by Trita Parsi (2007)
This is one of the best books I have read. I read it over six months ago yet it seems as clear as if I had read it yesterday and still feel excited about what Trita Parsi has achieved with this book, demonstrating that while the evolution of the relationship between Israel and Iran has had a deeply ideological face, underneath this façade geopolitical factors have been the real drivers and the real causes of their gradual transition from allies to enmity. Again, their current enmity is not founded in the Iranian revolution at the end of the 1970s but the termination of the cold war and the defeat of Iraq in the first Persian Gulf war in the 1990s. Parsi bases his analysis on 130 interviews of senior officials in charge of the foreign policy of the three countries covering the period from the decline of the Shah to the 2006 Lebanon war.
Strikingly Parsi shows the way geopolitical realities caused Iran and Israel to continue the track they were in before the revolution. Khomeini, whether he knew it or not, pursued the same objectives that the Shah had done, inherited the same problems and found himself needing Israel as an ally, despite his ideology.
The sharpest conclusion for today really concerns the third member of the triangle, the USA. While ideology is of course essential (George H. W. Bush called it ‘that [elusive] vision thing’) but it must take account of the realities; if they are allowed to come into opposition then reality will win every time, even in a unipolar world where you have a crushing military advantage over everyone else. While there is every sign that the Iranians have learned this lesson, the current US administration has forgotten it, and until it relearns it things will probably get worse in the Middle East.
It is interesting to review the geopolitical factors that have been driving Israeli and Iranian policy. Many of them are actually mental or cultural in character—in other words, ideological realities. Firstly there is the historical fact of the Persian dominance of the gulf which gives Iranians a sense of entitlement to leadership in the region. This is as true for Khomeini and Khamanei as it was for the Shah and drove their foreign policy. Below their very different ideological faces this reality could always be found.
The second reality that confronted the ambitious rulers of Iran was that in order to assume such a position of leadership they had to find a way of appealing to the diverse groups of Arabs on the other side of the gulf, being naturally wary of the relatively unified northern Persians. The manifest reality of these different cultural traditions may be obvious but it is nevertheless an important factor.
The third ideological reality is the creation of the state of Israel, and the dispute as to how to provide a home for the Palestinian Arabs that became displaced in the process. While the Arabs have been to war several times with Israel, the final reality is that no contemporary Arab state seeks the dissolution of Israel—indeed, whatever their rhetoric, they would each view such a prospect with terror as the consequence of the resulting chaos could well see their own destruction. (I was prepared for these kind of paradoxes through a knowledge of the politics of the Republic of Ireland during the ‘troubles’: whatever the rhetoric of politicians in the southern twenty six counties, they would look on the prospect of a united Ireland with horror and dread—or at least the wise ones did.) It is not going to happen. Nevertheless the Arab leaders can’t ignore or abandon the Palestinians either: it has such emotional resonance. The Palestinians may be in a sense geopolitically irrelevant but the emotional resonance of the cause creates its own reality, just as the Israeli cause produces an emotional resonance in Europeans and North Americans that creates its own reality. The reality of the ideas of Israel and Palestine in Europeans, Americans and Arabs drives a great deal (in addition to the manifest geopolitical factors, such as the fact that much of the Christian-dominated industrial nation’s oil happens to be located in the ground under the predominantly Shiah-Muslim Arabs and Persians).
One such consequence was that, although the Shah’s Iran and Israel formed a de facto alliance against the Arabs, the Shah wanted to remain on friendly terms with the Arabs and so couldn’t formally recognise Israel and make the alliance public. Until the Palestinian issue has been resolved de jure recognition of Israel will be a slow and uncertain business in the Arab world (and the wider Islamic world).
As Parsi shows, the Shah’s fatal mistake was negotiating and signing the 1975 Algiers accord with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, so was dumping the Iraqi Kurds whom the Shah and the Israelis were using to keep Saddam’s Iraq tied down. In pursuit of his Arab policy the Shah upset the balance in the region, much to the chagrin of the Israelis, leading Saddam to pursue an aggressive military build up that menaced Iran and Israel alike. The consequence was the Iran-Iraq war which saw the Americans backing Saddam’s Iraq, and the Israelis siding with the Iranians, and indeed trying to patch things up between the Americans and Iranians in what we now know as the Iran-Contra scandal. The Israelis were one of the very few people to come to the aid of the Iranians in their dire hour of need when practically the rest of the world lined up behind Saddam: the USA and her allies, the Soviet Union and her allies and all the Arabs.
Here you could see the typical complexities of the triangular relationship that Parsi describes so poignantly. Although the Iranians were only too happy to repair the relationship with the US, the US remained highly ambivalent about doing business with the regime that had kidnapped their diplomats. While the Israelis wanted a more a more cordial relationship with Iran, the Iranians were shockingly ungrateful for the lifeline the Israelis were throwing them. It was at this point that Khomeini turned up the rhetoric against Israel to cover his tracks, providing us with the quotation that would almost define today’s relationship between Iran and Israel when Ahmadinejad repeated it shortly after his election in an obscure 2005 conference in Tehran.
The Imam [Khomeini] said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.
[Interestingly Parsi offers a different translation on page one that states ‘This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history’ (my emphasis). Others have insisted that Ahmadinejad’s statement was declarative rather than imperative, and that this is backed up by the context of Ahmadinejad’s speech (see Arash Norouzi); the difference is not minor.] The Israelis didn’t pay much attention to the rhetoric trusting that Khomeini would come round. If he did it was too late.
Khmomeini’s Arab policy involved binding together the Arabs and the Persians through Islam to drive out the influence of the Christian imperialists by exporting his revolution. While the expansionary Persian nationalism of the Shah made the Arabs wary, Khomeini exporting the revolution, based as it was on Shiah Islam, terrified the Sunni Arab rulers of the gulf, making them only too happy to underwrite Saddam’s great Persian adventure. Like the Shah before him, Khomeini’s Arab policy was a complete disaster, something that has long been recognised (quietly) in Tehran, making the mullahs into skilful pragmatists (though Khomeini’s willingness to deal with the Israelis illustrates that they were always quite pragmatic).
The Palestinian issue also interacted with the Israeli ideology with consequences for the Israel-Iran relationship and disastrous consequences for the Israelis. Likud founded as it was on revisionist Zionism, aiming to achieve a greater Israel that is simply incompatible with handing over the occupied territories to the Palestinians to form their own state, so when the Likud came to power after the signing of the Oslo accords they viewed the peace process and the Arab policy with extreme distaste.
Historically, when Israel was at war with the Arabs they form alliances with the likes of Turkey, the Kurds and Iran, known as the ‘periphery’ strategy. The prize was Iran. So it is that when the Israelis pursue their own Arab policy and try to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians they tend to cast off the Iranians and, as Khomeini had done to the Israelis, demonise the Iranians to gather support for their Arab policy, and this is just what the Israeli Labour Party did when they engaged in the peace process. The Iranians react predictably to this move to isolate them by supporting rejectionist Palestinian groups in order to break up the move to isolate them. In so doing they tend to appeal to the ‘Arab street’, rallying them against any moves by their client rulers to ‘sell out’ the Palestinians. Ahmadinejad is an expert at this.
So when the ‘hawkish’ Likud of Aerial Sharon came to power we see a return to security from the periphery the Labour rhetorical attacks on the Iranians being directed at the Palestinians instead.
The pivot that set the Iranians and the Israelis on their current collision course was the collapse of the Soviet Union and then Iraq. The US no longer needed Iran as a bulwark against the red menace to the North and Israel and Iran no longer needed each other to counter the Arabs. The imperative was now a partnership with the US, and the Israelis feared that they would get marginalised if the US restored its alliance with Iran, geopolitical logic pointing to Israeli interests being sacrificed by the US in the cause of a better relationship with the Islamic-majority oil-rich states (as happened after the first Persian Gulf War with the Madrid Conference).
To understand all this, and find out how the Iranians delivered Afghanistan politically and militarily to the Americans in 2001, and how Hezbollah won the 2006 Lebanon war with the aid of Iranian training (suggesting to me that some of the bluster and hubris we hear today concerning the effortless invincibility of armies with unopposed armour and close air support might be misplaced), and much else besides, read the book.
Treacherous Alliance tears away the smokescreens created by the rhetorical games, and it is easy to see how the lessons apply today. Whether it is the Neocons (or Ziocons) telling us that the mad mullahs are trying to get their hands on the doomsday machine so that they can fulfill their dark fantasies of destroying Israel (and themselves, and everyone else) or Ahmadinejad courting the Arab street with his violent rhetorical attacks on the colonial power’s sensibilities, the scales fell from my eyes.