Even before the latest elections in Iran, Netanyahu estimated that the elections would not make a difference in its striving for a nuclear weapon. With the onset of Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive,” the significant change in tone apparently left no impression on Netanyahu. Despite a report by the Israeli intelligence, which identified significant and strategic changes in the Iranian political scene (while still seeking nuclear threshold status), as well as the quarterly Iran nuclear safeguards report by the International Atomic Energy Agency in November 2013 stating that Iran has slowed its nuclear program since Rouhani’s presidency, Netanyahu continues his own offensive. To stress that continuity, Netanyahu stated formally in his United Nations General Assembly address that Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as opposed to Ahmadinejad, who was a wolf in wolf’s clothing.
Understandably, Israeli reading of both reports which imply a shift in the Iranian position is hesitant to recognize a meaningful transformation regarding what it already considered the greatest threat to Israel—Iran’s strive for nuclear weapons. Yet while the international community has turned to a thorough diplomatic engagement with a view towards reaching agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, Netanyahu’s vocal approach has been perceived as hysterical and counterproductive.
While Israel diplomatic offensive is aimed at influencing those who sit in the White House, Netanyahu’s rhetoric is loudly heard in Tehran and was recently reciprocated in an attack by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, intensifying the tension between the countries even further. And so the cycle continues. Yet the recently negotiated deal on the Iranian nuclear program should be incentive enough for both sides to work towards reducing tensions: Iran, to prove its commitment to the deal and to a changed approach to foreign policy; and Israel, to give the well-received deal a chance, without being perceived as the spoiler.
Moving forward in the bilateral relationship—unilaterally
The Iran-Israel nexus has been a key plank in discussions surrounding international affairs in the past decades. Yet, much of the debate has been centered on finger-pointing and the challenges, while very little attention has been paid to identifying opportunities for constructive and substantial progress toward alleviating some of the tension between the two countries. We believe that a number of steps could be realistically undertaken to make things better for both sides.
a. Managing expectations
The first step each state needs to take is simply to recognize the efforts and delicate shifts towards each other. This is also a prerequisite to the rest of the measures proposed below. It is vital for both states to be open to recognizing each other’s efforts. This does not have to be done officially, but each state needs to provide some feedback to the other that they are listening and taking note of the other’s undertakings. This can be achieved by a simple gesture, such toning down the rhetoric on some level. Hence, steps forward by one side should not be dismissed as “charm offensives”, as they have been.
For instance, the Iranian people have shown that they are in favor of distancing themselves from Ahmadinejad and his rhetoric. The 2009 postelectoral events, known as the Green Movement, as well as the sustained demand for change leading to the recent election of a moderate president, are a clear sign of the general discontent with the policies and rhetoric of Ahmadinejad. This is not only the case on a societal level but has increasingly manifested itself on the official level as well, with across-the-board reforms undertaken by Rouhani and his team.
This goal of recognizing shifts towards each other cannot be attained if the two states are interested in an “all or nothing” solution. For instance, Israel cannot fail to consider all efforts made by Iran short of official recognition or the suspension of its nuclear program as futile. Indeed, while an Iranian recognition of Israeli statehood, sovereignty, and right to territorial integrity would be optimal; it is simply not feasible for the foreseeable future. Yet, some Israelis undermine the possibility of any cooperation as long as Tehran does not fully recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. This is while Iran did not officially recognize Israel prior to the Islamic Revolution either, abstaining to vote in 1947 when the question was raised at the United Nations General Assembly, while later cooperating with Israel on various levels. Likewise, some in Tehran reject any rapprochement and dialogue with Israel and refuse to engage with it on any level. This faction will not accept any solution to the Israel-Palestine issue short of Israelis packing their bags and going back to “where they come from” (wherever that may be…).
b. Iran and the Palestinian question: a case of the bowl being hotter than the soup
This leads us to the second step, a step, which can be taken by Iran independent of all other developments in the region. Israel and Israelis are here to stay, and Tehran should recognize this and get used to the idea. Better yet, the Iranian leadership should understand that it cannot eternally go on ignoring Israel, or worst, fighting it, whether directly or indirectly. Doing so not only isolates it internationally, and creates and intensifies tensions between Tehran and the West, but also hampers the regional quest for stability and security. In turn, the stability and security of the Middle East affects all states equally, and given their status, Iran and Israel have an enormous impact on it. Therefore, Tehran should officially recognize and pledge support for the two-state solution, if it is the will of the Palestinian people and as per direct negotiations between the relevant parties, Israel and Palestine. Its official endorsement of the two-state solution would in effect convey Iran’s understanding that the State of Israel is an inherent part of the region—a de facto recognition of its existence. So far, a number of officials have expressed Iranian support for such a development, but others have rejected it. This should be articulated as Iran’s official policy, perhaps even through officially and formally supporting the Arab Peace Initiative. This would not only inspire Israel to tone down its rhetoric toward Iran, it would also help Tehran’s relations with the West. Moreover, such a move would delegitimize to some extent the arguments used by Israeli hardliners, which would promote a military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities due to the “existential threat” represented by the country’s policies.
c. The interim nuclear deal: a case of the mourner among the celebrators
Much of the Israeli rhetoric around the Iranian nuclear issue has revolved around redlines, military strikes against nuclear facilities in Iran, encouragement for the implementation of further sanctions, and the drawing of parallels between Iran and Nazi Germany. Recently, this discourse has been in spite of the progress made by the P5+1 and Tehran in Geneva in November 2013 on the Iranian nuclear dossier and U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. The continued offensive rhetoric by Israeli officials only serves to empower the hardliners in Iran and weaken not only the reformists but also the moderates, including Rouhani. Furthermore, creating an environment where Iranians constantly fear an Israeli attack against their soil, especially against nuclear facilities, discourages them from demanding change domestically and increases the likelihood of a closed climate.
This is yet another conundrum in the relationship between the two states, where Israeli hardliners, to some extent, credit the change in the Iranian position to be the direct result of the Israeli insistence on dealing seriously with Iran’s nuclear program. In other words, they attribute the Iranian willingness to even “come to the table” to the “crippling sanctions” accompanied by credible military threat and demand for intensified sanctions. This view, however, ignores other important factors, which have shaped Iran’s new foreign and nuclear policy, including domestic politics. It is clear that there is a general understanding in at least certain circles in Israel that without Netanyahu’s “personal” mission to show the world just how dangerous Iran is, the situation would have been much worse by now.
Either way, Israeli concerns of the nuclear deal with Iran are legitimate, considering what many perceive as Iran’s record of concealment regarding its nuclear program, as well as its support of terrorist attacks and belligerent rhetoric in the past and failure to formally and categorically refute certain statements. Indeed, change, by definition, can only be gradual, but the judgment must be passed on a trend of cumulative actions, and the rhetoric coming from Israel does not allow for this. The Israeli position as continuously proclaimed by Netanyahu is incessantly aggressive towards Iran, unwilling to even recognize the meaningful changes in Iran since Rouhani’s inauguration, appears to be counterproductive to the efforts of the international community to ensure the civilian nature of the Iranian nuclear program.
While Israeli concerns regarding the agreement are understandable, its complete rejection is isolating Israel even further, as it walks around as the nearly lone mourner among the celebrators. Despite concerns, it is important to tone down the rhetoric and give the agreement, as well as the new Iranian government, the time and space they need to prove the viability of the diplomatic solution. Words and discourse have been a central part of the rivalry between Iran and Israel in the past decades. As they served in the past to exacerbate the conflict, so could they now be used to alleviate it. Even simpler than changing the discourse, an initial constructive step would be to simply refrain from certain activities, mostly aggressive statements.