Iran Steals a Strategy From Israel's Playbook

Israel's early days are a model—albeit unsuccessful—for Tehran today.

When hard-line Iranian protesters tore down the flag at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in the eastern city of Mashhad and later ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, they brought a wave of international criticism onto their country. Many Arab and African countries closed their embassies, summoned ambassadors or downgraded relations in protest. This was a reminder of how difficult Iran can be to work with—but it was also a reminder of the harsh strategic environment Iran faces.

Tehran is isolated in its own neighborhood, facing off with nearby countries in the diplomatic, economic and military realms. It has powerful foes farther away, too: Israel and the United States. Yet while Iranian crowds shout “death to Israel,” Iranian leaders choose a strategy that Israelis would find familiar: an enemy-of-my-enemy approach known as the periphery doctrine. But though Israel was able to make the periphery doctrine work and then shift away when it began to falter, Iran’s periphery is breaking down without an obvious alternative.


Israel’s Periphery Doctrine

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the survival of the State of Israel was subject to a sustained, gathering threat. Its unfriendly neighbors, still sore about having been defeated in Israel’s 1948 war of independence, were stirred up by radical nationalist ideologies. The Soviet Union, initially friendly, had turned sharply against Israel as the Jewish state’s relations with the West deepened and new opportunities opened for Moscow in the Arab world. Israel found itself surrounded by massive enemy armies that were backed by a nuclear-armed superpower. This perilous strategic setting produced three major wars, the third of which, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, nearly sparked a global atomic Ragnarök.

One of the ways Israel attempted to fix its dangerous strategic imbalance was via alliances with global powers—first France, then the United States. And the French helped Israel along the path to another method for righting the balance: a nuclear arsenal. Yet faraway friends and superweapons weren’t enough. Israel needed allies in its neighborhood, yet the nationalism roiling the Arab world made it impossible for vulnerable Arab leaders to openly take Israel’s side. Israel had to look farther afield for friendship, to the neighbors’ neighbors, to the enemies’ enemies.

The result was the “periphery doctrine,” in which Israel sought cooperation with non-Arab states like Turkey and Iran to work against troublesome Arab neighbors. As Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic expert and former intelligence officer, notes, there were other periphery relations, too: with Sudan and Ethiopia, whose control over the headwaters of the Nile threatened Egypt; with Oman and Morocco, whose monarchies didn’t fit in with the prevailing Arab political currents; and with beleaguered minority groups like the Kurds in Iraq or the Maronite Christians in Lebanon. The strategy wasn’t perfect, as Alpher notes: none of the allies were exceptionally reliable, especially when the chips were down; most of them were also rather weak. They didn’t strike enough fear into Israel’s foes to prevent war, and the alliances themselves were built on crumbling foundations.

Yet, as Alpher notes, support for minorities managed to “tie down hostile Arab forces” at a very low price, while the relationship with Ethiopia provoked “near primeval fears” in Egypt. “The country’s very capacity to break out of the Arab ring of isolation and form strategic relations on the flanks of the Arab world,” he writes, “contributed to its deterrent profile.” And in the 1967 war, Israel also managed to supplement the periphery doctrine with another asset: strategic depth in the form of territory seized from Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

The fall of periphery allies like the Shah of Iran and the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan transformed Israel’s security environment and made the periphery doctrine obsolete. The Palestinian question became the new center of Israel’s security concerns. But in time, a new threat to Israel would arise: Iran. And, in one of history’s great ironies, Iran’s own strategy has coming to resemble Israel’s old periphery doctrine.


Iran’s Periphery Doctrine

Iran isn’t totally cut off from its neighbors like Israel was then. Yet the Arab states south of Iran find Tehran almost as toxic as the “Three No’s”-era Arab League found the Jewish state, and these Arab states enjoy good relations with the enemy Iran fears most: the United States. Like post-1967 Israel, Iran has been able to create a bit of strategic depth—it has tremendous influence in what’s left of Iraq and Syria—but much of its deterrent against those states comes from periphery doctrine–style flanking and minority support.