by Mansour Farhang
The enmity between Iran and Israel has become a given of political life in the Middle East. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, condemned Israel as an “enemy of Islam” while his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, has called Israel a “cancerous tumor” that should be removed from the region. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the ayatollahs matched their bluntness: “The year is 1938, Iran is Germany.”
Ironically, although Tehran and Tel Aviv share some interests in the region, the hostile narrative of each side serves the short-term objectives of the other side’s dominant political forces. Many Iranians, like others across the world, are critical of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, but they are by no means resentful of the Jewish state or question its legitimacy. Iran’s hostility toward Israel has nothing to do with the country’s public opinion or national interest. It can only be understood as the choice of rulers who want to use confrontation with the Jewish state as a tool to pursue their ideological and hegemonic ambitions in the region.
Given the widespread public resentment toward Israel in Arab countries, Iran’s rhetorical denunciation of Israel is intended to distract attention from the Shi’a-Sunni schism and win support from the Arab street. According to survey research, 80 percent of Palestinians believe that Palestine is no longer a primary concern of Arab governments. Iran wants to persuade the Palestinians, and the Arab public in general, that it can champion the Palestinian cause. In a broader sense, Iran wants to transform the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into a confrontation between Israel and Islam. The anti-Israeli propaganda is designed to hide the problem of a Shi’a theocracy claiming to represent Islam in a largely Sunni Muslim world.
After the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the mayor of Tehran named a major street in the city after the assassin, Khalid Al-Islambouli. Yasser Arafat was the only Arab leader Ayatollah Khomeini was willing to meet. But once he began peace talks with Israel, Iranian leaders condemned him as traitor to Islam. When the “Arab Spring” began, Iran called it the “Islamic Awakening” and claimed that the Iranian revolution had inspired the popular uprisings. Even though the demonstrators across the Arab world directed their anger at their own autocratic rulers, Tehran’s publicists described the events as a popular Islamist movement against Israel and the United States, and they condemned the failure of Arab leaders to challenge Israel.
Iran’s foreign policy over the past 37 years reveals that although the country has religious/ideological as well as nationalist ambitions, it is first and foremost concerned with its own survival and its ability to control the society. During this period, Iran has committed terrorist acts against its own dissident citizens living abroad. It has also assisted a number of terrorist groups in Arab countries. But Iran has never militarily attacked or threatened to attack another country. Ayatollah Khomeini likened his acceptance of the ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war to drinking poison because the decision was necessitated by the likelihood of defeat in the war and fear of regime instability. The same is true of Iran’s acceptance of the nuclear agreement. Iran lacks the capacity to challenge Israel’s powerful and technologically sophisticated military. Yet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies find it in their political interest to portray Iran as the most serious threat to Israel’s security, just as Iran views Israel as an instrumentally useful target of its propaganda.
Given the Jewish people’s memory of discrimination, expulsion, inquisition and Holocaust, it is easy to see how right-wing forces in Israel can use Iran’s bellicose rhetoric to make Israeli voters feel insecure. Ironically, this is exactly what the Iranian theocrats want because it helps them to claim importance as a player in regional politics. There are many Israeli security experts and area specialists who do not see Iran as an urgent threat to their country, but they have little impact on public opinion. In contrast, echoing Iran’s rhetoric in an alarmist manner makes people fearful, a condition that generally benefits right-wing candidates in elections.
Netanyahu is a master of playing to this fear. He is Israel’s “scaremonger-in-chief,” a tactic that has served him well in his political career. After the demise of Saddam Hussein, he chose Iran’s Supreme Leader as his intimate enemy, and the ayatollahs could not have been more generous in providing him with ammunition. Iran and Israel were the only countries in the Middle East that celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist rule because it was a potential threat to both of them. Today, they have a common interest in defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). The organization threatens Iran’s interest in Iraq and Syria as well as posing a potential challenge to the country’s eastern and western borders. Likewise, the rise of IS in the Gaza Strip, the Sinai, and Syria has persuaded some Israeli analysts to prefer having the Assad regime in power because its collapse could transform Damascus into a jihadi launch pad against Israel.
Iran’s clerical rulers are pleased that the role they play in regional politics has become a major concern of world powers and a topic of daily media coverage. They claim that the protection or promotion of “truth Islam” is their primary goal, but they actually play conventional power politics and the dream of regional hegemony shapes their priorities. There is also a dose of Persian nationalist aspirations in their mindset. General Rahim Safavi, a military advisor to the Supreme Leader, has said: “In the course of its history, Iran’s influence has reached the shores of the Mediterranean sea three times. The first time was during the reign of Cyrus the Great (529-550 BC); the second time was under the reign of Xerxes (465 – 485 BC); and the third time is today.” Iran’s involvement in civil wars or conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen is supposed to prove General Safari’s contention.
The intimate component of enmity between Iran and Israel fits the surreal tragedy playing out in the current politics of the Middle East. As long as political elites in the region refuse to compromise and learn to live in an inclusive social order, their citizens will face war, violence, and oppression. A detente between Tel Aviv and Tehran is not in the cards in the foreseeable future. And peace between Israel and Palestine would deprive Iran’s theocrats of a propaganda line that resonates with the vast majority of people in the Arab world.
Mansour Farhang, a retired professor of international relations at Bennington College, was revolutionary Iran’s first ambassador to the United Nations but left Iran as a dissident in 1981.