An Israeli-Iranian Axis? Highly Illusionary
There are those who believe that given the sweeping turmoil in the Middle East, the two most powerful non-Arab countries other than Turkey – Israel and Iran – have common interests in forming a strategic alliance that would substantially strengthen their position and contribute to regional stability. They argue that such an alliance would create a new balance of power and set the stage for a new geopolitical development from which both countries could mutually benefit.
They base this argument on a number of assumptions including the long, friendly, and mutually cooperative relationship that Jews and Persians enjoyed for centuries, which continued until the 1979 revolution. According to this theory, the countries have no conflict of interest as Iran’s ambitions to become the region’s hegemon presumably has no bearing on Israel and the two countries can benefit greatly from each other’s abundance of human and natural resources.
These proponents further argue that the enmity between Iran and Israel is transient and circumstantial, pointing to the fact that Israel supplied Iran with weapons and munitions during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, and that with the typical shifting of the political winds in the Middle East, the two countries could resume their cooperation.
The supporters of this notion further suggest that since the Arab Sunni states will never see eye-to-eye with Iran and in principle reject Israel as an integral part of the predominantly Arab region, Israel and Iran would gravitate toward each other and seek a close alliance to counter the adversarial Arab stance.
On paper these arguments may resonate with those who do not seem to have a keen sense of the extensive changes that have taken place in the Middle East for the past four decades, and their impact on the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts in particular.
Acceptance of Israel by the Arab States:
To begin with, after nearly seven decades of conflict between Israel and the Arab states, the latter have finally come to accept Israel as an independent state in their midst, albeit they condition normalization of relations with Israel on a number of concessions that Israel will have to make, especially in connection with the Palestinians.
Notwithstanding the skeptics among the Israelis, the Arab Peace Initiative (API) that was advanced by the Arab League in 2002 provided a vivid manifestation of the Arabs’ new position toward Israel. The API was never a ploy as some Israelis claim; it remains a very valid peace proposal. It was recently modified to reflect Israel’s desire for land swaps, which in fact is providing the foundation for the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Sweeping Regional Changes:
The API represents a sea change, and even though Israel did not act on the Initiative, the premise of the API remains as valid today as it was when it was initially presented. The simultaneous growing tension between the Arab Sunni states (led by Saudi Arabia) and Iran in the wake of the Iraq war, Syria’s civil war, and the intense animosity between Israel and the Iranian regime, brought the Arab states and Israel closer to each other than at any time before.
Certainly the adage “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” does play a role, but now both sides understand the enormous mutual benefits they can derive from normal relations. Many Arab states already have clandestine trade relations with Israel as well as cooperation in intelligence-sharing to combat terrorism. There may be certain gains for Iran to play Israel against the Arab states; there is no gain for Israel to ally itself with Iran. Israel also understands that time has changed and with that, Israel’s national interest has also shifted. It is surrounded by Arab states, with which Israel must coexist peacefully and collaboratively if it wishes to ensure its long-term security and economic development.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, led by the clergy, has made Israel its archenemy and woven its enmity into its religious and cultural advocacy. Certainly there can be no rapprochement between Israel and the current Iranian regime, but even if there were to be regime change in Iran, it would not guarantee an automatic change in the bilateral relations between Jerusalem and Tehran.
Any new government in Tehran will not readily disavow (because of the religious component) the clergy’s previous policy toward Israel, and Israel will not simply set aside its bitter experience with Iran from the past 35 years. The mutual feeling of enmity and hate became imbued in a new generation on both sides.
The fact that Israel supplied weapons to Iran during the Iraq-Iran War was done at the behest of the U.S. and was a part of a calculated strategy by the Reagan administration to supply both combatants with weapons. As former CIA Associate Deputy Director for Operation Ed Juchniewicz put it, “We did not want either side to have the advantage. We just wanted them to kick the shit out of each other.”
As a result, Israel cannot, and most likely will not, simply trade prospective peace with the Arab states, and by extension with the entire Sunni Muslim world, for the uncertainty of future relations with Iran. Iran is primarily motivated by its desire to become the dominant power in the region and will attempt to do so by forging an anti-Arab Sunni coalition. Israel cannot be part of an anti-Arab grouping because its national interests do not align with Iran’s ambitions and nuclear designs.
Moreover, Israel simply does not trust the Iranian leadership, regardless of their changed demeanor and public rhetoric. From the Israeli perspective, Rouhani is no different from his predecessor, Ahmadinejad; he is basically a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and Israel will not buy into his charm offensive when at the same time Ayatollah Khamenei condemns Israel and calls it a “rabid dog.”
Israel Cannot Freeze Relations with the Arab States:
The proxy Sunni-Shiite war is likely to go on for years if not decades; it is a defining war because the stakes are too high and bear enormous implications for both sides. Israel by necessity will find itself on the side of the Sunni Arab camp, particularly because this may be the most opportune time for Israel to make every effort to settle its conflict with the Arab states. As a result, Arab-Israeli relations will naturally evolve toward mutual accommodation, which leaves Iran out of the equation.
Nuclear Iran Unacceptable to Israel:
Finally, for the Arab states, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons poses the most dangerous challenge, and they view Israel as the only regional power that shares their fear and can prevent Iran from achieving its goal. This common concern is likely to accelerate the peace process, and once peace is established, however long that might take, Israel will have no reason to switch alliances regardless of the ultimate fate of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
The question is, will there be any circumstance under which Israel and Iran could normalize their relations? The answer is yes. But before that can happen, there must be a regime change in Iran and a peaceful solution to Iran’s nuclear program that, to Israel’s satisfaction, will bind any succeeding government in Tehran. Even then, Israel’s greater interest lies with the Arab states, and as long as the violent conflict between the Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia, and the Shiites, led by Iran, continues, the emergence of an Israeli-Iranian axis remains illusionary at best. It should be further noted that the regional geopolitical conditions have changed, and Iran itself is the culprit behind some of these changes, which will be hard to reverse.
Iran must now cope with the new reality, which may well explain why Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and why its efforts in this regard will set Israel further apart from Tehran, rather than bring them together to form an unholy axis.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Website: www.alonben-meir.com