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