Iran, Israel, and the Looming Threat of War

Friends, Enemies, and “Existential” Threats

In the ceaseless and invariably bellicose calls for war (both open and clandestine) against Iran, perhaps one argument invoked by pro-war pundits and politicians stands out and takes pride of place above all others: Iran, it is claimed, “poses an existential threat to the state of Israel.”  It’s certainly been a favorite of Republican presidential nominee, John McCain.  Furthermore, Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate, when asked about America’s response in the event of a unilateral Israeli military strike against Iran, repeated an astounding three times the AIPAC-by-rote reply: “I don’t think that we should second-guess the measures that Israel has to take to defend themselves and for their security.”

The argument: because Iran has been cited as an “imminent threat” to the security of Israel, a “nuclear Iran” is deemed unacceptable.  As a result, both Israel and the United States are permitted to avail themselves of “all options” to neutralize the “Iranian threat.”  In short, the Bush Doctrine holds, and preventive war with Iran is warranted.  Meanwhile, occupations and insurgencies continue to rage in Afghanistan, Iraq, and more recently, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.  In addition, and as anyone familiar with the history of the modern Middle East can tell you, Israel has proven in the past to have very few qualms about bombing its neighbors.  It has meticulously followed a policy of “bomb first, ask questions later” in Lebanon, Iraq, and, most recently, Syria.

A story that has thus far received rather patchy coverage in the Western media, however, is Iranian Vice President for Cultural Heritage and Tourism Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei’s “controversial” comments two months ago regarding Israel and the Israeli people.  Mashaei’s little-publicized remark?  “Today Iran is the friend of the people of the United States and Israel, and no nation in the world is our enemy.”

Not quite the apocalyptic banter readers of the Western press associate with the Islamic Republic, that bunch of crazed, wild, and irrational zealots the Bush administration contends it’s impossible to negotiate with.  This surreal charade is maintained despite the fact that the U.S. has been negotiating with Iran over the security situation inside Iraq and Afghanistan to great effect (Patrick Cockburn in fact credits the convergence of Iranian and U.S. objectives for the “success” of “the surge,” as stability in Iraq can’t possibly be achieved without Iran’s cooperation) and has also been on the sidelines of Iran’s nuclear-program negotiations with the European Union.

Though Mashaei’s comments predictably sparked the ire of the right-wing establishment (and have since been partly rebutted by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at last week’s Friday prayers, which remains problematic), President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a news conference in Tehran said, “Mashaei’s position represents that of the government.”  Ahmadinejad added, “Our nation doesn’t have a problem with nations or people.”

Ahmadinejad emphasized that Mashaei’s comments were unrelated to the dispossession of the Palestinian people.  Despite stern opposition, Ahmadinejad, whose son is married to Mashaei’s daughter, has refused to yield to pressure from a number of senior clergymen to sack the minister.  Mashaei’s comments are important for a number of reasons; chief among them is that they show the Iranian political establishment is not a monolithic entity.  Even among so-called hardliners there are cleavages on numerous issues about which there seems to be a chronic lack of consensus.  Factionalism among the hardliners was undoubtedly one of the reasons why Mohammad Khatami was able to clinch the presidency in 1997, and it will offer further opportunities for reformist gains and additional bilateral negotiations with the U.S. in the future.

It must be said, however, that Ahmadinejad has slightly fudged the issue to quell the tide of vitriol emanating from the right-wing establishment of which he is an integral part.  In this respect, the remarks should be greeted positively but with caution.

Mashaei’s comments are a far cry from the endlessly mistranslated comments by Ahmadinejad in which he allegedly said that “Israel should be wiped off the map.”  As anyone even slightly familiar with the Persian language can testify; his words were willfully distorted to grab headlines and demonize the Iranian president for reasons of political expediency.1

Though Ahmadinejad’s actual words were rightfully seen as offensive, they in no way constitute a direct threat to the nation of Israel.  The same cannot be said for the words of Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who has plainly stated that any attack on the Jewish state would result in the “destruction of the Iranian nation.”  Iranian politicians know this only too well, and for this reason would never seriously consider launching an unprovoked attack against Israel.

With Israel’s present nuclear arsenal said to stand at some 200 nuclear warheads, even the more bellicose amongst the Iranian leadership grasp that a nuclear strike against Israel would be tantamount to national suicide.  However, even this statement presumes that Iran has a nuclear weapons program in the first place.  According to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, Iran’s weapons program was frozen back in 2003, making the premise of a “nuclear Iran” propagated by Washington and Israeli hawks somewhat redundant.

Ben-Eliezer’s threat of “retaliatory” genocide has gone unchallenged by the same pundits who couldn’t help themselves but warn the world of the “genocidal ambitions” harbored by the Islamic Republic.  The chorus of threats and psychological warfare against Iran has even been joined by high-profile Democrats such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, who infamously said that in the event of an attack on Israel, “we would be able to totally obliterate them [the Iranians].”

Oversimplifying Iranian-Israeli Relations

It’s often claimed that the shah enjoyed good relations with Israel prior to the revolution.  Though this has some truth to it, the reality was not quite so rosy, since the cordiality and warmth of Iranian-Israeli relations was prone to vacillate according to Iran’s regional aspirations, rather than out of some kind of natural affinity between the two states.  For example, as Dr. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council, has observed in his indispensable book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, upon the signing of the Algiers Accord in 1975 with Saddam Hussein, Iranian-Israeli relations became quite fraught as the shah moved toward a more pro-Arab policy in a bid to secure Arab recognition of Iranian regional hegemony.2  Much to the dismay of the Israelis, the shah’s government also voted in November 1975 in favor of UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which stated that “Zionism [the ideology upon which the Jewish state is predicated] is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”3

That being said, there is little doubt that upon the cusp of revolution, opposition to Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza was essential to the ideological disposition of the revolutionaries on both the Left and the religious Right.  Among the Islamists, opposition to Israel stemmed from solidarity with the Palestinian people and anger over the occupation of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock, and al-Aqsa mosque, which is considered the third holiest site in Islam.  The shah was partially blamed by a number of clerics and secular intellectuals for his role in facilitating Israel’s military conquests, since he had consistently satiated Israel’s demand for oil over the decades.

Israel had also been a key participant in the establishment and training of the shah’s secret police, the SAVAK,4 who were responsible for the torture, arbitrary arrest, and extrajudicial killing of dissidents.  For many of the revolutionaries, this fact helped crystallize their animosity toward Tel Aviv.  Finally, there was, of course, good old guilt by association, which branded Israel an enemy of the Islamic state for its close ties to Washington.  The revolutionaries often disparagingly referred to Israel as “little America.”

Beyond considerations of realpolitik, it’s well known that the ideological fervor of the Islamic Revolution set itself up in opposition to the “twin evils” of American imperialism and Zionism.  However, the rhetoric of the heady days of quoting Fanon, calling for the export of the revolution, and demanding that the “wretched of the earth” revolt against their oppressors mellowed long ago5; what has taken its place has been the pursuit of the Islamic Republic’s perceived national interests and regional self-aggrandizement.  Tehran’s calculated use of inflammatory rhetoric has been largely instrumental in shoring up support under the imprimatur of an Islamic vanguard, a role intrinsically limited by virtue of Iran being a Shi’ite and non-Arab power.  The shah similarly realized that he could never achieve unchallenged regional hegemony without Arab acquiescence for almost exactly the same reason.  It should be said that this geopolitical dynamic has been dramatically altered with the American-led coalition’s overthrow of the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein in March 2003 and the effective empowerment of Iraq’s long-suppressed Shi’ite majority.

Distinguishing between Judaism and Zionism

During the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini was explicit in distinguishing between the Jewish religion, which he saw as part of the “Abrahamic” tradition, and Zionism, which he deemed a modern ideology with the sole aim of depriving the Palestinian people of their national rights and cultural identity.  Undoubtedly, such an understanding of Zionism is reductive, one-sided, and ignorant of the historical realities that necessitated its emergence, but it is not an understanding exclusive to political Islamists.  Many others of varying ideological hues have taken exception to what they regard as the discriminatory and identity-centric logic of Zionism.  This distinction has been crucial to the post-revolutionary understanding of Israel and its place in the minds of Iran’s leadership and is maintained by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to this very day.

Iranian Jews elect their own deputy to the 270-seat parliament and enjoy certain rights of self-administration.  Jewish burial and divorce laws are accepted by Islamic courts, and like all other Iranians, Jews are obliged to undertake military service.

It would be only half-true to point out that Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric has been willfully mistranslated in toto and that he has said nothing that can be viewed as offensive or anti-Semitic.  He has quite clearly questioned the veracity of the Holocaust, under the sway of Mohammad-Ali Ramin, a close adviser to the Iranian president, according to veteran Iranian journalist Kasra Naji, author of Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader.  Ramin’s fulminations against Israel and Jews often regrettably slide from criticism of the Zionist project to outright anti-Semitism, a European phenomenon without historical precedent in Iranian history.

These comments and the circus that was the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust in December 2006 leave little doubt that Ahmadinejad’s government has at times blurred the distinction between the Jews as a people and Zionism as a political ideology, which had hitherto been a mainstay of Khomeinist doctrine.  These events were criticized not only by members of the Iranian public and press, but also by Iranian-Jewish member of the Majlis Maurice Motamed; the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; and even Baztab, the newspaper chiefly associated with the Revolutionary Guard, which lambasted the government for pursuing an unnecessarily provocative course with the West.

Ahmadinejad’s own proposed solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict has often been ignored or intentionally obscured, however.  Though I personally disagree with his proposal because it diverges from the international consensus enshrined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, it is worthy of quotation.  The Iranian president has argued on numerous occasions that “We believe that all the people who live there, the Jews, Muslims, and Christians, should take part in a free referendum and choose their government.”

Some might find this hard to believe, but Ahmadinejad contends that only a democratic solution can solve the 60-year impasse dividing Palestinians from Israelis.  Moreover, it would appear that if both peoples decided on a two-state solution in a fair and transparent electoral process, Ahmadinejad would be compelled to accept the results.

Ignorance and Bigotry Are Not a Casus Belli

Though there is little doubt that Ahmadinejad thought his remarks on the Holocaust would get him headlines, it appears that through a mixture of miscalculated provocation and ignorance — the tragic history of the Holocaust simply doesn’t have the same emotional resonance in the Muslim world as it does in Europe, since it rarely features in the curriculum and few know much about it — he greatly underestimated the offense and alienation such remarks would cause.

Such comments ought to be roundly condemned, of course, but as repugnant as they might be, they don’t legitimize the case for war with Iran.  Questioning the Holocaust does not constitute a casus belli.  Iran hasn’t directly threatened Israel; it has only threatened retaliation in the event of an Israeli strike against its nuclear facilities.  As we know, Israel has already undertaken a “test-run” for such an attack, and the debate continues in Israel over whether to proceed along the military route.  Even hawkish analysts Ronen Bergman, author of The Secret War With Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, has stated on al-Jazeera English’s Riz Khan Show that Iran would never unilaterally launch a nuclear strike against Israel.

Mashaei’s comments should be welcomed and rightfully seen as throwing into doubt the propaganda claiming Iran has some kind of implacable enmity toward the Jewish state.  The idea that conflict is inevitable between these two nations simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.  The two countries in fact had little problem conducting business during the Iran-Iraq war in what was part of the fiasco that has since been dubbed the Iran-Contra Affair.  In other words, where Iran’s and Israel’s interests have converged, negotiation has been feasible.

Iran’s relationship with Israel is more complicated than it has been portrayed in the mainstream media.  It is not one of unremitting hostility, and even Iran’s hardliners have in the past proven to be tempered by pragmatic considerations and calculated self-interest.  Mashaei’s distinction between the Israeli government and the Israeli people attests to the factional nuances that are so often overlooked by those beating the drum for military conflict.  Even if Ahmadinejad’s support of Mashaei is merely an instance of pragmatism, it shows that a combination of sticks and carrots could result in fruitful negotiations and steer us clear of the path to war.  Iran’s leaders are not beyond rational engagement, as some may have us believe.  Mashaei’s comments show that the Iranian government is willing to distinguish between the policies of the Israeli government and the people of Israel.  This approach has long had credence among the reformist faction and those aligned to former president Khatami.  It is now even steadily penetrating the more fundamentalist factions who presently control all the major levers of power inside Iran.

For a long time to come, there will be little love lost between Tehran and Tel Aviv. Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour is probably correct in his assessment that a marked change in Iran’s relations with the West or Israel will be untenable until a new occupant with a less dogmatic adherence to Khomeinist ideology replaces Khamenei as supreme leader.  War, however, is not inevitable, and an Israeli military strike cannot be justified on the charge that Iran poses either an “imminent” or an “existential” threat to Israel, given that the Ahmadinejad government has only threatened to retaliate against unprovoked Israeli aggression, and, according to the 2007 NIE, Iran has no active nuclear weapons program.  Though some of Ahmadinejad’s comments have unfortunately slipped into the rhetoric of anti-Semitism, which should be condemned, bigotry simply doesn’t merit war.  Israeli hawks have no legitimate casus belli for going to war against Iran, and any future act of aggression by either side must be staunchly opposed by antiwar activists.


1  I’m not going to rehash the particulars of the “wiped off the map” incident, since it has already been addressed in depth elsewhere.  The correct translation and clarification of Ahmadinejad’s comments can be found here in a trenchant essay by Arash Norouzi and here on Professor Juan Cole’s blog.

2  Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, Trita Parsi, Yale University Press, 2007, Chapter 5.

3  Ibid, p. 64.

4  Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, Ray Takeyh, Times Books, 2006, p. 194.

5  Iran experts tend to agree that the revolutionary government entered its Thermidorian period in the aftermath of the Iraq-Iraq War, perhaps even before.  For details see, After Khomeini: The Iranian Second Republic, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, Routledge, 1995, p. 30.

6  Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader, Kasra Naji, University of California Press, 2008, Chapter 5.

Sadegh Kabeer is a first-year PhD student in Politics and International Relations.  The focus of his research is Iranian nationalism and political Islam.  He works with the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran.  Visit his blog Eteraz Online at <>.

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