Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made clear that he is highly suspicious of the possibility of an Iranian-American rapprochement. In his recent speech to the UN General Assembly, he described Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” who is launching a charm offensive for the sole purpose of reducing international economic sanctions on Iran while seeking to acquire nuclear weapons (so that, in Netanyahu’s words, Rouhani “can have his yellowcake and eat it too”).
His logic runs as follows: A hostile nonnuclear Iran is already a threat, therefore a hostile nuclear one would be even more of one. Under its present regime, Netanyahu argues, there can be no possibility of a friendly Iran either of the nonnuclear or the nuclear variety.
But we know that there have been in the past rapprochements between the United States on the one hand and what had been hostile revolutionary regimes on the other. One rapprochement that has been especially successful is the one between the U.S. and nuclear-armed China that began in the early 1970s and has lasted to the present. The Soviet-American rapprochement of the early 1970s turned sour by the end of the decade, but did serve to establish an important Soviet-American nuclear arms-control regime. The Soviet-American rapprochement of the late Gorbachev era did not exactly bloom into a Russian-American friendship, but they have not been the fierce adversaries they once were during the Cold War.
As the Soviet and Chinese examples show, it is possible for rapprochement (if not friendship) to occur between the West on the one hand and previously hostile revolutionary regimes on the other. At least in theory, then, it is possible to envision the possibility of a more pragmatic, cooperative Iran that does not possess nuclear weapons, but even one that does.
Four scenarios (Iran that is 1) hostile and nonnuclear, 2) hostile and nuclear, 3) pragmatic and nonnuclear, and 4) pragmatic and nuclear) would appear to define the limits of what is possible.
Under which of these scenarios are Israel and the West better off?
Clearly, a hostile but nonnuclear Iran is better for Israel and the West than a hostile and nuclear one. But Israel would surely be better off still with a pragmatic but nonnuclear Iran than to either of these two other options. While not likely to become close friends with Israel itself, a pragmatic Iran with improved ties to the West as a whole is likely to deal with Israel the way most Arab governments now do—not outwardly friendly, but not actively hostile either.
While less preferable to this third option, Israel and the West could even be better off with a pragmatic but nuclear Iran than to a hostile but nonnuclear one (much less a hostile nuclear one). This is because whether it has nuclear weapons or not, as Iran’s ties to the West rebuild, its desire to risk them through threatening Israel should logically decrease.
But can the present regime in Iran adopt a pragmatic, “live and let live” policy toward Israel? Netanyahu is clear that the answer to this question is “No!”
But is it?
We need to look closely at what has led Iran’s new leader to at least indicate he seeks improved relations with the West and resolve the nuclear issue. One such motive is that, on top of the sanctions regime, eight years of former president Ahmadinejad’s misguided economic policies have left Iran in a real mess—which it can’t get out of without improved relations with the West. Second, Iran’s Shi’a leadership—along with the West and Israel—fears the rise of Sunni jihadists—who are as anti-Shi’a as they are anti-Israeli and anti-Western. Ironically, the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan afforded Iran a degree of protection from these forces, while the American withdrawal leaves it more exposed to them than ever. Third, while the West and Israel are clearly unhappy about the role that Iran is playing in supporting the Assad regime, Iranian leaders cannot be happy that Syria has become their quagmire—a conflict which Tehran cannot win, but which it is afraid to withdraw from for fear of the rise of anti-Iranian forces there who will help similar ones in Iraq—and possibly Iran itself.
Iran, then, needs peace with the West—not in order to lull it while it acquires nuclear weapons, but just to survive and prosper in what is becoming for it an increasingly hostile neighborhood. The fact that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei (the ultimate source of authority in Iran) in September 2013 called for “heroic flexibility” indicates that it is not just Rouhani who understands that Iran is now in difficult circumstances and needs to get out of them.
Indeed, considering all the serious internal and external problems that Tehran faces, it hardly seems likely that Iran will embark on improving its relations with the West only to suddenly acquire nuclear weapons and actually attack Israel, when this would assuredly lead to massive retaliation on the part of America and/or Israel which could well destroy the Islamic Republic.
Further, it will become clear soon enough if Iran claims to want improved relations but then stalls on the nuclear and other issues of concern to the West.
America, then, should pursue the opportunity for an Iranian-American rapprochement that has arisen with the replacement of Ahmadinejad by Rouhani as president of Iran. The success of this effort would not only benefit America and the West generally, but also Israel—even if Mr. Netanyahu does not recognize this.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, and is the author or Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan (Johns Hopkins University Press).