Thursday, March 11, 2010

Israeli Faith in Iran's Opposition Gains Favor

Israel's oldest civil servant, 83-year-old Ministry of Defense adviser Uri Lubrani, has spent his career defying conventional wisdom on Iran. Today, Israel's political and military establishment appears to be tilting toward one of his long-ignored views: Israeli support for Iran's opposition movement—and not a miltary strike—is the best way to combat the regime in Tehran.

 A voice of reason and moderation, a much needed one.

"A military strike will at best delay Iran's nuclear program, but what's worse, it will rally the Iranian people to the defense of the regime," says Mr. Lubrani, who was ambassador to Iran from 1973 to 1978 and is now a special adviser to Israel's minister of defense. "We must do everything possible to help (the protest movement) do the job."

All the Right Places: A few Lubrani career highlights

* Pre-1948: Fought for Israel's pre-statehood militia.
* 1952-1961: Senior aide to Prime Minister Ben Gurion.
* 1963-1967: Ambassador to Uganda. Survived plane crash with Idi Amin.
* 1967-1971: Ambassador to Ethiopia. Smuggled first Ethiopian Jew to Israel.
* 1973-1978: Iran ambassador.
* 1983-2000: Managed the Israeli government's activities in Lebanon.

Rafi Eitan, an adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, says the protests "changed people's attitudes here. They started to understand that this should be done the way Lubrani has been saying it should be done."

He has quite a track record of understanding Israel's neighbors.

Heading Israeli government activities in Lebanon since 1983, he was one of the first to warn of Iran's growing influence among the country's Shiites. His recommendations were largely neglected and Hezbollah soon emerged as one of Israel's most potent foes. "Lubrani was one of the few, the very few, to identify that Israel should find a way to the Shiites before Iran did," recalls retired Brig. Gen. Shimon Shapira, who was an intelligence officer in Lebanon at the time. More recently, as Iran's nuclear program grew and Washington and Israel hardened their views, Mr. Lubrani's calls to support what appeared to be a beaten-down opposition seemed out of touch.

 Admirers point to his track record as reason to heed his advice. Mr. Lubrani was named ambassador to Iran in 1973, after a string of posts as envoy to countries neighboring Israel's Arab enemies. In 1977, Mr. Lubrani was summoned to the Shah's private resort island of Kish—giving him a first-hand look at the bubble of decadence the Shah had retreated into, he says. Kish had a landing strip serving a Concorde jet that airlifted delicacies to the island each day from Paris and kept the island's boutiques stocked with the latest French fashions, recalls Mr. Lubrani. After returning to Tehran, he ran into Iran's long-time prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, who openly called the island "a pit of corruption and decadence," a striking breach of diplomatic protocol, says Mr. Lubrani.

The US did not then, and one wonders if it does now, understand the negative meaning of the Shah, how hated and corrupt he was; what the US was an anti-communist ally, and ignored the dirty details of his corruption.

Mr. Lubrani warned Israel's foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, that the regime's days were numbered, according to Mr. Lubrani and senior government officials at the time. Harold Rhode, who retired last month after 28 years as a Pentagon analyst, much of it focused on Iran, says "Lubrani's warning got back to Washington, and the CIA laughed at it. The U.S. told Israel it's not true." Mr. Lubrani's successor was evacuated just weeks after arriving in Tehran, as the Islamic Revolution swept the country.

"Uri is by far the best authority Israel has on Iran," says Bernard Lewis, the influential Middle East historian and a decadeslong friend of Mr. Lubrani. "He's demonstrated that on more than one occasion by being right when everybody else was wrong, and he still has difficulty getting anyone to listen to him."

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