Monday, August 10, 2009


A hostility affecting the region
The New Indian Express, 11 August 2009,

While their leaders warn of an impending global catastrophe if Iran goes nuclear, the Israeli public is taking a more sanguine view. An opinion poll by Tel Aviv University finds that over 80 per cent feel their personal lives ‘would not be expected to change’ if Iran developed nuclear weapons. Should this enable us to look for an understanding between the Jewish State of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran?

With the war of words flying in both directions, such an entente is almost unthinkable. Since he became president in 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has functioned as if the destruction of Israel is the raison d’ĂȘtre of Iran. He has denied, denounced and belittled the Holocaust in which Jews were slaughtered by the Nazi regime. Organising Holocaust denial events has become his pastime. His quixotic fights with history shames many Iranians. His controversial re-election can only worsen the situation.

Moreover, every now and then Iran announces the successful test firing of missiles. Each test is deadlier than the last and the latest in mid-May was for a missile with an estimated range of 1,200 miles. This not only brings Israel but also southern Europe within Iran’s range.

Israel is equally obsessed with the Islamic republic. The present government blames Tehran for most of its problems with the Arabs and Palestinians. Iranian support for militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas clouds Israel’s ability to examine the root causes of the prolonged Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are Israel’s top foreign policy priority. The recent meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barrack Obama confirms this. Obama was keen to push the two-state solution, while the Likud leader wanted a firmer American commitment on Iran.

It appears that the military option is still on the Israeli table. Despite the technical difficulties and political hurdles, it has not given up the idea of attacking Iran’s nuclear programme. Netanyahu apparently told Obama that Israel would not wait indefinitely for concrete measures to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

When each side perceives the other as the mortal enemy, can one visualise reconciliation? At first glance, such a suggestion would be dismissed as wishful thinking.

Let’s take a second look. Israel and Iran are the only two countries in the greater Middle East that could be classified as regional powers. No one can deny that their policies, actions and rhetoric often have had seismic effects. For better or worse, many countries in the region fear their actions as well as rhetoric.

The other countries are no match for these two. Petro-power and Islamic credentials have not transformed Saudi Arabia into an effective regional power. Likewise, the political aspirations of Egypt are not commensurate with its diplomatic accomplishments. Of late, Cairo has been less effective even on the Palestinian front.

Should a resurgent and perhaps nuclear Iran bring Arab countries closer to Israel? Theoretically yes. Shared security concerns, especially over pro-Iranian militant groups, should bring the Arabs closer to Israel. But this will not happen before a comprehensive peace in the region. The cold peace between Egypt and Israel is between states, not people. The Arab street is not ready for reconciliation with Israel, at least not before Palestinian political aspirations are met. And the Netanyahu government is not ready for a two-state solution. Hence private understanding over Iran is the maximum that Israel can expect from the Arab regimes.

Moreover, for Israel as well as Iran, Washington remains an enigma. Can Obama convert high expectations into concrete policies and tangible results? Will his Iran policy satisfy Israel as well as Iran? Squaring the Israel-Iran-US triangle is easier said than done. The historical baggage and complexities are overwhelming. Thus, the Obama administration is more likely to disappoint than satisfy expectations on both sides.

As a result, Israel and Iran need to plan for an alternate contingency, one that recognises their mutual concerns as well as possible failure of Obama’s Middle East policy. Of late, spearheaded by Cairo, a number of Arab countries are arguing that the nuclear capabilities of Iran as well as Israel are a threat to the region, especially Arabs. Under Amr Moussa the Arab League is not prepared to de-link Iran from Israel’s nuclear capabilities.

These concerns should enable Israel and Iran to re-examine their hostility towards each other. There is a greater convergence of interest between the two than is recognised. One is not suggesting a modern-day Sykes-Picot arrangement where Iran and Israel divide the Middle East into spheres of influence. Even if they dream, neither Iran nor Israel has the imperial wherewithal for such overreach.

Nor can they go back to the days of the Shah when both countries pursued David Ben-Gurion’s policy of peripheral diplomacy. Driven by their mutual concerns over the increasingly revolutionising Arab world, one found the other as an ally. This strategy and their pro-western orientation worked in tandem until the Islamic revolution. Times have changed and Israel is no longer as isolated as it was during the Cold War. It has some friends and more clandestine allies in the Arab world.

Thus, the US-USSR behaviour during the later part of the Cold War offers an interesting model for Israel and Iran. Their mutual animosity did not diminish, public rhetoric against the other continued and each one scrambled for allies in the other’s backyard. This however, did not prevent the US and USSR from reaching broad understanding on critical matters. Israel and Iran are too small to divide the region among themselves, but could reach some broad understanding on issues that affect and undermine their security. It calls for chutzpah, perhaps; but are we not discussing the Middle East?

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