[Marxism] The strange tale of Iran and Israel

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 3 07:55:59 MST 2009

Imagined affinities, imagined enmities
The strange tale of Iran and Israel

The early Zionists never believed they would be accepted in the Arab 
world and pinned their hopes on the non-Arab periphery instead, 
particularly Iran. Israel reversed that policy by opening talks with a 
weakened Arafat in the early 1990s. But peace with the Palestinians did 
not happen and the ‘radicals’ grew more radical
by Alastair Crooke

“We had very deep relations with Iran, cutting deep into the fabric of 
the two peoples,” said a high-ranking official at the Israeli foreign 
ministry just after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Israeli (and US) 
officials then saw it as madness to view Iran as anything other than a 
natural interlocutor. Thirty years later, western policy-makers, and 
particularly Israelis, see Iran as a growing threat. Could this fear be 
based on a misreading of Iran’s revolution?

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, did not see Israel as 
part of the Middle East, but as part of Europe. From 1952, Ben-Gurion 
repeated that although Israelis were sitting in the Middle East, this 
was a geographical accident, for they were a European people. “We have 
no connection with the Arabs,” he said. “Our regime, our culture, our 
relations, is not the fruit of this region. There is no political 
affinity between us, or international solidarity” (1).

Ben-Gurion called for a concerted effort to persuade the United States 
that Israel could be a strategic asset in the Middle East. But President 
Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61) repeatedly declined Israel’s entreaties, 
believing that the US was better placed to manage US interests 
independently of Israeli assistance.

As a result of these rebuffs, Ben-Gurion evolved the concept of the 
“alliance of the periphery” which aimed to balance the vicinity of 
hostile Arab states by forming alliances with Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia. 
It was an attempt to strengthen Israeli deterrence, reduce Israel’s 
isolation and add to its appeal as an “asset” to the US.

In parallel, Ben-Gurion developed another idea: the “alliance of the 
minorities”. He argued that the majority of the inhabitants of the 
Middle East were not Arab, referring not only to the Persians and the 
Turks, but also to religious minorities such as the Jews, Kurds, Druze 
and (Christian) Maronites of Lebanon. The aim was to foster nationalist 
aspirations among minorities in order to create islands of allies in the 
ocean of Arab nationalism.

Iran emerged against this background in the late 1950s as a “natural 
ally” of Israel. In Treacherous Alliance  (2) Trita Parsi has traced the 
cooperation with the Shah, such as the joint training and arming of 
Kurdish insurgents between 1970 and 1975 that was intended to weaken 
Iraq. Parsi also notes the empathy between Israel and Iran on account of 
the cultural superiority felt by the two peoples towards the Arabs – 
even though the supposed affinity had its limits. Israelis were puzzled 
and irked at the Shah’s insistence on keeping the relationship quiet; 
Israel wanted it publicly acknowledged.

The sense of close affinity persisted beyond the Iranian Revolution, and 
prompted even hard-headed Israeli politicians of the right – including 
prime minister Menachem Begin – to reach out to the new Iranian 
leadership. Ayatollah Khomeini’s pragmatism in foreign policy was read 
by Israelis as evidence that the revolution had been an aberration. 
Iran, surrounded by Arab hostility, understood only too well its need 
for Israeli friendship – and the technological advantages it could 
bestow on its friends. Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad official, noted 
that the periphery doctrine was so “thoroughly ingrained” in the Israeli 
mindset that it had become “instinctive” (3). It was out of this 
conviction that Israel inveigled the US to sell weapons to Iran in the 
mid-1980s, a prelude to the Iran-Contra scandal (4).

Begin’s electoral victory in 1977 entrenched a more radical vision than 
that of the Labour Party, that of the Revisionist Zionist leader, 
Vladimir Jabotinsky. The latter had argued in his seminal “Iron Wall” 
article in 1923 that there could never be agreement with the Arabs. 
Begin shared Jabotinsky’s view that “only when there is no longer any 
hope of getting rid of us... will they drop their extremist leaders,” 
and moderates would emerge who would “agree to mutual concessions” and 
could then benefit from the Zionist “five hundred year cultural advance” 
on them.
Relations with the periphery declined

The right tried to put the strategy of the “alliance of the minorities” 
into practice. In 1982, Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon with the aim of 
ousting the Palestine Liberation Organisation and establishing a 
friendly Christian Maronite hegemony in Beirut – so inflicting a 
devastating defeat on Syria, a major pillar of Arabism. It proved a 
miscalculation, for it precipitated the decline of the Maronites and 
encouraged Shia mobilisation in the south and in the Bekaa valley, from 
which a formidable new enemy, Hizbullah, emerged.

At the same time as this failure in Lebanon, Israel’s relations with the 
periphery declined – at least with Iran (which made a strategic alliance 
with Syria, a key Arab enemy). This was because of a misperception by 
Israel, shared by the US: the Iranian Revolution was seen in the West as 
no more than a discontinuity in the western narrative of a historical 
progression from backwardness to western-style secular modernity. It was 
an aberration, a reaction against modernity that would be corrected over 
time. The ideological basis to the revolution was seen as “hollow”; 
“pragmatists” would soon pull it back on to the path of western material 
progress, the only course that made sense in the western optic. This is 
why both Israel and the US have been so preoccupied by signs of 
pragmatism and an obsessive hunt for “moderates”. And whenever Iran’s 
revolutionary leadership has shown any signs of pragmatism in its 
foreign policy, it reinforced the US and Israeli view that this would 
lead eventually to an alliance 
with Israel.

In reality, it was the West’s materialist “modernity”, on which Israel’s 
doctrine was justified, which repelled Iranian leaders the most. But 
though they were at odds with the US and Israel over their vision of 
society and their efforts to spread a culture of secular, materialist 
and free-market society across the region (which many Iranians saw in 
turn as archaic, and even colonialist), they did not want to defeat 
Israel militarily. The revolution was not conceived with an aggressive 
regional ambition; it did not threaten Israel or the US in conventional 
military terms.

In 1988, after a messy, debilitating war lasting eight years, Iran 
reached a ceasefire with Iraq. But the years 1990-2 saw two events that 
changed the outlook for the whole region: the Soviet Union imploded and 
Saddam Hussein was defeated in the first Gulf war (1990-1). These events 
removed both the Russian threat to Iran and Iraq’s threat to Israel. It 
left Iran and Israel as unchallenged rivals for leadership and 
pre-eminence in the region, and it saw the US emerge as a unipolar, 
unchecked power.

Israel’s main fear was to be seen as a liability by the US during the 
Gulf war, rather than a friend. At the same time the prospect of Iran 
emerging as a pre-eminent regional power threatened Israel’s hegemony by 
opening the possibility of a US-Iranian rapprochement that risked 
eclipsing Israel’s relationship with the US. More seriously, Israel 
risked its military deterrence: its survival depended on its military 
supremacy, which a resurgent Iran might remove.

When the Labour government under Yitzhak Rabin, elected in 1992, decided 
to drop the strategy of wooing the periphery and instead opted to make 
peace with the Arabs, this was a radical reverse of strategy. This shift 
placed Israel and Iran on opposite sides in the new equation, and the 
change was as intense as it was unexpected: “Iran has to be identified 
as Enemy No 1,” Yossi Alpher, at the time an adviser to Rabin, told the 
New York Times four days after Bill Clinton’s election victory. And 
Shimon Peres, the other most senior Labour figure, warned the 
international community in an interview in 1993 that Iran would be armed 
with a nuclear bomb by 1999 (5).
Exaggerated nuclear threat?

But many inside the Clinton administration felt the Iranian threat was 
exaggerated, as did many within the Israeli establishment. Shlomo Brom, 
a senior member of the Israeli intelligence apparatus, told Parsi 
mockingly: “Remember, the Iranians are always five to seven years from 
the bomb. Time passes, but they are always five to seven years from the 
bomb.” In 2009, the Iranians are, according to US intelligence 
estimates, still “five to seven years away from the bomb” (6).

Israel, therefore, began to cut a deal with Yasser Arafat, greatly 
weakened by the Gulf war. Rabin and Peres then used the demonisation of 
Iran as a lever with which to divert the US Jewish Lobby: the Lobby 
could focus on the existential threat from Iran rather than turn their 
anger on Israel’s leaders for betraying Jabotinsky by supping with the 
enemy – Arafat and the Arabs.

The US was devising a parallel strategy too: a realignment of 
pro-western Arab states against enemies lying beyond the periphery – 
barbarians bearing down on the values, institutions and liberties of 
western civilisation, led by Iran. US power had become the instrument 
that would “spell the death knell for the Iranian revolution” as William 
Kristol, a leading US conservative, wrote in May 2003. The defeat of 
Iran had become the means to deliver a double blow to the Arab and 
Muslim psyche as well as to the Islamist resistance. The Arabs would 
become docile, and the Middle East would succumb, like so many dominoes.

Not surprisingly, despite Iran’s cooperation with Washington during the 
war in Afghanistan (2002) and Iraq (2003), its attempts to reach a 
so-called “grand bargain” with the US were all rebuffed or undercut by 
senior members of the Bush administration. The 2003 proposal to open 
talks with the US that appeared to acknowledge US security concerns – 
including the demand for an end to Iran’s support for Hizbullah and 
Hamas and to its nuclear programme, and recognition of Israel – has 
become a part of legend. But to assume that pressure caused Iran to 
offer to sever its links to the resistance and come to terms with Israel 
is to misread Iran’s intent. Iran’s offer was a nuanced reformulation of 
an earlier proposal for partnership and a discussion of all issues in 
contention. To interpret the 2003 episode as a signal that “pressure 
works”, and that more pressure on Iran will yield these and further 
concessions, may lead to a catastrophic error of policy.

The US swing towards a Manichaean vision of pro-western moderation 
versus Islamist extremism has taken regional polarisation well beyond 
Ben-Gurion’s more modest objective of creating a balance of forces and 
deterrence. In their aim to break the resistance throughout the Muslim 
world to a secular, liberal vision for the future, the US and its 
European allies have instead provoked mass mobilisation against their 
own project, as well as radicalisation and hostility to the West.

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