“Iran is Israel’s best friend, and we do not intend to change our position in relation to Tehran.”
Believe it or not, this is a quote from an Israeli prime minister, but it’s not Ben-Gurion or Golda Meir from the era of the Shah. It’s actually from Yitzhak Rabin. The year is 1987. Ayatollah Khomeini is still alive, and much like Ahmadinejad today, he’s using the worst rhetoric against Israel. Yet, Rabin referred to Iran as a geostrategic friend.
Today, when we hear the threats of war and the high rhetoric, we’re oftentimes led to believe that this is yet another one of those unsolvable Middle Eastern conflicts with roots as old as the region itself. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I hope today to show you why that is.
The relations between the Iranian and the Jewish people throughout history has actually been quite positive, starting in 539 B.C., when King Cyrus the Great of Persia liberated the Jewish people from their Babylonian captivity. A third of the Jewish population stayed in Babylonia. They’re today’s Iraqi Jews. A third migrated to Persia. They’re today’s Iranian Jews, still 25,000 of them living in Iran, making them the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel itself. And a third returned to historic Palestine, did the second rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, financed, incidentally, by Persian tax money.
But even in modern times, relations have been close at times. Rabin’s statement was a reflection of decades of security and intelligence collaboration between the two, which in turn was born out of perception of common threats. Both states feared the Soviet Union and strong Arab states such as Egypt and Iraq. And, in addition, the Israeli doctrine of the periphery, the idea that Israel’s security was best achieved by creating alliances with the non-Arab states in the periphery of the region in order to balance the Arab states in its vicinity. Now, from the Shah’s perspective, though, he wanted to keep this as secret as possible, so when Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, traveled to Iran in the ’70s, he usually wore a wig so that no one would recognize him. The Iranians built a special tarmac at the airport in Tehran, far away from the central terminal, so that no one would notice the large number of Israeli planes shuttling between Tel Aviv and Tehran.
Now, did all of this end with the Islamic revolution in 1979? In spite of the very clear anti-Israeli ideology of the new regime, the geopolitical logic for their collaboration lived on, because they still had common threats. And when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Israel feared an Iraqi victory and actively helped Iran by selling it arms and providing it with spare parts for Iran’s American weaponry at a moment when Iran was very vulnerable because of an American arms embargo that Israel was more than happy to violate. In fact, back in the 1980s, it was Israel that lobbied Washington to talk to Iran, to sell arms to Iran, and not pay attention to Iran’s anti-Israeli ideology. And this, of course, climaxed in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
But with the end of the Cold War came also the end of the Israeli-Iranian cold peace. Suddenly, the two common threats that had pushed them closer together throughout decades, more or less evaporated. The Soviet Union collapsed, Iraq was defeated, and a new environment was created in the region in which both of them felt more secure, but they were also now left unchecked. Without Iraq balancing Iran, Iran could now become a threat, some in Israel argued. In fact, the current dynamic that you see between Iran and Israel has its roots more so in the geopolitical reconfiguration of the region after the Cold War than in the events of 1979, because at this point, Iran and Israel emerge as two of the most powerful states in the region, and rather than viewing each other as potential security partners, they increasingly came to view each other as rivals and competitors. So Israel, who in the 1980s lobbied for and improved U.S.-Iran relations now feared a U.S.-Iran rapprochement, thinking that it would come at Israel’s security interests’ expense, and instead sought to put Iran in increased isolation.
Ironically, this was happening at a time when Iran was more interested in peacemaking with Washington than to see to Israel’s destruction. Iran had put itself in isolation because of its radicalism, and after having helped the United States indirectly in the war against Iraq in 1991, the Iranians were hoping that they would be rewarded by being included in the post-war security architecture of the region. But Washington chose to ignore Iran’s outreach, as it would a decade later in Afghanistan, and instead moved to intensify Iran’s isolation, and it is at this point, around 1993, ’94, that Iran begins to translate its anti-Israeli ideology into operational policy. The Iranians believed that whatever they did, even if they moderated their policies, the U.S. would continue to seek Iran’s isolation, and the only way Iran could compel Washington to change its position was by imposing a cost on the U.S. if it didn’t. The easiest target was the peace process, and now the Iranian ideological bark was to be accompanied by a nonconventional bite, and Iran began supporting extensively Palestinian Islamist groups that it previously had shunned. In some ways, this sounds paradoxical, but according to Martin Indyk of the Clinton administration, the Iranians had not gotten it entirely wrong, because the more peace there would be between Israel and Palestine, the U.S. believed, the more Iran would get isolated. The more Iran got isolated, the more peace there would be. So according to Indyk, and these are his words, the Iranians had an interest to do us in on the peace process in order to defeat our policy of containment. To defeat our policy of containment, not about ideology.
But throughout even the worst times of their entanglement, all sides have reached out to each other. Netanyahu, when he got elected in 1996, reached out to the Iranians to see if there were any ways that the doctrine of the periphery could be resurrected. Tehran was not interested. A few years later, the Iranians sent a comprehensive negotiation proposal to the Bush administration, a proposal that revealed that there was some potential of getting Iran and Israel back on terms again. The Bush administration did not even respond. All sides have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
But this is not an ancient conflict. This is not even an ideological conflict. The ebbs and flows of hostility have not shifted with ideological zeal, but rather with changes in the geopolitical landscape. When Iran and Israel’s security imperatives dictated collaboration, they did so in spite of lethal ideological opposition to each other. When Iran’s ideological impulses collided with its strategic interests, the strategic interests always prevailed. This is good news, because it means that neither war nor enmity is a foregone conclusion.
But some want war. Some believe or say that it’s 1938, Iran is Germany, and Ahmadinejad is Hitler. If we accept this to be true, that indeed it is 1938, Iran is Germany, Ahmadinejad is Hitler, then the question we have to ask ourself is, who wishes to play the role of Neville Chamberlain? Who will risk peace? This is an analogy that is deliberately aimed at eliminating diplomacy, and when you eliminate diplomacy, you make war inevitable. In an ideological conflict, there can be no truce, no draw, no compromise, only victory or defeat.
But rather than making war inevitable by viewing this as ideological, we would be wise to seek ways to make peace possible. Iran and Israel’s conflict is a new phenomenon, only a few decades old in a history of 2,500 years, and precisely because its roots are geopolitical, it means that solutions can be found, compromises can be struck, however difficult it yet may be. After all, it was Yitzhak Rabin himself who said, “You don’t make peace with your friends. You make it with your enemies.”