by Eldar Mamedov
As Iran watchers in Washington brace for a more hawkish new US administration, the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a conference on October 31 on a subject that continues to bedevil US-Iran relations: the mutual security perceptions of Israel and Iran.
One of the main speakers at the conference—Israel’s foremost expert on Iran, David Menashri, of Tel-Aviv University—was very pessimistic about the Iranian-Israeli enmity ending as long as the current regime in Iran exists. For Menashri, the Islamic Republic lacks any incentives to improve relations with the Jewish state because Iran feels empowered after last year’s nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It has been steadily increasing its influence in the region to the extent that it now feels more powerful than at any time since the 1979 revolution.
Consequently, Menashri argued, Israel has to abandon any illusions about ever returning to its old “periphery strategy,” which consisted of creating a web of discreet diplomatic and intelligence relationships with an outer ring of non-Arab, moderate Middle Eastern states—hence the term “periphery”—to counter-balance the radical Arab core. Iran under the Shah was a key cog in this strategy, alongside Turkey and Ethiopia. Since the Iranian “periphery” is now radical and the Arab “core” has turned “moderate,” it makes sense for Israel to cultivate relations with Sunni Arab states, such as Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states, to counter Iran’s “radical” influence.
There is an element of rationality in this assessment. The official anti-Israeli Iranian rhetoric may have lost its intensity since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stepped down as president in 2013, but hostility toward Israel (as opposed to the Jewish people) is deeply ingrained in the very fabric of the Islamic Republic. Also, in a region beset with sectarian tensions, even limited Israeli-Arab reconciliation is surely a good thing, as is a rapprochement between Iran and Iraq. However, the current seemingly irreconcilable enmity between Iran and Israel can’t last indefinitely. In fact, there are abiding strategic interests for both sides to reach out.
Relations with Sunni States
From the Israeli perspective, the newly budding quasi-alliance with Sunni Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia may well prove to be short-lived. Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is experiencing a repression in the name of stability more severe than anything experienced under the Mubarak dictatorship. Despite al-Sisi’s best efforts, however, the regime has failed to stamp out resistance, including an armed uprising in Sinai. The lack of security deters badly needed foreign investment, and thus economic recovery, which in turn fuels further radicalization.
Moreover, al-Sisi´s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has convinced many Egyptian Islamists of the futility of seeking change by democratic means and increased the ranks of armed insurgency. If an alternative to Mubarak was the Muslim Brotherhood, an alternative to al-Sisi might well be something much nastier, along the lines of the so-called Islamic state (ISIS or IS). A hypothetical Islamist government in Egypt is likely to be much more hostile towards Israel than the Muslim Brotherhood ever was—for doctrinal as well as political reasons—since Israel is seen as supporting a brutal regime that kills and tortures Islamists.
Saudi Arabia, another putative quasi-ally, is entering uncharted waters. The stability of the kingdom can no longer be taken for granted. The slump in oil prices, an uncertain succession, and the military failures in Yemen would be challenges enough. But then there’s also the much-vaunted “radical reform” program “Vision-2030,” especially provisions encouraging the incorporation of women in labor market, which might disrupt the traditional social contract between the Al-Saud family and the population, and also undermine the position of the conservative Wahhabi clergy. And just like in Egypt, the most likely alternative to the current regime might be something even more regressive and violent.
Even when the international anti-IS coalition succeeds in eliminating the self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Raqqa, the ideology of Salafist jihadism that inspires IS will not disappear. IS feeds into Sunni Arab revanchism by capitalizing on a perceived Sunni loss of power and prestige to previously marginalized actors such as Kurds and Shiites. This fired-up jihadism will keep challenging “moderate” actors in the region, including Jordan—another Israeli partner, which, incidentally, is also one of the largest sources of IS fighters.
Salafist jihadists seem presently focused on Shiite “apostates,” and Israel has so far been spared the attacks by IS and al-Qaeda. But Israelis should not underestimate the threat of Salafist jihadism. Although Israel is capable of dealing with this threat, the disintegration of more Arab states and the surge of jihadis in the resulting power vacuum will create massive instability that will inevitably affect Israel. And even if IS or its surrogates are ultimately defeated, pervasive anti-Semitism in the Arab world—unlike in Iran, where the Jewish community, although discriminated against, has its religious rights and political representation enshrined in the constitution—will make any alliance with the Sunni Arab states at best a short-term and inherently unstable tactical arrangement. In this context, a far-sighted Israeli policy would be to take advantage of the West’s renewed dialogue with Iran to foster the moderation of Tehran´s positions towards Israel, rather than bandwagoning with the Saudis in trying to undermine it.
From the Iranian perspective, enmity toward Israel makes little practical sense, apart from maintaining the few highly visible symbols of the revolution—another being a compulsory hijab. Courting the so-called “Arab street” turned into a failure once Iran threw its weight behind the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Even Hamas, once supported by Iran, has turned to Saudi Arabia as its main sponsor. Trying to regain the sympathies of the Arabs by denouncing the Saudi rapprochement with the “Zionist entity” is not likely to succeed either: the deep-seated Arab rejection of Shiite Persians, strengthened by the ascendancy of Salafist ideology, makes it extremely unlikely.
So, although the gains are ephemeral, Iran pays a real price for the anti-Israeli rhetoric of some of its high-ranking officials in terms of its relations with the West, and not only in Washington, but also in European capitals. While the EU is trying to capitalize on the JCPOA, German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said that the recognition of Israel is a precondition for a full normalization of ties with Germany. Iranians could rightly retort that Israel has repeatedly threatened military action against Iran, in violation of international law. But the hard reality is that for the foreseeable future Israel will be a factor in the formulation of the Western policies towards Iran, albeit to different degrees in US and the EU. It is in Iran’s national interest to acknowledge this reality.
Obviously, decades of cold war between Iran and Israel have ensured a deeply ingrained hostility between the sides. But it’s time for political realism on both sides to prevail and start putting out feelers for the potential normalization of relations.
Photo: David Menashri
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.