The rhetoric of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with regards to "removal of the cancerous tumor of Israel through the upcoming wave of Palestinian resistance" was nothing new for the Iranian public. True, there had been far less of that rhetoric during the Khatami years, and there had been reconciliatory tones in the Iran-based Hebrew language radio "Voice of David" (which the Iranian public is faintly aware of and doesn't understand anyway). But for many of us who grew up in Iran, burning flags of Israel, repeated clips of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms of Palestinian stone throwers during the first Intifada and the beating of veiled Palestinian women who protest at army checkpoints are familiar sights. As young school children in the 1980s and 1990s, those of us old enough had to walk over Israeli flags in our schoolyards and shouted "Death to Israel" (along with the U.S., previously also Soviet Union, the infidel Saddam Hussein, sometimes Britain, sometimes France, and maybe even Saudi Arabia once or twice) before starting class every morning.
I don't want to go into the motives behind the recent statements. Briefly they could include basic stupidity, sheer diplomatic ineptness, genuine ideological belief or an intentional desire to radicalize Iran's foreign policy discourse, which had been relatively rational over the past decade or so. Of course whatever it is, it has totally ruined whatever Iran may have achieved in its nuclear negotiations to date, since it makes it hard for the international community to accept that a country intent on wiping out another could be merely after a civilian nuclear program.
What I would like to address in this posting is to open up the discussion on Iran's relationship with Israel from an Iranian national interest perspective.
Background on Iran-Israel relations
Prior to the Iranian revolution, Iran and Israel were political and military allies both assisting the United States in policing the neighborhood in different ways. It is widely believed that Israel helped train Iran's intelligence apparatus (the SAVAK) in creating better networks for fighting Iranian Marxist guerillas (rumor has it this even continued for some time after the revolution for the newly created SAVAMA). On the civilian side, Israeli scientists, engineers and businessmen interacted with their Iranian counterparts extensively. The friendly relations between the governments however did not necessarily translate into good relations between the two peoples. In fact the Shah's support of Israel may have been one of the major factors leading to his demise. The opposition to Israel in Iran existed both in secular and religious elements, primarily focusing on the issue of Palestinian rights. While on behalf of the religious populace this may have had to do with the fact that the Palestinians were fellow Muslims, for many of the secular people it was mostly the issue of justice or (for leftists) opposition to western colonialism and imperialism. This became evident after a friendly soccer match between Iran and Israel in which Iran's victory resulted in mass demonstrations in Tehran celebrating a symbolic victory and clashing with the police shouting anti-Israeli slogans.
At the beginning of the Iranian revolution, the Israeli embassy was given to the PLO (later transferred to Hamas, when the PLO fell out of favor). Yasser Arafat visited Ayatollah Khomeini, but lost his support when he took the side of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. The anti-Israeli tendencies were not merely an Islamist tendency but were also shared for different reasons by the liberals, nationalists and leftists. The MKO (Washington and EUs current favorite opposition group), an Islamic-Marxist organization, even adopted the music of the Palestinian national anthem for one of its revolutionary songs in Persian.
With the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, Israel became the only hidden supplier of arms to Iran. At that time Israel saw Iraq as the main threat and deemed it best to have Iran and Iraq exhaust each other militarily. Iran, while publicly denouncing Israel, would purchase U.S. made weapons from Israel at higher costs and deliver oil to unmarked Israeli tankers in high seas. By the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Israel started to change its approach and started to consider Iran a major threat to its existence.
The rest is recent history and probably fresh in everyone's mind. The Iranian government has used Israel as the boogieman, that the Iranian people need to be protected from and legitimized its existence strongly through this imagery. The Israeli right wing has benefited from Iranian public statements to justify a more militaristic society. The issues of Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah and Israel's nuclear weapons have put the two countries in a continuous verbal and political war, in which the Iranian Jewish population has sometimes been the victim. While Israel has been more successful in undermining Iran's interests through extensive internal lobbying and legal cases, Iran has also periodically made it difficult for Israel through playing the card of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Additionally, it is important to note that at this point the tension in Iran-U.S. relations are not independent of Iran-Israeli relations.
Iran and Israel do not have a common border. This removes many of the potential contention points that many neighboring countries can have, including territorial disputes, water issues, support of ethnic separatist movements etc. Regardless of the current regime, essentially two main contentions exist between Iran and Israel: The Palestinian issue, and Regional Rivalry.
a) The Palestinian Issue
The Palestinian problem has been used time and time again by the Islamic Republic to justify its legitimacy. It is doubtful that the Iranian leadership really cares about the solution of the Palestinian problem, since it would diminish its raison d'être. Of course the Iranian government is not an exception, given that the entire Arab leadership justifies its shortcomings by pointing to the Israeli threat.
On the other hand, the general view of the Iranian public vis-à-vis the Palestinians has changed to a certain extent within the 27 years after the Iranian revolution. While the majority of Iranians still sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians, many do not like Iran's involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the one hand, they remember Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. On the other hand there is the perception that the Iranian government spends more money on Palestinians than on the Iranian population, which is a somewhat distorted fact, but nevertheless often discussed in the public. The Persian Radio Israel has quite a few listeners in Iran, and many people are sympathetic to the Israelis merely due to the fact that the regime in Tehran tries so hard in their propaganda to demonize them.
Rising anti-Arab sentiments is also an emerging factor. There are (a minority of) young people who actively support Israel and despise the Palestinians. They believe that Iran and Israel should be allies to stand up against Arabs in the region.
Many of the resentments against Israel within the Iranian public may probably recede if the Palestinians and the Israelis reach agreements on the future of Palestine and Israel. But I would not be surprised if a residual resentment would remain within 10-15% of the population due to anti-Semitic (both with regards to Jews and Arabs) sentiments. Of course the actual prevalence of anti-Semitism in Iran has not been surveyed and it may be higher or lower than the estimate that I have just given.
b) Regional Rivalry and Balance of Power
While there is a strong focus on the Palestinian issue as the main contention point between Iran and Israel, the issue of regional rivalry receives little attention. On the one hand Israel wishes to remain the strongest military presence in the Middle East, both to ensure its survival in what it considers a hostile region and because of the entrenched belief that that it deserves superiority over neighbors that it has never considered as equals. Iran on the other hand has the "Persian Empire" disease. While not listed in medical reference books as an actual disease, it is an epidemic that has infected the majority of Iranians. At the most simple level, Iranians find it hard to swallow that while they were a global superpower at one time in history (1500-2500 years ago), they are currently a nation that has fallen from greatness. This fall from grace that has been extensively lamented in Iranian poetry, music and literature has created a strong desire to be counted again. Therefore, regardless of the regime in power, Iranians have always tried to be a regional power. And they would never accept a position second to Israel or any other nation for that matter. Hence the desire to have nuclear technology, both in the previous regime and in the current one.
In fact most analysts agree that despite the rhetoric of wiping out Israel, the Islamic Republic would never endanger its own survival. Being taken serious as a regional player is the main aim of the Iranian nuclear program.
In addition to the contention points, Israel and Iran have common interests as well.
From a geopolitical perspective, both Iran and Israel have few friends in a region dominated by Arab nations. Additionally, a thaw in their relations would reduce security threats to their respective nations dramatically. Of course the close relationship of the United States and Israel is another geopolitical factor that affects Iran's interests.
From an economic perspective, Iran and Israel have a lot of complementary products and services. Israel would be a perfect market for Iran's energy, chemical and petrochemical industries, its heavy machineries, textiles and minerals. On the other hand Israel's advanced agricultural engineering for semi-arid areas and some of its high tech industries could be a valuable asset to Iran's economy.
From a scientific perspective, cooperation between Iranian and Israeli scientists (along with Arab scientists hopefully) could help transform the Middle East into an emerging force for scientific research.
From a cultural perspective, Iran's Jewish population has a long history that goes back to the heydays of the Persian Empire. They could play a major role in acting as a bridge between the two nations.
And finally from an environmental perspective, the sustainable management of common resources in the region cannot be done without the participation of every country including Iran and Israel.
Relations with Israel
For far too long has Iran's national interest suffered because of its animosity towards Israel. An open minded look at the above points of contention and common interest would indicate that there is indeed a better potential for Iranian-Israeli relations than one would expect. Unlike other countries in the region, Iran has never been in direct conflict with Israel. This would preclude the notion that the establishment of ties to Israel and its recognition would be a sign of weakness of Iran. Of course, it is hard to imagine that relations could be normalized with the current regime in Iran.
The Palestinians really don't want Iranian involvement in their issues. They have made that clear in response to Ahmadinejad's comments. Instead of playing a destructive role, Iran could play a far more constructive role in ensuring that the rights of the Palestinian people are upheld. If every Iranian who cares about the plight of the Palestinian people would contribute $10 to the reconstruction of Palestine after a deal is reached between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Palestine would have the potential to be a flourishing state. If Iran had a diplomatic relationship with Israel and common economic interests it would be in a far better position to support the rights of Palestinians than it is currently doing.
In terms of regional power, the issue is more complicated. But one can assume that the normalization of ties between Iran and Israel there would be less sensitivity towards Iran's quest for regional power. Even if there is resistance, Iran will be in a more favorable position in pushing its agenda when compared to today's hostile environment.
The common interests speak for themselves. The implications are clear. It is in Iran's best interest (and by that I am referring to the country and not the government) to have ties with Israel. Nothing has ever been achieved through cutting diplomatic ties. Much of the disagreements between countries can be solved through dialogue, not the threat of military action.
What is amazing is the lack of an open discussion on this issue both within and outside Iran. I hope this posting can bring on rational discussions both opposing and supporting the above arguments in a manner that helps all of us map the different considerations in this pivotal issue.