[Marxism] Hints of Israel-Iran thaw driven by shared geo-strategic concerns

Michael Karadjis mkaradjis at gmail.com
Thu Feb 20 06:31:10 MST 2014

Why can't Iran and Israel be friends?
Small gestures could make a big difference, with adversaries having many 
shared interests in the region - analysis

Thursday 20 February 2014 20.18 EST

Israel supported the Islamic republic with arms during its war with 
Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Navid Hassibi for the Tehran Bureau

Thursday 20 February 2014 20.18 EST

There has been much talk this month about subtle Iranian-Israeli 
overtures, sparking speculations in policy circles about the possibility 
of a thaw in relations between Tehran and Tel Aviv. While these 
speculations are premature and flirt with wishful thinking, it makes 
geostrategic sense for the two adversaries to set aside their mutual 
hostility to address common concerns in the Middle East.
It all began in Abu Dhabi in mid-January at the International Renewable 
Energy Agency’s annual assembly, which included delegations from Iran 
and Israel led by their respective energy ministers. While Arab states 
that regularly, if unofficially, interact with Israel such as Kuwait 
boycotted the assembly due to their official Israeli non-recognition, 
Iran attended, and energy minister Hamid Chitchian even remained at the 
table when his Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom, spoke. As Middle 
Eastern affairs expert Meir Javedanfar noted, “No Iranian delegate would 
dare take such a risk without clearance from the very top.”
The favour may have been returned at the Munich security conference in 
early February when Israel’s defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, remained 
in his seat to listen to foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran. 
This was in stark contrast to the United Nations general assembly last 
September, when the Iranian and Israeli delegations boycotted each other’s 
speeches. The day after the security meeting ended, Zarif gave an 
interview to a German broadcaster in which he acknowledged the Holocaust 
and described it as a “horrifying tragedy.” (President Hassan Rouhani 
had similarly condemned the Nazi genocide of European Jews while in New 
York for the general assembly.) Zarif added that if the 
Palestinian-Israeli issue were to be resolved, Iran would consider 
recognising Israel. Apparently under pressure from hardliners back home, 
he later claimed that his comments had been distorted.
These gestures come as Iran has been redefining its international image 
after years of incendiary anti-Israeli rhetoric from the Ahmadinejad 
administration. In September, Rouhani and Zarif wished Jews around the 
world a happy Rosh Hashanah, and earlier this month the Iranian 
government made a gift worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to a Jewish 
hospital in Tehran.
An Iranian-Israeli rapprochement is not unprecedented. During the shah’s 
reign, the two countries enjoyed a geostrategic working relationship 
involving intelligence and security cooperation, an energy alliance – 
including the Israeli import of Iranian oil – and common positions on 
the threats posed by the Soviet Union and pan-Arabism. Hard as it is to 
imagine, revolutionary Iran continued to cooperate with Israel during 
much of the 1980s and 1990s despite the mutually bellicose rhetoric out 
of Tehran and Tel Aviv. Israel supported the Islamic republic with arms 
during its war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
In the late 1990s, a group of Israeli agricultural experts reportedly 
visited Iran for a secret meeting with its deputy minister of 
agriculture. Around this time, the two countries also allegedly began to 
renegotiate Israel’s $1 billion debt to Iran. Tehran even allowed 
Israeli experts to visit areas damaged by the 2003 earthquake in Bam, as 
much of the infrastructure there was built by Israeli firms before the 
Islamic revolution.
Clearly, there is a track record of Iranian-Israeli cooperation 
regardless of the politics and rhetoric that have weighed against it. 
Although Binyamin Netanyahu has been vociferous in addressing the 
perceived Iranian threat to Israel, during his first term as prime 
minister in the late 1990s he evidently sent signals that he was 
interested in dialogue with Tehran. Likewise, in 2003, Iranian supreme 
leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved an intended grand bargain with 
the US – rebuffed by the Bush administration – under which Iran would 
have recognised a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
The geostrategic setting in the Middle East is once again favourable to 
an Iranian-Israeli rapprochement, whether overt or sub rosa. In 
contrast, the turmoil in Syria and the proxy battle with Saudi Arabia 
highlights the deep enmity between Tehran and its longstanding rival, 
Riyadh. This has been highlighted by former US ambassador Frederic Hof, 
who recently revealed that Iranian officials told him that Iran was not 
in conflict with the United States or Israel but rather sees Saudi 
Arabia as its main adversary. Tehran has thus been seeking to counter 
Saudi influence in the region by repairing relationships that have 
deteriorated over the years, such as the one with Turkey, which feels 
similarly threatened by growing regional sectarianism. Also working to 
repair its ties with the United Arab Emirates, Iran is purportedly 
negotiating a solution to long-running disputes over a group of small 
islands in the Persian Gulf.
Compounded by Iran’s already close ties with Iraq and Oman, Saudi Arabia 
is being diplomatically out maneuvered and encircled by the Islamic 
republic. Even the November nuclear deal in Geneva with the so-called 
P5+1 can be seen as enhancing Iran’s regional status to the detriment of 
Saudi Arabia, which has threatened to distance itself from the United 
States over the apparent Washington-Tehran thaw. By reestablishing 
strategic cooperation with Israel, Iran can refocus its attention closer 
to home without fearing imminent Israeli military action and can carve 
away at the sole major issue bridging Israel and Saudi Arabia, the 
perceived Iranian threat.
As I have argued previously, Saudi Arabia and Israel have less in common 
than do Iran and Israel, which share much in the way of culture and 
history, and are linked through Iranian-Israeli Jewry. In fact, Iran is 
home to the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel 
and there are believed to be more 200,000 Iranian Jews presently living 
in Israel.
In Israel’s case, it can benefit from cooperation with Iran, 
particularly as the region is under threat of growing extremism by 
fundamentalist Wahhabi fighters who despise Shiites and Jews alike. 
Furthermore, a détente with Tehran would likely remove the threat posed 
by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, which acts as a deterrent against 
possible Israeli military action on Iran, much like Israel’s nuclear 
submarines act as a deterrent against Iran in the Persian Gulf. It could 
also positively affect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and hedge against 
threats by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories.
Iran and Israel must seize the current opportunity, look beyond their 
political differences and let their national interests guide them to 
deal together with shared regional concerns. The two have cooperated in 
the past, and the time is right for them to do so once again.
Navid Hassibi is a visiting scholar with the Institute for Security and 
Conflict Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of 
International Affairs. The views expressed are the author’s own 

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