The famous definition of a diplomat as “a person who is sent abroad to lie for his country” fits perfectly Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov.
Israel destabilizes the Middle East more than Iran, Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov said on Tuesday.
Is this true? Let’s see. Iran has been busy for decades destabilizing regimes all over the Middle East, using a network of proxies and allies to create a “Shia crescent” that will run from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. Included in that network are the Shia Houthis in Yemen, the Kata’ib Hezbollah militias in Iraq, the army of Bashar Assad in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Houthis, who receive financial and military aid from Iran, have clearly destabilized Yemen by seizing the capital Saana from the internationally-recognized government, and since 2015 they have continued the civil war that shows no signs of ending. The Kata’ib Hezbollah militias in southern Iraq challenge the central government in Baghdad, keeping it off balance. In Syria the Iranians both support the government forces, and have been trying to establish their own bases – which Israel keeps bombing – from which it wants to threaten Israel, and to transfer precision-guided missiles and other advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In Lebanon, Iran, through its proxy Hezbollah, has brought the country to economic ruin and to a political degringolade, where a government dominated by Hezbollah members and collaborators, such as the Maronite President Michel Aoun, prevents meaningful regime change and continues to keep in power those responsible for the mismanagement and corruption that have brought the Lebanese state so low. In Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq, Iran is the main destabilizing force. In Syria, Iran’s presence, and its attempts to transfer arm to Hezbollah, are obviously destabilizing in another way: they provoke Israel, in self-defense, to preemptively bomb Iranian sites in Syria; without that Iranian presence, Israel would have no need to interfere.
Iran continues to foment unrest among the Shi’ites in Bahrain, who are 60% of the population, while the ruler is Sunni. And Iran also stirs up trouble among the 4.3 million Shi’ite in Saudi Arabia, almost all of whom live in the Eastern Province, where most of the Saudi oilfields are located.
“The problem in the region is not Iranian activities,” Viktorov said at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv. “It’s a lack of understanding between countries and noncompliance with UN resolutions in the Israel-Arab and Israel-Palestinian conflict.”
“The problem in the region is not Iranian activities”? The Emiratis, the Bahrainis, the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Iraqis and of course the Israelis, would beg to differ. There’s no “lack of understanding,” either, between countries. The Israelis and the Sunni Arabs understand all too well Iran’s intentions, and its multifarious aggressions throughout the Middle East. They are well aware that since Khomeini came to power on February 1, 1979, Iran’s theocratic regime has wanted to export its revolution throughout the region. The single most destabilizing force in the region has been the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment in Iran of rule by the senior Shi’ite clerics.
Asked if the relatively limited scope of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians destabilizes the region more than Iran does through proxies around the Middle East, like the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Viktorov balked at the notion of Iranian funding the Shi’ite terrorist group.
“Israel is attacking Hezbollah, Hezbollah is not attacking Israel,” he added, referring to Israel bombing Iranian and Hezbollah and weapons convoys in Syria.
Does Viktorov — who “balked at the notion” of Hezbollah receiving Iranian funding – think Iran does not fund Hezbollah? Everyone else in the Middle East – ask Mossad – knows Hezbollah relies on its annual subsidy from Iran of $800 million, an amount undoubtedly decreased this past year when Iran’s economy is in free fall.
“Hezbollah is not attacking Israel”? Has Ambassador Viktorov forgotten what set off the Hezbollah-Iran war in 2006? Along with intermittently firing missiles into the Galilee, in 2005, Hezbollah tried four separate times to kidnap Israeli soldiers; all the attempts failed. But in 2006, that larger conflict was precipitated by a cross-border raid into Israel. On 12 July 2006, Hezbollah fighters fired missiles at Israeli border towns as a diversion for an anti-tank attack on two armored Humvees patrolling the Israeli side of the border fence. The ambush left three soldiers dead. Two Israeli soldiers were abducted and taken by Hezbollah to Lebanon. Five more were killed in Lebanon, in a failed rescue attempt. That was how Hezbollah started the war in 2006. But Ambassador Viktorov wants us to believe that “Israel is attacking Hezbollah, Hezbollah is not attacking Israel.” This will come as a surprise to the families of Israel soldiers killed by Hezbollah in July, 2006, and in the war that followed, and to all those families of Israeli civilians who have been killed over the years by Hezbollah.
Viktorov said he has seen the tunnels from Lebanon into Israel, which Hezbollah operatives have used to attempt to attack Israel, and he argued there is “no proof Hezbollah created the tunnels.”
“There is no proof Hezbollah created the tunnels.”? Who then, if not Hezbollah? Did Viktorov really examine those tunnels? They were dug from Lebanese villages known to be under the total control of the terror group. They were very elaborate affairs, costing between $3 million and $10 million apiece. The IDF said the deepest, longest tunnel was dug to a depth of 80 meters (260 feet), was a kilometer (3280 feet) long, and penetrated 77 meters (250 feet) into Israeli territory. It began close to the Lebanese village of Ramiya, the IDF said, with an exit close to the Israeli villages of Shtula and Zar’it. If Hezbollah didn’t dig the tunnels from Lebanon into Israel, who does Ambassador Viktorov think did it? Baba Yaga? Koshchei the Immortal?
Good God, what effrontery, what chutzpah: “There is no proof Hezbollah created the tunnels.” Not even Hezbollah has said that. I suppose Israel might have spent tens of millions of dollars just to build the tunnels, then to pretend to find them, and finally to accuse inoffensive peace-loving Hezbollah of being responsible for building them, just so those tunnels could be used as pretext for war. A false flag operation, forsooth!
The ambassador said Israel must “not attack the territories of sovereign UN members.”
Asked whether this is a change in the position, by which Israel gives Russia advanced notice before it attacks Iranian positions near the Syria-Israel border, Viktorov said no, because “coordination is about the safety of the Russian military in Syria.”
Isn’t Ambassador Viktorov forgetting that the Kremlin has ordered its troops to “attack the territories” of the Ukraine, which is a “sovereign UN member,” in order to seize Crimea? And hasn’t Moscow also enrolled ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine in an ongoing campaign to split the Ukraine and give its eastern region to Russia? And didn’t the Soviet Union “attack the territories” of Afghanistan in 1979, beginning a war that lasted 10 years? And didn’t Russia “attack the territories” of Chechnya in 1994? In all those cases Russia was not under any threat – not from the Crimea, not from the Ukraine, not from Afghanistan or Chechnya. Israel has considerably more justification for striking Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iranian bases in Syria, than Russia did in any of those examples just mentioned; the IDF is only striking those who have made clear their intention to destroy Israel.
However, he added, “there is no way that we are approving any Israeli strikes on Syria, never in the past and never in the future.”
This is a flat-out lie. Israel has been careful to coordinate with the Russians about planned attacks on Iranian positions on the Israel-Syria border. If the Russians wanted to, they could have expressed their disapproval. The Israelis have hit over one thousand Iranian targets in Syria. Russia has not sought to prevent Israel’s actions or to supply Damascus with the air defenses that might deter it. Yet Viktorov claims that the Russians have never, and never will, approve of any Israeli strikes on Syria. He needs to check with his own Foreign Ministry.
With regards to recent International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran has developed more centrifuges to a further extent than permitted by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is known, Viktorov said he does not agree that Iran has violated the agreement.
Russia and Iran have been quasi-allies in Syria, but this does not give Viktorov license to lie about Iran. The IAEA inspectors are the ones who monitor Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, not Ambassador Viktorov. The IAEA has reported that Iran has installed more advanced centrifuges than are permitted under the nuclear deal (JCPOA); in fact, Iran has not been hiding them, but announced to the world on Nov. 2, 2019 that it would be using centrifuges that were prohibited under the 2015 nuclear deal. And then, in early December 2020, Iran again announced to the IAEA that it intends to install an additional three cascades of advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant in Natanz. The E3 nations – the U.K., Germany, and France – responded that Iran’s move “is contrary to the JCPOA and deeply worrying.” Yet Anatoly Viktorov ignores Iran’s announcements that it was violating the 2015 nuclear deal; he “does not agree” with, inter alia, the U.K., Germany, France, or the IAEA itself, that “Iran has violated the agreement.”
The first step was made by… our American colleagues who unfortunately decided to quit the JCPOA [in 2018],” he said. “They quit the plan and that allowed the Iranian side to undertake some steps which are not in full compliance with the plan, which is unfortunate as well.”
On the one hand, Viktorov says that he “does not agree that Iran has violated the agreement.” On the other, he says that Iran took some steps “which are not in full compliance with the plan” – in other words, that violated the plan. Which Viktorov should we believe? And look at how delicately he describes these gross violations of the JCPOA rules about centrifuges – for him, these are “not in full compliance.” Just as Ambassador Viktorov, it might be said in a similar spirit, “is not in full compliance with the truth.”
Though Viktorov would only call Joe Biden “the possibly elected president” of the US pointing out that he was only “appointed by the press” and not officially declared the victor, he said Russia “took note of some statements” that Biden seeks to rejoin the JCPOA.
“If the US returns to the deal, “it will make many things simpler,” he said. “It will be helpful to reduce concerns and allow the Iranians to develop a peaceful atomic energy program and allow [the IAEA] to look at what is going on in the military sphere.”
Does Iran show any signs of wanting to slow down its nuclear program? Does its latest announcement about installing three cascades of advanced centrifuges, in direct violation of the JCPOA, not tell us all we need to know about Iran’s nuclear intentions? Viktorov believes, or claims to, that an American return to the 2015 JCPOA will be able to halt Iran’s march to produce nuclear weapons. Two countries – Israel and Saudi Arabia – don’t think so; they think the 2015 deal is fatally flawed; both states have urged Biden not to return to the 2015 deal. Shouldn’t we listen attentively to the views of those in Iran’s immediate neighborhood who will be most endangered if Iran obtains nuclear weapons?
“Maybe some provisions could be modified,” he said, in reference to Biden’s statements that he will strengthen the JCPOA, “but it’s a matter of negotiation with the interested parties, the Iranian authorities.”
He’s willing to consider some slight modifications to the JCPOA, if Iran agrees. And what if it doesn’t agree? Would he approve of the U.S. refusing, in that case, to rejoin the nuclear deal? He doesn’t say.
As for whether Russia would sell arms to Iran after the UN arms embargo was lifted earlier this year, he said: “Iran is a sovereign state, why not? I am not familiar with specific plans; it’s a matter of negotiations.”
Of course. “Why not?” Sell Iran whatever it wants: missiles, rockets, tanks, S-400 anti-missile defense systems. No need for Russia to worry. If Iran extends its power in the Middle East, if it overawes Saudi Arabia with its Russian weaponry, if it creates a situation of maximum peril for the tiny Jewish state, why should Anatoly Viktorov – or Russia — care?
Viktorov said Russia is supportive of the Abraham Accords, in which Israel established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, and said “any move towards interaction is a positive development, in of itself.”
Given how negative Viktorov has been about Israel so far in this interview – accusing it of being the main source of instability in the region, denying that Hezbollah was responsible for its terror tunnels, claiming that It’s not Hezbollah that attacks Israel but Israel that attacks Hezbollah, insisting that Iran has never violated the 2015 nuclear deal despite Tehran, on two occasions, having announced it was doing exactly that – it’s a pleasant surprise to find him endorsing the Abraham Accords.
Still, he said, “Israel should sit down and talk about how to take everybody’s legitimate concerns into account and not create alliances and blocs against somebody else,” an apparent reference to partnerships with Gulf states against Iran.
For Anatoly Viktorov, “alliances and blocs” that are “against others” are a terrible idea. What of the Warsaw Pact? NATO? The CTSO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), a military alliance signed in 2002, of seven former Soviet states, including Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, that many saw as being directed both at the West and China? Would Viktorov like to announce his opposition to CTSO? No, I didn’t think so. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” That’s what Emerson said. Anatoly Viktorov has a different version: ”Any consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
“We strongly believe that the Palestinian question should not be put aside. The normalization should not replace a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, because this problem will remain and will continue to endanger not only the countries and peoples of the region but also many others around the globe,” he stated, calling for a two-state solution.
Goodness, no one is putting the “Palestinian question” aside. It’s simply been, as the Italians say, ridimensianato – reduced to its current (lesser) significance. It’s no longer the center of Arab concerns. The dogs bark in Ramallah, the caravan – starting with the U.A.E., Bahrain, and the Sudan – moves on. Arab states want to put their own national interests first. They’ve learned that Israel can be a valuable ally against Iran, and some Arab states believe that Israel can be of immense help economically as well, in trade, technology, and tourism; they are unwilling to any longer be limited by what the Palestinians will allow. That new view was demonstrated when the Palestinians asked the Arab League to denounce the U.A.E. and Bahrain for normalizing ties with Israel, and they were turned down flat, to the horror and dismay of Mahmoud Abbas and Hanan Ashrawi.
Viktorov warned that the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “allowing terrorists to recruit more supporters into their ranks.”
The Israel-Palestinian conflict is only one local Jihad within the larger worldwide Jihad. It is hardly necessary for that conflict to exist in order to recruit terrorists. The terrorists can be found wherever the Qur’an is read and taken to heart; a certain percentage of those Muslims will decide to act on those verses – such as 2:191-193, 4:89, 8:12, 8:60, 9:5, 9:29, 47:4, 98:6 – sometimes whipped up by a fiery imam, sometimes inflamed by videos of brave mujahideen, decapitating helpless Christians. “Palestine” is what the West has focused on, but there are so many other matters to preoccupy Muslims: Indian policy in Kashmir, the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque; the publication of cartoons of Muhammad in France and Denmark; a Dutch movie about the treatment of women in Islam; the shutting down of mosques in France, or Austria; the military coup in Egypt that removed a Muslim Brotherhood member, Mohamed Morsi, from power, the determination to do as ISIS propaganda, echoing the Qur’an, commands, “to kill the Infidels wherever you find them.” Arab propagandists used to claim that “Palestine is the key to everything in the Middle East”; the last half-century has demonstrated that it is not. Ask the Emiratis, the Saudis, the Bahrainis, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Libyans. Apparently, like some American peace-processors who have just resurfaced, alas, in Washington, Anatoly Viktorov hasn’t gotten the memo.
Russia’s offer for Israel and the Palestinians to hold direct negotiations in Moscow still stands, as well as a suggestion to hold an international conference on the matter, he added.
I’m fairly sure how the parties will respond. Mahmoud Abbas remembers fondly his graduate-school days in Moscow, at good old Patrice Lumumba University, where he earned his doctorate by writing a Holocaust-denying study, “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism” that claimed the Zionists worked hand-in-glove with the Nazis. The Zionists wanted Jews to be killed around the world so that they would flee to Palestine. In this “study” he claimed that fewer than one million Jews died, many from disease, during World War II; such a grotesque minimizing of the number of victims is one version of Holocaust denial. He had a swell time in the Soviet Union, where his thesis was so favorably received; he’ll be glad to accept Russia’s offer to hold negotiations in Moscow.
But the Israelis, I’m afraid, will respond quite differently They are willing to sit down with the Palestinians, even though they’ve been down that road before, only to see their Palestinian “partners” walk out when they didn’t receive everything they demanded, but at this point the Israelis don’t want any pushy interlocutors. They had their fill at Camp David with the antisemitic Jimmy Carter, who detested Begin and was entranced with Anwar Sadat. They’ve had their fill of being scolded by the Quartet – the U.N, the E.U, the U.S., and Russia – a group where only one of the four, the U.S., is not already biased against the Jewish state. Israel will not enter into “direct negotiations in Moscow” if that means, as I suspect it does, that the Russians will not merely supply the room, but also be in the room, and at the table, as “facilitators” of the negotiations who are sure to put pressure on Israel.
And now for a literary interlude, relevant in several ways to Anatoly Viktorov and with a sting in its tale: Anatoly Viktorov may remember another Russian who, like himself, was an ambassador to a Middle Eastern nation. That man was Alexander Griboyedov, Russia’s greatest playwright (though he wrote only one play, Woe From Wit), who was sent to Tehran as the ambassador – the Minister Plenipotentiary – of Russia in 1829. This is what happened to Griboyedov at the hands of the Iranians:
On a hillside outside Georgia’s capital Tbilisi lies the grave of Alexander Griboyedov, the literary giant, whose comic verse play Woe from Wit is still taught to schoolchildren in Russia. In addition to being a poet and playwright, Griboyedov was the Russian tsar’s envoy to Persia in 1829 when he was slaughtered along with the staff of his embassy by a mob enraged over a perceived slight against its customs and religion.
The two empires had just signed a peace treaty to end a war in which Persia had suffered a serious defeat. Feelings against the victors were still raw, needing only a spark to set them off. This came in February 1829, when two Christian Armenian women escaped from a harem and sought refuge in the Russian mission in Tehran. One of the terms of the unpopular treaty stipulated that Armenians in Persia were allowed to return to Russian Armenia, and Griboyedov refused to return them despite the shah’s demands.
Contemporaneous accounts relate that a mob of several thousand irate Persians then gathered around the mission, at which point—too late—Griboyedov offered to hand over the escapees. One protester was killed by an embassy guard, further outraging the mob, which, incited by local mullahs, proceeded to storm the mission. Griboyedov and the few other diplomats with him bravely defended themselves but could do nothing against the onslaught. The Cossack guards were killed, and the rest of the mission, despite a valiant defense, soon followed. The scene became “a mass of dead, cut-up and beheaded corpses.” Griboyedov’s body was desecrated and dragged through the streets of Tehran. Only when all was quiet did the guard force sent by the shah make its appearance.
This tale of Muslim fanaticism, brutality, and cruelty, will not be a surprise to visitors to this site. Perhaps Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov knows the story of Griboyedov’s death; it took place in 1829, but it could have occurred yesterday. Does Viktorov recognize the “eastern people” (Vostochniij narod), who could be so easily whipped up into a murderous mob? One thinks of the two Israeli reservists, Yosef Avrahami and Vadim Norzhizh, who were driving in the West Bank in 2000, took a wrong turn, and ended up in Ramallah, where they were dragged into the police station. There, they were beaten to death by Palestinian Arabs, some of whom had been passing by in a funeral procession. The two Israelis then had their bodies mutilated in all the unspeakable ways that can be imagined. One of their killers, Aziz Salha, proudly held up his bloodied hands at the window, while the crowd below shouted its ecstatic approval, and then their bodies were tossed out that same window, to be further mutilated by the Arabs on the ground. The killers were hailed as heroes by the Palestinian Authority.
Which brings me to the point Griboyedov — from beyond the grave — could make to his fellow Russian Ambassador in the Middle East, Anatoly Viktorov. Many of Griboyedov’s lines in Woe From Wit have entered the Russian language as “winged words” known to every literate Russian. Here is one I am sure Viktorov knows well: “Ври, да знай же меру,” which can be Englished as “Lie but know when to stop.”
Words to the wise, Mr. Ambassador. Winged words to the wise.