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    Middle East
     Jan 25, 2006
The Iran-Israel misconception
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Iran's Israel policy is a sub-set of its US policy, not the other way around. Given the current war of words between Iran and Israel, this is an important distinction seemingly missed by many of the media and pro-Israel lawmakers in Washington, including Senator Hillary Clinton, who has lambasted the Bush administration for

being soft on Iran and "outsourcing" the United States' Iran policy to the Europeans.

Ever since Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad made his statements about "wiping Israel off the Middle East map" and the "myth of Holocaust", all hesitations about an Iranian "existential threat" to the State of Israel have been cast aside, culminating in growing congressional initiatives to forestall the "Hitler of the Middle East" from acquiring nuclear weapons aimed at the Jewish state, to quote a leading Republican lawmaker in the US.

According to New York Times columnist David Brook, there are divergent opinions in the US Congress on how to deal with Iran, with three out of four camps counseling tough action.

In comparison, the Israeli press indicates a growing public consensus about the necessity of military action to stop Iran's perceived march toward nuclear weapons, some hinting a strike will happen as early as March, as a prelude to Israel's coming elections.

So, as the drumbeats for yet another military confrontation in the turbulent Persian Gulf region get louder almost by the minute, dimming hopes for a diplomatic solution, a reflective pause is called for.

Interestingly, it is difficult to find any expert on Iran's foreign affairs who actually shares the view of a strategic conflict between Iran and Israel. A case in point is Shahram Chubin, who has penned, "Iran and Israel have no differences or occasions for getting into active hostilities, let alone a nuclear exchange."

This view is shared by, among others, political-science professor Nader Entessar, who has written: "There are no significant strategic conflicts between Iran and Israel that would force these two countries to go to war against each other."

History plays a role here and Iran's legacy of liberating the Jews and allowing them to return to their "homeland" in Cyrus the Great's edict forms an irrefutable dimension of Iran's outward outlook.

Briefly, the reasons put forth by such policy experts are as follows: Iran and Israel do not share a common border and their respective national interests are not in fundamental collision with each other. Iran is not an Arab country, like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which would be considered a "frontline" state against Israel, and it has other national-security threats, eg, the asymmetrical power of the US in the Persian Gulf, more pressing than the "out of area" Israel.

Certainly, the extent to which Israel complements the US power projection in the Middle East, given the "forward base" stockpiling of US military hardware in Israel, Iran's counter-hegemonic aspirations collide with Israel, but only as a sub-set of the US-Iran games of strategy that have been ongoing for more than two decades.

Notwithstanding the United States' overwhelming military superiority and the asymmetry of warfighting capabilities between Iran and the US, it makes perfect sense, strategically speaking, for Iran to resort to the remedial targeting of Israel, the United States' strategic partner in the region.

In other words, Iran's current expressions of hostilities toward Israel are better understood from the prism of the US and Iran and how Tehran benefits in its incessant search for regional allies to offset US power. This it does through its anti-Israel posturing, using threats against Israel as the United States' Achilles' heel.

This brings us to the notion that Tehran's road to Washington, that is detente between the two countries, goes through Tel Aviv, and that Iran's cessation of hostilities toward Israel is the sine qua non for Washington's willingness to normalize ties with Tehran.

This is wrong, and the sooner US politicians realize it the better. Iran's US policy goes first: its Israel policy is a component of this. Put simply, Tehran's road to Washington does not travel through Jerusalem; rather, indulging in metaphors for a moment, it is a straight highway with several exit lanes, one of which is Israel.

Consequently, should a war break out between Iran and Israel in the (near) future, retrospectively it will most likely be interpreted by future historians as yet another example of how misperceptions cause war. Robert Jervis, in his important book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, has aptly detailed how the 1967 war was instigated by an Israeli misperception of the intentions of Egypt's leader, Gemal Abdul Nasser, who was vilified then as an "Arab Hitler" out to destroy Israel.

It turns out that Nasser's fiery anti-Zionist rhetoric was mostly for domestic consumption and his decision to remove the United Nations buffer forces from the Sinai and the like were not in preparation for war but simply maneuvers meant to bolster Syria's position.

Sadly, it appears that the same misperceptions are sowing the seeds of yet another bloody conflict in the Middle East, and one only hopes that learning from the past can make a difference, much as it is currently difficult to distinguish facts from misperceptions, public postures from policies and intentions.

At this point a question: What about Iran's alleged drive to build nuclear weapons, and doesn't that pose a strategic threat to Israel? Again, most Iran experts are unanimous that Iran's nuclearization must be traced first and foremost to Iraq's nuclear threat during the 1980s and 1990s, which no Iranian, secular or religious, could afford to ignore.

To elaborate, we know now that in 1987 Iraq had experimented with a radiation bomb that it had planned to use against Iran had the war with that country not ended a year later. In 1994, Khidhir Hamza, a former high-ranking Iraqi official who defected to the US, revealed that Saddam was pursuing a nuclear weapon. Such news fueled Iran's national-security anxieties and the fear of being dwarfed by a nuclear-armed Saddam, which revitalized Iran's nuclear program.

In the two years since Saddam's downfall, the strategic environment around Iran has improved dramatically and Iran's fear of an Arab bomb has been put to rest, although there is a residual fear of Saudi Arabia's or Egypt's proliferation in the future, and this, in turn, has seeped into Iranian strategic thinking.

But it has been held back by the twin fear of US power and its "satanic" intentions against Iran, given President George W Bush's inclusion of Iran as part of an "axis of evil", along with Iraq and North Korea.

Bush's self-declared new American manifest destiny, to bring democratic civilization to the Middle East by regime change if need be, has not sat well with the proud Iranians, who have reacted angrily via the militant Ahmadinejad, whom the US sees as an affront to its (geo) political engineering in the Middle East.

At the same time, the well of shared interests between Tehran and Washington in Afghanistan and Iraq runs deep and it would be another misperception to think that conflicting interests overwhelm coinciding ones. On the contrary, Iran's and the United States' interests, eg, against the threat of the Taliban and in favor of the current regimes in Kabul and Baghdad, potentially set the stage for a meaningful security talk oriented toward rapprochement.

For the moment, however, such potential is deeply buried by the piles of hostile rhetoric threatening to cause a mutual policy screen blinding both sides to their shared or parallel interests. Here, a US pledge of non-intervention in Iran's domestic affairs and a promise of Iran's inclusion in the security infrastructure of the Persian Gulf could go a long mile in assuaging Iran's national-security paranoia.

To conclude, as Jervis has competently shown in his book, prudent decisions on war and peace can only be made when policymakers successfully separate images from reality, perceptions from misperceptions, and this insight alone makes reading his book a must priority by folks in Tehran, Washington and Tel Aviv.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu.

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