An Israeli and an Iranian on the Way Forward

Both states can take important steps to reduce tensions in their relationship.

This winter marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The 1979 revolution, toppling Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the last king of Iran, established the Islamic Republic. Since, Iran and Israel, two former collaborators, have had a complex and mostly conflictual relationship. Indeed, much of the political and security narratives of Tehran and Jerusalem are shaped around each other. The rhetoric has covered the whole pallet of colors, from the black “wolf” to the white “sheep,” with blue “jeans,” “yellow cake,” and “redlines” in between. Each side has legitimate fears and concerns, which cast a shadow over all the commonalities and interests the two countries and nations share. For their part, Israelis feel threatened by the Islamic Republic’s anti-Israeli discourse, terrorist activities against Jewish communities around the world and support for anti-Israeli terrorist groups, as well as its controversial nuclear program. On the other side of the equation, the Israeli government beating the drum and encouraging more sanctions, along with allegations regarding its role in the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists and its involvement in Stuxnet, have led Iranians to increasingly fear and distrust Israel. Despite these understandable concerns on either side, and especially with the recent deal reached between the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) and Tehran regarding Iran’s nuclear in Geneva, it is high time for a paradigm shift in the relations between these two Middle Eastern countries.

A new horizon: the interim deal

Iran and Israel are waking up to a new regional and international climate. The recently agreed interim nuclear deal on Iran’s nuclear program is receiving support from across the board as a “good deal.” Yet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to pout as his government denounces the deal reached. While criticism on the deal is to be expected, and concerns over Israeli interests and how the deal will serve to protect them is due, Netanyahu’s continued offensive—against Iran, against the deal, and hence its negotiators—might not be leaving Israel in a position where its concerns are actually taken into account. From an Iranian perspective, the deal entails much needed progress toward the settlement of the nuclear dossier, which has carried many political, strategic and economic consequences for both population and its leadership.

In the context of this new reality, it would be in the best interest of both Israel and Iran to work, even if informally, towards easing some of the tensions between them. For Iran, the deal, delivered on President Hassan Rouhani’s one-hundredth day in office, symbolizes the climax of a new path, which began with his election. Undertaking additional substantial steps towards regional security and easing of tensions vis-à-vis Israel will only bolster its new internationally accepted course and will therefore strengthen the international community’s trust in a country isolated and demonized for eight years. For Israel, particularly if it is concerned with Iranian nuclear intentions and its compliance with the negotiated deal, not seeming as the spoiler to this deal would be meaningful in the long run. Beyond the bilateral relationship, reducing the tensions between this duo of key regional actors could also be conducive to greater stability in the Middle East.

In fact, it is important to remember that as dire as relations between the two countries are, this is to a large extent a relatively recent development. It is often forgotten that Iran and Israel did not only cooperate before the Islamic Revolution, but that the post-Revolutionary era has also seen cooperation between the two countries, albeit covert. During Iran’s darkest moment in the past four decades, Israel was one of the only countries—not only in the region, but also on the international level as well—that came to its rescue: During the Iran-Iraq War, Israel provided Iran with much-needed modern weaponry. Iran and Israel share certain interests and security concerns, and despite the formal rivalry, have succeeded in cooperating to advance those shared interests.