Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, smiles while speaking during an Economic Club of Washington conversation in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Benjamin Netanyahu, YouTube Star

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Despite the Iranian regime’s efforts to censor or slow down the internet, Iranians seem to love viral videos as much as the rest of us. From a former game show host urging violent revolution to dancers lip-syncing Pharell’s “Happy,” the competition for YouTube clicks in Iran is fierce.

Now Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting into the act. His YouTube channel releases short videos, with Farsi subtitles, addressing the Iranian people directly — the most recent one, complete with prop, congratulating them on their team’s World Cup performance. His office also has a Telegram group, the popular messaging app the regime has recently tried to ban, offering tips on water conservation and other messages of peace.

Netanyahu’s approach is casual in tone, though he wears a suit and tie. His message is consistent: Israel has no quarrel with Iran’s people, only its leaders.

It’s hard to gauge their efficacy; the one about Iran’s soccer team only has a little more than 24,000 views. But the regime has nonetheless noticed. Earlier this month, for example, Iran’s defense minister took time to dismiss Netanyahu’s offer of water conservation technology in remarks at a cultural event in Iran. The pro-Iran Arabic satellite network al-Mayadeen has covered the videos as an Israeli attempt to meddle in Iran’s affairs.

But Netanyahu is actually engaging in a kind of reverse psychology. As Iranians engage in acts of civil disobedience against their regime, its legitimacy and credibility has plummeted. Paradoxically, says Alireza Nader, a consultant and former Iran analyst at the Rand Corp., “The regime’s anti-Israel propaganda can make Israel more popular among younger people.”

There is some historical context here as well. In its first decades, Israel pursued a foreign policy that focused on building ties with states on the periphery of the Arabian peninsula and the Levant, such as Turkey, Ethiopia and Iran. Until the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Israel enjoyed a strong relationship with the Shah. Iranians don’t have the searing memories that Arabs have of regional wars with the Jewish state: Iran’s aggression against Jews and Israelis is through terrorism, not military action.

A handful of Israeli officials argued in the 1990s and 2000s that Israel should pursue a regime change in Iran, aimed at bolstering and unifying the country’s opposition. The main voice pushing for this approach was the late Uri Lubrani, who was Israel’s last ambassador in Tehran. Another proponent of a regime change strategy was the late Mossad chief Meir Dagan.

But Lubrani and Dagan were dissenters within Israel’s national security establishment. As it happened, Israel pursued a policy in this period of sabotage (of industrial equipment) and targeted killings (of Iranian scientists) in order to cripple Iran’s nuclear program. Diplomatically, Israel supported U.S.-led efforts to sanction Iran’s economy.

On the surface, it would appear that Netanyahu has come around to Lubrani’s position. But it’s more complicated. Netanyahu was a leading advocate for getting the U.S. out of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which means imposing again the crippling sanctions on Iran's banks and oil exports to get Iran to dismantle its program and end its regional aggression. This is not regime change. It’s behavior change.

The correct way to view Netanyahu’s YouTube performances, says his spokesman David Keyes, is as “an attempt to show the Iranian people what Israel is about.” Netanyahu is trying to go over the heads of the regime and speak directly to Iranians. Nevertheless, Keyes stresses that this public diplomacy “does not counter the importance of raising economic pressure on the Iranian regime.” When Western money flows into Iran, he says, it is “stolen from the people and used to wage wars in the Middle East.”

That said, Keyes himself has a revolutionary pedigree. Before he became Netanyahu’s spokesman in 2016, he helped create a web site that allows activists all over the world to share techniques and strategies for building indigenous people-power movements. Keyes also gained some fame for filming stunts to embarrass Iranian officials when they visit the West, including one in which he parked an ice cream truck outside of a venue where the Iranian foreign minister was speaking and offered him free ice cream to to “celebrate” the regime’s 1,000 hangings.

All this gets to the contradiction underlying Netanyahu’s public diplomacy, and for that matter U.S. policy as well. On the one hand, the message is correct. Israel, America and Iran’s people share a common foe: the mullahs. On the other hand, the U.S.’s current strategy is to cut off Iran’s chief export, oil. This strategy will no doubt hinder Iran’s efforts to spread terror in the Middle East, but in the process millions of Iranians will also suffer.

A better strategy would be for the West to pursue true solidarity with the Iranians who want to take their country back. Isolating banks from the world financial system, for example, makes it harder for Iranians living abroad to wire money back home to support, say, a strike fund. Better to target individual leaders and institutions. This is what Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi means when she says that sanctions should be designed to hurt the regime, not the people.

For now, that is not the policy of Israel or the U.S. Until it is, Netanyahu’s YouTube diplomacy with Iran will be little more than geopolitical trolling.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.