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November 07, 2005

The Israeli Question from an Iranian National Interest Perspective
Guest Author: Omid Paydar

Introduction ahmadinejad.jpg

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.

Contention Points

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.

Common Interests

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.

Omid Paydar is an Iranian freelance researcher on Iranian and Middle Eastern affairs.
Winston at November 7, 2005 10:11 AM [permalink]:

well argued but it contains nothing important to mention!
a free Iran and a peaceful Israel will have to work together against dictatorships of the region.

Shahram at November 7, 2005 03:47 PM [permalink]:

Thank goodness that at last someone broke the silence on Freethoughts!

And as to the previous comment, by Winston:

Come on Winston! The writer has not dealt with the details of weapon deals between Iran and Israel in the 1980s. A twisted story for which we know more and more...realism, and balance of power.....

Trita Parsi at November 8, 2005 12:27 AM [permalink]:

Dear Omid,
Very good article. The state of Israeli-Iranian relations certainly is sad. However, I think you are mistaken when it comes to the nature of their relationship from a geo-political perspective. It's not the number of friends that matter, but the amount of power states can accumulate internally or via alliances. So mindful of the distribution of capabilities in the region, from a geo-political perspective, an alliance between the two makes little sense, even if the nature of the regime in Iran changes.

For more details on this, please see some of my articles on Iran-Israli relations:

"Israeli-Iranian Relations 1979-2005," Encyclopedia Iranica, Fascicle 6, volume XIII, December 2005.

"The geo-strategic roots of the Israeli-Iranian enmity," Heartland - Eurasian Review of Geopolitics, No 4, November 2005.

"Israel and Iran's Arab Option - Dissection of a Strategy Misunderstood," Middle East and Central Asia Conference 2005, University of Utah.

"Israel-Iranian Relations Assessed: Strategic Competition form the Power Cycle Perspective," Iranian Studies, volume 38, number 2, June 2005.

Who Lost Iran? Jerusalem Post, July 28, 2005.

Wither the Persian-Jewish alliance?, December 16, 2004.

An Iranian Student (AIS) at November 9, 2005 12:34 AM [permalink]:

A very good article. To the point and accurate.
Good job Omid.

(...and the biased funny stuff from certain infamous lobbyists of the mullahs fascistic theocracy-who keep repeating it in different styles as their evidently only intellectual "contribution" ever once in a while- is of little relevance anyway. Once the regime slipps towards the dustbin (it will happen one day anyway sooner or later) it is going to drag its "extensions" and "enthusiasts" with it into oblivion.)

Canada guy at November 10, 2005 03:19 PM [permalink]:

I like this website. It's really interesting to hear the opinions of Iranians, that is, not the ones screaming "Death to America." I was wondering if "An Iranian Student AIS" has his or her own blog. If so, I would be interesting in reading it. If not, I think "An Iranian Student" should start one.

CoOp at November 10, 2005 06:17 PM [permalink]:

A good read, however many of the background information you've given is based on rumour and words in the street, rather than well-documented evidences. still fair enough.

Also, you forgot to mention a potential point in Iran-Israeli relationship: many high ranking Israeli politicians are of Iranian origin, have lived in Iran for a few years and some speak Persian fluently.

On the other hand, strategic issues aside, the 'moral' problem behind the very creation of the state Israel, the massacres, and all the bloodshed and occupation remin unsolved. What Israel has done in the past 50 years is something the world will not accept normally. If it wasn't for America's huge support, Israel could have never made it to the 21st century. Is Israel an exception? What if (hypothetically) Azerbaijan decides to invade northern Iran to reclaim parts of their holy motherland? What if some rightwing gov in Israel decides to expand its territory? After all they have done that before, they have skipped UN sanctions through vetos, and they have the biggest collection of nukes in this region. The question is how can you trust a country with such a background?

An Iranian Student (AIS) at November 11, 2005 03:45 AM [permalink]:

Canada guy,

I have been thinking about doing that for some time now. One of the issues was choosing the language, whether to write in English or Persian. Recently I have found this wonderful blog Zane Irani (I recommend you read it as well) which actually posts in both languages depending on the subject. So simple! and yet I hadn't thought about it. :-P
So I'll probably start writing one sometime soon.

Anyway, Thanks for the comment.

Pouria at November 12, 2005 01:48 AM [permalink]:

Good article Omid.
A couple years ago, Shahram refered to me an article regarding the Iranian-Israeli relations under Mohammad Pahlavi. one of the main points of the article was that while the Shah's regime was initially close to Israel, towards the end of his rule he started to distance Iran from Israel at least publicly. Reason being that Iran could only play regional power with the consensus of the Arabs and this would hardly be possible while maintaing an alliance, of any sort, with Israel.
I think this still applies to a great extent today. Should there be friendly relations with Israel in the near future, it must not be too overt, in part because it would not be good politics to antagonize the Arabs (that is, if Iran is trying to play the role of a regional leader) and also in part due to negative public reaction in Iran. Having said that, I think it is fairly obvious that in the long term the Arabs pose a potential threat to Iranian and Israeli security (according to some, Eastern and Western Zionists respectively) and there should be mutual cooperation between the two states with regard to this threat.

self at November 24, 2005 04:49 AM [permalink]:

Trita parsi is known to every one of us. he works for the Mullahs in NIAC.

Omid Paydar at November 26, 2005 12:18 PM [permalink]:

A few responses to the kind people who gave comments on my article:

@Trita: I did not specify what for or shape such a strategic alliance would take. Of course there would be no use having an alliance that would undermine Iranian national interests rather than furthering it. What I was emphasizing was the issue that with the unlikelihood of Iran's integration into the Arab block (due to both Iranian anti-Arab sentiments and the Arab anti-ajam sentiments), Iran has few options in the region other than Turkey and Israel (and perhaps the central Asian states which are not regional powers). I will definitely read your articles, since I am interested to understand other people's perspectives.

@Coop: The creation of the state of Israel happened under far from perfect circumstances that emerged out of WWII and the Jewish trauma with the holocaust. The blame is to be shared (i'll leave it to you to weigh who gets how much) between the Zionist movement (which committed many atrocities through the Hagana), the British (who promised the same lands to different people at the same time), the Arab states (who couldn't care less about the Palestinian people and saw their own interests challenged) and the Palestinian people themselves (who acitvely sold much of their lands at fair prices to the Jewish immigrants in the years preceding Israel's establishment). I would never negate the plight of the Palestinian people. But I fail to see how the lack of recognition of Israel has provided or will provide them with a homeland or reduce their plight. What I would like to point out though is that very few Iranians have ever doubted that the U.S. should be recognized as a country, while it has been established based on a far more extensive genocide (more than a hundred times the magnitude) of native americans. There is a lot of injustice in the world, but the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to emotionally trump all of them for many iranian intellectuals.

@ Pouria: You are absolutely right. The pace of such a rapproachment would have to be quite gradual. And there is no need to go all the way to best friends. What I am arguing is that there is no justification for Israel being Iran's nemesis (or for any other country for that matter).

Ron at December 4, 2005 09:48 PM [permalink]:

CoOp asks a very good question. Is Israel an exception?

My answer would be yes,it is. There is no precedent that I know of for a nation to have been conquered, exiled
only to reconquer their historical homeland 2500-2700 years later.

CoOp's last question, how can you trust a country with such a background is also a good question.

Israel can be trusted to act rationally and therefore predictably because it has in the past. Building a nuclear arsenal and "expanding" its
territory is entirely rational behaviour for a country which enemy tanks can roll across from end to end in 15 minutes.

However, if one begins with the premise that the creation of Israel is a moral problem, then Israel defending itself also becomes
a moral problem, because self-defence just sustains the original problem. So if you meant trust the country to do the right thing, then the
answer is no, because it's not going to un-create itself.

Ron at December 5, 2005 08:09 PM [permalink]:

So there's a joke in Israel:

Persian boy runs home after school, goes to his father and says, "Dad, you'll be so proud of me, I ran
behind the bus all the way home and saved 5 shekels."

The father shakes his head, "My foolish son, you didn't listen to a word I said, you should have run
behind a taxi and saved 25!"

Nice job, Omid. Many thanks for the article.

I think (hope) the IR regime's rhetoric is only talk with regards to "wiping Israel off the map."
They surely know that Israeli subs armed with nuclear missiles are, more likely than not, somewhere near Iran as I type and
could do a pretty good job wiping Iran off the map if it comes down to it.

But I'm still not optimistic that this will end peacefully. While a nuclear strike seems unlikely, a conventional war would kill
a lot of people on both sides. But it seems equally unlikely that Iran will be ready to accept Israel's existence.
Let's pray that reason will prevail.

Winston at December 31, 2005 03:43 PM [permalink]:

this is a pro-Islamic regime web site?

Hey? at December 31, 2005 07:06 PM [permalink]:

What do you mean, Winston? Which web site? Why?

Stupidchurchil at December 31, 2005 11:28 PM [permalink]:


Yes it is. Your inifite wisdom of discerning this through all the articles posted here show the brilliance of your mind :) Keep it up and you may get somehwere. You seem to be the second John Nash :)Power to you man, power to you :)

IranianAmerican at July 20, 2006 10:07 PM [permalink]:

This is a good forum for people to voice their thoughts. The participants seem to be rather knowledgable on the issues and engage in intellectual discourse, which is not always true when it comes to students discussing politics in this region of the World.

Perhaps instead of indentifying ourselves so much with either Iran or Palestine/Israel, we should all celebrate our ability to be friends and pursue better lives in our current country (presumptively America for most of us).

That part of the world is very troubled and that is why we or our parents or grandparents left. Perhaps we should focus more on how both Muslim, Jew, Christian, Baha'i, Zorastrian, (excuse any other religion I left out), can just be friends here and share in business and cusine.

On a side note, one thing I've seen several Iranian-Americans do which we all should do is celebrate the religious activies of Iranian-Americans with religions different than yours. Go to your friends shabat dinner or bar mitzvah. Visit a mosque. In the end, we're 99.99% the same.