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.)


  12 comments for “Iran Extends a Hand to Israel

  1. Gregory Kruse
    February 8, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    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.

  2. Xiao Zhang
    February 8, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    Go good Iran and Israel

  3. Joe Tedesky
    February 8, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    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?

  4. borat
    February 8, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    During a visit to Iran last week, Jibril Rajoub called for a return to armed resistance against Israel if Kerry’s peace talks fail, according to a report in Makor Rishon.

    Armed Resistance is a euphemism for suicide bombers and other terror attacks, and Rajoub is one of the Palestinian Authority’s strongmen, as well as the current deputy chief of the Fatah (PLO) Central Committee.

    During his visit, Rajoub met with the Iranian foreign minister Mohamad Juar Zarif.

    The meeting signifies an end to the freeze between the Palestinian Authority and Iran that went on for many years.

    On an “Al Alam” Iranian TV interview, Rajoub said that if the talks failed, “returning to armed resistance would be a good strategy for the Palestinians.” While the PA ambassador to Iran made sure to mention that the talks have reached a dead end.

    No one from the Palestinian Authority denounced Rajoub’s pronouncements of renewed terror attacks, while Hamas responded and said the statement was a welcome positive change, and Islamic Jihad said they hoped [Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Abu Mazen would visit Iran soon.

    Abu Mazen released an official statement that, “It’s understood how important the renewal of ties with Iran are for the Palestinian nation.”

    Israel has expressed concern that if a “Palestinian State” were to be created, they would immediately sign treaties with Israel’s enemies, such as Iran, and bring Iran onto the Israeli border.

    It doesn’t look like they’re waiting for a state to do that.

    • Paul Surovell
      February 8, 2014 at 11:22 pm

      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. John
    February 8, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    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 !

  6. Hillary
    February 8, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    “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.

  7. borat
    February 9, 2014 at 10:17 am

    What Rouhani Says:

    .Condemns the killing of innocents
    .Talks about a positive approach to technology
    .Talks about the end of outside involvement in Syria
    .Claims Iran’s nuclear project is peaceful

    What Rouhani Does:
    .Executes hundreds of innocents in Iran
    .Prevents Iranians from freely surfing the internet
    .Supports Assad who murders innocents
    .Continues developing Iran’s military nuclear capability

    Behind the smiles and the mirth brought about by Hassan Rohani’s triumph in the first round of the Iranian presidential election, there lurks a personal tragedy: his elder son took his own life in 1992 in protest of his father’s close connection with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

    “I hate your government, your lies, your corruption, your religion, your double acts and your hypocrisy,” wrote the future president’s son in his suicide note, published in London by exiled Iranian political commentator Ali Reza Nouri.

    “I am ashamed to live in such environment where I’m forced to lie to my friends each day, telling them that my father isn’t part of all of this. Telling them my father loves this nation, whereas I believe this to be not true. It makes me sick seeing you, my father, kiss the hand of Khamenei,” read the letter published in the London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat

    Official Iranian press attributed the young man’s suicide to unrequited love.
    Rohani had harsh words for his son who he said committed a great sin in putting an end to his life; however he still made sure he was buried in a select plot in the temple of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

    Iran’s newly elected president pledged Monday, in his first press conference since being elected to presidency, to follow a “path of moderation” and promised greater openness over the country’s nuclear program, emphasizing messages from Western leaders since his victory that have brought cautious hope of new openings with Tehran.

    But he said he would not support halting Iran’s uranium enrichment, which is a key stumbling block on talks between Iran and world powers.

    Iran’s president-elect said the United States must recognize Iran’s nuclear rights and pledge not to interfere in its internal affairs before direct talks between the two countries can take place.

    “The issue of relations between Iran and America is a complicated and difficult issue,” Rohani said. “It is an old wound that needs to be … healed.”

    • Paul Surovell
      February 9, 2014 at 1:23 pm

      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.

  8. ali
    February 10, 2014 at 10:55 am

    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.

  9. John
    February 10, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    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.

  10. borat
    February 12, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    TEHRAN — Mixing exhortations of death to America with admonishments to children about healthy teeth and gums, Iran celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on Tuesday, and the state news media said millions had exuberantly participated.
    At the largest rallies, here in the capital, the talks on Iran’s disputed nuclear program with world powers, including the United States, dominated the event, traditionally organized by hard-line factions that have shown strong skepticism about the negotiations.
    Posters and placards were distributed bearing slogans that referred to Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent remarks that despite the discussions, the military option remained on the table for resolving the dispute over the nuclear program. Iran contends it is pursuing atomic power for peaceful purposes, but many other countries, notably the United States and Israel, suspect its nuclear program is intended to camouflage the production of nuclear weapons.
    “We are eager for all options on the table,” many of the placards read, cheerfully hoisted by Iranian parents pushing baby strollers while shouting, “Death to America!” Other posters read, “We are ready for the great battle.”
    Wendy R. Sherman, the lead American negotiator in the nuclear talks, was singled out for particular denunciation, with many rally participants shouting, “Death to Sherman,” the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency reported. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a week ago, Ms. Sherman said the Iranian government had started distributing free food, after the United States released $500 million to Iran as part of a temporary agreement over the country’s nuclear program that took effect on Jan. 20.
    Iranian hard-liners reacted angrily, accusing the Americans of distortion. The money — which came from Iranian accounts frozen under sanctions — had paid for the food long ago, they said, before the United States seized the cash.
    Some protesters also shouted, “Death to Obama!” and “Death to Kerry!”
    The rallies celebrated Feb. 11, 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries declared victory over the American-backed government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and brought to power a government overseen by Shiite Muslim clerics.
    President Hassan Rouhani, a cleric who was elected in June, criticized what he called American threats against Iran but said that if world powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program respected Tehran’s “rights,” they would receive “a positive and appropriate answer” from Iran. The next round of negotiations is scheduled to take place in Vienna on Tuesday.
    “Iran is determined to hold fair and constructive talks based on international law,” Mr. Rouhani said on state radio. “We hope that we will see the same kind of will from the opposite side during the talks that will begin within days.”

    I suppose iran is benevolent normal state…..

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