A Better Israeli-Iranian Relationship

by Paul Pillar

via The National Interest

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview the other day, “Once the Palestinian problem is solved the conditions for an Iranian recognition of Israel will be possible.” Set aside for the moment the fact that Zarif was addressing only one-half of a process and left open the question of what it would take for an Israeli recognition of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which may be the more problematic part of the equation. Note how the mere possibility of the Islamic Republic recognizing the State of Israel is a universe apart from so much of what is continually said about Iran, especially said by the government of Israel. You know—all that rhetoric about how Iran is supposedly dedicated to the destruction of Israel and so forth.

They are a universe apart because the rhetoric is mistaken and Zarif’s comment is an unexceptional reflection of history and of actual Iranian interests. There should be nothing surprising about his remark, and nothing surprising about it while taking it as an honest and direct expression of Iranian intentions. Amid today’s rancor it is easy to forget the substantial history of Israeli-Iranian cooperation. That history included not only the time of the shah but also the early years of the Islamic republic, when Israel was providing logistical and training assistance to Iran and urging the United States to tilt toward Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.

A fundamental basis for cooperation back then, as it would be now and in the future, is the status of Israel and Iran (along with Turkey) as important non-Arab states in a predominantly Arab region. They share concerns about some of the same threats and adversaries, including some adversaries of the violent extremist sort. Being estranged from each other is a missed opportunity for Israel as well as for Iran. It represents part of the cost that Israel incurs as long as its government swears eternal hostility against Iran.

Two hurdles in particular need to be cleared to get any closer to an end to the estrangement. One is completion of a negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, partly because of how that issue has overshadowed everything else in many relationships with Iran. A nuclear deal would open the door to an improved U.S. relationship with Iran, and it is hard to imagine Israeli-Iranian relations getting ahead of U.S.-Iranian relations. It also is hard to imagine any Iranian leader moving toward normal relations with a government that is repeatedly threatening Iran with military attack.

The other hurdle is exactly the one Zarif identified: resolution of the Palestinian problem. As long as that problem is unresolved, any Iranian government will be quite vocal in criticizing Israel’s policies and its continued occupation. It will be so partly because of genuine sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians and partly because of how strongly the issue plays with Arab and Muslim audiences.

One might also think substantial improvement in Israeli-Iranian relations would also require substantial change in the government of Israel. But perhaps resolution of the Palestinian problem would presuppose such change anyway.

Maybe all of this is a pipe dream as long as Israel has a government that doesn’t want anyone to have any sort of relationship with Iran. Right now we have a sort of perverse symmetry: an Iranian leader says solving the Palestinian problem will lead to improved relations with Iran, while Israeli leaders promote awful relations with Iran partly to take attention away from the unsolved Palestinian problem.

Guest Contributor

Articles by guest writers.



  1. Wiser Israelis, including allegedly more than 100,000 Israelis of Iranian decent who have strong feelings of affinity to a country that many Jews have called home for over 2500 years, want to have better relations with Iran. They also know that any rapprochement between Iran and the United States would help Iranian-Israeli relations. The problem is not between Jews and Iranians, but between a group of rightwing Israeli politicians and their even more fanatical supporters in the United States who wish to demonize Iran in order to divert attention from the continued occupation of Palestinians lands, and a group of rightwing clerics in Iran who wrongly assume that their anti-Jewish rhetoric buys them time at home and improves their credentials among some Arabs.

    The key to peace in the Middle East is to persuade both groups that they are wrong and that improved relations will benefit them, as well as the cause of peace in the region as a whole.

  2. Resolving the issues, Iranian Nuclear, the Palestinian issue, will leave Israel with no boogyman to blame and point their fingers at. Israel will also have to get rid of the “Poor Me” attitude toward the World. It would also help if Israel was made to give up its WMDs too. When a country believes that it can only exist because of having the only “Big Gun” in the neighborhood, prevents true recognition that they supposedly demand.

    The U.S. also needs to stop preventing the Palestinians from achieving state hood @ the United Nations, as well as cutting the umbilical cord as Israels military backup/protector. Perhaps this may just be in the works, as we move forward in settling the Iranian Nuclear issue.

    Interesting that the author points out that Israel gave logistical and training assistance to Iran, urging the U.S. to do so during the Iran/Iraq war. That was during the Regan administration, when the neocons were in bloom. How times have changed.

    To sum it up, the “Bull in the China Shop”, Israel, needs to change too. But I’m afraid that might be like pulling teeth out of “big white Shark”.

  3. Excellent points. Also, as Gareth Porter’s book “Manufactured Crisis…” recounts, Israeli policy toward Iran, including that of Netanyahu, has vacillated, and at times tilted toward Iran, e.g., when Iraq was perceived as Israel’s greatest threat. So, if history is any guide, there should be nothing totemic about treating Iran as an enemy. Israel may perceive Iran as a ‘threat’, but it is not a military threat, it is an economic and geopolitical threat where as a competitor it is seen as potentially frustrating or obstructing Israel’s territorial ambitions with its neighbors- e.g., Syria- and its economic opportunities in the marketplace- e.g. Israel’s program for the sale of natural gas from its offshore wells to Europe. It is also a ‘threat’ because of Iran’s support of the Palestinian position, which is not only informed by the injustices suffered by the Palestinians- something to which it can relate, and that up to now Israel has refused to acknowledge or correct- but also Israel’s unwillingness to share Jerusalem (which, is, after all, a holy city not only for Jews, but also Muslims and Christians). Notwithstanding the present lobbies and alliances that have frustrated a solution to these problems, if at some point they are solved, and the respective parties began to cooperate, it would yield huge regional benefits.

  4. Why is what came from Iran misquoted? It was never said a thing about Israel to be wiped off the map.
    A simple Web search for the speech in question will show that former President Mahmound Ahmadinejad actually said: “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” Another example of spreading falsehood to get the US to get us in a war as they did in Iraq.

Comments are closed.