Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s terse dismissal of Iranian President Rouhani’s recent overtures to the West was based solely on the two countries’ recent hostile past, not on an understanding of the two countries’ previous longstanding cooperation. Nor was it based on understanding the geopolitical realities upon which that longstanding cooperation was built and recognizing that those geopolitical realities are falling back into place all around him.
From its inception in 1948, Israel developed strong strategic ties with Iran based on common hostility to Sunni Arab states, chiefly Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Iran tied down Iraqi troops that otherwise could have deployed against Israel, as did Kurdish fighters that Israel and Iran trained to fight Iraq. Cooperation continued even after the shah was ousted and the ayatollahs came to power. Pragmatic geopolitics were more important than religious dogmas. The two powers became estranged only in the 90s owing to rising Iranian influence with Hisbollah in Lebanon (a product of Israeli strategic miscalculation, this) and the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s army in the 1991 Gulf War. With Iraq no longer a threat to either Israel or Iran, each faced a new strategic environment and tensions between the former allies grew. (See Trita Parsi’s fine book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.)
A new Sunni Arab threat to both Iran and Israel is emerging. Iran realizes it, Israel must too. The Saudis are using their oil revenue, Salafi networks, and diplomatic influence with Bahrain, UAE, and Kuwait to roll back democracy in Arab Spring nations and coalesce them into an authoritarian-ruled Sunni league, which they would continue to influence through their financial resources and religious authority. This league will be used to crush Shia power in the Middle East, establish Saudi hegemony, and then turn attention to Israel and Palestine. This will be effected by the revitalized and redeployed armies of Egypt, Sunni parts of Syria, and Sunni parts of Iraq. All these countries have fielded strong militaries, which have served authoritarian rule, were weakened by democratic-secular forces, and utterly despise Israel.
Netanyahu is set in the past and endangering his country’s security. Israeli strategic thinkers must see this ominous scenario falling into place around them, as must less doctrinaire political parties outside Netanyahu’s narrow coalition. More flexible and perceptive thinkers should seek rapprochement with Iran – a process that will be aided by recent Iranian-American overtures.
An Israel-Iranian rapprochement could use Shia influence in most of the Gulf states (especially Saudi Arabia) to weaken Sunni autocracies. Israel and Iran already have the two most powerful militaries in the region; Shia Iraq, already leaning toward Tehran, would add to the counterpoise. The two geopolitical bookends could bring security to both countries and a measure of stability to the region. Conflict with Hisbollah could be contained and talks on nuclear programs could take place in a less hostile atmosphere.
We need not look too far back into history to see that Britain and Russia have been enemies and allies more than once, as have France and Germany, Italy and Austria, the US and Japan – even the US and Vietnam. Hardened interstate relations do not exist in history; they are figments of the imaginations of artless, dogmatic politicians. Circumstances change – and they are changing rapidly in the Middle East today.
© 2013 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst, author of The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic, a novel set in the ongoing Iranian-Israeli conflict. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.