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In this era of superheated rhetoric and vitriolic exchanges between the leaders of Iran and Israel, the threat of nuclear violence looms. But the real roots of the enmity between the two nations mystify Washington policymakers, and no promising pathways to peace have emerged. This book traces the shifting relations among Israel, Iran, and the United States from 1948 to the present, uncovering for the first time the details of secret alliances, treacherous acts, and unsavory political maneuverings that have undermined Middle Eastern stability and disrupted U.S. foreign policy initiatives in the region.
Trita Parsi, a U.S. foreign policy expert with more than a decade of experience, is the only writer who has had access to senior American, Iranian, and Israeli decision makers. He dissects the complicated triangular relations of their countries, arguing that America’s hope for stability in Iraq and for peace in Israel is futile without a correct understanding of the Israeli-Iranian rivalry.
Parsi’s behind-the-scenes revelations about Middle East events will surprise even the most knowledgeable readers: Iran’s prime minister asks Israel to assassinate Khomeini, Israel reaches out to Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War, the United States foils Iran’s plan to withdraw support from Hamas and Hezbollah, and more. This book not only revises our understanding of the Middle East’s recent past, it also spells out a course for the future. In today’s belligerent world, few topics, if any, could be more important.
The Iranian president is a Persian version of Hitler.
-Israel Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, referring to Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
[Israel and the U.S. need to establish] a broader strategic relationship with Iran.
-Prime Minister Shimon Peres to President Ronald Reagan, September 1986
"This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history." With these words, spoken at an obscure conference in the Iranian capital of Tehran in October 2005,MahmoudAhmadinejad,the hard-line Iranian president, brought to the boiling point a rivalry between Iran and Israel that has been simmering for more than fifteen years. Always treated as a peripheralconflict, Israeli-Iranian tensions were often avoided by decision-makers in Washington, who focused on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute or on Iraq President Saddam Hussein's impulse for conquest. In doing so they failed to recognize that the geopolitical rivalry between Israel and Iran has-since the end of the Cold War-been the underlying conflict that defined the context of almost all other matters in the region. Sooner or later, even the most nearsighted politicians would see this eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room. By pulling Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's poisonous anti-Israel rhetoric from the dustbin of history, Ahmadinejad made sure it was sooner rather than later.
Still, even though the world has turned its attention to the Israeli-Iranian standoff, the nature of the conflict remains largely misunderstood. Ahmadinejad's questioning of the Holocaust, and Israel's demonization of Iran as a modern-day Nazi Germany, reflect a fundamental clash of ideologies, most Americans believe. On one side there's Israel, portrayed by its defenders as a democracy in a region beset by authoritarianism and an eastern outpost of Enlightenment rationalism. On the other side there's the Islamic Republic of Iran, depicted by its enemies as a hidebound clerical regime whose rejection of the West and whose aspiration to speak for all Muslims everywhere are symbolized by its refusal to grant Israel a right to exist. These ideologues have rejoined a battle in which there can be no parley or negotiated truce-only the victory of one vision and one value system over the other. Or so it would seem. Blinded by the condemnatory rhetoric, most observers have failed to notice 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.
After the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the strategic considerations that had put Iran and Israel on the same geopolitical side in the latter part of the twentieth century evaporated. Soon enough, absent any common foes, Israel and Iran found themselves in a rivalry to redefine the regional order after the decimation of Iraq's military. Fearing that Israel's strategic weight would suffer if Iran emerged as the undisputed power in the Middle East, Israeli politicians began painting the regime in Tehran as fanatical and irrational. Clearly, they maintained, finding an accommodation with such "mad mullahs" was a nonstarter. Instead, they called on the United States to classify Iran, along with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, as a rogue state that needed to be "contained." Israel's change of heart on Iran was initially met with skepticism in Washington, though the Israelis advanced the same argument they do today, namely that Iran's nuclear 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," 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.'"
But for Israel, rallying Western states to its side was best achieved by bringing attention to the alleged suicidal tendencies of the clergy and to Iran's apparent infatuation with the idea of destroying Israel. If the Iranian leadership was viewed as irrational, conventional tactics such as deterrence would be impossible, leaving the international community with no option but to have zero tolerance for Iranian military 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 convince the world-particularly Washington-that the Israeli-Iranian conflict wasn't 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 a totalitarian theocracy that hated everything the West stood for. In casting the situation in those terms, Israel argued that the allegiance of Western states to Israel was no longer a matter of choice or mere political interest, but rather of survival, or at the very least of a struggle of good against evil.
Eventually the "mad mullah" argument stuck. After all, the Iranians themselves were the greatest help in selling that argument to Washington, because they too preferred an ideological framing of the conflict. When revolution swept Iran in 1979, the new Islamic leadership forsook the Persian nationalist identity of the regime of the overthrown Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but not its yen for Iranian great-power status. Whereas the Shah sought suzerainty in the Persian Gulf and parts of the Indian Ocean regions, while hoping to make Iran the Japan of western Asia, the Khomeini government sought leadership 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 that opposed Iran's ambitions. But whenever Iran's ideological and strategic goals were at odds, Tehran's strategic imperatives prevailed. So in the 1980s, when Iran was involved in a bloody war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Iranians were careful not to follow up its diatribes against Israel with any concrete actions. Though ideology played a critical role in the revolution's early years, Iran's policy on Israel was to bark a lot, but never bite. The revolutionary regime's ideology and lurid rhetoric successfully veiled a fairly consistent pursuit of realpolitik.
After the Cold War, this double policy became all the more important because Israel was transformed from a partner that Iran needed to keep at arm's length to an aggressive competitor that had penetrated Iran's growing sphere of influence. But it was not possible to rally the Arab Muslim masses to Iran's side for the sake of Iran's power ambitions. So Iran turned to ideology once more to conceal its true motives, while utilizing the plight of the Palestinian people to undermine the Arab governments that supported the Oslo process of the 1990s. 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 in its continued occupation of Jerusalem, site of the Haram al-Sharif, or dome of the rock, the third-holiest site in Islam. To 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 not to belittle 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 U.S. stance on the Palestinian issue. Indeed, anti-Iranian statements such as Jordanian King Abdallah's warning in late 2004 of a "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran through post-Saddam Iraq into Lebanon, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's denunciation in early 2006 of Iraqi Shias as Iranian loyalists, have been poorly received by the Arab public. Tehran's pro-Palestinian reputation is one reason why.
The ideological pronouncements emanating from Ahmadinejad and other Iranian 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 shouldn't be taken at face value. For now, both Iran and Israel seem to calculate-or miscalculate-that portraying their struggle in ideological and apocalyptic terms will provide each with a critical edge against the other in their efforts to define the order of the Middle East to their own benefit. But the dangers of this risky game are reaching intolerable levels and are dragging other actors into it. Israel has threatened to bomb Iran. The Bush administration has made similar threats, insisting that its own military option in relation to Iran remains on the table. Washington has even considered using nuclear weapons against Iran, according to press reports. And Tehran continues to call Israel a fabricated entity with no legitimacy and no future in the Middle East. Forgotten behind the threats, the slogans, and the sound bites are not only a political and strategic reality but also a human reality and millennia of Iranian-Jewish friendship.
There are few Western cities where Persian pop music blasts at full volume in shopping malls. Yet this is a daily, natural occurrence at Jerusalem's high-security downtown bus terminal. Here, in the equivalent of New York's Penn Station, eighteen-year-old Israeli soldiers wait for their rides home, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, Persian pop legends Moin and Ebi pounding in their ears. Most of the CD stores here are owned by Iranian Jews, and over the past twenty years they have created a market for Persian pop in the very heart of the Jewish State. When one scratches the surface of the ferocious Israeli-Iranian enmity, an affinity between the two cultures emerges. In many ways they are more alike than different. Both tend to view themselves as somewhat superior to their Arab neighbors. Many Iranians think of the Arabs to their west and south as culturally inferior; as brutes who had the good fortune to have Persians as neighbors who could civilize and refine them. Similarly, having defeated the Arabs in numerous wars, most Israelis have little respect for their capabilities. "We know what the Arabs can do, and it isn't much," an Israeli analyst told me arrogantly, months before the war with Hezbollah in 2006 might have sobered him a bit. Incapable of suppressing their sense of superiority or of convincing the Arabs to let go of their own stereotypes of Persians and Jews, Israelis feel they are left with no option but to view true peace as unattainable. Some Israelis have all but given up the dream of living at peace with their neighbors, whether through true friendship or minimal but mutual recognition and acceptance, and have settled for a vision of "no war, no peace" built on a bedrock of Israeli military preponderance. The Iranians drew a similar conclusion centuries ago. "The Arabs are out to get us," Israelis and Iranians often think as they go about their daily lives.
Perhaps most importantly, both view themselves as culturally and politically disconnected from the region where they are forced to face their regional foes through the lens of a Manichean mindset. Ethnically, the Jews of Israel are surrounded by a sea of Arabs who may not always have been at war with Israel, but who have never been at peace with Israel. Culturally, Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe dominate Israeli society, even though the profile of Mizrahi, or Oriental, Jews has risen in recent years. And religiously, of course, Israel is unique regionally and globally as the only state based on the Jewish faith. In perhaps a natural response to the long Jewish history of persecution, Israel has a penchant for mistrusting the outside world. According to this mindset, international institutions and global alliances can never substitute for Israel's own ability to protect itself. At the end of the day, a UN Security Council resolution can never protect Israel as well as two hundred nuclear warheads, Israelis believe. "These are weapons of peace," an Israeli general told me proudly, failing to see the contradiction in terms.
The Iranians aren't terribly different. Proud heirs to a civilization that precedes Islam by at least two millennia, they are the first to point out to Westerners that they are not Arabs. Iran, or the Land of the Aryans, as it is believed to mean, is largely populated by peoples speaking Indo-European tongues. Persian (or Farsi) is linguistically closer to French and Swedish than it is to Arabic, although it includes many Arabic words and is written in the Arabic script. And though Iran was Islamized in the seventh century B.C., the Persians kept their language, cultural traditions, and the special quality that to this day connects them to their Zoroastrian past. The Iranian New Year, Nowruz (New Day), has been celebrated in Iran for more than three thousand years and remains the largest Iranian holiday today, far outshining any Islamic festival. When Ashura, the Shia Muslim day of mourning commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala in the year A.D. 680, coincides with Nowruz, a day of rejoicing, the Zoroastrian soul of Iran wins in spite of the wishes of Iran's clerical rulers.
Even as Muslims, the Iranians distinguish themselves from their surroundings by following the Shia line of Islam rather than the much larger and dominating Sunni camp. And like Israelis, Iranians are deeply suspicious of the outside world. While Jews have been persecuted and have survived a Holocaust, Iranians have fought colonization, annexation, decades of foreign intervention, and, last but not least, an eight-year war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in which virtually the entire world-including the United States-sided with Iraq. When Saddam invaded Iran in 1980, the UN didn't consider it a threat to international peace and security; it took the Security Council more than two years to call for withdrawal of the invading forces. (Compare that to Saddam's 1990 assault on Kuwait, when a Security Council Resolution [UNSR 660] passed within twelve hours of the invasion, demanding an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces.) Another five years passed, mainly because of American procrastination, before the UN addressed Saddam's use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians. (The United States and Western European countries either directly sold components for chemical weapons to Saddam or knew and quietly approved of such sales.) Even then, Washington ensured that the UN resolutions would be watered down to protect Saddam. The United States later cited these same crimes to justify its invasion of Iraq in 2003. For the Iranians, the lesson was clear: When in danger, Iran can rely on neither the Geneva Conventions nor the UN Charter for protection. Just like Israel, Iran has concluded that it can rely only on itself.
Excerpted from TREACHEROUS ALLIANCE by trita parsi Copyright © 2007 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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