Iranian rhetoric : Beneath the veneer, Realpolitik rules

The last few years have produced an enormous trove of literature about

conflict and violence in the Middle East, no doubt because there appears to be so

much of it. Academics, policy-makers and media pundits remain fascinated by

the “nature” of terrorism and the impending threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The superheated rhetoric of leaders in Iran and Israel has only accelerated the possibility of confrontation between the two countries, while the cumulative effect of the media echo chamber has added to the clamour of war drums and sabre-rattling inside the Washington Beltway.

Out of this cacophony emerges a book with the clarity and insight that so often elude US policymakers. Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States is a deft account of the back-channel relationship between the three countries from Israel’s inception in 1948 through the present.

In revealing interviews with 130 decision-makers in Iran, Israel and the US, Parsi, an analyst who also heads the National Iranian American Council, crafts an alternative view of a conflict that is often couched in ideological terms.

Parsi shatters several myths about the Israel-Iran rivalry, or the “eight-hundred pound gorilla,” as he refers to it several times throughout the text. For example, while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly condemns Israel and questions the validity of the Holocaust, the Islamic Republic is actually home to the second-largest population of Jews in the Middle East (Israel is first).

Few Iranian Jews take Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric seriously, writes Parsi, “and they point to the fact that little has changed for Iranian Jews under him.” In fact, Iran’s sole Jewish representative in the Majlis, Maurice Mohtamed, spoke out against the president’s comments, and during the height of the Islamic Revolution, Khomeini issued a fatwa protecting Jews as a religious minority contingent on their rejection of Zionism and the Israeli state, according to Parsi.

In Israel, he complicates the notions of separate Israeli and Iranian identities through his exchanges with several Iranian Jews who left Iran not for ideological reasons as much as for economic ones. Interestingly, some of Israel’s most prominent public officials are originally Persian, including President Moshe Katzav, and ex-Israeli Defence Forces chief of staff, Dan Halutz (born to Persian immigrants).

But Parsi’s book is remarkable for its detailed look at the international relations dimension of the Israel-Iran relationship. There exists, beneath the vitriolic public exchanges, a history of intelligence cooperation, arms-sales, and secret dialogue between the two countries. And the dialogue continued even after Iran turned from a monarchy into an Islamic theocracy.

The “alliance of necessity” initially formed out of a mutual concern over the threat of neighbouring countries – purely pragmatic and practical, the epitome of realpolitik. Israel viewed Iran as a possible periphery ally, outside the orbit of its immediate threats (Nasser’s Egypt, Syria, Jordan). Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, envisioned his country as the dominant hegemon in the Middle East, and viewed neighbouring Iraq as its immediate threat.

The Islamic Revolution took the U.S. by surprise, but even the rigid ideological rhetoric of the mullahs could be manipulated if the political situation demanded. While the mullahs maintained a fierce public posture condemning Israel, they approached them for weapons during the Iran-Iraq war. The end goal was to build a stronger relationship with the US, and if that meant theocratic Iran would have to go through Israel to build, it would. Successive US administrations complicated the relationship further.

US neo-conservatives, who got their country involved in the Iran-Contra scandal at the height of Iran’s war against Iraq, opposed contact with Iran 15 years later in spite of Tehran’s repeated overtures. “There is a great deal of confusion as to how America got mixed up in an Israeli-Iranian rivalry that is neither about ideology nor religion,” Parsi writes.

“The pro-Israeli community turned strongly against Iran, influencing US policy on Iran in an almost emotional way,” said former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. But even Iran’s links to groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah could be negotiated, as evidenced by the 2003 overture by the Iranian regime, and approved by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to stop funding them in return for certain safety guarantees and a wider political opening with the US. Congressman Bob Ney delivered the message to the White House, but Iran never received a reply.

“Treacherous Alliance” is a timely and important read for anybody who wants to push back the essentialist arguments that suggest an impending clash of ideologies. In Parsi’s estimation, as long as the US ignores the “eight-hundred pound gorilla” in the room, it will not be able to resolve any of its problems in the region. — IPS