Sarah: Good afternoon. Welcome to yet another extremely informative, extremely topical, and extremely timely EMET webinar.
As many of you are most probably aware, on Sunday, the International Atomic Energy Administration announced that they have found traces of highly enriched uranium in Iran at 84% level. That is only 6 percentages away from the 90% enrichment level necessary for nuclear bomb. As most of you – who are regular listeners to our webinar – are most probably aware, Iran, Russia, and China have been forming a new – what we call – axis of evil.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the renowned Butcher of Tehran, just returned from Beijing with renewed agreements. Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to visit Tehran. But even more troubling has been the closeness of the relationship between Tehran and Moscow. We all know by now that Tehran has been selling muscular drones with which they have been executing the war crimes against the people of Ukraine.
But many are not that aware that Russia is selling Iran their highly sophisticated Sukhoi-35 supersonic jets with increased maneuverability that can avoid radar detection and the advanced S-400 missile detection system. Recently, Assistant Secretary of Defense, John Kirby, had described Moscow and Tehran’s relationship as “unprecedented and growing”.
With these sobering thoughts, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to one of EMET’s newest members of the EMET team, Joseph Epstein. I’m extremely proud of Joseph who is on the Board of Students supporting Israel at Columbia University and served in the IDF. He has a very nice relationship with today’s honored guest, Alex Grinberg. I thought it would be terrific if Joseph were to handle today’s webinar and to interview our featured speaker, Alex Grinberg.
Joseph, take it away.
Joseph Epstein: Thank you, Sarah. Today’s speaker, Alex Grinberg, is an expert on Iran, Russia, and Islamist movements for the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. He holds an MA in Arabic Language and Literature and is fluent in Farsi, Arabic, French, English, Russian, and Hebrew. Alex’s main research interests are Iranian Intellectual History and Modern Shiite Thought.
He held several positions in the IDF Military Intelligence Research Department including the role of Captain. Aside from his role at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, he teaches Persian at Ariel University and is currently employed as a Geopolitical and Intelligence Analyst in private firms.
For those unfamiliar with the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security or JISS, it is a Jerusalem-based think tank that consists of a team of national security experts, intelligence officers, academics, and former politicians. JISS provides defense and diplomatic counsel to Israel’s leaders, trains Israeli national security analysts, briefs foreign leaders and policy makers on Israel’s security and foreign policy options, and conducts in-depth research on foreign policy challenges that Israel faces. They are a great source for a comprehensive realist analysis of Israeli foreign policy.
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Without further ado, I’d like to introduce Alex Grinberg.
Alex Grinberg: Shalom. Good evening or good morning in America. I don’t know. I’m happy to be here. I thank you, Joseph and the leadership of EMET for having given me the chance to talk about some pressing issues such as Russia and Iran.
The last thing I want to do is to appear an arrogant expert for everything. No. I’m not an expert for everything. I don’t pretend to know everything about Iran, Russia, or anything else. Simply, I was born in Moscow. Russian is my mother tongue. I continue to monitor the war in Ukraine. I want to talk within the framework of my knowledge. That’s all. Let’s go.
Iran and Russia growing ties. As we all heard, of course, in media outlets about growing Russian-Iran ties, let’s check what it is about. First of all, it’s about economic cooperation, official declarations, meaning that both Iranian and Russian officials boast about their growing ties. Iran has never condemned Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. Iranian drones murder Ukrainian civilians. They hit civilian infrastructures cutting the energy supply in Ukraine. It is about a possible supply of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia, a joint production of drones, and the possible supply of Russia SU-35 war planes that Sarah has mentioned just now.
The question is what is real on the ground? What is only interpretation? First of all, when we talk about drones, I am obliged to make some precisions. There are 2 types of drones that media usually don’t distinguish, that is, completely different type of drones will have implications on the ground.
Usually, drone is a catch word. It is not a military term. The real term is UAV, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. This is the UAV or drone, Mohajer-6, what you see here on the top of the page. It’s an Iranian UAV with highly developed capacities.
If you can see here in the picture, it’s really a little play which means that operators of such a plane must be really trained pilots. Usually, they sit in a command crew cabin cockpit somewhere on the ground, thousand kilometers from the target, from the battlefield. You need to have a crew of, at least, 2 people or 3 to operate such a plane – because it’s a plane – to manipulate its navigation systems and also to use weapons.
No one knows how many such drones Iran has already supplied to Russia. But no matter the number, it is impossible to use this drone without lengthy training.
In Israel, for example, to become an operator of a drone, it requires a course of fighter jet pilots that lasts only to two years and a half, meaning that even if Russians got these drones, they cannot use them effectively, because you must train a lot. Otherwise, you just destroy this costly machine. It strikes Ukrainian civilian structures and civilians.
It is Shahed 136. It is Shahed, not Shaheed, but Shahed. It means scout in Persian. It is not a drone, properly speaking. It is a primitive cruise missile. It is cheap. One can buy the tails, ingredients, and parts on eBay. The manufacture of such a thing is pretty effective and efficient. It does the job between the brackets.
This is about the weapons that Iranians supply to Russians. It’s not about other sophisticated drones that Iran has been using for a decade against Israel, against Saudi Arabia, through Houthis in Yemen, Ismaili, and so on.
Finally, it is important to mention that the Iranian drones, or whatever, loitering munition, don’t have any serious impact on the course of war, because it does target civilian structures and civilians. But, still, it cannot target Ukrainian fighting units or other units of the Ukrainian Armed Force. The third is the Russian warplanes Su-35 which may be supplied sooner or later, but nothing is known completely.
I’m coming to the next point which is fact and interpretations. First, it’s a loitering munition, not UAV. The distinction is very important because of its implications as I have just mentioned.
No impact on the ground. When one talks about an Iran-Russia alliance, one should always bear in mind that the history of Russia-Iran relationship is plagued with distrust and suspicions, because their history is complicated, to say the least.
Russia, also Tsarist Russia, three hundred years ago, tried to encroach on Iranian territory to occupy Iranian lands. The Soviet Union meddled on numerous occasions in the Iranian politics. In Iran, there was a communist party – a real communist party – Tudeh, that was commanded by Moscow.
Now, the majority of Iranian people mistrust the Russian regime, because it is perceived as a supporter of their own regime. It is not 100% true. But, still, the Iranian regime takes into consideration all the limits of the support that can provide harness for Russia’s effort in Ukraine.
Here, it is important to understand that Iran does not support Russian war in Ukraine. It’s not true. Iran only sells drones to earn money, nothing else. Of course, neither Russia nor Iran are ready to do for each other for free. It doesn’t exist. It sounds like a beginning of a joke that the Iranians, Russians are ready to help each other for free. It doesn’t exist.
But they can cooperate in some niches that they find are mutually profitable for them. For example, this niche, the drones are important for the Russians, because the Russians neglected this domain over the years. They simply don’t have drones. Whereas the Iranians made real achievements at Israel.
By the same token, Russia will never do something, because the Iranians want it. They may continue to want or to demand. Still, it is impossible. Because the relations between Russia and Iran, just as between Russia and China and between Iran and China, are never relations between peers. It doesn’t exist among these 3 countries. Each of them is naughty and arrogant and proud of its history and achievements. I don’t know what they deem as achievements. But [inaudible] exist.
Here is a picture of 2 hedgehogs. How is it linked to the hedgehogs? There is an adage in Russian that illustrates the best relationship between Russia and Iran. It’s like 2 hedgehogs making love. They want, but it hurts. This is the principle.
Finally, also, the domestic troubles in Iran, the popular protest, the protest of women for democracy – Zan, Zindagi, Azadi – Women, Life Liberty. The protest goes on. But still, unfortunately, it has no impact on the nuclear file or on Iran’s regional policies, meaning that the Iranian regime continues business as usual. It continues its enrichment. Nothing’s changed, although the protest is going on.
Regarding the nuclear file, when we talk about enrichment, we must hold in mind that enrichment is still not in nuclear weapons. Because to build nuclear weapons, a country must pass other 3 stages. The stages are nuclear warhead. It means that one has to build an explosive device specifically for a nuclear warhead. You cannot put just nuclear payload into normal conventional work. It’s rather difficult. They’re trying to do that. But, still, with the help of God, CIA, and Mossad, they still have not succeeded in that. Hopefully, they will not. But it is another stage to pass.
[inaudible], they must improve the missile accuracy, meaning that the current missile accuracy of Iranian missiles is something about 87%. Whereas nuclear missile requires and accuracy of 97%, no less, otherwise, it’s too dangerous.
The final stage is to conduct a nuclear test. Only when a country conducts a nuclear test, it may be declared as possessing nuclear weapons. Still, it has not happened yet. But it will happen sooner or later. But still, we are not there. It is important to hold in mind.
Here, at the top of the page, you see a demonstration of women in Iran, because women are the most active in the protest, at least, at the beginning of protest. On the bottom of the page, you see a list of Iranian nuclear installations with their locations known. It’s not a secret.
Finally, Israel’s dilemmas. First thing, I think it is important to emphasize to foreign audience that Israel is a vulnerable tiny country in the Middle East with no soft power. This is a fact. No matter what the government is in power or what the policy is, this is an objective-given situation that no government can change.
Hence, Israel’s policies have always been, is, and will be the policy of survival. Simply speaking, Israel cannot have American policies, be it on Russia, Ukraine, Iran, or anything else. In politics, in general, every step comes with a price tag. There are no good options no matter what we’re talking about. Good options and policy and politics don’t exist or exist rarely.
The main dilemma for Israel is that Israel, on the one hand, has to maintain good ties with Russia not only because of the Russian presence in Syria but also because of other things such as, for example, Jews in Russia, Jews in Ukraine. If Israel has to evacuate Jews from either Russia or Ukraine, coordination with Russia is indispensable. Besides that, one should never forget that exactly because the Russian regime has no qualms, it can do everything. There’s a myriad of ways to make Israel’s life bitter.
The other side of the coin is the support for Ukraine, because Israel has to maintain good ties with Russia. But, of course, this move comes with a price tag which is uneasiness in the West with Israel’s ties because of Israel’s ties with Russia and vise-versa.
Finally, Russia, when we talk about possible worsening cold relations between Russia and Israel, for example, it may manifest itself in Syria. Russia may alternate its modus operandi in Syria. But I’m pretty certain that even if it happens – still, it has not happened yet – it will happen only out of Russia’s interests, not because of Iranian demands. In all other directions, Israel continues the same policy of containing, aborting, preventing, whatever. Because, as I said, Iran’s behavior is business as usual. They continue their regional policies against, simply speaking, support for terrorism against Israel, against Arab countries, against the Gulf countries.
For example, only 2 weeks ago, there was an attempt to attack an Israeli ship in the Gulf. Likewise, IRGC speedboats systematically approached US warships, and nothing happens. They will continue probably to do the same. Israel will continue the same steps ranging from [inaudible] the attacks by Islamic Jihad in Palestine which is a pro-Iran organization and conducting the operations in Iran against Iranian people and installations, against the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
However, there is a new development now in Iran that is [inaudible] year, I would say, roughly speaking. No Israeli or whoever else strikes on the regime installations are perceived as a strike against Iran, because the overwhelming majority of Iranians despise the Iranian regime. Whereas Israel was always cautious not to conduct operations that might be considered as operations against Iran because the state is [inaudible] nation, not as a regime. Israel always distinguishes between the Iranian people and the Iranian regime.
This is the end of my presentation. I would like to add some words as a human being in this [inaudible], not only as an intelligence officer and analyst. On the one hand, of course, an intelligence officer must remain [inaudible] calculate. But we all are also human beings. I cannot be objective in the sense of absence of feelings or attitude toward what happens in Iran or Ukraine.
The first saying is that of General Patton. Maybe I’m wrong, but it is forgotten in today’s America, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.” When we talk about the war in Ukraine – I hope it will be finished – one should hold in mind this saying by General Patton.
The second phrase is [foreign words], “For your and our liberty” – there is a typo here; sorry – in Polish and Russian. It was an ancient Polish slogan since the 19th century when Polish patriots supported the Russian Decemberist uprising against the Tsarist autocracy. Further, this slogan became that of Soviet dissidents. Now, it’s a slogan that we find for Ukraine, “for your and our liberty”, which resonates strongly with the Iranians slogan “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”, “Women, Life, Freedom”, which is very unusual if we compare with these Iranian slogans that are really authentically democratic, patriotic, nationalistic or anti-Israeli, anti-American, something like that. It’s a great development particularly if you compare those Iranian slogans with the slogans of the Arab Springs. No democratic slogan is there ten years ago.
Here, on the top of the page, is the “Mard, Mihan, Abadi”, “Men Motherland, Construction. The “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi” is somewhere beneath there.
On the bottom of the page is the Russian slogan, Russian [inaudible] and Polish slogan [foreign words].
The final thing that I want to say is I happen to talk frequently with Iranian friends, of course, abroad. I feel very uneasy to give them advice like a kibitz or a backseat driver. Being a [inaudible] military advisor, it’s not agreeable for me, because people are risking their lives. What can I tell them?
I think my message is Jewish believe in freedom. Because you want to win, you must believe in the possibility to win. You must be and remain optimistic and hold and have belief. Because objectively speaking, I have no idea, rationally speaking, how to topple the Iranian regime or how to expel the Russians from Ukraine.
I come to the end. Thank you for listening.
Joseph: Thank you, Alex. I’d like to transition now to a few questions. I have a few questions. Then I’ll open it up to questions from the audience.
My first question is according to the IAEA Director, Rafael Grossi, the Iranian nuclear program has been galloping ahead. Do you think Russia has played any part in the development of the Iranian nuclear program in considering the recent deepening ties between Moscow and Tehran? Do you think they would be willing to assist Iran in proliferating?
Alex: Thank you for that question, Joseph. I think, however, that Russia has not helped Iran in its nuclear program. There are many reasons for that. First, there is, as I said, mistrust. For example, the construction of Bushehr Nuclear Plant took up to something like sixteen years which the Iranians see is a proof of the Russian deceit and the mistrust, because usually, it takes 4 years.
The second thing is Russians don’t want to see nuclear Iran. Of course, Iran will never threaten Russia with nukes. But still, they really don’t like them. Russia has some contentious issues with Iran, for example, regarding the territorial waters within the Caspian Sea. There are many issues. They’re not happy to do that.
Finally, we also must remember that, still, the communication between Washington and Moscow is there. There is a red line in the Washington-Moscow communicator guy [?] about the nuclear issues and the [inaudible]. Also, I’m sure that the American intelligence community would have intercepted any Russian nuclear move if they really wanted to do that.
But, yes, for Iranians, they’re able to rush into their nuclear goals.
Joseph: Thank you. My next question is as you mentioned, Iran is set to receive twenty-four Sukhoi-35 fighter jets. Numerous reports have mentioned that Iran is additionally interested in acquiring the S-400 missile defense system from Russia as well. This is the same missile defense system that caused a big uproar when Turkey was set to acquire it, I believe, a few years back.
What are the chances of this happening? What do you think the potential consequences of this would be if they were able to acquire the S-400?
Alex: I think that there is more chances that they will get S-300 or 400, because they already have some systems. It is easier to supply these air defense systems than the war planes.
Regarding the war planes, it is possible. But the problem is that everything is possible, theoretically. For the time being, there is no contract. There is no proof that it really happens. Even if it happens, still, it’s about a dozen or twenty war planes that it takes up time to build them, even longer time to train pilots. The more sophisticated the war plane is, the more training a fighter jet pilot is required to undergo.
I also think that even if – let’s take a pessimistic scenario – they get the planes, I don’t think they constitute a serious threat to the regional security and, of course, not to Israel’s security, because overall, it is true that the Iranian Air Force is obsolete. A dozen or twenty or thirty war planes won’t change that, because you cannot wage a war with only twenty war planes and, of course, not a long-range mission like striking Israel or something like that.
Also, some Iranian military experts reiterated in several occasions that the Iranian air capacity is based on deterrence. Deterrence in Iranian parlance means asymmetric capacity. What the asymmetric capacity is it is missiles and drones with these loitering munitions. Because this is the capacity of Iran, Iran is a very weak country in terms of military might. But this asymmetric capacity can indeed strike Israel. For example, Hezbollah missile arsenal can strike every point across the territory of Israel.
By the way, what’s going on in Ukraine with these Shahed missiles, the cruise missiles, only illustrates what Israel has been always warning against that. Because the danger of the JCPOA is not that it is bad because it is bad. No. It is not as bad as it seems to be.
The problem with JCPOA has been or was – I don’t know what will be the future – that it’s sort of legitimized the Iranian regional policies. What are Iran’s regional policies? It is this. This is Iranian drones and missiles in the hands of Hezbollah or other proxies.
But when Israel was warning against that 3 years ago, it was pursued [inaudible] Israeli [inaudible]. Now, when people see what is going on in Ukraine, they hopefully think otherwise.
Joseph: Thank you. Despite the humanitarian aid that Israel has been supplying Ukraine, there have been many or, at least, some voices in Europe and the US calling on Israel to provide military aid as well despite Russian objections. What do you think the outcome of supplying this aid would be for Israel?
Alex: Well, I think Israel will continue supplying with this humanitarian aid. I know that there are some sorts of military aid that Israel does supply to Ukraine. But, of course, it is never done publicly. It should not be done publicly.
What you mentioned is I think rather media reports or small talk of journalists or politicians. I’m not sure this is really what’s going on in the corridors of power. Because, for example, Ukrainian military officers never mentioned this issue, for example, of Iron Dome or others or assistance. Why? Because they understand it will be of little help to Ukraine, because such a system as Iron Dome is designed for Israel’s threats, meaning just simple Hamas missiles. It’s not designed to counter Russian long-range ballistic missiles. It requires deployment of many systems that simply don’t exist.
For the moment, the most crucial issue for Ukraine is tanks, tanks, and tanks, numbers.
Joseph: How are the deepening ties between Russia and Iran affecting Iranian proxies in the region such as Hezbollah, Houthi rebels, and militant Palestinian groups like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Hamas?
Alex: I don’t think it affects directly the ties of Iran and the Iranian proxies. However, it may affect the readiness of the Russians to, for example, prevent deployment of pro-Iranian militias or Hezbollah in Syria. It is also important to remember that the Russians don’t control the entirety of Syrian territory. They don’t like the Iranian presence in Latakia which is a Russian port hub.
But they may ignore if they see another [inaudible] which is indeed dangerous and all other things that we could imagine. It is true that they have not yet happened. But they may happen.
For that reason, it is important to remain vigilant and also to signal the Russians, “Hey, don’t even think of that.” Because with all my reasoning that explains the Russians, no one really knows what is turning [inaudible] in their head. And no one knows what Putin will decide tomorrow.
Joseph: What has Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response been to the deepening of Russian and Iranian ties?
Alex: Well, I think, for the moment, Netanyahu has abstained of any public comments about the deepening Russian and Iranian ties. However, I also think that the Russians – because I don’t think I know – are aware of these nuances; let’s call it this way. They don’t want war, of course, between Iran and Israel. The Russians also know that the Iranians hate Russian Islamist operation within Israel but, still, Iran not do much. But I am sure that if Israel, for example, supplies publicly and overtly really military assistance to Ukraine, then Russians could alternate something in Syria. That’s for sure.
Again, also, the important thing in Syria is not that the Russians may try to hinder our air raids in Syria. It’s not a big deal, because Israeli [inaudible] are experienced. They know the techniques of a missile dodging that the Russians may shoot down a civilian plane as they have already done in Ukraine in 2014. This is, I would say, a bigger danger for Israel than just Russian missiles and Israeli military warplane.
Joseph: Do you think the Russians would shoot down an Israeli civilian plane on purpose?
Alex: I don’t think so. I think they won’t do that. I’m sincere with you. If you have asked me 2 years ago about the war between Russia and Ukraine if it is possible, well, I would have said to you to rethink. Still, it is a reality. It’s very dangerous to say that it isn’t possible, because it is possible. Everything is possible.
Joseph: Does Iran have trained pilots to operate the Sukhoi-35s that they may be receiving from Russia?
Alex: Yes. Iranians may send people to train in Russia. I don’t believe the Russians will come to train the pilots there, because, well, the hands of the Mossad are allegedly long there. It’s safer to do that in Russia.
But, again, the training of a fighter jet pilot is a very lengthy process. It’s not tomorrow evening and not even after tomorrow. It won’t change much which is much more dangerous because, indeed, if the Russians decide to supply the air defense missile system, like S-300 and S-400, to Israel, that still is- for example, I remember that in the beginning of 2000, Russians delivered such systems to the Iranians. But it was much procrastination and obstruction from the Russian part even after the Iranians paid their first installment. So it’s not as easy as it seems.
There’s also another last important nuance. I’m not sure though that currently the Russian military industry is capable to deliver, because they lack the parts because of the Western sanctions, and the Russian military industry cannot produce enough projectiles, artillery ammunition [inaudible] of Wagner fighters, terrorists, whatever. They were besieging the Minister of Defense to give them more ammunition, so they don’t have produce. I am not sure. Why do they need Iranian missiles? Not because they need Iranian technology. Because Iranian missiles are cheaper and faster to manufacture than the Russian ones.
Joseph: To move a little bit away from the Middle East, what do you think Iran’s cooperation with Russia means for NATO, the United States, and Europe?
Alex: Well, in general, it’s bad. Because it’s bad, of course, it’s a bad
picture, because it’s too ruthless, corrupt regimes. It’s not nice. But in terms of real damage to NATOs or to the US, I would not exaggerate too much. It’s very easy to overestimate its importance.
As I say, simply, can Russia sell some weapons to Iran? Yes. But besides that, the Russians are not eager to buy Iran-made cars. I doubt that Iran and Russia can trade oil with each other. It simply doesn’t work.
But I would say that what is much more dangerous is the very soft reaction of the US military to Iranian for occasions [?] that have already been going on ever since with or without Russian cooperation, because we all know that there is no way a commander of an Iranian speedboat decides to approach an American warship without an order from Tehran. They know in advance that the American reaction will be just American concerns. I’m pretty sure that neither Moscow nor Tehran land much credence to American concerns. Unfortunately, this is the situation.
Joseph: Iran is a reliable funder of Hamas and other Palestinian groups. Is Iran or these Palestinian groups at all concerned that a nuclear attack on Israel would mean harming Palestinians as well?
Alex: No. I don’t think so. Well, first of all, they never evoke that publicly. It’s not just something we’re going to speculate what they think. But what is real is that Hamas has no qualms to cooperate with Iran when it needs that. But it’s also important to remember that Islamic Jihad is an Iranian proxy. It’s subservient to Tehran. Whereas Hamas is a Sunni Jihadi terrorist organization or statelet. It has its own interests. It is not subservient to Tehran. It’s not that Hamas may start the escalation with Israel. But it will do that only when it fits it, not because Iran orders that.
For example, what will happen if the Yemeni Houthis launched a missile on Eilat? The Israel will face a serious problem, because we’ll have to retaliate. But what is the target? This is the force of the wisdom of Iranian asymmetric capacity, the denial capacity. So they’re developing even further this capacity.
Joseph: Does Israel have the capability to disable or destroy the Iranian nuclear program? If it does, would such a strike lead to war?
Alex: Well, it’s an imperative information that I simply don’t know. But I know, however, for sure, that Israeli officers or officials never disclosed all Israeli capacities. It is the first thing.
It’s interesting when those who criticize Israel’s military option, they use a straw man argument, because it sticks to only 1 possibility of such a strike. There are other possibilities of strikes. For example, such a strike maybe in parallel against other targets. There are numerous possibilities of how one can conduct a strike. But I’m sure it will not spark a war, because Iran has no allies.
If you mean a war between Israel and Hezbollah, yes. I estimate that Hezbollah will start a war against Israel only in the event of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations. But besides that, it’s hardly imaginable who will fight beside Iran. Iran is alone. Iran knows that.
Joseph: How much autonomy does Iran have in Syria? What is the relationship with Russia there?
Alex: The relations with Russia and Syria are also tensed. I know that Russian officers on the ground don’t like Iranians, because, as per the Russians claim, you can never trust Iranian officers. They never assume responsibility and so and so. However, the Russians have no qualms either to hinder Iranians in the other regions where the Russians are not so strong.
One must remember that the Russian interest in Syria is only one. It’s to preserve Assad’s power and nothing else. They don’t care about anything else. But to preserve Assad’s power, you don’t need to hold their many military units, just enough to prevent Damascus.
What the Iranians are doing in Syria is they continue to deploy their missile arsenal that will be used by pro-Iranian militias. Because, again, there is no Iranian Army, IRGC Corps, in Iran in terms of units deployment. There are Iranian advisers and some hiring officers who instruct the pro-Iranian militias who are just the cannon fodder for Iranians. They don’t like to send their own people to die in Syria. But they have this missile arsenal.
By the way, the Iranians are changing the demographic landscape of Syria. Syria is gradually becoming a Shiite country. This is what’s going on now in Syria.
Joseph: When you say that Syria is becoming a Shiite country, do you mean that Iran is moving in [inaudible] to change the demographics?
Alex: Yes. It is not, of course, something like a transfer or an exchange of populations. But as very many Syrian Sunnis became refugees, they escaped to other regions of Syria or Turkey. Instead of them, Iran is importing between the brackets. Some are, for example, Afghani or Pakistani militias. They don’t even speak Arabic. But they take, for example, Afghani teenagers, paid their families something like $500 or $1,000 if they die, and their family can be awarded Iranian nationality. These teenagers have no other way than going to Syria, something like Wagner inmates in Russia, the same principle.
Joseph: How does Russia see these Afghan and Pakistanis that Iran is bringing into Syria? Are they okay with that? Or is this something that they don’t really mind?
Alex: Yes. They never mind. Well, they’re doing more or less the same with their own Russian citizens. Of course, they simply don’t care about what these Persians or Arabs are doing to each other. It’s not their business. They say it overtly. It’s not just my speculation.
Joseph: How does Israel balance their relationship on its northern border in Syria between Russia and Iran? How does it approach Russia in order to be able to carry out strikes when it needs to?
Alex: Well, as far as I know, the mechanism of mutual communication was established between Israeli military officers and the Russian military officers in Syria. Hitherto, it has worked. It works.
It’s true that recently, both Iran and Russia jointly condemned an act of Israeli aggression, because the Russians must do something, because they’re required to do something. But nothing specific has happened hitherto. Hopefully, it will continue this way, and it continues.
The principle is this. As long as Israel does not strike Russian interests or, of course, Russian officers or Assad, they don’t care. But the danger is what will happen if Iranians try to deploy their missiles or drones or units within the region under Russian control. That would be very uneasy situation for Israel.
Joseph: From what you’ve seen, I know that East Asia is not in the region. But what has China’s role been in this Russian-Iranian relationship? How are they seeing it play out?
Alex: China – according to the other people I asked who are more knowledgeable than me in China – despise both Russians and Iranians. Of course, China has no intention whatsoever to help Russia. Russia, for China, is just a gasoline station with missiles. This is what Russia is. China needs Russia to buy cheaper oil and gasoline.
Iran, they would like to convert the American sanctions. But, again, unlike Russia, China is always economically motivated. They won’t do something only to harm America. For example, you can see that most solid Chinese companies don’t try to bypass sanctions on Russia or Iran, because they know that they will lose American market. This is the principle.
In Iran, there is a treaty between Iran and China. But here’s the case. Exactly as it is with the Russian-Iranian military contract, there is a lot of talk. No one has ever seen the text of the treaty. No one knows. The only thing which is known for sure is that it will be China and only China will decide how and where and when this contract is put into practice.
Again, I don’t know. But the Chinese are weary of insecurity, of instabilities that they may invest to colonize another country like what happened in Pakistan. Pakistan became a Chinese colony, the Gwadar Port. This is what will happen in Iran. The Iranians also understand that, I mean the rank-and-file. But Iran is unsafe for them. Because, I guess, [inaudible] this tension Iran weapons, Iran [inaudible]. I don’t think the Chinese are eager to enter that or to help someone. But they may sell some things, of course but, again, only when they see that it is really profitable for them.
Sarah: I’d like to ask just 1 final question. We at EMET feel very strongly as the former Soviet dissident and nuclear physicist, Andrei Sakharov, had said that if you want to know a nation’s foreign policy, look at the way they treat their internal dissident population.
We have been outraged that over nineteen thousand dissidents have been arrested, at least 4 hung, over five hundred shot on the spot including fifty-eight children. Yet, there’s been very little news coverage in the United States.
The news coverage that we get recently seems to say that it’s petered off or that there’s very little of it right now, although I saw something, Australian ABC News, saying that the demonstrations at [inaudible] places – which is religious, theological, initiates stronghold – were picking up.
Do you have, first of all, any idea of the strength of the demonstrations, Alex? Number 2, do you have any idea of the breakdown in terms of the civil society of the next generation, how many eventually would like to see the regime overthrown?
Alex: Look. It’s a very important but very difficult question to answer. Let us factor it into several segments. First, how are the demonstrations going? It depends upon intensity, of course. But it can change every month, every week. It’s very sporadic. It can be different in every town. In principle, one can follow them, for example, on Twitter, so you can see the intensity of every demonstration. It’s not a problem.
The problem that lies in another direction or realm renown is that this movement is spontaneous, and it lacks leadership. It’s something very important to understand. History teaches that it teaches nothing. But, still, historical experience shows us that all the autocratic regimes usually, when they’re protectors, switch side or, at least, stand idle. Of course, on the opposite side, you have a steadfast leadership that really knows what it wants.
Your question is 100%. In secret surveys that Iranians conducted say that 70% of Iran’s population including religious people would vote against Islamic Republic. But, still, as we say in Hebrew, [foreign words]. When you have friends and buddies, you don’t need a protection.
These guys, they have power – the Iranian people, the Iranian youth, Iranian women – it’s nice. But they don’t take strategic decisions. There’s another step. A strategic important question is that, unfortunately, we have not yet seen elite split in Iran, because they’re, yes, still a minority. But it is the elite who might support the regime not because they like Putin or Khamenei. Simply, this is their alternative. They have some perks from this system. They have no reason to topple it, because they are people who were born into this system. They have no objective, reason to hate it.
Unless these elite don’t split or decide that, “Look. There is another alternative. Let’s go join them,” I can hardly imagine how the regime topples. But it is true however that no matter what they do, the socioeconomic problems of Iran are so pressing. The regime has no idea how to start resolving them. Also, the regime is limited, because the regime is ruthless. Yes? But neither a Russian nor Iranian regime wants to become like a Saddam regime that would indulge in indiscriminate killing. They do that, but they understand their limit. It is a very explosive situation yet. But no one knows how many years it will continue.
The only thing that’s optimistic and the [inaudible] thing I can say that I see that Iranian’s civil society exists. It’s vibrant. It’s very well developed. It’s way more developed than [inaudible]. I can hardly imagine a corruption for Iran. But I can imagine democratic Iran. They’re different things.
Sarah: Thank you so much, Joseph, for your debut in terms of moderating this and for your work for EMET.
Alex, thank you so so much for your years and years of accumulated wisdom and knowledge about this very very important topic.
Alex: Thank you.
Sarah: Please join us next week, same time, same place where we are going to have the wonderful legal scholar, Avi Bell, who is on the Faculty of Bar-Ilan University and UC San Diego System talking about some facts that very few people understand about the Supreme Court issue. It will be our pleasure to host him as it has been our pleasure to host you, Alex.
Sarah: We want to [inaudible] a great week. Thanks so much.
Joseph: Thank you.
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