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By : Dr. Trita Parsi
Israeli-Iranian relations remain a mystery to most analysts in spite of the profound impact that these countries’ tensions have had on the Middle East and on U.S. national security. The political sensitivity of the issue has prompted most U.S. experts to refrain from studying the subject in detail. Instead, the poor state of relations between these two former allies has been treated either as an inexplicable phenomenon or as purely the result of deep-seated ideological antagonism. All the while, its impact on U.S. foreign policy has been conveniently ignored at a great cost to U.S. national interests. While it is widely believed that the key to peace in the Middle East is the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, little attention has been given to the key geopolitical rivalry between Israel and Iran, which has had a decisive influence on this and other regional conflicts.
In examining the ups and downs in Israeli-Iranian relations and the triangular relationship between the United States, Israel, and Iran, I have focused on geopolitical forces and developments rather than on ideology, fleeting political justifications, or simplistic Manichean perspectives. I argue that the major transformations of Israeli-Iranian relations are results of geopolitical—rather than ideological—shifts and that a negotiated resolution of their strategic rivalry will significantly facilitate the resolution of other regional problems rather than the other way around.
The current enmity between the two states has more to do with the shift in the balance of power in the Middle East after the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War than it does with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Though the Iranian revolution was a major setback for Israel, it didn’t stop the Jewish State from supporting Iran and seeking to improve its relations with the Khomeini government as a counter to Israel’s Arab enemies. Ironically, when Iranian leaders called for Israel’s destruction in the 1980s, Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington lobbied the United States not to pay attention to Iranian rhetoric. Today, even though Iran’s revolutionary Islamist zeal is far from what it was in the 1980s, things have changed quite a bit.
The Iranian government, in turn, has pursued a double policy throughout this period: In the 1980s, Iran made itself the most vocal regional supporter of the Palestinian cause. Yet its rhetoric was seldom followed up with action, since Tehran’s strategic interest—reducing tensions with Israel and using the Jewish State to reestablish relations with the United States—contradicted Iran’s ideological imperatives. After 1991 and the efforts by the United States and Israel to create a new Middle East order based on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and on Iran’s prolonged isolation, however, Iran’s ideological and strategic interests overlapped, and Tehran decided for the first time to become a frontline opponent of the Jewish State. At this stage, both Israel and Iran used their influence to undermine U.S. foreign policy initiatives that they deemed beneficial to the other. Iran worked against the peace process, fearing that it would be left isolated in the region, and Israel sought to prevent a U.S.-Iran dialogue because it feared that Washington would betray Israeli security interests if Iran and the United States were to communicate directly. To this day, that logic prevails in both capitals, and it is fueling the tensions in the region.
This is a book about foreign policy. My focus is on the relations between these states and not on internal developments that—while important— have little or no impact on their respective foreign policies. Nor do I seek to provide a deeper explanation of the ideologies espoused by the leaders of these states. Instead, these ideas and world views are considered relevant only to the extent that they influence Iran’s and Israel’s foreign policy. This approach does not mean, though, that these ideologies are wholly irrelevant or that the belief in them is put under question. On the contrary, both Israeli and Iranian leaders have strongly held ideologies and world views, which they take most seriously. Whether these ideologies are the chief determining factor in Israeli-Iranian relations, however, is a different question altogether.
Precisely because of the sensitivity of this issue, very little has been writ- ten about Israeli-Iranian relations or their impact on U.S. foreign policy. It has been almost two decades since a book on Israeli-Iranian relations was published in English, and many of the analyses about Iran produced in the United States in this period have suffered from Western analysts’ lack of access to Iran and Iranian officials. This has particularly affected the study of convoluted issues such as the relations between the United States, Iran, and Israel. To avoid these pitfalls, the bulk of this book is based on 130 in-depth interviews I’ve conducted with Iranian, Israeli, and American officials and analysts.
Through these face-to-face interviews with the decision-makers them- selves, I have been able to map out firsthand accounts of events and the thinking that underlie strategic decisions, while at the same time going beyond the talking points and public justifications Iran and Israel have developed to conceal the true nature of their tensions. Many of these accounts and rationales have never been made available to the public before. The interviews with Iranian officials in particular have been very revealing and have penetrated areas that thus far have rarely—if ever—been discussed openly in Iran, mindful of the censorship that print media there face regarding sensitive issues such as Israel. The same is true to a certain extent in Israel, where the problem may not have been government censorship, but rather that reporting has focused almost exclusively on the perceived military threat from Iran and has neglected the underlying strategic calculations of Israeli and Iranian decision makers.
To ensure the reliability of the interviewees and their accounts, an extraordinarily large number of people have been interviewed, and their ac- counts have been cross-checked. No argument in the book is dependent on one or two quotes alone. The cross-referencing and the large pool of interviewees have also ensured that the accounts presented in the book reflect the essence of the exchanges, even though exact recollections are difficult to reproduce after twenty years.
The interviewees have been selected based on their direct involvement in the formulation of Iranian, Israeli, or American foreign policy, or on their knowledge of that process. Quotes have been attributed to these officials or analysts in all but a few cases. Though they are too numerous to name them all here, a few are worth mentioning because of their access to highly valuable and previously undisclosed inside information.
In regards to Iran’s policy on Israel under the Shah, Iran’s UN Ambassador in the late 1970s, Fereydoun Hoveyda; and Iran’s Minister of Economics, Alinaghi Alikhani (a close associate of the Shah’s Court Marshall, Assadollah Alam); have all provided invaluable insights into the Shah’s strategic thinking. For the post revolutionary era, Iran’s UN Am- bassador and Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Javad Zarif, former Deputy Foreign Ministers Dr. Abbas Maleki, Dr. Mahmoud Vaezi, and Dr. Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian, as well as former Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Iranian Parliament Mohsen Mirdamadi; former advi- sor to President Mohammad Khatami, Mohammad Reza Tajik; the political editor of Resalat, a conservative daily newspaper in Iran, Amir Mohebian; and Ali Reza Alavi Tabar, editor of several reformist newspapers; have all provided priceless insights into the Islamic Republic’s calculations.
In Israel, invaluable information has been offered by former head of the Mossad Efraim Halevi; former Foreign Minister Dr. Shlomo Ben Ami; former Defense Minister Moshe Arens; Deputy Defense Minister Dr. Efraim Sneh; Director of Military Intelligence Maj. Amos Gilad; former UN Am- bassador Dr. Dore Gold; former Head of the Foreign Ministry David Kim- che; former representative to Iran Uri Lubrani; former Defense Attaché to Iran Yitzhak Segev; former head of the Israeli Committee on Iran David Ivry; former Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Yossi Alpher; former UN Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, and financier of the Iran-Contra deal- ings, Yaacov Nimrodi. Also, as the American Israel Public Affairs Commit- tee’s point person on Iran, Keith Weissman has shared his insight into the strategizing of the pro-Israel lobby. (My interview and discussions with Keith took place before he was charged with espionage and left the organization.
Finally, inside accounts of Washington’s calculations have been provided by National Security Advisors Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lt. Col. Robert McFarlane, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, and Dr. Anthony Lake, as well as Assistant Secretaries of State Robert Pelletreau and Martin Indyk; Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Larry Wilkerson; the current Bush administra- tion’s first Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Ambassador James Dobbins; Ambassador Dennis Ross; and Dr. Gary Sick, who served as principal White House aide for Persian Gulf affairs from 1976 to 1981.
These interviewees have been intricately involved in Iran’s, Israel’s, and the United States’ foreign policy decision-making and as a result present a unique and largely unknown picture of the three countries’ approach to each other. The Iranian perspective, in particular, has largely been unknown to Western audiences, which as a result has significantly impaired the analy- sis of Iran in the West. A key reason why the analysis of this book differs greatly from the conventional wisdom regarding the U.S.-Israel-Iran triangle is because it is based on the perspectives and accounts of high-level deci- sion-makers from all three countries. In addition, for the latter chapters of the book, I myself, in my capacity as an advisor to a U.S. Congressman, have had access to some of the hidden dealings between the three countries. This position has provided me with a firsthand account of some of the developments spelled out in this book, which I have sought to recount as accurately as possible.
The book addresses the state of Israeli-Iranian relations from the creation of the Jewish State in 1948 to the present. This is done in three separate parts. First, I address the historic context of the U.S.-Israel-Iran triangle during the Cold War. Both the Israeli-Iranian entente under the Shah, as well as their secret ties under the Islamic Republic, are discussed in this section. I examine the formation of the Israeli-Iranian entente and the Shah’s betrayal of Israel through the 1975 Algiers Accord, as well as Israel’s extensive efforts to patch up U.S.-Iran relations in the 1980s and Iran’s double policy versus Israel—denying its right to exist on the one hand while accepting its support and paying lip service to the Palestinian cause on the other. The second part of the book shows how the geopolitical earthquake following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War dramatically altered the way Iran, Israel, and the United States re- lated to one another. In the new Middle East emerging after this geopolitical rupture, Israel and Iran viewed each other no longer as potential security partners, but as rivals for defining the balance of the Middle East. Here I dis- cuss Iran’s transition to being an active opponent of Israel and Tel Aviv’s 180-degree shift toward opposing rather than supporting a U.S.-Iran rapprochement, as well as both Iran and Israel’s efforts to undermine U.S. policies in the region that they deemed beneficial to the other. In the final section of the book I discuss the options Washington currently is considering, as well as the one policy the Bush administration seems loath to pursue but that has the highest chance of taming the Israeli-Iranian rivalry and reducing the risk for a disastrous war that can engulf the Middle East—and America—for decades to come.