Iranian Scholar Urges Overhaul of Conflict with Israel

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

The regime’s strategy has strengthened the Israeli far right, aligned Arab states with Tel Aviv, and marginalized the issue of Palestine, he argues in journal article.

President Joe Biden is reportedly trying to forge a tripartite deal that would help to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and revive the possibility of a two-state solution in the occupied territories, while bringing the kingdom under a NATO-like security umbrella. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who has become a sort of Biden whisperer on matters involving the Israelis, hails this potential move as opening “the way for peace between Israel and the whole Muslim world.” But maybe not the entire Islamic world: This is clearly intended to isolate and surround Iran.

An article in the Summer 2023 issue of Middle East Policy by Iranian scholar Farshad Roomi criticizes the leadership in Tehran for allowing an ideological clash with Israel to become a strategy that allows it to control domestic opposition but has alienated not just the West and many Gulf regimes but many Islamic countries outside the region, as well.

“Iran’s foreign policy has strengthened the right-wing parties inside Israel, mobilized international sympathy toward Tel Aviv, escalated Iranophobia, united the conservative Arab states with Israel, and marginalized the issue of Palestine,” Roomi argues. “Obviously, this approach is not beneficial for Iran in the long run, either regionally or globally, as it affects its potential relations with Europe and the United States.”

Indeed, as Friedman characterizes it, Biden’s pact would not simply lead Saudi Arabia into formal diplomacy and trade with Israel but “would enjoin the United States to come to Saudi Arabia’s defense if it is attacked” and help protect the kingdom from missile threats. These key areas of the plan are all aimed at Iran, the columnist writes.

Roomi, an assistant professor of political science at Shahid Chamran University in Ahvaz, Iran, tackles the history of Iran-Israel relations before examining what he sees as the current government’s miscalculations. He reminds the reader that while Iran voted against Israel’s formation, the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi came to ally with Tel Aviv against growing Arab nationalism.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 dramatically changed the relationship. “Anti-Israel policies became Iran’s number-one driver of foreign policy,” Roomi writes, “and were gradually extended into Iran’s official position of radically supporting the Palestinians—through the annihilation of Israel.”

While observers today may see the Iran-Israel conflict as inevitable, the Jewish state did not necessarily see Iran as an existential threat. Roomi reminds us that Tel Aviv was much more concerned about Iraq, and it even sold arms to Iran on multiple occasions in the early-to-mid-1980s. (Some of these deals sparked the Iran-contra scandal in 1986.)

Because of its interest in using Iran to counter Iraq, Roomi says, “Israel remained indifferent to the Iranian leaders’ slogans for a decade and chose to rely on the historical ties between Iranians and the Jewish community, as well as common regional threats, to encourage Tehran to retreat from violence and improve the relationship.”

However, since the end of the Cold War and the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Iran has allowed its ideologically driven antipathy shape its foreign policy in ways that defy its interests and do not help the broader Islamic world. “Iran has surpassed any other entity, even the Palestinians themselves, in calling for the destruction of a state that, however much it practices apartheid, is a member of the United Nations,” Roomi observes. The focus on Israel and the Palestinians, he argues, has led Tehran to turn its back on Muslims who face oppression by regimes it is seeking to cultivate: the Uyghurs in China, the Chechens in Russia, and the Kashmiris subject to Indian rule.

Tel Aviv does not escape the scholar’s criticism, however. “Israel inflates Iran’s importance well above what it actually is in order to mobilize the West, especially the United States, to back the Jewish state and improve relationships with the Arab world, foremost Saudi Arabia,” he contends.

It is too early to know whether Biden will pursue the plan as described by Friedman, or if its many parts are able to be stitched together into an alliance that dilutes the power of China and isolates Iran. But this is the type of reaction that Roomi sees as stemming from the Iranian regime’s ill-conceived approach to the region.

He concludes with an admonition to the regime not to press forward with a full-scale anti-Israel campaign but to maximize leverage for a two-state solution:

Iran must set aside abstract, ideological impediments that push it to unilaterally determine the destiny of Palestinians and instead advocate for them within the framework of national interests and human rights. When the Palestinian National Authority has undergone peace talks with Israel, Iran should show solidarity by collaborating in the implementation of the international agreements made to resolve this conflict. Undermining the talks gives Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia the clout to further Iranophobia, inflict heavy economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic, and destroy its economic, social, and identity infrastructures.

Among the takeaways readers can find in Roomi’s Middle East Policy article, “The Iran-Israel Conflict: An Ultra-Ideological Explanation”:

  • Iran has consistently pursued a policy driven by an ideological and idealistic worldview that does not always align with its internal and external interests.
  • Ironically, this approach has only bolstered the Israeli far right, increased global sympathies for Israel, escalated Iranophobia, aligned conservative Arab states with Israel, and marginalized the Palestinian cause.
  • The reasons for Iran’s radical anti-Israel stances and opposition to talks, and what repercussions has the state’s strategy had for Iranians and Palestinians?
    • Tehran’s ideological approach to policy has not been supported by the economic and public opinion underpinnings required to make it work. As a result, Iran has been unable to achieve its goals and has instead become increasingly isolated on the global stage.
    • This approach has led to a series of confrontations between Iran and Israel, such as the recent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
    • These confrontations have increased tensions in the region and raised the risk of a wider conflict.
  • The pre-revolution Iran-Israel relationship featured more agreement than one may expect: a mutually recognizing relationship helped both parties contain their shared enemies, namely the Arab states and the USSR.
    • This ideological alignment was also supported by economic motivations: Iran’s economic boost goes back to the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, when oil prices peaked and the Arabs boycotted the West.
    • While Iran became Israel’s major oil supplier, Israel became Iran’s biggest arms supplier.
  • While the Arab states were preparing for the conditional recognition of Israel, Iran was the sole defender of Palestinian interests. The Shiite roots of Iran’s theocracy turned the defense of Palestine and opposition to Israel into an unwavering doctrine.
  • To preserve its national interests and regional security, Iran needs to replace conflict with competition.
    • This means pursuing a more pragmatic foreign policy that is based on economic and strategic interests rather than ideology.
    • It also means engaging with Israel and other regional powers to find common ground and build a more stable and prosperous Middle East.

You can read Farshad Roomi’s article, “The Iran-Israel Conflict: An Ultra-Ideological Explanation” in the Summer 2023 issue of Middle East Policy, available through Wiley.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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