Imagined affinities, imagined enmities: The strange tale of Iran and Israel
The early Zionists never believed they would be accepted in the Arab world and pinned their hopes on the non-Arab periphery instead, particularly Iran. Israel reversed that policy by opening talks with a weakened Arafat in the early 1990s. But peace with the Palestinians did not happen and the ‘radicals’ grew more radical.
“We had very deep relations with Iran, cutting deep into the fabric of the two peoples,” said a high-ranking official at the Israeli foreign ministry just after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Israeli (and US) officials then saw it as madness to view Iran as anything other than a natural interlocutor. Thirty years later, western policy-makers, and particularly Israelis, see Iran as a growing threat. Could this fear be based on a misreading of Iran’s revolution?
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, did not see Israel as part of the Middle East, but as part of Europe. From 1952, Ben-Gurion repeated that although Israelis were sitting in the Middle East, this was a geographical accident, for they were a European people. “We have no connection with the Arabs,” he said. “Our regime, our culture, our relations, is not the fruit of this region. There is no political affinity between us, or international solidarity” (1).
Ben-Gurion called for a concerted effort to persuade the United States that Israel could be a strategic asset in the Middle East. But President Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61) repeatedly declined Israel’s entreaties, believing that the US was better placed to manage US interests independently of Israeli assistance.
As a result of these rebuffs, Ben-Gurion evolved the concept of the “alliance of the periphery” which aimed to balance the vicinity of hostile Arab states by forming alliances with Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia. It was an attempt to strengthen Israeli deterrence, reduce Israel’s isolation and add to its appeal as an “asset” to the US.
In parallel, Ben-Gurion developed another idea: the “alliance of the minorities”. He argued that the majority of the inhabitants of the Middle East were not Arab, referring not only to the Persians and the Turks, but also to religious minorities such as the Jews, Kurds, Druze and (Christian) Maronites of Lebanon. The aim was to foster nationalist aspirations among minorities in order to create islands of allies in the ocean of Arab nationalism.
Iran emerged against this background in the late 1950s as a “natural ally” of Israel. In Treacherous Alliance (2) Trita Parsi has traced the cooperation with the Shah, such as the joint training and arming of Kurdish insurgents between 1970 and 1975 that was intended to weaken Iraq. Parsi also notes the empathy between Israel and Iran on account of the cultural superiority felt by the two peoples towards the Arabs – even though the supposed affinity had its limits. Israelis were puzzled and irked at the Shah’s insistence on keeping the relationship quiet; Israel wanted it publicly acknowledged.
The sense of close affinity persisted beyond the Iranian Revolution, and prompted even hard-headed Israeli politicians of the right – including prime minister Menachem Begin – to reach out to the new Iranian leadership. Ayatollah Khomeini’s pragmatism in foreign policy was read by Israelis as evidence that the revolution had been an aberration. Iran, surrounded by Arab hostility, understood only too well its need for Israeli friendship – and the technological advantages it could bestow on its friends. Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad official, noted that the periphery doctrine was so “thoroughly ingrained” in the Israeli mindset that it had become “instinctive” (3). It was out of this conviction that Israel inveigled the US to sell weapons to Iran in the mid-1980s, a prelude to the Iran-Contra scandal (4).
Begin’s electoral victory in 1977 entrenched a more radical vision than that of the Labour Party, that of the Revisionist Zionist leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky. The latter had argued in his seminal “Iron Wall” article in 1923 that there could never be agreement with the Arabs. Begin shared Jabotinsky’s view that “only when there is no longer any hope of getting rid of us… will they drop their extremist leaders,” and moderates would emerge who would “agree to mutual concessions” and could then benefit from the Zionist “five hundred year cultural advance” on them.
Relations with the periphery declined
The right tried to put the strategy of the “alliance of the minorities” into practice. In 1982, Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon with the aim of ousting the Palestine Liberation Organisation and establishing a friendly Christian Maronite hegemony in Beirut – so inflicting a devastating defeat on Syria, a major pillar of Arabism. It proved a miscalculation, for it precipitated the decline of the Maronites and encouraged Shia mobilisation in the south and in the Bekaa valley, from which a formidable new enemy, Hizbullah, emerged.
At the same time as this failure in Lebanon, Israel’s relations with the periphery declined – at least with Iran (which made a strategic alliance with Syria, a key Arab enemy). This was because of a misperception by Israel, shared by the US: the Iranian Revolution was seen in the West as no more than a discontinuity in the western narrative of a historical progression from backwardness to western-style secular modernity. It was an aberration, a reaction against modernity that would be corrected over time. The ideological basis to the revolution was seen as “hollow”; “pragmatists” would soon pull it back on to the path of western material progress, the only course that made sense in the western optic. This is why both Israel and the US have been so preoccupied by signs of pragmatism and an obsessive hunt for “moderates”. And whenever Iran’s revolutionary leadership has shown any signs of pragmatism in its foreign policy, it reinforced the US and Israeli view that this would lead eventually to an alliance with Israel.
In reality, it was the West’s materialist “modernity”, on which Israel’s doctrine was justified, which repelled Iranian leaders the most. But though they were at odds with the US and Israel over their vision of society and their efforts to spread a culture of secular, materialist and free-market society across the region (which many Iranians saw in turn as archaic, and even colonialist), they did not want to defeat Israel militarily. The revolution was not conceived with an aggressive regional ambition; it did not threaten Israel or the US in conventional military terms.
In 1988, after a messy, debilitating war lasting eight years, Iran reached a ceasefire with Iraq. But the years 1990-2 saw two events that changed the outlook for the whole region: the Soviet Union imploded and Saddam Hussein was defeated in the first Gulf war (1990-1). These events removed both the Russian threat to Iran and Iraq’s threat to Israel. It left Iran and Israel as unchallenged rivals for leadership and pre-eminence in the region, and it saw the US emerge as a unipolar, unchecked power.
Israel’s main fear was to be seen as a liability by the US during the Gulf war, rather than a friend. At the same time the prospect of Iran emerging as a pre-eminent regional power threatened Israel’s hegemony by opening the possibility of a US-Iranian rapprochement that risked eclipsing Israel’s relationship with the US. More seriously, Israel risked its military deterrence: its survival depended on its military supremacy, which a resurgent Iran might remove.
When the Labour government under Yitzhak Rabin, elected in 1992, decided to drop the strategy of wooing the periphery and instead opted to make peace with the Arabs, this was a radical reverse of strategy. This shift placed Israel and Iran on opposite sides in the new equation, and the change was as intense as it was unexpected: “Iran has to be identified as Enemy No 1,” Yossi Alpher, at the time an adviser to Rabin, told the New York Times four days after Bill Clinton’s election victory. And Shimon Peres, the other most senior Labour figure, warned the international community in an interview in 1993 that Iran would be armed with a nuclear bomb by 1999 (5).
Exaggerated nuclear threat?
But many inside the Clinton administration felt the Iranian threat was exaggerated, as did many within the Israeli establishment. Shlomo Brom, a senior member of the Israeli intelligence apparatus, told Parsi mockingly: “Remember, the Iranians are always five to seven years from the bomb. Time passes, but they are always five to seven years from the bomb.” In 2009, the Iranians are, according to US intelligence estimates, still “five to seven years away from the bomb” (6).
Israel, therefore, began to cut a deal with Yasser Arafat, greatly weakened by the Gulf war. Rabin and Peres then used the demonisation of Iran as a lever with which to divert the US Jewish Lobby: the Lobby could focus on the existential threat from Iran rather than turn their anger on Israel’s leaders for betraying Jabotinsky by supping with the enemy – Arafat and the Arabs.
The US was devising a parallel strategy too: a realignment of pro-western Arab states against enemies lying beyond the periphery – barbarians bearing down on the values, institutions and liberties of western civilisation, led by Iran. US power had become the instrument that would “spell the death knell for the Iranian revolution” as William Kristol, a leading US conservative, wrote in May 2003. The defeat of Iran had become the means to deliver a double blow to the Arab and Muslim psyche as well as to the Islamist resistance. The Arabs would become docile, and the Middle East would succumb, like so many dominoes.
Not surprisingly, despite Iran’s cooperation with Washington during the war in Afghanistan (2002) and Iraq (2003), its attempts to reach a so-called “grand bargain” with the US were all rebuffed or undercut by senior members of the Bush administration. The 2003 proposal to open talks with the US that appeared to acknowledge US security concerns – including the demand for an end to Iran’s support for Hizbullah and Hamas and to its nuclear programme, and recognition of Israel – has become a part of legend. But to assume that pressure caused Iran to offer to sever its links to the resistance and come to terms with Israel is to misread Iran’s intent. Iran’s offer was a nuanced reformulation of an earlier proposal for partnership and a discussion of all issues in contention. To interpret the 2003 episode as a signal that “pressure works”, and that more pressure on Iran will yield these and further concessions, may lead to a catastrophic error of policy.
The US swing towards a Manichaean vision of pro-western moderation versus Islamist extremism has taken regional polarisation well beyond Ben-Gurion’s more modest objective of creating a balance of forces and deterrence. In their aim to break the resistance throughout the Muslim world to a secular, liberal vision for the future, the US and its European allies have instead provoked mass mobilisation against their own project, as well as radicalisation and hostility to the West.
Alastair Crooke is a consultant; he was special adviser to Javier Solana (1999-2003) and a member of the Mitchell Commission set up by President Clinton to report on the causes for the second intifada (2000-1).
(1) Cited by Avi Shlaim in “Israel, the Great Powers and the Middle East Crisis of 1958”, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, London, May 1999.
(2) Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The secret dealings of Israel, Iran, and the US, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007.
(3) Trita Parsi, op cit, page 91.
(4) This scandal shook the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s, bringing to light the illegal sale of American arms to Iran and the financing of the Nicaraguan Contras. The scandal became a profound embarrassment, however, when it emerged that US officials had illegally siphoned off the profits from these Iranian sales in order to buy arms for the ‘Contra’ guerrillas.
(5) Shimon Peres, interview on France 3, October 1992.
(6) Trita Parsi, op cit, page 167.