A Modus Vivendi Between Jerusalem and Tehran


By Trita Parsi

Published March 17, 2006, issue of March 17, 2006.
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Vice President Dick Cheney’s tough speech on Iran this past week in front of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was interrupted by applause no fewer than 48 times, including eight standing ovations. In the most explicit threat of military force to date by a senior member of the Bush administration, Cheney said that “the international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences” on the Islamic Republic. A day earlier, the same Aipac crowd heard America’s ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, warn Iran of “tangible and painful consequences.”

With the issue of Iran’s nuclear program being taken up by the U.N. Security Council, Israel’s hawkish policy and Aipac’s support for Bush administration hard-liners would appear to be paying dividends. The hard-line strategy, however, may very well backfire.

Convinced that the United States is set on attacking the Islamic Republic regardless of any potential Iranian policy changes, Tehran is more likely to respond militarily to increased pressure than to acquiesce. Maintaining a low profile would be next to impossible for Israel in such a situation; Iran would likely seek to drag the Jewish state into confrontation by activating its capabilities in southern Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories.

Perhaps more disturbingly, as the diplomatic window between Iran and the United States closes, Israel’s opportunity to influence Iranian behavior may also be lost. This could be a major setback for Israel since, paradoxically, a modus vivendi between Tehran and Jerusalem is achievable.

From the early 1990s, Israel consistently failed to appreciate the opportunity American-Iranian negotiations could provide in alleviating the Iranian threat to the Jewish state. Rather, Israel saw such dialogue as a greater danger than Iran’s anti-Israeli activities, fearing that Washington would betray Israeli security interests once faced with the opportunity to make up with Tehran. As Itamar Rabinovich, a close adviser to the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, once explained to me: “A small state is always worried that a global ally will make a deal in which it takes a global view of the deal and forgets about local details that for a local actor are very important.”

In late 1992, the Rabin-Peres government broke with the “periphery doctrine” that had long guided Israeli foreign policy, and backed away from the extensive efforts it had made during the 1980s to patch up American-Iranian relations. Thereafter, Israel began depicting Iran as a global and existential threat, in the hope that the West would come down hard on Tehran.

But rather than winning the attention of the West, Israel only made itself shine brighter on the Iranian radar, prompting Tehran to significantly toughen its stance on Israel and patch up its ideological differences with Palestinian Sunni-Islamist groups. This prompted the creation of the Iran policy committee in Israel, led by David Ivry, who recommended that Israel lower its rhetoric and avoid making itself a target of Iran.

Though not followed religiously, this has been the policy of Israel since Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996. In retrospect, it was a remarkable success. While operating in the background, Israel convinced the United States and the European Union to take the lead against Iran and bring it to the Security Council. Israel’s argument has been adopted by the West: Iran’s nuclear program is seen as an international — and not an Israeli — problem.

And yet, the situation is far from being in Israel’s best interests.

During the Khatami presidency, Iran signaled that it was prepared to adopt a “Malaysian profile” on Israel in return for an end to Israeli and American efforts to isolate Tehran. Iran would, much like Malaysia, be an Islamic state that would not recognize Israel and would occasionally criticize it but would not get itself involved in activities against the Jewish state. Iran and Israel would simply recognize each other’s spheres of influence and stay out of each other’s hair. The message was communicated to Israel through various channels, including a presentation by a senior Iranian military figure at a conference in Europe. The Iranians even reached out to Martin Indyk, a key supporter of Israel in the Clinton administration. Zeev Schiff, the military affairs editor of Ha’aretz, told me that the consistency of Tehran’s message “made it more clear that this was a policy” and not just empty talk.

But Israel, driven by its uneasiness regarding what it saw as unpredictable consequences of an American-Iranian dialogue and fearing it would be unable to prevent Washington from cutting an unfavorable deal with the Islamic Republic, declined to respond to Tehran’s offer.

Given statement after statement by Israeli leaders that Iran constitutes an existential threat, it is somewhat perplexing that the Jewish state would not seek all available avenues to alleviate that threat, including American-Iranian talks.

Today, even as Ahmadinejad continues to spout his outrageous rhetoric, the “Malaysian profile” policy still enjoys strong support in the Iranian Foreign Ministry — and, more importantly, in the powerful National Security Council. This body is headed by Ali Larijani, a rival of Ahmadinejad who has sidestepped Iran’s inexperienced president in conducting Tehran’s foreign policy and now represents the Iranian theocracy in negotiations over its nuclear program with the European powers.

Behind Iran’s venomous rhetoric, Tehran’s key objective since the 1990s has been to have its sphere of influence in the Persian Gulf recognized in return for Iranian disengagement from the Palestinian conflict. According to sources close to the Iranian National Security Council, Larijani remains dedicated to this approach.

As the Security Council prepares to wrestle with the Iranian nuclear dilemma, Israel should be careful not to repeat its mistake from the Khatami years by championing a hard-line stance that precludes exploration of a potential diplomatic solution. Though a complete victory against Iran certainly is Israel’s first option, it is not likely to be achieved and should not be pursued at the expense of less optimal but more likely solutions.

Now that Iran is at its most isolated point in three years of nuclear discussions, Israel would be wise to utilize American-Iranian negotiations to win significant concessions from Iran on its support for anti-Israel groups like Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and potentially, Hamas. The price would be an easing of Iran’s isolation, a key Iranian demand that has little bearing on Israel. Though perhaps not the complete victory Israel had aimed for, it would prevent a direct military confrontation between the two key non-Arab states in the region and avoid the highly unpredictable consequences that would result from such a conflagration.

Trita Parsi, a Middle East specialist at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, is author of a forthcoming book on Israeli-Iranian relations from Yale University Press.

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