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Opinion | It Is Time for Iran and Israel to Reassess Their Mutual Hostility

by NAVID HASSIBI

30 Jun 2012 11:07Comments

Benefits for two sides with much in common.

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Navid Hassibi is pursuing his doctoral studies in political science with a focus on U.S. nuclear weapons policy under the Obama administration.
[ opinion ] The Iranian and Israeli governments ought to seriously consider reassessing their hostility toward one another and forecast the benefits of rapprochement. Weekly warnings from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials in Tel Aviv that Israel may carry out a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities make it easy to forget that these present-day rivals once enjoyed a strategic working relationship. During much of the Shah's era and in the first decade or so of the Islamic Republic, there was mutually beneficial cooperation in areas such as intelligence and arms; energy, including the Israeli importation of Iranian oil; and response to common threats such as the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and pan-Arabism. Israel provided material support to Iran during the war with Iraq in the 1980s, not least through channels associated with the Iran-Contra affair.

Though Iran and Israel are now bitter enemies, the tension between them is relatively recent and stems from a split in geostrategic interests between Tehran and Tel Aviv in the early 1990s. This indicates that if the regional political and strategic conditions are right, as they were in the not too distant past, it may be possible for Iran and Israel to align interests, or at the very least, realize the dividends reduced mutual hostility could bring to their respective long-term national interests. The intent of the present piece is to spark debate on this issue and to highlight how an appreciation of history can help us avoid an Iranian-Israeli war.

A rapprochement's most obvious dividend would be the reduction in the threat that each nation poses to the other. Any dialogue in pursuit of this crucial bilateral interest may have to take place unofficially and behind the scenes, much as was the case in the 1980s, since Iran does not officially recognize Israel and factions on both sides are sure to oppose any form of communication.

For Iran, it can be argued that its geopolitical rivalry with Saudi Arabia is greater than the one with Israel. The opposite was true in the early 1990s, when Iran's strategic working relationship with Israel ground to a halt in the same period that Iran and Saudi Arabia were working to reconcile their differences in the aftermath of the latter's support for Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War. Despite occasional attempts at forging an entente, recent developments in the Middle East highlight the enmity that shadows Iranian-Saudi relations, which can be traced back as far as the Arab invasion of Persia over a millennium ago.

From Tehran's point of view, Saudi Arabia is steadfastly opposing its regional interests, most visibly in Iraq (through sectarian support of Sunnis), Bahrain (through troop assistance to help suppress a popular Shia uprising), and Syria (through financial and material backing of forces opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad). The Saudis have also been supporting the United Arab Emirates' claim to the Iranian-administered Lesser and Greater Tunb and Abu Musa islands in the Persian Gulf and expressing interest in establishing a political union with Bahrain (historically claimed by Iran) to repel the "Iranian threat." As OPEC's leading exporter, Saudi Arabia also possesses a more influential voice than Iran in the oil cartel. The Saudis have threatened multiple times to saturate oil markets to damage the Iranian economy and to make up for the Iranian crude exports that have been blocked by U.S. and impending E.U. sanctions. Finally, Saudi Arabia, which recently signed a record $30 billion procurement deal for F-15 fighter jets, is a major recipient of U.S. materiel, making it a potential military threat to the Islamic Republic.

By resuscitating the working relationship with Israel, Iran can shift its focus where it truly matters, onto its own backyard in the Persian Gulf, without having to fear imminent Israeli military action. This could provide Tehran the political and diplomatic leverage needed to effectively address its Saudi rival, while chiseling away at the image of a common threat that now unites Saudi-Israeli interests. The Saudis and Israelis have less in common than do Iranians and Israelis, who share much in the way of culture, society, and history, who are linked through Iranian-Israeli Jewry, and who both have vibrant indigenous scientific and technological industries. And though there is no guarantee, any form of Iranian-Israeli relationship might positively impact Iranian-U.S. interactions by association.

In Israel's case, it can benefit from a strategic working relationship with Iran in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which has brought uncertainties to its doorstep, especially in Egypt and Syria. In Egypt, anti-Israeli Islamists are well-positioned to influence the future of Egyptian foreign policy, and the upheaval in Syria is threatening to spill over into Lebanon, Israel's northern neighbor. And then there are the enduring tensions with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories. A resurrected strategic working relationship with Iran, however limited, could serve to hedge against the uncertainties posed by these security challenges and facilitate future constructive engagement between these entities and Israel.

The Islamic Republic's anti-Zionist zeal, though founded in its core revolutionary ideology, is primarily a political tool used by the regime to rally domestic support and build popularity abroad among the Arab and Muslim masses. As demonstrated by America's missed opportunity in 2003, when it spurned a "grand bargain" sanctioned by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei under which Iran would have accepted a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Islamic Republic's anti-Israeli behavior can be mitigated for greater strategic gains. It is also important to bear in mind that the Israeli and Iranian people have no real quarrel with each other: Iran has the largest Jewish community in the region outside of Israel and there are over 200,000 Iranian Jews currently residing in Israel; there is also a long history of Persian-Judeo friendship and cooperation dating back 2,500 years.

Although Iranian and Israeli strategic interests don't align as they once did, resurrecting a strategic working relationship would provide dividends to both parties, some of which have been described above. In the long-term interest of their respective national securities, Tehran and Tel Aviv must recognize the tenets that made possible a sustained bilateral relationship in the past and ought to seriously consider adjusting their foreign policies along those lines. Many may choose to believe that proposing such a reversal is simply out of touch with reality, but the aim of this opinion piece is to provoke thought and discussion of the possibility that what once was old can be new again.

The opinions expressed are the author's own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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