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.
Although the difficulties in the Iran-Israel relationship are clear and the criticism, from either side against the other, has for the most part not developed out of completely thin air, rapprochement between these two states should not be discarded as an irrelevant possibility. We are not expecting our two countries to engage in bilateral and direct relations or to walk hand in hand into the sunset any time soon, as we ourselves have done, and many others from across the chasm. However, some steps can be taken, even in the troubled time we are currently in, to alleviate the situation and move toward better relations. In the following, we propose some such steps, in the hope that they will inspire others to think constructively about the issue and to develop further ideas, which could lead toward substantial and sustained progress.
Understanding that direct and formal cooperation is still some ways away, our goal is to present realistic yet constructive steps, and hence such that can be undertaken independently, without bombastic announcements of rapprochement that are still unlikely. The unilateral measures discussed below could be implemented independently by Iran and Israel, thus contributing to threat reduction, the enhancement of security and ultimately a bilateral rebuilding of trust.
The war of words: understanding the discourse
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency was marked by controversies surrounding his belligerent rhetoric against Israel, which even in the difficult climate between the two countries was extremely vehement. In fact, for much of the 1990s and early 2000s (until Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005), Iranian moderates and reformists alike attempted to ease the tension between Iran and Israel, and former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami championed this trend.
During his time in office, Ahmadinejad famously denied the Holocaust and stated that Israel had no place in the Middle East and that a regional “storm” would “uproot” the Jewish state. Yet, even under Ahmadinejad, the discourse was not as one-dimensional as many depicted. Indeed, one of his most controversial and proliferated statements was actually a mistranslation of a phrase taken out of context. The former president never said that “Israel should be wiped off the map,” nor that Iran should wipe it off the map. Even former deputy prime minister of Israel, Dan Meridor, recognized this fact. Instead, Ahmadinejad had said that Israel, “like the Soviet Union, will fall apart when its people no longer want it [to exist].” During Ahmadinejad’s term in office, his close friend and Chief of Staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, had stated that the Iranian people were “friends of all people in the world—even Israelis.”
Despite these mistranslations and common misperceptions, it is clear that this rhetoric by Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders, accompanied by their support to Hamas and Hezbollah, has been viewed by the Israeli leadership and people as belligerent and pursuant to an active anti-Israeli policy. In this context, the suspected military dimension of the Iranian nuclear program is understandably perceived as an existential threat to the State of Israel. This perception has only reinforced existing views in Israel that its territorial integrity and sovereignty are threatened by other states in the region, many of which it does not have relations with and which perceive it as illegitimate.
Nevertheless, since his inauguration, Rouhani has attempted to distance himself, his government, and the country from his predecessor’s rhetoric. To do so, Rouhani has taken several concrete steps. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Rouhani declared that “any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crimes committed by the Nazis, whether against Jews or non-Jews, is completely condemned in our view. Likewise, today, any crime against any nation, religion, ethnicity, or belief, we condemn that crime and genocide. Therefore, the crimes of the Nazis are condemned.” Likewise, Iran’s Foreign Minister and Chief Nuclear Negotiator, Javad Zarif, dismissed the idea of the Holocaust being a myth and called it a “heinous crime” and a “genocide,” which should not be repeated. Furthermore, Rouhani canceled the annual anti-Zionist conference, which was established under Ahmadinejad.
Some have dismissed Rouhani’s acknowledgment and condemnation of the Holocaust, by saying that it did not go far enough in its denunciation of the crimes. Others have chosen to ignore the steps he has taken in toning down the anti-Israeli rhetoric. However, these criticisms fall short of recognizing the intricacy of Rouhani’s enterprise, as he has many factions to appease within Iran, while he attempts to remain constructive. Therefore, the level of expectation must be adjusted to the complex reality and the “all or nothing” approach needs to be abandoned in order to recognize the constructive process underway. The official Israeli discourse has accused Rouhani’s statement as merely cheap talk with no action to back it, thus completely failing to recognize some concrete actions that could be considered as backing the talk, like a nuclear deal.