Small Steps Towards a Major Shift in Iranian-Israeli Relations?

Could there be a bilateral thaw between Tehran and Tel Aviv? Navid Hassibi sees a number of hopeful signs.
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February 26, 2014

There has been talk as of late about subtle Iranian-Israeli overtures at multilateral conferences. These rumours have sparked conversations in policy circles about the possibilities of a bilateral thaw between Tehran and Tel Aviv.  While speculations are premature and perhaps represent wishful thinking, it makes geostrategic sense for the two adversaries to at least consider setting aside their mutual hostility to address common concerns in the region, namely the rise of extremism.  The two countries have cooperated in the past and the time is right for them to leverage these subtleties to cooperate once more.

Beginning in Abu Dhabi in mid-January at the International Renewable Energy Agency’s annual assembly that included delegations from Iran and Israel, both led by their respective Ministers of Energy.  While Iran traditionally boycotts events that include Israeli participation, this time Iran attended and its representatives even remained at the table when the Israeli Minister spoke.  As noted by Meir Javedanfar, “no Iranian delegate would dare take such a risk without clearance from the very top.”  Javedanfar suggests that the favour may have been returned at the Munich Security Conference in early February when Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Defense Minister and a prominent Israeli politician, remained in his seat to listen to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.  This is in stark contrast to the United Nations General Assembly meeting last September when both Iran and Israel boycotted each other’s speeches to the Assembly.  The following day in an interview, Foreign Minister Zarif seemingly reciprocated when he labelled the Holocaust a horrifying tragedy.  He even stated that if the Palestinian-Israeli issue were to be resolved, Iran would assess whether to recognize Israel.  Zarif later denied making these latter statements (likely due to domestic factors) claiming his comments were distorted; however, the change in the Iranian foreign ministry’s tone since President Hassan Rouhani’s election is certainly worthy of note. 

These subtle gestures come as Iran has been redefining its international image after years of incendiary and anti-Israeli rhetoric from the previous administration.  Last September, Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif wished Jews around the world, many of which happen to be in Israel, a happy Rosh Hashana and the Iranian government recently donated large sums of funds to a Jewish hospital in Tehran. 

An Iranian-Israeli relationship is not unprecedented.  During the the Shah’s reign, both countries enjoyed a geostrategic relationship consisting of intelligence and arms cooperation, energy cooperation including the Israeli import of Iranian oil, and a common position on mutual threats including the Soviet Union and pan-Arabism.  As hard as it is to imagine, revolutionary Iran continued to cooperate with Israel during much of the 1980s and 1990s despite anti-Israeli and anti-Iranian rhetoric emanating out of Tehran and Tel Aviv.  Israel also supported the Islamic Republic with arms during its war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  According to reports, a group of Israeli agricultural experts visited Iran secretly in the late 1990s and met with its deputy minister of agriculture.  Around this time, the two countries also allegedly began to renegotiate Israel's $1 billion debt to Iran.  Tehran even allowed Israeli experts to visit areas damaged by the 2003 earthquake in Bam, since much of the infrastructure there was originally built by Israeli experts and firms before the Islamic revolution.  In sum, there is a track record of Iranian-Israeli cooperation regardless of the politics and rhetoric weighing against it.

When deemed appropriate, their respective national interests have guided both countries to engage one another in the past.  Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s near-obsession with addressing the perceived Iranian threat is vociferous, during his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, he reportedly felt that previous Israeli attempts at campaigning against Iran was counterproductive and to show good will, he began sending signals that he preferred dialogue with Tehran.  Likewise in Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei approved what was to be a grand bargain with the United States in 2003 (the Bush administration dismissed it) under which Iran would have recognized Israel as part of a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Presently, the geostrategic reality in the Middle East is once again in favour of an Iranian-Israeli détente and possible rapprochement, whether it be overt or in secret.  As a result, the antagonism between the two states can be remedied politically.  In contrast, the turmoil in Syria and the proxy battle with Saudi Arabia underscores the deep enmity between Tehran and its longstanding rival, Riyadh.  This has been highlighted by former U.S. ambassador Frederic Hof who revealed that Iranian officials told him in private that Iran was not in conflict with the United State or Israel but rather believed Saudi Arabia to be the main regional threat due to its tampering in Syria.  This perception in Tehran has already led it to counter Saudi regional influence by repairing regional relationships that have deteriorated over the years.  Iran and Turkey, for example, are enjoying a warming in relations and are faced with similar threats posed by growing regional sectarianism.  Iran is working to repair its bilateral ties with the United Arab Emirates by purportedly negotiating a solution to the island disputes in the Persian Gulf.  Compounded by Iran’s existing close ties to Iraq and Oman, Saudi Arabia is becoming diplomatically outmaneuvered in the region.  Even the November nuclear deal in Geneva with the so-called P5+1 can be looked at through the prism of enhancing Iran’s regional status to the detriment of Saudi Arabia, which has threatened to distance itself from the United States as a result of what it views as a thawing in U.S.-Iran relations.  

By re-establishing strategic cooperation with Israel, Iran can divert its attention closer to home without fearing imminent Israeli military action and can slowly carve away at the sole issue bridging Israel and Saudi Arabia, the perceived threat posed by Tehran.  As I have previously written, Saudi Arabia and Israel have less in common than Iran and Israel, who share much in the way of culture and history, who are linked through Iranian-Israeli Jewry.  In fact, Iran possesses the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel and there are over 200,000 Persian Jews presently living in Israel.

In Israel’s case, it can benefit from cooperation with Iran, particularly as the region is under threat of growing extremism by fundamentalist Al Qaeda-linked fighters who are waging jihad against Shiites and Jews alike.  Furthermore, détente and potentially rapprochement with Tehran will likely remove threats posed by Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, which acts as an insurance policy for Iran against possible Israeli military action, much like Israeli nuclear submarines in the Persian Gulf which serve a similar function vis-à-vis Iran.  It may also positively affect U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and hedge against threats by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories.

Iran and Israel must seize the opportunity presented to them by recent subtle gestures and look beyond their political differences and let their national interest guide them to counter common regional concerns.  If it was done before, it can be done again.

A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian.