers a timeline of grievance of erosion of Muslim rights and control since 1852 which it noted as a prelude to demanding a restoration of the “historic status quo.” Placed in this context, the term “historic status quo” which Jordan seeks is clearly not a reference to anything which was in place or evolved since 1967 – since going backwards in the last 55 years increases non-Muslim rights — but a reference to the original rights enshrined by Ottoman edicts until the beginning of the erosion of exclusive Muslim control that started in 1852 upon which the document focuses.

Indeed, Jordan via this document demands full sovereignty essentially over the Temple Mount, even in cases of emergency or attack on Israel or Israelis. Indeed, even in conditions that worshippers are attacked at the Western Wall from atop the Mount, Israeli police could no longer be allowed on the Temple Mount for any condition or reason. Jordan also demands “giving the Waqf the authority to severely restrict non-Muslim visits to the Temple Mount; requiring non-Muslims to apply to visit in writing in advance; and setting restrictive tour routes of no more than 500 feet (150 meters) in each direction for non-Muslim visitors.”6

Official Jordanian statements in recent weeks since also outline the justification for such demands by the Jordanian government: Israel “illegally” occupies Jerusalem and that thus it has no right to determine realities and regulations governing the sites in it. In short, for all intents and purposes, the Jordanian government simultaneously insists that the Israeli presence in eastern Jerusalem is illegal, while at the same time insisting that under the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreements, Israel lent Jordan de facto, if not de jure, sovereignty over the holy sites. And the reference to 1852 raises the strong likelihood that “holy sites” means all “holy sites,” not only Muslim since that is the “historic status quo” as it stood in 1852 at the chosen beginning of Jordan’s timeline of grievance.

As if that was not provocative enough, Amman then shopped the document around the region and with officials in the United States. Such an action is inescapably hostile and can be seen only as a calculated humiliation of Israel, an attempt to raise tensions between Jerusalem and a relatively unsympathetic current administration in Washington, and finally also as an attempt to damage Jerusalem’s relations with some of its newer peace partners, such as the UAE.

Jordan moves to “Vaticanize” the holy sites

But if Jordan is trying to wrest sovereignty away from Israel, it will need a governing body with full authorities and heft to function effectively as the sovereign government of the Temple Mount complex. Which is where the issue of the size and role of the Waqf authority and structure comes in.

A decade ago, the Jerusalem Waqf was a rather small, administrative body primarily concerned with the preservation of Islamic structures, institutions and interests over Muslim holy sites. Over the last half decade, however, it has ballooned and changed into primarily a political institution advancing Palestinian national interests and monitoring and harassing the presence of non-Muslims who test their rights to freedom of worship (also enshrined in the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty) or presence on the Temple Mount and posing a direct challenge to Israel’s sovereignty over the area. In other words, for the first time since World War II under Hajamin al-Husseini, who sided with and strategically helped the Nazis, the office of the Mufti in Jerusalem has become a political instrument of confrontation. True, there has been some movement in that direction several decades ago under Ikrima Sabri as the Mufti in the 1990s, but his removal and replacement with a more pro-Jordanian Mufti halted that drift in the first decade and a half of the 2000s.

But since 2016, something began to change. The Size of the Waqf and its employees expanded dramatically, to the point where there were as many as 850 employees by the beginning of this year – a size vastly greater than any administrative structure over the area required.

Indeed, as if that was not odd enough, the Jordanian monarch asked for an additional four dozen to be hired by the Waqf over the last several weeks. Israel has thus far refused that request.7

And not only has the Waqf employee base been expanded, so too has its administrative council over the last several years under Jordanian pressure.8 Both tracks are designed to increase Jordan’s control over the religious sites, but these moves also largely expand the power of key, and notably corrupt, PLO officials (such as Yousef Dajani, who is an Abu Mazen crony and the former head of the East Jerusalem Electric Company).9 To note, the peace treaty bars Jordan from siding with any third party to undermine Israel in any of the territory west beyond the Jordan river.

To be clear, what Jordan is trying to do with the vast expansion is to create a sovereign structure ruling not only over the Temple Mount, but other holy places as well given the context of the references to 1852 and “the historic status quo,” at which time the Ottoman Khaliph had ultimate sovereignty and authority over all religious sites, not only Muslim. In short, Jordan is trying to turn the holy sites of Jerusalem into a status akin to the Vatican in Rome and over Catholic assets, except in this case, such a dispensation would also govern the key Christian and many Jewish holy sites too (the Western wall has been redefined by the Waqf, for example, as the al-Buraq wall, marking the wall to which Muhammad’s horse, al-Buraq had been tied during his night journey to the furthest [al-Aqsa] mosque, which thus makes it a Muslim holy site).

Underlying it is the same concern Jordan has about the Palestinian population more broadly. Jordan fears the complete loss of control by Abu Mazen over his population and ceding of the leadership to Turkey, Hamas and Iranian-oriented factions. Having spectacularly failed to employ elections last spring (2021) to validate the decade-and-half rule of Abu Mazen – another effort led by Jordan and Abu Mazen which led to war and weakening of Abu Mazen – Jordan embarked on another shibboleth designed to shore up Abu Mazen and Jordan’s leadership among Palestinians, this time to try to preempt Hamas, Turkey, Iran and Iran on this issue. However, this effort led to the opposite result.

By expanding the Waqf, expanding Jordan’s control over the Waqf along with the PLO’s leadership, King Abdallah hoped to preempt its complete takeover by Hamas and other geopolitically threatening factions. The problem is that not only is this failing to shore up either the PLO’s leadership role or Jordan’s currency among Palestinians, this all is being done at the expense of Israel, and at the expense of delegitimizing and undercutting Israel’s sovereignty and control over the site. The result is not that Jordan replaces Israel to fill the expanding vacuum left by Israel, but that Hamas dashes in successfully to fill it. In other words, Jordan’s strategy is enabling rather than preempting a greater role and control of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and others.

As such, most disturbing is that the Waqf – which answer ostensibly to the Jordanian King – was directly involved in encouraging and inciting the violence centered on the al-Aqsa mosque. Jordan is creating a Frankenstein’s monster that weakens both it and Israel.

Indeed, it is easily predictable that such a vast expansion of the Waqf and erosion of Israeli continued legitimacy on the Mount (a policy onto which the Biden administration has now signed) becomes exponentially more disturbing as the Waqf – instead of being essentially an administrative body – assumes the role of instigator and organizer of the riots that occurred over the last three months on and around the Temple Mount (including the very serious attempt to cause a riot and embarrass Israel during Easter services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).

Jordan shifts geopolitically away from the West

This shift in Jordan toward the Arab nationalist camp also carries with it a geopolitical shift more reflective of the historical alignment of Arab nationalism against the West, including for example in supporting Russia against Ukraine. Jordanian papers – especially “state-sponsored” daily, al-Rai – are increasingly tolerant of and even echo some of the worst Holocaust denial theories de jour, and peddle extreme versions of anti-Semitic attacks and re-writes of history that convolute Nazism and Judaism, narratives which are by their very essence incitement. Muhammad Kharroub wrote on May 8, for example:

“[It was] the heroic Soviet soldiers and generals who invaded the Third Reich, flew the Red Flag over its headquarters and declared the defeat of Nazism while the Zionist movement and a group of Jewish leaders made a pact with its leader, Hitler.”10

And employing the concept of global Jewish conspiracies that dominate superpowers: “[Disagreements between Israel and Russia] have attracted the attention of political and media circles and research centers in Russia, and some of them have opened the ‘dossiers’ of the Jews and Zionists and [to discuss] the role their institutions played in dismantling the Soviet union and in usurping the Soviet-Russian civil sector and privatizing it for paltry sums in favor of U.S.-supported Jewish mafias.”11

Another writer in the same state-sponsored paper wrote: “Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov exhibited courage when he refuted the ostensible contradiction between Judaism and Nazism by making a statement that will in no doubt go down in history that ‘Adolf Hitler had Jewish blood in his veins.”12 And “This lie was followed by another one, amplifying the Jewish Holocaust and falsifying a lot of information about it as Zionist propaganda maintained that the Nazis killed almost six million Jews during World War II out of the 11 million Jews worldwide at the time. This figure is hard to believe.”13

Such articles in organs affiliated with the Jordanian state are calculated to instigate violence. And observers of Jordan have noted with alarm for several years the rising intensity and increasing frequency of these sorts of grotesque anti-Semitic incitement and conspiracy theorizing over the last half decade, to the point where Jordan is rapidly becoming an epicenter of the new anti-Semitic literary and journalistic scene.

This deterioration is perhaps most intense lately, but it is not a recent addition. Since 2017 at least, Jordan has turned to a much more confrontational path with Israel.

And one must also recall the role played by Jordan last year in the sequence of events that led to the summer 2021 war and the underlying dynamics that led to last May’s escalation into war. Indeed, the war began months earlier when Jordan, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the newly minted Biden administration launched a plan to resurrect the Palestinian Authority by holding an election that they believed would lend the PA an easy electoral victory which then could be leveraged to validate its authority, strengthen it, and through that to resurrect the moribund Palestinian “peace process.”

The plan went horribly awry, however, when it became clear that Abu Mazen’s PLO would face not victory, but a certain catastrophic electoral annihilation and with it political collapse. Thus, the PA chose to cancel the elections rather than follow through. Cancelling elections because of imminent loss only deepened the PLO’s loss of legitimacy, which thus encountered an enormous backlash and threat of civil war – which in turn would certainly have been won by Hamas. As a result, the PA attempted to deflect blame for cancelling the elections onto Israel and began whipping up a war hysteria. That war hysteria (for which Hamas had long prepared) led eventually to war (for which Hamas had also long prepared). Hamas held all the cards.

Jordan failed, however, to learn from this failure. Instead of revisiting its policy of based on championing the most damaging aspects of the PA’s failed narrative and strategy to itself regain control of Palestinian Authority leadership, Jordan tied itself ever deeper to this rudderless PLO which has been reduced strategically to employing a one-trick deck show (Defend Jerusalem from the Jews!) as its ship sinks.

Where to from here?

This point of this article is neither to question Jordan’s intent on remaining within the peace treaty with Israel, nor to review of the genuinely disturbing rising anti-Semitic nature of Jordanian discourse, although both legitimately have led some in Israel to begin to weigh the costs of continuing to answer to Jordan’s steady diet of demands or indulge its provocations.

Indeed, one has to acknowledge that Jordan’s King has for decades actually had amicable relations with Jews and has never been considered in any way particularly hostile to the Jewish people. This shift and recent anti-Israeli behavior is, to be true to the historical record, quite out of character. So much so that this new wave is likely not the result of any heartfelt or genuine anger, but a more calculated move driven by the increasing desperation.

Moreover, almost all years Netanyahu was prime minister, other than his last four, were calm years in Israeli-Jordanian relations, in contrast to disturbed relations not only in the last five years, but even now when Jordan faces a rather sympathetic government in Jerusalem.

Rather, Jordan is reacting to the failure of the Oslo process to produce a new Palestinian leadership capable of actually leading the Palestinian Arabs rather than pillaging them, and encouraging them into peace rather than employing incitement to divert internal anger. The complete failure of the Oslo process to transform the revolutionary, externally-imposed leadership into a genuine governing structure left a power vacuum among Palestinians, which was additionally exacerbated by the dilution of Jordanian influence over the Palestinians caused by decisions both by those made early by Moshe Dayan after Israel assumed control of the area in 1967 and by King Abdallah’s father’s (King Hussein’s) decision in 1988 to sever his ties and claims to the areas of Judea and Samaria.

In essence, this led to a situation today where Jordan knows a vacuum has emerged among the Palestinians that is being filled by dangerous regional forces, but at the same time Jordan has left very little effective ability to control Palestinian politics.

That, however, is a manageable circumstance, and Israel will eventually prevail over Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and any other foreign power like Turkey or Iran that seeks to lord over the Palestinians and ride their plight to pursue fantasies of Israel’s destruction. What is far harder to manage is Jordan’s strategic misstep in handling this circumstance – the answer to which will be addressed in following parts of this essay.

The Reckoning of Western Foreign Policy Elites

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As yet, it is barely perceptible, but with each day it is becoming more apparent that only a week into a globe-shaping crisis, we are seeing the first signs of a new phase.

It is clear that the United States is not whole-heartedly engaged and is lagging far behind its European allies in showing resolve. For example, while the EU has sanctioned 490 entities as of March 3, and Switzerland 371, the United States has only sanctioned 118. Moreover, leaks from the administration show signs of faltering rather than steeling will. Articles are appearing in elite Western papers, such as the New York Times, which only a week ago led the charge into confrontation, already laying out intellectual paths to backing off and yielding to Putin. In conversations in the last 24 hours with people in the bordering lands north of Russia, from what I gather the populations of the Baltic states are beginning to assess that they are next in Putin’s plans, but that they will not be saved by NATO despite all the talk and commitments. As a result, in the last 24 hours, there has been a drop in the hitherto lava-hot housing market in all those lands, and we are even seeing the first signs of an exodus from them. Population movements are among the best indicators of what people really think since they are voting with their feet at the cost of great disruption. In this case, they are voting on their appreciation as to whether the US – as the only genuine leader that can pilot the Western world — will go the distance on this and draw the hard border on Putin to stop the slide at and within Ukraine and no further, or whether the United States will back off after the initial hoopla, which will then set everyone up for Putin’s next thrust of which those closest to Russia will pay first and hardest.

Israel, the UAE and the Saudis are on the other end of this rising Eurasian power and face off against one of its most important allies, Iran. While the West demands fealty on Ukraine, all are deeply fearful that if they go blazing in, they will be picking a fight with a colossus and be left alone holding the bag. Arab nations and Israel just do not have faith yet that the US is genuinely changed, is now serious and has effectively begun mobilizing for the long haul. The emerging Iran deal, in fact, tells them the opposite.

There also appears as yet to be no appreciation in the West as to how great and disruptive sanctions will have to become to genuinely sever Russia and isolate its economy – which is one of the first steps as the globe enters another Cold War. There is no way to do this but to also sever the West from China, since Beijing will cut out banks that commit to the sanctions, and others that won’t. For example, Chinese banks can just hide and transfer monies internally between the two, therein positioning China as a money-laundering superpower on a scale never before seen. At this point, our elites are hesitant on truly isolating Russia, and thus are hardly in a position to really draw the line on China too.

In fact, we are not even willing to disrupt our dependence on Russian oil and gas. The White House, via its spokesperson, Jen Psaki, has made that clear a dozen times over the week since the invasion of Ukraine. As a whole Germany is more serious, as are several other European nations. For this they are to be commended. And yet, in the end, even Germany is willing to suspend NordStream2, which was not going to truly come on line until next winter. In other words, it took a stand for which payment is expected to come due only after Ukraine falls or wins. In contrast, Germany allows NordStream to continue to flow. Again, Germany and some of its European allies are still to be given credit for what it has done, but we should be sober. The sanctions all Western nations have imposed on Russia via SWIFT structures are riddled with holes because of this continued trade.

If we are really not willing to wean ourselves off Russian gas and oil, then it is unlikely that we will be willing to do so on everything else. Once Ukraine settles into a festering mess (it will never be truly subjugated by Russia, even if the Ukrainian army dissolves as a coherent conventional fighting force, which is itself not even certain), we will begin to feel the full effects of severed economic ties to Russia — the consequences of which (devastated supply chains, for example) we really have not thought through, and certainly not felt, yet.

In general, at this moment, when suddenly things really matter and everything becomes deadly serious, there seems to be a verdict on the reckoning of the US foreign policy establishment and of its uninspiring record of missteps, delusions, inconsistencies and lapses since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, despite the unveiling by Putin of a chilling manifesto last summer, US diplomats, indeed our Under Secretary of State for Policy, Victoria Nuland, this last October traveled to Moscow and left the impression that we were distancing ourselves from Ukraine, and even reprimanding it for its resolute interpretation of the 2014 Minsk Agreement. For a leader like Putin, who outlined last summer a dangerous imperial vision, that was like throwing steak to a tiger. He understood this as weakness and an invitation to invasion. A seasoned official like Nuland should have understood, given the troubling evolution of Putin’s thinking as unveiled over the last half decade, that whatever diplomatic nicety or polite deference she expressed, and any light she showed between the United States and Ukraine, would be met by man who brags about physically subjugating tigers and bears as weakness, not refinement.

Thus, as Ukraine fights for its freedom, its identity and its survival, nations around the world and their peoples will settle into a hedging pattern until they are convinced the US has it in it to go the distance here linearly and decisively, rather than in a partial, waivering and hesitant process, the consequences of which are that many closest to the fire will pay a horrific price until the US finally comes around clearly and determinedly.

Sadly, the problem is not just the shortcomings of the Biden team. If it was, then we could just fix it by changing leaders. The problem is far deeper. It is, in fact, a civilizational reckoning. People are beginning to take note of the speeches and writings of Putin and his clique of intellectuals – teaching us once again that we are ill served us when we ignore the earnest nature of what others with ambition say. And yet, while people are beginning to realize the expanse of the challenge he poses, there is little discussion of the magnitude. The geographic parameters of Putin’s ambitions are coming into focus, but still ignored is his civilization critique of the West and his grandiose solution, which in the end is a far more dangerous assault than any real estate. He believes the rise of Western freedom has corrupted Christianity, and that his Eurasian fantasy is the salvation of European civilization. Along the way, he has no need for the small and weak, all of whom should be retuned to the strong and bog as minions.

In as far as Putin judges the flaws of Western civilization (as distinct from his grandiose answer), it is important the West appreciates that there may be part of this critique which demands serious introspection on our part. Indeed, there is a common thread uniting Hitler, Japan, the Soviet Union, Khomeini, and bin-Ladin with Putin: they all believed that the West was a soul-less, corrupted civilization that confronted with strong will can be swept aside as easily as breezes scatter dust on a floor. While Hitler and Japan were buried decisively and immediately when a relentless America obliterated both their armies and their ideas, continental European powers and elites had until that point failed and were in fact swept aside.

It bears consideration as to why that was so. European elites, led by failing aristocracies, had become a pessimistic lot that had traded the souls of their national identity for an increasingly performative but ultimately hollow rising set of international ideas and institutions. In the end, those elites never really internalized that they were part of their nations or accepted the passing of the baton of defining “legitimate” culture to their whole populations. They thus increasingly distanced themselves from their own people, whom they believed had rejected their inherently superior status. The elites, led by a dying aristocratic class, felt jilted. Hitler gauged that Europe’s elites simply could no longer tap into and leverage their nation’s cultures for power, and thus with utter disdain he played upon the elites’ resulting impotence, internally and externally. His appreciation of the continent was correct, and despite Germany’s initial weakness and his personally tenuous grip on power, it fell to him within half of a decade. He then leveraged this as a parade of Western retreats not only to destroy, but to humiliate along the way, his internal doubters.

And yet, America was different, and its elites at that time were still products of the culture and its informing ideas that all Americans shared. Thus, when either Hitler or the Japanese imperial leadership slammed against America, it slammed against an insurmountable tide of power. It took a still confident America a bit longer to lead the world to devastate the Soviet Union, but win it did in the end. Still, there were some warning signs along the way as elites in the 1970s increasingly began to resemble the elites of their trans-Atlantic allies who lacked civilizational confidence and instead of confidently tapping the sinews of power of their own cultures, increasingly invested in international structures, institutions and norms to codify inertia – or which they hoped would at least — and hide their fading self-confidence.

Reading Putin and his intellectuals for years, it is this question which most animates him. The imperial expansion of geography is the aim, but his imagination that he can realize his ambitions emerge from his appreciation of the rot and corruption of the West, which he fingers as emanating from freedom itself rather than from the Western elites’ abandonment (rather than embrace) of their cultural identity and soul. For Putin, the West is a desert of nobody people, but the new Russia is a land of faith and a soul. His substance will vanquish our emptiness. In this civilizational challenge, Putin follows in the footsteps of the Hitlers, Ishiwara Kanjis, Mussolinis, Stalins, Nassers, Che Guevaras, Maos, Xis, Khomeiinis and bin-Ladins.

So where is America today as we enter the next great challenge? Do people outside America measure us as a rising confident civilization with a strong sense of who we are? Or do our urban and foreign policy elites — which after all is what is most visible to the outside, not the patriot with a pickup truck sitting in a diner in Fargo with a gun rack on the back window — either act with deep pessimism as if either we assume our own decline or behave as if we are a nobody people (no soul, no faith, no history, no identity)?

Putin, and for that matter Xi, ISIS, al Qaida, Iran too, measured us up as deficient. The real question, the answer to which will determine how far and fast the world will mobilize around the new order — which is not yet clearly either a cold war or a world war, but which is rapidly approaching somewhere on that level of seriousness — is whether people eventually see Putin’s, Xi’s, bin-Ladin’s and Khomeini’s assessment as the better bet or not.

Ukraine is an opportunity, not only a bellwether, in this regard. Putin views core elements of the West’s foundations with disdain. Our response to the Ukraine crisis ultimately must be a reassertion of our confidence as a civilization and the values (that unique combination of Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian, Renaissance and early Enlightenment foundations) upon which it is grounded, not a specific policy or action.

The first signs are the American people are beginning to appreciate the true civilizational nature of this challenge. But our political elites face a reckoning. For many decades so far, they have failed us. Will our foreign policy be based on the platform of our culture and values, or on a ratatouille of academic theories, reactive scrambling and shifting values based on diplomatic expediency?