by Navid Hassibi
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chastised Iran in his annual address to the UN General Assembly last week, the region surrounding Israel continues to be embroiled in strife. Next door, the Assad regime along with anti-Assad rebels, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), and al-Qaeda affiliates are duking it out in a battle royal that is causing significant human suffering and that vitally threatens the stability of the region, not least of which Israeli and Iranian national security. US-led coalition forces and parallel action by the Russians and Iranians are working to counter this jihadi threat all the while supporting opposite sides in the Syrian civil conflict. Israel, for its part, seems to be oblivious to what is happening in its neighborhood and is continuing to make alarmist assertions about a historic nuclear pact that much of the world approves.
Instead, Tel Aviv should adjust its policy toward Tehran in the face of a common Sunni radical threat and the geopolitical changes in the region. Indeed, so too should Iran transform its relations with Israel. It’s not a far-fetched a détente as you might think.
Iran’s battle against jihadi groups has become a national security imperative shared by others in the region, including Israel. These groups presently threaten Iran on its eastern and western borders. The proximity of these threats to Iran’s borders and the risk Tehran’s closest allies in the region are facing has prompted Iran’s Quds Force to assist its friends in the efforts against al-Qaeda affiliates and IS in Iraq and Syria, tacitly cooperating with the United States in the former. Iran is also working with Russia by exchanging intelligence and is allegedly deploying troops to Syria where the Russians have begun air strikes. Among the reasons warranting the concern of Iranian decision-makers is the effect these groups may have on domestic Islamic militant groups such as Jundallah in Iran’s Balochistan.
Likewise, Israel is under increasing threat of growing extremism by fundamentalist Salafi fighters who despise Jews and Shiites alike. In light of the growing threat of IS in the Gaza Strip, the Sinai, and Syria, Israel faces jihadism at its doorstep, just like Iran does. In a strange twist of fate, an increasing number of Israelis have called for the Netanyahu government to support the secular Assad regime in Syria, which would essentially align it with Iran and Hezbollah, to prevent its collapse in fear that Damascus would become a jihadi launch pad against its western neighbor.
To be sure, reports indicate that global jihad movements are a top concern for Israeli security practitioners. Contrary to what Prime Minister Netanyahu would like everyone to believe, Iran is not even on the list of top concerns for the Israeli Defense Forces. More pragmatic elements of the Israeli government favor a nuclear deal with Iran. Against this backdrop, Iran’s rivalry with Israel becomes considerably less important. Even Hezbollah has shifted much of its attention to the battle against extremists in neighboring Syria. Israel, too, is increasingly preoccupied with addressing this dangerous threat.
From a geopolitical perspective, countering Saudi influence can and should incentivize Iran to recalculate its position toward Israel. Leaked Saudi diplomatic cables have confirmed the paranoia and hostility that Riyadh feels toward Tehran. Indeed, the bilateral relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has drastically deteriorated in the last few years, as evidenced by President Hassan Rouhani’s castigation of Riyadh at the UN General Assembly in the aftermath of the Hajj stampede. These tensions have formed the basis of a regional Cold War and proxy battle along political and sectarian lines in a region engulfed with turmoil and instability. Despite repeated Iranian overtures to the Kingdom since President Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 election, Riyadh has expressed little interest in resolving its differences with Tehran. Although Israeli-Saudi relations have noticeably improved as a result of their joint opposition to Iran, the relationship is an unnatural partnership that would fracture if the perceived Iranian threat diminished.
In this respect, Iran can chisel away at the sole issue bridging Israel and Saudi Arabia by engaging with Tel Aviv. To be sure, Israel and Saudi Arabia have less in common than do Israel and Iran, which share much in the way of history and culture, and are linked through Iranian-Israeli Jewry. In fact, Iran is home to the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel, and a sizable community of Israeli-Iranians lives in Israel.
For Israel, engagement with Iran could set the foundations for a lasting armistice with Hezbollah. Indeed, according to reports, the Israeli military views military confrontation with Hezbollah and Hamas as primary threats. Traditionally an arch foe of Israel, Hezbollah has shifted its focus to the broader war against IS for the moment. What the Israeli-Hezbollah skirmish earlier this year indicates, however, is that deeply rooted hostility and distrust between these two continues to exist. As such, Israel still views Hezbollah as a major national security concern through which Tehran wields a significant amount of influence.
The Israeli government has also been concerned about Iranian relations with Hamas, particularly because of Iran’s provision of military assistance and funds to the Palestinian group. In fact, a primary weapon of Hamas is the Fajr-5 missile, whose technology has been supplied by Iran and is now being produced locally. As major conflict erupts between Israel and Hamas every two years on average, it would be in Tel Aviv’s interest to starve Hamas of any support from Iran. Although Iranian support for the group has waned due to Hamas’ opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, Iran could increase funding of the group if it served its interests. Alternatively, given that Iran has cut off support to the group more than once, it would not hesitate to do so again if the threat of Israeli military action was reduced.
Once implementation of the nuclear agreement begins and if US cooperation with Iran on regional issues takes form—as it already seems to around Syria—the newfound US-Iran relationship may become a suitable vehicle to facilitate discussions between Tehran and Tel Aviv, even if in secret. Although Netanyahu has staunchly opposed Iran and the nuclear deal, his insistence that a nuclear deal include Iranian recognition of Israel suggests Tel Aviv’s willingness to live with a post-nuclear deal Iran under the right conditions. In its 2003 “grand bargain” proposal to the United States, Iran offered concessions that could satisfy Netanyahu. Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were closely linked with this proposal. That they are at the helm of Iran’s diplomatic rehabilitation could present unique opportunities for historic openings, as the nuclear negotiations have clearly demonstrated. To be sure, circumstances have changed in the region since 2003, but that does not necessarily negate the proposals in the “grand bargain” from becoming a reality over time, particularly now that a nuclear deal has been reached and as Iran cooperates with global powers in the battle against IS.
Although domestic political hurdles in both Iran and Israel continue to obstruct bilateral engagement, such obstacles can be overcome by keeping discussions a secret, akin to how the United States and Iran began secret nuclear discussions in 2012. Another tactic would be lobbying and advocacy in favor of such engagement in support of the national interest, which is what has happened in the United States and Iran with regards to the nuclear deal, essentially overcoming political taboos. To be sure, political willpower will be an essential driver to overcome what is presently seen as insurmountable. Prime Minister Netanyahu has centered much of his political career on fear-mongering about Iran. In Iran, the annual Quds (Jerusalem) Day highlights the institutionalized nature of the ruling establishment’s opposition toward Israel.
But a precedent exists for overcoming this enmity. These two arch-rivals have collaborated and engaged in the past, notably during the 1980s when Israel provided material support to the Islamic Republic during the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Sporadic engagement continued the following decade or so on issues such as agriculture, Israel’s petro-debt to Iran, and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the 2003 Bam earthquake.
Despite the vitriol stemming from both capitals, the extremist threat is the appropriate issue to spark a strategic recalculation in Tehran and Tel Aviv, even if temporarily. Although the idea of Iranian-Israeli engagement may seem fantastical at the moment, the same factors that prompted the United States and Iran to try something new, dialogue and negotiation, can and should drive Iran and Israel to follow suit, particularly as jihadi groups continue to engulf the region in violence and chaos. If the United States and Iran can turn the page in their relationship, so too can Iran and Israel.
Navid Hassibi is a director with the Council on International Policy and is also a non-resident fellow with the DC-based Nuclear Security Working Group. He tweets @navidhassibi. The opinions here represent his own. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post.