Two of Israel’s two main enemies, Syria and Iran, were rebuked by the United Nations Security Council within four days of each other this past week: a fact that one former Israeli ambassador said is no coincidence.
"Iran is Syria’s ally and even patron," explained Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator with Syria a decade ago. "Iran is the senior partner in the relationship and it seeks to give Syria protective patronage."
Thus, he said, when a UN investigation last week tied some of Syria’s top leaders with the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (leading the Security Council to unanimously insist Monday that Syria cooperate with the UN inquiry or risk further unspecified action) Rabinovich said Iran rushed to step in and shield Syria with an outrageous action of its own.
He was referring to the comments of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who last week called Israel a "disgraceful blot" that should be "wiped off the map." He also claimed that "anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury."
"I tend to view Iran’s recent actions, including [Ahmadinejadís] outrageous rhetoric … as an indication to the United States that continued pressure on Syria would push Iran to escalate its anti-Israel activities," Rabinovich added.
Ahmadinejad’s fiery speech touched off an international outcry and the UN Security Council unanimously condemned his remarks last Friday.
Israelís UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, welcomed the action, saying Ahmadinejad’s remarks were "not only alarming and dangerous but have actually unmasked that extremism, fundamentalism and madness [are] actually part of that world-threatening regime."
"We feel that Iran in its present state and with the present leadership should take this condemnation very, very seriously," Gillerman added. "We hope that this message will be heard loud and clear in Tehran."
Although Iran dismissed the vote: and Ahmadinejad reaffirmed his remarks in a brief interview as he marched in a "Jerusalem Day" rally in Tehran along with those dressed as Palestinian suicide bombers: Iranian leaders rushed to issue assurances that Iran had no intention of attacking Israel.
Former Iranian President Muhammad Khatami even criticized Ahmadinejad, saying his words had "created hundreds of political and economic problems" for Iran. And a prominent reformer, Rajabali Mazrouei, was also quoted as saying that Ahmadinejad’s remarks were "irresponsible and illogical." Rabinovich noted that Islamic Jihad, whose commanders are based in Syria and whose ideology is inspired by Iran’s fundamentalist regime, is the only Palestinian terrorist group that has refused to abide by an informal truce worked out between the Palestinian Authority and Israel nine months ago. Of the four suicide attacks inside Israeli cities this year, Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the deadliest pair: last week’s explosion in an open-air market in Hadera that killed five, and the February bombing of a seaside Tel Aviv nightclub that also killed five. "They are hoping that Israel will respond so we’ll return to square one," said Mohammed Dejani, a political science professor at Jerusalem’s Al-Quds University. But he added that if the Palestinian Authority wants to exert its authority, it must eventually confront Islamic Jihad. "It can’t allow radical groups to rule," Dejami said. Nicholas Rizopoulos, a teacher of international politics and diplomacy at Adelphi University in Garden City, L.I., said he viewed Ahmadinejad’s comments as a reflection of the "deep split within the Iranian government."
The comments "represent the most extreme side of the elite," he said. "He felt a need to make these statements in order to establish his credentials or to take over turf that a lot of moderates thought was theirs. … I think he was surprised by the reaction because he didn’t mean it as a declaration of war against Israel but rather against those in the Iranian government who were challenging his right to be the president."
Ahmadinejad won a hotly contested election in June.
But one Israeli official, who asked not to be identified, said Ahmadinejad’s words (which were first used by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran) should not be dismissed as simply rhetoric. "They should be taken seriously because they are not just words but deeds," he said, citing Iran’s support for the terrorist activities of Islamic Jihad. "Iran is trying to undermine the efforts at reconciliation between the Palestinians and Israelis and is trying to change the environment in our region," he said. "It is arming the Hezbollah, which has more than 10,000 rockets [along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon], some that can strike the center of Israel. And we had a declaration from the previous president of Iran that one nuclear bomb would be enough to wipe Israel off the map."
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel now plans to use of the international approval it won for its August withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to "make sure" that the International Atomic Energy Agency refers to the Security Council its recent finding that Iran has not complied with its nuclear watchdog’s requests. Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Ahmadinejad’s "provocative statements" might have created the "political environment in which it might be propitious to bring" the matter to the Security Council, where sanctions against Iran could be imposed.
He said he does not "put too much stock in the belief that there was coordination between Teheran and Damascus" to deflect pressure from Syria.
"It’s entirely possible that the Iranians did it, but there is no evidence" to support it, Cook said.
He added that having international pressure on both Syria and Iran is "certainly a diplomatic plus for Israel, but then again not a single Arab government denounced anything the Iranian president said."
Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.