When Iran’s hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” in October 2005, the world appeared to be light years away from the end of history. It seemed that ideologues had once more taken the reins of power and rejoined a battle in which there could be no parley or negotiated truce—only the victory of one idea over the other.
Even before Ahmadinejad pulled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s poisonous anti-Israel rhetoric from the dustbin of history, the tense relations between Iran and Israel were often seen as one of history’s last ideological clashes. On one side was Israel, portrayed as a democracy in a region beset by authoritarianism and an eastern outpost of Enlightenment rationalism. On the other side was the Islamic Republic of Iran, depicted as a hidebound clerical regime whose rejection of the West and aspiration to speak for all Muslims everywhere were symbolized by its refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
The Israeli-Iranian confrontation is far more complex than this ideology-based understanding would indicate, however. Exclusive focus on the mudslinging between the two countries has come at the expense of a deeper understanding of the strategic nature of their conflict. That the conflict is strategic is underscored by the fact of past Iranian-Israeli cooperation. Prior to the overthrow of the Shah, the conventional view in both countries was that non-Arab Iran and Israel—both surrounded by a sea of innately hostile Arabs—enjoyed a natural alliance. Indeed, as long as Iran and Israel faced common Arab threats, they forged close clandestine security ties that survived the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It was not just the Shah who traded and cooperated with the Israelis; Khomeini had his fair share of Israeli dealings as well.
But since the fall of the Shah, and especially beginning in the 1990s, the mutually condemnatory rhetoric issuing from Iran and Israel has blinded most observers to a critical common interest shared by these two non-Arab powerhouses in the Middle East: the need to portray their fundamentally strategic conflict as an ideological clash.
“Death is at Our Doorstep”
Since late 1992, Israel has pursued a policy of seeking Iran’s international isolation. In particular, according to a former Israeli ambassador in Washington, decision makers in Tel Aviv viewed the prospect of a US-Iranian rapprochement as a threat, since improved relations between Washington and Tehran could come at the expense of Israel’s strategic weight in the region. Ironically, the shift against Iran took place under the Labor government headed by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, two leaders who only a few years earlier had initiated the attempts to improve relations between the US and Khomeini’s Iran that culminated in the Iran-contra scandal.
The inflammatory rhetoric employed by Rabin and Peres was unprecedented. Peres, then Israel’s foreign minister, accused Iran of “fanning all the flames in the Middle East,” implying that the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was rooted in Iran’s meddling rather than in the shortcomings of Israel and the Palestinians. In January 1993, Prime Minister Rabin told the Knesset that Israel’s “struggle against murderous Islamic terror” was “meant to awaken the world which is lying in slumber” to the dangers of Shiite fundamentalism. “Death is at our doorstep,” Rabin concluded of the Iranian threat, though only five years earlier he had maintained that Iran was a strategic ally.
Israeli politicians began painting the regime in Tehran as fanatical and irrational. Clearly, they maintained, finding an accommodation with such “mad mullahs” was a non-starter. Instead, they called on the US to classify Iran, along with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as a rogue state that needed to be “contained.”
Immune to Deterrence
Initially, the American establishment was skeptical of Israel’s change of heart with regard to Iran, though the Israelis advanced the same argument they do today, namely that Iran’s nuclear research program would soon afford the black-turbaned clerics access to the bomb. “Why the Israelis waited until fairly recently to sound a strong alarm about Iran is a perplexity, unless the answer is no more complicated than that the Iranian nuclear potential has grown to a worrisome point,” Clyde Haberman of the New York Times wrote in November 1992. Haberman went on to note: “For years, Israel remained willing to do business with Iran, even though the mullahs in Teheran were screaming for an end to the ‘Zionist entity.’” Eventually, however, the mad mullah argument stuck. After all, the Iranians themselves were the greatest help in selling that argument to Washington.
From the Israeli perspective, rallying Western states to its side was best achieved by emphasizing the alleged suicidal tendencies of the clergy and Iran’s apparent infatuation with the idea of destroying Israel. As long as the Iranian leadership was viewed as irrational, conventional tactics such as deterrence would be rendered impossible, leaving the international community with no option but to have no tolerance for Iranian capabilities. How could a country like Iran be trusted with missile technology, the argument went, if its leadership was immune to dissuasion by the larger and more numerous missiles of the West?
The Israeli strategy was to ensure that the world—particularly Washington—would not see the Israeli-Iranian conflict as one between two rivals for military preeminence in a fundamentally disordered region that lacked a clear pecking order. Rather, Israel framed the clash as one between the sole democracy in the Middle East and an illiberal theocracy that hated everything the West stood for. Cast in those terms, the allegiance of Western states to Israel was no longer a matter of choice or real political interest.
Paying Lip Service
Ironically, Iran too preferred an ideological framing of the conflict. When revolution swept Iran in 1979, the new Islamic leadership forsook the Pahlavi regime’s Persian nationalist identity, but not its yen for Iranian great-power status. Whereas the Shah sought suzerainty in the Persian Gulf and parts of the Indian Ocean, while hoping to make Iran the Japan of western Asia, the Khomeini government sought hegemony in the entire Islamic world. The Shah’s means for achieving his goal were a strong army and strategic ties to the United States. The Ayatollah, on the other hand, relied on his brand of political Islam and ideological zeal to overcome the Arab-Persian divide and to undermine the Arab governments who opposed Iran’s ambitions.
Throughout the 1980s, when Iran’s strategic interest compelled it to cooperate with Israel in order to repel the invading Iraqi army, the Khomeini government sought to cover up its Israeli dealings by taking Iran’s rhetorical excesses against Israel to even higher levels. In 1981, for instance, Ayatollah Khomeini introduced the ritual of observing an al-Qods Day—Jerusalem Day —during Ramadan precisely to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause at the same time that his regime was scheming to buy arms from the state it denounced as the “occupier of Jerusalem.”
The more Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership pressed the Iranian regime to live up to its promises to the Palestinians, the more Khomeini used his rhetorical weapons to cover up the fact that Iran refused to take any concrete measures against Israel.
The Iranian-PLO honeymoon turned sour from the very outset. Arafat and his entourage of 58 PLO officials showed up in Tehran uninvited on February 18, 1979, only days after the victory of the revolution. Though the revolutionaries were caught off guard, several Iranian officials greeted Arafat at the airport and provided the Palestinians with high-end accommodations at the former Government Club on Fereshteh Street in northern Tehran. Hours after arriving, Arafat held a two-hour meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini. Much to Arafat’s surprise, Khomeini was quite critical of the PLO and lectured the Palestinian leader on the necessity of dropping his leftist and nationalistic tendencies to get to the Islamic roots of the Palestinian issue. The two revolutionaries did not meet again.
Arafat quickly understood that Islamic Iran would lend the Palestinians only verbal and rhetorical backing. The significant Palestinian investments in the Iranian opposition to the Shah—primarily in leftist groups such as the Mojahedin-e Khalq—would simply not yield a high return. In spite of his anti-Israel rhetoric, for instance, Khomeini decided against a request to send Iranian F-14 fighters to Lebanon, where the PLO was then battling the Israeli army alongside Syrian and Lebanese allies, indicating yet again that Iran did not intend to take an active role on the Arab side against Israel beyond its verbal condemnations of the Jewish state. Thus, the Iranians showed little interest in extending practical support to the Palestinians even before Arafat and the Arab states (except Syria and Libya) threw their weight behind Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.
US diplomats in Iran took note of Khomeini’s tense relations with the PLO. A confidential memo sent to Washington from the US Embassy in Tehran in September 1979 noted that “Iran enthusiastically and unreservedly supports the Palestinian cause,” but that “relatively little is said about the PLO itself.”
Iran’s policy “was to avoid getting entangled in the Palestinian conflict,” explained Mahmoud Vaezi, a former Iranian deputy foreign minister. Iran’s “moral duties” overshadowed strategic considerations during the first years after the revolution, he added, preventing Iran’s enmity toward the Arabs from translating into a full-blown Iranian alliance with Israel. Yet the revolutionary regime’s ideology and lurid rhetoric successfully veiled its pursuit of realpolitik.
“Insult to Islam”
After the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf war, the strategic considerations that had put Iran and Israel on the same geopolitical side evaporated. Soon enough, absent any common foes, Israel and Iran found themselves in a strategic rivalry for the ability to redefine the regional order after the decimation of Iraq’s military might. But it was clearly not possible to rally the Arab Muslim masses to Iran’s side for the sake of Iran’s power ambitions. Again, Iran turned to ideology to conceal its true motives, while utilizing the plight of the Palestinian people to undermine the Arab governments who were willing to partake in the Oslo process of the 1990s.
So Iranian speechwriters took the lead in inveighing against Israel’s “never-ending appetite for Arab lands,” its oppression of the Palestinians, its disregard for UN Security Council resolutions and the “insult to Islam” embodied that its continued occupation of Jerusalem. Indeed, until this day, the rhetoric of Tehran preaches that its struggle against Israel is not about geopolitical gains or even about Iran itself, but rather about justice for the Palestinians and honor for Islam.
With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cast in these terms, and fearing a backlash from their own populations, pro-Western Arab rulers have to tread carefully so as not to come across as belittling the announced goals of Tehran. In the eyes of many Arab states, the power of Iran’s rhetoric has made public opposition to Iran equivalent to acquiescence in or even approval of the Israeli and US stance on the Palestinian issue. Indeed, anti-Iranian statements such as Jordanian King Abdallah’s warning of a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran through post-Saddam Iraq into Lebanon or Egyptian President Husni Mubarak’s denunciation of Iraqi Shiites as Iranian loyalists have been poorly received by the Arab public. Tehran’s pro-Palestinian reputation is one reason why.
Two Camps in Tehran
Ahmadinejad’s reinvigoration of anti-Israel rhetoric beginning in 2005 must also be seen in the context of Iran’s larger conflict with the US, in particular the nuclear standoff that is pushing the conflict to its climax. In November 2005, an intense debate took place in Tehran over the new president’s invocation of Khomeini’s call for Israel to be wiped off the map. The international backlash had taken Tehran by surprise and angered the nuclear negotiators, who argued that such language was undermining their fine-tuned balancing act that sought simultaneously to avoid referral to the Security Council and to defend Iran’s right to uranium enrichment.
The Ahmadinejad camp forcefully argued that Iran should enlarge the conflict and make Israel a critical and visible part of the international debate. Viewing Iran’s nuclear program in isolation only benefited the West. Only by expanding the scope of the issue could Iran find the necessary levers to defend its position. At a minimum, the Ahmadinejad camp argued, a cost should be imposed on Israel for having made the Iranian nuclear program a subject of grave international concern and for having convinced Washington to adopt a no-enrichment policy.
While less radical elements in the Iranian government agreed on the necessity of putting Israel on the defensive and enlarging the conflict, they strongly differed as to the best way to achieve those objectives.
According to a senior Iranian official, people close to Ahmadinejad favored putting into question issues Israel had managed to settle over the last two decades: Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist, the reality of the Holocaust, and the right of European Jews to remain in the heart of the Middle East. Such an approach, they argued, would resonate with the discontented Arab street and reveal the impotence of the pro-US Arab regimes, who would be in equal parts pressured and embarrassed.
More moderate voices in Tehran strongly opposed this approach, due to the difficulties they predicted it would cause for Iran’s nuclear diplomacy. They favored former President Mohammad Khatami’s tactic of invoking the suffering of the Palestinian people and Israel’s unwillingness to make territorial concessions, but avoiding hot-button issues such as Israel’s right to exist and the Holocaust. Taking the rhetoric to such levels, they argued, could backfire and turn key countries like Russia and China against Iran. Though the regime did not reach a full consensus, much to Ahmadinejad’s frustration, a decision was made that no Iranian official would be permitted to repeat the venomous Holocaust remarks. That decision stood for a couple of months until it became clear that the West was in retreat.
Looking for the Edge
What was conspicuously absent from the internal debate in Tehran, however, was the very ideological motivations and factors that Iran uses to justify its stance on Israel. Neither the honor of Islam nor the suffering of the Palestinian people figured in the deliberations.
Rather, both the terms of the debate and its outcome were of a purely strategic nature. Both camps aimed at giving Iran the initiative in the confrontation with the US and Israel, rather than see Iran suffer the fate of Iraq, where from 1991 until the invasion Washington remained largely in firm control of events. Both Ahmadinejad and his major rival, National Security Council Adviser Ali Larijani, believe that Iran cannot make headway by playing nice with the Bush administration. In their view, Iran committed a mistake when it accepted suspension of uranium enrichment for two and a half years during negotiations with the Europeans.
The Ahmadinejad and Larijani camps further concur that Iran is better off taking the initiative to put its adversaries constantly in a defensive position. Iran should force the West to adopt a defensive position, rather than defend itself against the never-ending array of Western initiatives.
Whether agreeable or not, whether effective or not, the ideological pronouncements emanating from Ahmadinejad and other Iranian regime figures are an effect, rather than a cause, of Iran’s strategic orientation. Likewise, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s description of Iran as a “dark and gathering storm casting its shadow over the world” in his May 24, 2006 speech to Congress should not be taken at face value. There are distinct echoes of the Rabin-Peres approach in his further admonition: “A nuclear Iran means a terrorist state could achieve the primary mission for which terrorists live and die: the mass destruction of innocent human life.” Nevertheless, for now, both Iran and Israel seem to (mis)calculate that portraying their struggle in ideological and apocalyptic terms will provide them with a critical edge against each other in their efforts to define the order of the Middle East to their own benefit. Then again, those entangled in hegemonic struggles always do.
Interview with Itamar Rabinovich, Tel Aviv, October 17, 2004.
Shimon Peres, The New Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, 1993), p. 43.
Washington Post, March 13, 1993.
New York Times, November 8, 1992.
Nader Entessar, “Israel and Iran’s National Security,” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 27/4 (Summer 2004), p. 5.
Interview with Abbas Maleki, former Iranian deputy foreign minister, Tehran, August 1, 2004.
Telephone interview with Nader Entessar, January 25, 2005. Ibrahim Yazdi, foreign minister in Iran’s first revolutionary government, informed US Embassy staff that Khomeini had appealed to the PLO to adopt an Islamic orientation and replicate the methodology of Iran’s non-violent revolution. The Iranians argued that an Islamic orientation would increase the prospects of a Palestinian victory and would disable Marxists and radical elements among the Palestinians. Bruce Laingen to Department of State, October 1979. Available through the National Security Archive.
Behrouz Souresrafil, Khomeini and Israel (London: Researchers, Inc., 1988), p. 46.
US Embassy in Tehran to Department of State, late September 1979. Available through the National Security Archive.
US Embassy in Tehran to Department of State, September 30, 1979. Available through the National Security Archive.
Interview with Mahmoud Vaezi, Tehran, August 16, 2004.