The Iran-Israel cold war

About the author
Trita Parsi is the co-founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council, a non-profit educational organization.

The inexperienced Iranian president has done it again. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments in a speech on 26 October – before an audience of 4,000 students attending a Tehran conference on “The World Without Zionism” – have understandably been met by widespread international condemnation. Understandably so, for Ahmadinejad talked of “wiping the state of Israel off the map" and predicted that “the new wave of attacks in Palestine will erase this stain from the face of Islam."

The question is whether his provocative remarks indicate a more aggressive Iranian policy against the Jewish state or whether they were merely another sign of Ahmadinejad’s inability to grasp the implications of his proclamations.

After the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini-led Iran of the 1980s routinely called for Israel’s destruction. In practice, however, Iranian strategic interests during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 coincided on many points with those of Israel, and Iran was very careful to avoid direct confrontation with Israel in this period.

Trita Parsi is researching for a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Also by Trita Parsi in openDemocracy, a contribution to a post-election symposium, “Iran’s conservative triumph” (June 2005)

Also in openDemocracy, Mohsen Sazegara, Kaveh Ehsani, Mansour Farhang, Mehrangiz Kar and other Iranian analysts debate the strategies and prospects for Iranian democracy

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“We never wanted to get directly involved in the fights against Israel,” Alavi Tabar, an Iranian revolutionary close to Khomeini, explained to me over tea and cookies at his Tehran office in 2004. Iranian passivity on Israel had everything to do with the war with Iraq and Iran’s strategic imperatives.

Abbas Maleki, Iran’s former deputy foreign and education minister (1989-97), told me: “Iranian decision-makers were very clever not to substitute or replace Israel as a direct threat to Iran. Because at that time, Iraq was the threat.”

Between interest and ideology

Indeed, the Israelis recognised the difference between Iran’s rhetoric and its policy, and treated Iran as a potential regional ally – regardless of the nature of its regime and its rhetoric. While Khomeini called Israel a “cancerous tumour”, the Israelis – and particularly Shimon Peres, successively Israel’s prime minister and foreign minister (1984-88) – were lobbying Washington to boost Iran’s defenses and bring Tehran “back into the western fold.”

In 1982, Ariel Sharon (then Israeli’s defence minister) proudly announced on NBC that Israel would continue to sell arms to Iran – in spite of an American ban on such sales. It was then that Iran routinely introduced resolutions to expel Israel from the United Nations – to which the Israelis responded by selling more arms to the Khomeini regime.

In that period, Iran’s strategic imperatives and its rhetorical objectives clashed – and repeatedly, the ideology of the revolutionaries was sidelined by realist calculations. As a result, Iran huffed and puffed, but did very little against Israel. All of this changed by the mid-1990s as the cold war ended in anti-climax. Iran’s ideological and strategic goals began to converge, and as a result Iranian rhetoric against Israel began to be accompanied by anti-Israeli actions.

The Iranians operated against Israel in order to defeat what they perceived to be the likely consequence of Arab-Israeli peace and the materialisation of Peres’s vision for a “new middle east”, which entailed Iran’s prolonged isolation and exclusion from regional affairs.

According to Martin Indyk, the brainchild behind the “dual containment” policy, Tehran’s perception was correct. “The more we succeeded in making peace, the more isolated [Iran and the rogue states] would become, the more we succeeded in containing [Iran], the more possible it would be to make peace. So they had an incentive to do us in on the peace process in order to defeat our policy of containment,” he explained to me.

The Israeli reversal

But it wasn’t Iran that turned the Israeli-Iranian cold war warm – it was Israel. In October 1992, prior to Iran’s material support for Palestinian rejectionists, the Shimon Peres/Yitzhak Rabin government undertook a major campaign to depict Iran and Shi’a Islamic fundamentalism as a global threat.

Even though Iran was weak militarily after the devastating war with Iraq, Rabin told Israel’s Knesset (parliament) in 1993 that Israel’s “struggle against murderous Islamic terror” was “meant to awaken the world which is lying in slumber” of the dangers of Shi’a fundamentalism. “Death is at our doorstep”, Rabin said of Iran – though he only five years earlier dismissed Iran’s rhetoric as inconsequential.

The Israeli reversal on Iran was partially motivated by the fear that its strategic importance would diminish significantly in the post-cold war middle east if the then president (1989-97) Hashemi Rafsanjani’s outreach to the Bush Sr administration was successful. Also, the geopolitical map of the middle east had changed. Israel no longer needed Iran to balance Iraq and the Arabs – rather, Iran was now a potentially powerful regional player who could become a threat. And according to Israel’s military doctrine, potential threats are to be treated as existing threats.

More than a year after Israel’s efforts to isolate and weaken Iran began, Tehran embarked on a retaliation campaign. Itamar Rabinovich, a close advisor to Rabin, told me that “Iran began to engage in anti-Israeli global terrorism with the destruction in Argentina, in 1994. Terrorism as a global issue became a big issue from our point of view with Iran since 1994.”

Don’t miss openDemocracy’s IranScan 1384 blog for commentary, analysis and links by Iranian expert voices, from Hossein Derakhshan to Afshin Molavi, Mr Behi to Farideh Nicknazar

The soldier-politician Amnon Lipkin-Shahak verified this: “The first time we witness Iranian fingerprints in activities against, not Israelis, but more Jews than Israel was in Argentina. This was the first time [that] there was a clear Iranian fingerprint. Suddenly we saw more and more indirect Iranian involvement in what was going on inside Israel.”

Iran targeted the peace process precisely because it was the weakest link in what Tehran perceived as a US-Israeli strategy of building a new middle east order based on Iran’s exclusion and isolation.

Between rhetoric and reality

There are similarities between Iran’s strategic situation in 1994 and in 2005. Tehran is yet again facing intensified United States efforts to isolate it through the threat of a Security Council referral over its nuclear plans (in 1994, the issue was the peace process and dual containment). But the key difference is that Iran today has many tools at its disposal to counter such isolation efforts. In 1994, Iran only had the peace process to undermine; today it has Iraq, Afghanistan, and the oil card.

The Mohammad Khatami years (1997-2005) in Iran saw a recognition that Iran’s radical position and statements had contributed to the very same isolation Iran was trying to escape from. In consequence, Khatami considerably lowered Iran’s rhetoric, realising that the country could not expect the international community to make a distinction between Iran’s rhetoric and its operational policy.

After all, escalating its opposition to Israel would only add to Iran’s headaches and strengthen the case of a Security Council referral. Even if Iran only intensified its rhetoric on Israel and refrained from action, it would not matter – Iran would face greater international resolve to sanction, isolate and distrust it. In this light, Ahmadinejad’s speech is a gift for those who aim to put Iran on the Security Council agenda, as the unprecedented reaction of the Europeans clearly indicates.

Ahmadinejad’s comments are irresponsible and repulsive, but there is little to suggest that they reflect a deliberate policy shift. Rather, the historic pattern of the Israeli-Iranian rivalry indicates that the former Tehran mayor committed yet another faux pas in the international arena.

Again, the ineptitude of Tehran has proven to be the primary source of Iran’s many problems.