image Photo: Reuters

IDF intel chief: Iran may not survive protests

Major-General Aharon Haliva made the remarks at the first public conference by the Gazit Institute research agency.

By Jonathan Hessen and Erin Viner

“Seen long-term, it would appear this regime will not survive,” said the military intelligence commander.

He nevertheless cautioned that he is “not in a position” to provide an exact date as to when the Ayatollah regime may be toppled by the recent mass unrest, as IDF analysts “are not prophets.”

Iranians from all backgrounds have taken to the streets to express outrage since the 16 September death of  22-year-old Mahsa Amini , who died in custody following her arrest by the so-called “morality police” for attire deemed insufficiently Islamic. Some of the ongoing protests of her killing and the suppression of human rights by clerical rulers in the country have seen calls for the ousting or deaths of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi.

The Ayatollah regime has blamed Israel and Western nations of trying to launch civil war in the country, as it grapples to deal with one of the toughest challenges since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Locked in a “shadow” existential conflict, Israel has closely monitored the unusually protracted and violent upheaval – and even offered some statements of support for the protesters. Overall though, Jerusalem officials remain focused on Iran’s nuclear development and regional terrorist proxies, and have been circumspect about any prospects of the Tehran government being ousted by the popular uprising.

“The repressive Iranian regime will, it seems, manage to survive these protests,” said Brigadier General Amit Saar, told those gathered at the Gazit forum.

“It has constructed very, very strong tools for dealing with such protests,” he told the think-tank that operates under his corps.

The General, Commander of the IDF Intelligence Directorate’s Research & Assessment Department, provided a broad overview of Israel’s geo-strategic challenges for 2023 – highlighting that today’s world is increasingly more explosive and that aspirations to return to the pre-2020 era effectively constitutes ‘wishful thinking.’

“The world is more explosive. It experiences more crises. It is not stable. What I want to say at the start of this assessment is that it isn’t a bug. It is a feature. There is no reason to expect that it will pass. When we speak about the connection between intelligence and strategy my greatest recommendation which I unveil already at the start of my presentation is to build a strategy that is custom to this feature. That it will be robust enough, not fragile, for the purpose of dealing with crises which, the question is not whether they will arrive, but rather, when and in what level of power and where,” he said.

“But I think that even if these protests wane, the reasons (for them) will remain, and thus the Iranian regime has a problem for years to come.”

General Saar went on to acknowledge that the world is increasingly turning into a bi-polar reality.

“I think it is safe to say that we are returning to a bi-polar world – or at least, tensions between two very significant polarities i.e. an American and a Chinese one; and within context of this tension a two-bloc reality is continually evolving,” he said, explaining, “Not one which we remember from the Cold War – but from one side there is a bloc, which the Americans are working hard in the past two years to try and make it more coherent and united: a Western bloc. On the other hand, there is an ununited bloc that doesn’t have an organizational concept and there is no clear leader which wants to be its leader. However, there is one point that unites them all: they are against the American bloc.”

The necessity to deal with this new reality has effectively driven the United States to shift its attention eastwards. Nevertheless, stipulating that the United States is leaving the Middle East is fundamentally wrong, he said: “The American policy change has significant meaning for the Middle East. I don’t use the terms “the U.S. is leaving the region” or “doesn’t leave the region.” Superpowers don’t think in this manner and of course they don’t act in this manner. But the United States in a clear fashion, and we heard yesterday (US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East) Dana Stroul reading it from the American strategy: The United States is looking eastwards. The United States clearly understands that its generational challenge, the challenge of this generation, is its challenge versus China and it (US) wants to invest most of its resources, efforts and powers in this struggle. It doesn’t mean that it is leaving the Middle East, rather, it is prioritizing it differently and invests resources differently. This causes Mideastern countries to reevaluate their strategies. Especially countries which reliance on the United States was a cornerstone of their national security. Gulf states, Jordan, others – none of them relinquishes their relations with the United States but they all are developing a policy of hedging, hedging of risks; Understanding that it is not certain to what degree will the Americans stand alongside them when deemed necessary – and therefore, to take as little risk as possible, to hedge them, which creates a unique reality in the region in which everyone speaks to everyone.”

The new reality also means, in large part thanks to the 2020 Abraham Accords, that regional countries are willing to speak with Israel. A new ‘hedging policy policy has emerged – also shared by Israel, “for fear of breaching the balance that will expose themselves to risks”  – that may hinder its full integration into the Middle East.

According to the IDF intelligence chief, this “hedging policy” combined with the Abraham Accords and other global developments, have drawn Iran into a conclusion that its geo-strategic situation is essentially negative.

“Iran is a country that has 7,000 KM of border – and there isn’t even one centimeter on the other side (where a friend can be found. It has enemies and rivals, and Iran is very sensitive to everything taking place along its borders and in the past year, when it assesses its geo-strategic situation, it thinks that it faces and negative angle. From its perspective, and here through Iranian scope, Israel procures holdings in its region via the Abraham Accords and its presence in the Gulf; Azerbaijan exploits Russia’s distraction and continually closes in on the north; Turkey, the true strategic rival of Iran in the region, is once again improving its relations with Israel and when it (Iran) looks at the region, it looks at a worsening problematic situation,” he asserted.

Going on to unveil declassified portions of the IDF Intelligence Directorate’s assessment for the coming year, General Saar said that Tehran “enters 2023 after a number of years from a negative angle, in a crisis which is a square crisis. It is an international crisis, a domestic crisis, a regional crisis and even, not a crisis but a change in the manner in which it views Israel” because due to its positioning of Jerusalem “on its highest hate list.” While this view is not new, he said, “it places its central threat vis-à-vis the United States and Israel was always regarded as a threat primarily to its proxy strategy with it (Israel) faced in Lebanon and faced in Syria. In recent years it increasingly regards Israel as a direct rival.”

I Therefore, he added, Israel’s defense establishment considers the Islamic Republic “as a reference threat, as a complete (threat). This changes the manner in which we gather (Intelligence) on Iran, it changes the manner in which we assess Iran, it changes the manner in which we build our power vis-à-vis Iran.”

As IDF commanders discussed Iran’s shift of priority vis-à-vis Israel, US National Intelligence Director Avril Haines also shared his belief that the current protest movement in Iran does not threaten the regime’s immediate survivability.

“We’re not seeing the regime perceive this as an imminent threat to their stability in effect, right? They’re cracking down on what’s happening,” he told the Reagan National Defense Forum 2022 earlier this week, while pointing out, “on the other hand, you know, when we look at how this is developing, when we look at it combined with the economy for example which really is having extraordinary challenges right now and they hit the early November an all-time low for the Rial which was like 370,000 to a dollar. You know, late November I think we saw 50% inflation, 70% food inflation; They are really having challenges and even nationwide seeing sporadic closedowns of businesses and things like that and I think, you know, from our perspective, that’s one of those things that will lead to a greater risk of unrest and instability over time –  and you know depending on how it develops and when you combine it with the generational divide that we’re seeing that are represented in the protests and those pieces, I think we have yet to see how this ultimately evolves .”