Whither the Persian-Jewish alliance?

There is a romantic suggestiveness to the relations between Persians and Jews that has survived the hostility between Iran and Israel. As comfortable as it may be to remember the heyday of Israeli-Iranian ties as such, there has never been anything romantic about the real-political cooperation they enjoyed before the Iranian revolution. Today, the same forces that once brought the two together are fueling a rivalry between them that perplexes those trapped in the romantic memories of yesteryear.

The essence of the Iranian-Israeli entente in the 1960s and 1970s was not the inevitability of a non-Arab alliance against the Arab masses per se, but a congruence of interest formed by the configuration of power in the region. Iran and Israel shared interests because they shared common threats–the Soviet Union and militant Arab states. In the power balance of the region at the time, an Iranian-Israeli entente made sense regardless of the non-Arab make-up of the two countries.

But the balance thrived in a logic of its own in which the very basis of the alliance was threatened if either country managed to improve relations with its neighbors. Since Arab-Israel hostilities ran deeper than Arab-Persian grievances, the Jewish state needed Iran more than Tehran needed Tel Aviv. Correspondingly, any political diplomatic development that undermined the basis of this relationship was more likely to benefit Iran than Israel.

Indeed, Iran–whose relative power was surging in the 1970s and who aspired to play a dominant role in the affairs of the region and beyond–was bound to betray the alliance since Tehran’s rapid growth defied the very equilibrium the entente was founded on.

The Shah aptly understood that he could neither obtain nor maintain Iran’s position as the preeminent power of the Persian Gulf through arms and oil alone; Iran needed to be seen as a legitimate power in the eyes of the Arabs as well. The Shah realized that Iran could not forever treat the Arabs as enemies and balance them through Iranian military might. Not only was a more conciliatory policy necessary to gain legitimacy for Iran’s domination; befriending the Arabs most efficiently guaranteed Iran’s long-term security as well.

Improved Iranian-Arab relations, however, could not be achieved while Iran maintained close ties to Israel. Only weeks after signing the Algiers Accord with Iraq in the spring of 1975, the Shah described the need for a new approach to regional affairs to journalist Muhammad Heikal: "We followed the principle ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ and our relations with Israel began to develop. But now the situation has changed…. I think occasionally of a new equilibrium in the region …. Perhaps [it] can be integrated into an Islamic framework."

Having sealed Iran’s hegemonic position in the Persian Gulf in strategic terms through the Algiers Accord, the Shah began distancing himself from the Jewish state in order to win the acceptance of the Arabs. Iran was at its peak. It had befriended Egypt, neutralized Iraq, quadrupled its oil income and taken advantage of Israel’s proximity to Washington to establish its unsurpassed position in the Middle East. Iran had simply outgrown much of its need for Israel.

In spite of the Iraq-Iran war, Iran’s Islamist revolution intensified and added an ideological motivation to the strategic reorientation away from the Persian-Jewish alliance. Israeli strategists, guided by David Ben Gurion’s "periphery doctrine" that propagated alliances with the non-Arab states of the Middle East periphery in order to weaken the Arab states of the vicinity, struggled with the loss of Iran. The common threats to Iran and Israel still existed, as should the basis for cooperation, they reasoned. Throughout the 1980s, Israel unsuccessfully sought to establish ties with Khomeini’s Iran, failing to realize the strategic reasoning behind the ideological rhetoric of the regime. However, while Iran rejected cooperation with Israel, the shared threats prompted it to refrain from translating its anti-Israel rhetoric into operational policy.

However, the end of the Cold War also ended the Iranian-Israeli cold peace. The distribution of relative power shifted toward Iran and Israel and formed a new bipolar structure in the region. The defeat of Iraq in 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union improved the security environments of both Iran and Israel–but also left both states unchecked. Without Iraq balancing Iran, the Persians would now become a threat, Israeli hawks argued.

By late 1992, prior to Iran’s sponsorship of Palestinian extremists, Israeli Labor party officials began to publicly depict Iran as an existential threat. Rhetoric reflected intentions and, having been freed from the chains of Iraq, Iran was acquiring the capacity to turn intentions into policy, they argued. While the threat depiction resembled prophecy more than reality, it underlined that the peace process had turned the periphery doctrine on its head: to convince a skeptical Israeli public that peace could be made with the Arab vicinity, it was necessary to bolster the threat portrayal of the Persian periphery.

At the time, Iran was keener on peace-making with Washington than seeing to Israel’s destruction. Much like the Shah, the mullahs were seeking a key role in Persian Gulf affairs. But now, the legitimacy Iran needed didn’t come from the Arabs, it came from America. Tehran believed that its behind-the-scenes cooperation with America in the 1991 Gulf war would be rewarded through Iran’s inclusion in the post-war regional security arrangement. But when Washington under Bush Sr. declared that Saddam was saved in order to balance Iran, Tehran concluded that it could only compel the US to accept an Iranian role in the region by undermining American policies.

The American-Israeli push to create a new Middle East order based on Iran’s exclusion and isolation prompted Tehran to turn its anti-Israel rhetoric into policy. Tehran began supporting violent Palestinian groups in order to undermine the American-Israeli endeavor by hitting its weakest link–the peace process.

While Iran’s obstructionism played a minor role in undoing the Oslo process, Oslo’s collapse removed a strategic threat and enabled Tehran to contemplate moderation in its Israel policy. For instance, President Khatami re-adopted Iran’s pre-Madrid policy in which Tehran accepted any Israel-Arab arrangement acceptable to the Palestinians.

Currently, if a US-Iran accord can be achieved that grants Iran a key role in Persian Gulf security matters, continued interference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will lose strategic utility for Iran. However, Israeli pressure for a hawkish US policy on Iran–driven by its fears that Washington will betray Israeli concerns in a US-Iran deal–only strengthens the strategic value of continued involvement in the conflict for Iran.

Today, Washington again believes it has to choose between addressing the Iranian conundrum or the Palestinian conflict. But American re-engagement in the peace process while continuing the policy of isolating Iran will repeat Clinton’s miscalculation of 1994 and produce the same failure.

Whatever Washington chooses, with Iran and Israel being the two most powerful nations in the region with aspirations for primacy, a Persian-Jewish alliance against a declining Arab world will be hard to revive, regardless of the identity of the Iranian government or the fond memories of the romantics.