Iran and Israel are stuck in a dysfunctional relationship that neither party can escape on its own. Here’s how to break up their fight.Last week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group—held its annual policy conference in Washington, and it went as you might expect. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain roused the faithful with a call to tighten the noose on Iran and mocked those who favor a more diplomatic approach. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained that negotiating with Iranian leaders would be pointless “while they continue to inch closer to a nuclear weapon under the cover of talk.” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called for “all possible means” to be used to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. A few days later, Israel’s Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz warned that an attack on Iran is “unavoidable” as long as Tehran “continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons.”
As if to underscore these arguments, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad obligingly played the role of villain, predicting ominously from Tehran that Israel will “soon disappear off the geographical scene.” Against this backdrop, it’s safe to say that few at AIPAC were convinced by newly minted Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s call for direct U.S. talks with Iran (though the Illinois senator did win many new friends at the conference this year). In fact, AIPAC and Israeli leaders fear that any bargain between Washington and Tehran would come at their expense and have heightened their rhetoric accordingly.
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It doesn’t have to be this way. Although Iran and Israel will not be signing any mutual defense pacts anytime soon, the two countries aren’t destined to be implacable foes. If anything, Israel could be a prime beneficiary of a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.
It might sound inconceivable that Iran, whose leaders since 1979 have used the most venomous rhetoric against the “little Satan,” would ever moderate its stance toward Israel. Yet a careful review of the past three decades shows that Iran’s hostile rhetoric is more a product of opportunism than fanaticism. Iran and Israel have even been willing to work together quietly at times, despite their conflicting ideologies.
The reason is simple: When forced to choose, Tehran invariably chooses its geostrategic interests over its ideological impulses. In no other area is the decisiveness of the strategic dimension of Iran’s foreign policy clearer than when it comes to Israel. When these two pillars of Iranian foreign policy have clashed, as they did in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s geostrategic concerns have consistently prevailed. Tehran quietly sought Israel’s aid, and the Jewish state made many efforts to place Iran and the United States back on speaking terms. Faced with an invading Iraqi army and finding its U.S.-built weaponry starved of spare parts by a U.S. embargo, Tehran was in desperate need of help from Israel. Israel, in turn, was more than eager to avoid an Iraqi victory and to restore the traditional Israeli-Iranian clandestine security cooperation established under the shah, the mullahs’ fierce anti-Israeli rhetoric notwithstanding.
Iran never discarded its Islamic and anti-Israeli ideology, but for years it did refrain from translating that ideology into operational policy. It has been only for the past 15 years, for example, that Iran has come to play such a spoiler role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Why now? Today, the ideological and strategic currents of Iran’s foreign policy are aligned, and the results are visible in every corner of the region: a surging Hezbollah in Lebanon, a more deeply entrenched Hamas in the Palestinian territories, a radicalizing Shiite population in Iraq.
Quelling these potential threats requires understanding why Iran behaves the way it does. On a strategic level, Iran opposes Israel because it perceives the Jewish state as seeking its exclusion from regional affairs. Iran thinks Israel is working assiduously to counter its interests, whether in Washington or Ashgabat. Israel is seen as a major obstacle in initiating a U.S.-Iran dialogue and has played a critical role in putting Iran’s nuclear program atop the international agenda. Even Ahmadinejad’s highly ideological broadsides against Israel have come to have a strategic purpose. Playing the anti-Israeli card helps Iran overcome the Persian-Arab and Shiite-Sunni divide, Tehran reasons. Harsh rhetoric against Israel goes down well with the Arab street, increasing tensions between Arab governments and their publics, which in turn prevents the Arabs from signing up with Tel Aviv against Tehran.
The key to eliminating the danger Iran could pose to Israel lies in arranging these two forces of Iranian foreign policy—strategic interest and ideology—to counter each other once again. Threats of war and sanctions cannot achieve this end, however. Only through a larger accommodation—Iranian political rehabilitation in the region in return for an end to destructive Iranian behavior—will Iran let go of its open hostility toward the Jewish state. Brought in from the cold, Tehran’s cost-benefit analysis would change dramatically. The Islamic Republic would be careful not to undermine its own geopolitical status with ideology-driven anti-Israeli and anti-American behavior.
This is not a new formula, nor is it untested. China refuses to discard its communist pretense, but global integration has made it loath to put communist economic principles into practice due to the devastating impact it would have on its economic interests.
But why would Iran seek serious negotiations now, opponents of diplomacy might ask, when it appears to be having its way in the Middle East? Because the Iranians are eager to consolidate their gains through talks with the next U.S. administration and win American recognition for their role in the region. Those who would reject dialogue cannot have it both ways. They can’t argue that Washington shouldn’t negotiate because it lacks leverage (which isn’t true—for one, only the United States can lift its sanctions and support Iran’s inclusion in a new regional security architecture) and simultaneously claim that Tehran prefers the status quo and isn’t interested in talks precisely because Iran does have leverage.
In reality, the United States need not pressure Iran to come to the negotiation table; it need only demonstrate that it is serious about reaching a strategic understanding. What will induce Tehran to play ball is not a threat, but the promise of achieving a legitimate regional role without surrendering its pride. For Israel, that could be a good thing. A tamed Iran—integrated into the region’s political and economic structures and the forces of globalization—is much less dangerous than an angry and isolated Iran that defends its interests by fanning the flames of anti-Israeli extremism in the region. That’s a concept supporters of Israel and AIPAC should find useful.
Trita Parsi is author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
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