Confrontation Between Israel and Iran is Strategic, Not Ideological

Yesterday I went to the Center for American Progress event, Nuclear Meltdown: Rebuilding a Coherent Policy Towards Iran (Washington, D.C., 13 December 2007). It was moderated by Center for American Progress Director for Nuclear Policy Joseph Cirincione and consisted of a discussion with authors Barbara Slavin and Trita Parsi whose books are Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation and Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, respectively. Both Ms. Slavin and Mr. Parsi were phenomenally interesting and well informed. As Mr. Cirincione points out, their books really complement each other and both have been reviewed in tandem in most papers.

The single point that most fascinated me from their discussion — and apparently it impressed Mr. Cirincione as well as he allows in his question — is Mr. Parsi’s dismissal of the ideology and the rhetoric of Israeli-Iranian relations in favor of a purely geostrategic analysis. In this regard, the first Gulf War of 1991, rather than the Iranian revolution of 1979 was the real turning point in Israeli-Iranian relations.

The Center for American Progress already has a video of the event up and Mr. Parsi gives a thumb-nail version of his theory starting about a quarter of the way in, but here is a transcript of what he says:

… Iran and Israel did have a strong relationship during the 50s, 60s and 70s. From the Israeli’s side there was the doctrine of the periphery, the idea that Israel’s security was best achieved by making alliances with the non-Arab periphery states in the region — basically Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia — in order to weaken the Arab states in Israel’s vicinity — the inner and the outer circle.

And there is a myth out there in my view and I argue strongly against it in the book that Israeli-Iranian relations radically change in 1979 because of the revolution. And certainly the revolution did change a lot. Iran had a completely new ideology and very aggressive anti-Israeli rhetoric, but the common threats that had pushed Iran and Israel closer together during the preceding decades — the common threat from the Arab world and the common threat from the Soviet Union — was still there after 1979. And strategically Israel believed that Iran was still a very, very strong periphery power that it needed to have a strategic relationship.

And immediately after the revolution the Israelis were doing everything the could to reach out to Iran, to sell arms to Iran in spite of an American arms embargo and even lobby the United States not only to talk to Iran but also that the U.S. should sell arms to Iran and that the U.S. actually should not pay attention to Iranian rhetoric because the rhetoric was not reflective of the policy. Which is a drastically different position than the Israelis took only a couple of years later.

What really changes the relationship is the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Saddam in the first Persian Gulf War because then at the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union collapses and the last standing Arab army that could pose a conventional military threat to both Iran and to Israel was defeated by the United States. You have a completely new reconfiguration of the geopolitical map in the Middle East in which Iran and Israel emerge as two of the more powerful states. And just as much from the Israeli perspective Iran was needed to balance Iraq to a certain extent they also felt that Iraq was needed to balance Iran but there was no longer a balancer of Iran. They started to view Iran as a potential threat in the future.

So it’s in 1992 that you see a sudden shift in the Israeli position vis-à-vis Iran. Throughout the 1980s in spite of Khomeini’s tremendously aggressive rhetoric against Israel, the Israelis do not talk about an Iranian threat, they reach out to the Iranians. But after 1992 when the Iranians actually become much more pragmatic in their foreign policy their revolutionary zeal is plummeting, that’s when Israel starts to depict Iran as a global and existential threat, out of a fear that in the new Middle East if the United States was now reaching out to the Arab states as it was in the Persian Gulf War and if in addition to that they were to make some sort of a deal with the Iranians, the deal would come at the expense of Israel’s interest.

And the calculation on the Israeli side was they need to make sure that type of political process does not take place. And that is achieved by creating the political obstacles to such a process by imposing new sanctions, by depicting Iran as a global threat. And this initially actually came as a great surprise to the United States because only five years earlier the Israelis had been pushing the Iran-Contra scandal.

That last comment about the Iran-Contra scandal may just seem like a throw-away jibe at the Reagan administration, but I think it’s an important piece of evidence in favor of Mr. Parsi’s case. When I heard it, it really made things fall into place for me. I always wondered what the Israelis were doing as middle-men in that fiasco and how it was that their relationship with Iran was adequate to allow them to act in that capacity, whereas ours was not. Anyway, Mr. Parsi’s theory is what I was missing to explain that recalcitrant fact.

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