Iran Extends a Hand to Israel

Israel today condemns Iran’s Islamic state, but Israel was its secret partner in the 1980s, selling billions of dollars in weapons and quietly lobbying the U.S. government on Iran’s behalf. Now, Iran says a return to those warmer relations is possible, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview the other day, “Once the Palestinian problem is solved the conditions for an Iranian recognition of Israel will be possible.”

Set aside for the moment the fact that Zarif was addressing only one-half of a process and left open the question of what it would take for an Israeli recognition of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which may be the more problematic part of the equation. Note how the mere possibility of the Islamic Republic recognizing the State of Israel is a universe apart from so much of what is continually said about Iran, especially said by the government of Israel. You know, all that rhetoric about how Iran is supposedly dedicated to the destruction of Israel and so forth.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

They are a universe apart because the rhetoric is mistaken and Zarif’s comment is an unexceptional reflection of history and of actual Iranian interests. There should be nothing surprising about his remark, and nothing surprising about it while taking it as an honest and direct expression of Iranian intentions.

Amid today’s rancor it is easy to forget the substantial history of Israeli-Iranian cooperation. That history included not only the time of the shah but also the early years of the Islamic republic, when Israel was providing logistical and training assistance to Iran and urging the United States to tilt toward Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.

A fundamental basis for cooperation back then, as it would be now and in the future, is the status of Israel and Iran (along with Turkey) as important non-Arab states in a predominantly Arab region. They share concerns about some of the same threats and adversaries, including some adversaries of the violent extremist sort.

Being estranged from each other is a missed opportunity for Israel as well as for Iran. It represents part of the cost that Israel incurs as long as its government swears eternal hostility against Iran.

Two hurdles in particular need to be cleared to get any closer to an end to the estrangement. One is completion of a negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, partly because of how that issue has overshadowed everything else in many relationships with Iran.

A nuclear deal would open the door to an improved U.S. relationship with Iran, and it is hard to imagine Israeli-Iranian relations getting ahead of U.S.-Iranian relations. It also is hard to imagine any Iranian leader moving toward normal relations with a government that is repeatedly threatening Iran with military attack.

The other hurdle is exactly the one Zarif identified: resolution of the Palestinian problem. As long as that problem is unresolved, any Iranian government will be quite vocal in criticizing Israel’s policies and its continued occupation. It will be so partly because of genuine sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians and partly because of how strongly the issue plays with Arab and Muslim audiences.

One might also think substantial improvement in Israeli-Iranian relations would also require substantial change in the government of Israel. But perhaps resolution of the Palestinian problem would presuppose such change anyway.

Maybe all of this is a pipe dream as long as Israel has a government that doesn’t want anyone to have any sort of relationship with Iran. Right now we have a sort of perverse symmetry: an Iranian leader says solving the Palestinian problem will lead to improved relations with Israel, while Israeli leaders promote awful relations with Iran partly to take attention away from the unsolved Palestinian problem.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

9 comments for “Iran Extends a Hand to Israel

  1. John
    February 10, 2014 at 12:24

    What about the Shah’s prisons full of people suffering all forms of inhumanies, Borat. And Israel, the US were helping him. Celebrities loved having their photos taken with him and there he was, a most cruel corrupt leader. And how did he get there? The US and Britain were upset that the elected government was going to nationalize the oil industry so it was under Iranian control and the country would benefit from its own resources. For the West’s greed he was stuck in there against the people’s wishes. Once again you reap what you sow.
    And the Iranian people aren’t stupid Borat. They know that if they used nuclear weapons first they would be annihalated. If they do get them years from now, it is because a threatened people will gather together and feel they need them as insurance.

  2. ali
    February 10, 2014 at 10:55

    Zionist regime is not in the size to be put in the list of Iranian nation’s enemies; Iran will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground if Israel launches a military strike against the Islamic Republic.

  3. Paul Surovell
    February 9, 2014 at 13:23

    The US, UK, GB, France, Germany, China and Russia are negotiating with Rouhani to establish a verifiable regime that will assure the world that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.

    During the Cold War, the United States successfully negotiated agreements with the USSR to mutually limit the scale of their nuclear arsenals. The accusations made against the USSR paled in comparison to your critique of Rouhani.

    An agreement with Iran is in the interest of national and international security. And it can be accomplished without regime change, as the agreements with the USSR made clear.

  4. Paul Surovell
    February 8, 2014 at 23:22

    In an interview with Al-Monitor, Rajoub was very clear that should peace talks fail, resistance will not target Israel, but will be limited to actions in the West Bank:

    “Al-Monitor: What do you mean by ‘all the options are on the table’? Will Fatah adopt the path of armed struggle once again and leave the peace process?

    “Rajoub: We’re not going to make a suicidal decision. The resistance will be limited to the occupied areas and against the occupier, and this is our right, according to the international law. ”

  5. Hillary
    February 8, 2014 at 21:07

    “It also is hard to imagine any Iranian leader moving toward normal relations with a government that is repeatedly threatening Iran with military attack.”

    Just how can one country threaten a 24/7 Nuclear attack on another ?

    The estimates for the number of Palestinians living under Israeli OCCUPATION in the West Bank, WITHOUT voting rights, range from 1.5 million to 2.5 million.

  6. John
    February 8, 2014 at 20:17

    How long do you make a people suffer Borat? Out of a huge population of Palestinians you would normally expect there to be some who are more vengeful. Perhaps a family member or members were killed (civilian casualty rates are high), perhaps their homes were bulldozed down in the middle of the night with little warning and no prior access to law. Perhaps their legal land ownership has been revoked by a illegal oppressor. Perhaps they can’t run a business because they can’t get good water, or reliable electricity, or health care because Israel destroyed the infrastructure. Perhaps their crops were burned, or they were shot at by settlers who think God gave them the land (historical narative tale). Perhaps their crops have been sitting at a border crossing rotting. Perhaps they can’t see their family because of restrictions. Perhaps they view Israelis travelling on roads built on their land while they have great difficultly getting about themselves. Perhaps their fields and homes are flooded by sluice gates in the great wall or by the wall itself. Perhaps they can’t get to their fields because of the wall.
    You reap what you sow man. And the reason people get really angry about it, is because this is all being done by a supposed western civilization at a time in history when that practice is no longer legal. All people have rights !

  7. Joe Tedesky
    February 8, 2014 at 16:06

    There are many of you who frequent this website that impress me with your knowledge of the Middle East. My question to all you who may know is; how much of the struggles between ME countries involves PIPELINES?

  8. Xiao Zhang
    February 8, 2014 at 14:05

    Go good Iran and Israel

  9. Gregory Kruse
    February 8, 2014 at 14:03

    What would the world be like if the student revolution had not taken place in Iran. The US was pouring billions into that country to make it a regional power. Perhaps the time has come to resume that effort.

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