The specter of a nuclear Iran haunts Arabs and Israelis alike, but it is the United States and Israel that are the driving force behind efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The America-Iran-Israel triangle is where the clue to the problem and its possible solution lie.
Though Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in 1979 disrupted Israel’s old alliance with Iran, the two countries continued to conduct business with America’s blessing. The Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, through which Israel supplied arms to the Islamic Republic in its war against Iraq is a case in point. Israel and Iran, two non-Arab powers in a hostile Arab environment, shared fundamental interests that the Islamic revolution could not change.
It was during Yitzhak Rabin’s government in the early 1990s that Israel and Iran entered into open conflict, owing to the changing strategic environment after America’s victory in the first Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US-sponsored Arab-Israeli peace process, which produced a series of breathtaking achievements – the Madrid peace conference, the Oslo accords, Israel’s peace agreement with Jordan, a near-rapprochement with Syria, and Israel’s inroads into Arab states from Morocco to Qatar – was an increasingly isolated Iran’s worst nightmare.
It was at that crossroads that Israel and Iran, two powers vying for mastery in a rapidly changing Middle East, chose to cast their strategic competition in ideological terms. The conflict was now between Israel, a beacon of democracy fighting the expansion of a Shia obscurantist empire, and an Iran that chose to protect its revolution by mobilizing the Arab masses in the name of Islamic values and against treacherous rulers who had betrayed the dispossessed Palestinians.
More an enemy of Israeli-Arab reconciliation than of Israel as such, the Mullahs’ resort to an incendiary anti-Jewish, pan-Islamic discourse is aimed at ending Iran’s isolation and presenting its regional ambitions in a light palatable to the Sunni masses. In an Arab Middle East, Iran is the natural enemy; in an Islamic world, Iran is a potential leader. Ironically, Iran has been the main supporter of Arab democracy, for the best way to undermine the incumbent regimes is to promote popularly based Islamist movements such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and the Shia majority in Iraq.
Yitzhak Rabin believed that an Israeli-Arab peace could prevent a nuclear Iran, but now his nightmare seems rapidly approaching. As an anti-status quo power, Iran is not pursuing nuclear capabilities in order to destroy Israel, but to gain prestige and influence in a hostile environment and as a shield for its challenge to the regional order.
But Israel has every reason to be concerned, for a nuclear Iran would undermine the promise of Zionism to secure a Jewish refuge – the core rationale of Israel’s own strategy of “nuclear ambiguity – and would embolden its enemies throughout the region. It would also trigger uncontrolled regional nuclear proliferation, with Saudi Arabia and Egypt leading the way.
A military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is too dangerous, and its results uncertain. And, however severe economic sanctions might be, they might not bring Iran to its knees. Nor is it clear that the split within the Iranian elite between revolutionary purists and those with a merchant-class mentality would lead to regime change any time soon. However, being radical does not necessarily mean being irrational, and revolutionary Iran has given frequent proof of its pragmatism.
In the American-Iranian equation it was the US, not Iran, that conducted rigid ideological diplomacy. Iran backed the US during the first Gulf War, but was left out of the Madrid peace conference. Iran also supported America in its war to depose the Taliban in Afghanistan. And, when US forces overran Saddam Hussein’s army in the spring of 2003, the encircled Iranians proposed a grand bargain that would put all contentious issues on the table, from the nuclear issue to Israel, from Hezbollah to Hamas. The Iranians also pledged to stop obstructing the Israeli-Arab peace process.
But, neo-conservative haughtiness – “We don’t speak to evil – ruled out a pragmatic response to Iran’s demarche.
Iran’s mood changed by the time America’s entire Middle East strategy had gone adrift, but the grand bargain remains the only viable way out of the impasse. This would not be achieved, however, through an inevitably imperfect sanctions regime, or by America’s resort to Cold War logic aimed at breaking Iran’s backbone by drawing it into a ruinous arms race. Iran’s growing regional influence does not stem from its military expenditures, which are far lower than those of its enemies, but from its challenge to America and Israel through an astute use of soft power.
There is no better way to undercut Iran’s regional strategy of destabilization than a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, accompanied by massive investments in human development, and followed by an internationally sponsored system of peace and security in a verifiably nuclear-free Middle East, including Israel.
Shlomo Ben-Ami,a former Israeli foreign minister and the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace, is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.projectsyndicate.org).