Benjamin Netanyahu, quite controversially, stated that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a greater threat to the world than the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ‘Make no mistake, ISIL must be defeated’, Netanyahu said at the U.N. General Assembly. ‘But to defeat ISIL and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war’ 1.

But why is Israel treating ISIL as a lesser threat?

ISIL and the Kurds

Looking at the recent events in Ayn al-Arab and the rise of ISIL in general, it might be difficult to picture a situation where the rise of ISIL will end up benefiting the Kurdish cause. However, given the international recognition: military, political and ideological, that the struggle has rendered the Kurdish cause, benefits seem highly likely. If the tide turns in the way of the Kurds, we are likely to observe a redrawing of boundaries over the coming years 2.

The Kurds and Changing Borders

From the Sykes-Picot agreement to the establishment of Israel, the Western alliance has not hidden ambitions for redrawing Middle Eastern borders in a way that would suit their geostrategic interests throughout the last century. The establishment of a Kurdish state was a prominent plan at the time, and has come back to the forefront following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The term ‘New Middle East’, referring to ‘constructive chaos’ that would restructure borders was put forth by Condolezza Rice, the Secretary of State of the day, following the Lebanon War in 2006. A map, titled Blood Borders: How a better Middle East would look, prepared by retired Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters, demonstrated what the New Middle East would look like. It was published in The US Armed Forces Journal and used at NATO trainings. Peters was among the Pentagon’s foremost strategist authors on military and foreign policy. His four previous books were highly influential both in governmental and military circles 3.

Why Iran is the only real threat to Israel and not ISILBlood Borders: How a better Middle East would look

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the first development towards such reconstruction involving the Kurdish side in the twenty-first century. Following the invasion, Iraqi Kurdistan was established as an autonomous region within the new Iraqi state. Today, when we return to the rise of ISIL, the major development towards the reestablishment of borders has been the Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk. Their gain of the oil-rich region alongside the border of the Kurdish autonomous region has demonstrated that the Kurds can and will manipulate the existing security vacuum to claim the self-rule they have always dreamed of 4.

Israel and the Kurds

Relations between the Kurds and Israel have been strong throughout Israeli history. At first, the Kurds were considered within Israel’s ‘peripheral alliance’ policy, in which good relations were maintained with all non-Arab communities of the Middle East. Relations were enhanced during Ba’athist rule in Iraq, as the Kurds were considered an ally against a common enemy.

These ties were reinforced following the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Kurdish Peshmerga forces, granted military support by the Western coalition today, were trained by Israelis. According to journalist Seymour Hersh, Israeli activities in Northern Iraq went beyond military training; intelligence and military operatives were covertly working alongside security forces, providing training for Kurdish commandos as well as conducting covert operations within the Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran 5.

Recently, Netanyahu has voiced support for Kurdish independence, deeming the Kurds ‘a nation of fighters who have proved political commitment and are worth of independence’ 6.

Israel, the ISIL Crisis, and Changing Borders

Within this framework the ISIL crisis and its results have helped and is likely to help Israel in several ways.

Firstly, recalling that Netanyahu agreed with statements by the Israeli intelligence that referred to 9/11 as a ‘Hanukkah miracle’, adding that the attack ‘swung American public opinion in our favour’; similarly, the ISIL crisis has enabled the international political scene to look away from the atrocities committed by Israel in Gaza this summer 7.

Secondly, a Kurdish state consisting of the predominantly Kurdish areas of Iraq, Syria and Turkey is likely to provide an ally of strategic importance in the region for Israel. If the central Iraqi administration is split up, this would greatly benefit Israel, as Baghdad is currently on close terms with Iran. Thus, while Iran would lose one of its few allies, Israel would gain stronghold and influence in the region, with access to significant natural resources 8.The new partnership would create a new balance of power in the region that would be highly beneficial to Israel 9.

Why Iran?

When comparing ISIL and Iran, Netanyahu stated that ‘Iran’s nuclear military capabilities must be fully dismantled’. A similar view was earlier expressed by former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who claimed that Iran is a greater threat since ISIL needs to conquer more territory before they become a ‘geostrategic, permanent reality’, making confrontation with ISIL ‘more manageable than a confrontation with Iran’ 10.

Kissinger’s statement clearly demonstrates that the rise of ISIL, and the threat it poses are seen as temporary, while Iran is more of a strategic obstacle that is ‘unmanageable’ for the Western alliance.

But why is confrontation with Iran unmanageable, given that ISIL are the ones waging explicit terror in the region? Why is Iran a strategic obstacle?

Iran is a powerful and structural obstacle to redrawing Middle Eastern borders. Iran has constantly rejected US hegemony in the region since the Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Iran, as one of the world’s leading oil producers, opposes US efforts to monitor Middle Eastern resources, as demonstrated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which has been seen as the first step towards encircling Iran and cutting off its strategic and trade relations in the region, especially with the Caucasus and Central Asia. Secondly, Iran is not in a weak position and is able to resist US hegemony; the country has a strong influence over the Shia populations of Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsula.

Thus, Iran is unlikely to be overridden as other states in the area. This is due to its nuclear capabilities, as well as its position in the greater region, as demonstrated by its connections to the Shanghai Five, as well as the close agenda it continues to maintain with Russia over Middle Eastern issues 11.

Netanyahu has rightly observed that Iran’s nuclear capabilities are a great threat to Israeli ambitions. Therefore, he will continue to hope for Iran’s nuclear disarmament in order to benefit from the eventual results that the ISIL crisis will bring – given ISIL is defeated or contained, and the Kurdish movement channels the resources it has gained from the conflict in the expected way.




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