Keeping their enemies closer: Inside Iran and Israel's fraught relationship and why it will never change

Published March 9th, 2014 - 01:00 GMT
The now infamous occasion on which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought a cartoon drawing of Iran's bomb to the UN assembly. (AFP/File)
The now infamous occasion on which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought a cartoon drawing of Iran's bomb to the UN assembly. (AFP/File)

Rounds of talks since last November between the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program have relatively quickly accustomed the world to regular discussions between Iranian and American officials.

However, the notion of Israeli and Iranian diplomats meeting has long seemed unthinkable. But there have been recent instances – whether or not related to the flurry of diplomacy since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addressed the U.N. in September – of Iranian and Israeli diplomats sitting in reasonable proximity, and these have been enough to set off speculation that a shift in relations may be in the offing.

In mid-January, Iran’s energy minister, Hamid Chitchian, attended a presentation by the Israeli water and energy minister, Silvan Shalom, during a conference on renewables in Abu Dhabi. At the Munich security conference early last month, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon sat in the front row for a panel discussion involving Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister.

Distancing the Rouhani government from Iran’s previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Zarif has at least twice acknowledged the reality of the Jewish Holocaust. This was a significant move, although unsurprising as pragmatists and reformists in Iran expressed distaste at Ahmadinejad’s 2006 Holocaust conference in Tehran, attended by prominent Holocaust deniers from Europe.

Could Iran go further, and could Israel react positively? There is a long-standing argument that enmity between the two states results from ideology rather than national interest. Trita Parsi, the Iranian born founder of the National American Iranian Council, is perhaps best known for this view, expressed especially in his 2007 book “Treacherous Alliance: the Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States.”

The story traditionally goes back to the decision of King Cyrus the Great (600-530 B.C.), recorded in the Biblical book of Ezra, to allow Jews exiled in Babylon to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.

In more recent times, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had extensive military and security cooperation with Israel. This was based on a perception that non-Arabs in the Middle East shared opposition to strong Arab states and to the Nasserite Arab nationalism growing from the 1950s.

But that was hardly the outlook of those behind the 1979 Islamic Revolution, whose leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini believed Islamic unity would supplant Arab nationalism. Khomeini compared Israel to a cancerous tumor and his first guest as the new ruler in Tehran was Yasser Arafat.

During the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, Iranian troops sometimes went into battle under banners proclaiming that the “road to Jerusalem” went through Karbala, the Iraqi city where Imam Hussein was martyred in 680 A.D. Khomeini portrayed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as hand in glove with Israel, and even accused him of luring the Israelis into bombing the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak in 1981 in order to “camouflage” their secret relationship.

The argument – employed by Parsi and others – that common geopolitical interests between Israel and Iran persisted after 1979 is best supported by Tel Aviv’s supply of weapons to the Islamic Republic during the Iraq war. And while the extent of the supply remains unclear, one estimate from Tel Aviv University has put sales as high as $500 million.

But that was a time when the Islamic Republic’s very survival appeared at risk, and Khomeini always flatly denied any dealings with Israel. This is important as deference to “the Imam” and regard for his words remain strong among all factions and officials in the Islamic Republic.

While Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, today’s “rahbar,” or leader, has said repeatedly that Iran’s policies toward the United States depend on Washington’s behavior – and found sufficient encouragement to support talks over Afghanistan, Iraq, and now the nuclear program – his speeches show implacable opposition to dealing with Israel.

Neither is there a practical incentive to moderate that stance. The Israeli government maintains a firm opposition to the November interim Geneva agreement between Iran and world powers, which accepted limited uranium enrichment in Iran.

And while there have been suggestions from some former U.S. officials – including former national security adviser Stephen Hadley and former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross – that the Israeli position may modify, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told President Barack Obama in this week’s visit to Washington that the only way to ensure Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons is to insist it suspend all uranium enrichment.

Netanyahu’s warmest reception in Washington will come with his address Tuesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is at odds with Obama over Iran and indeed intensifying its calls for tightening sanctions and demands that Tehran dismantle all its nuclear facilities.

In Tehran, while Rouhani has successfully mobilized support for the nuclear talks, talk of the “resistance front” uniting Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinians shows little sign of weakening as a consequence.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Khamenei, recently accused the U.S. and Iran of harboring plans to dismantle Syria. A piece by the commentator Sadollah Zarei in Kayhan, the leading conservative paper, suggested Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were all “victims of a joint conspiracy” hatched by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s rulers – like Israel’s – combine pragmatism with core beliefs and ideology. But on all these grounds, and even if relations with Washington improve, there is more than enough flammable material to keep animosity between Iran and Israel alive.

By Gareth Smyth 

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