Iran softens tune on Israel


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By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts – With the Iranian presidential elections only two months away, foreign policy issues are hotly debated in the crowded field of candidates,  and a chorus of prominent voices is aiming to lower the temperature with Israel.

The rising softer tone may reflect a new elite consensus that a revised approach toward Israel is in the nation’s interests, in light of Tel Aviv’s powerful influence in Western capitals, Turkey’s normalization of relations with Israel, and the Arab world’s indifference toward the Palestinian problem, compared with Iran’s traditional “overcommitment”.

Leading the march toward a new Israel policy, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has expressed interest in joining the presidential race, has flatly declared that Iran is not “at war” with Israel.  Calling for a non-confrontational foreign policy, Rafsanjani has criticized President Mahmud Ahmadinejad for inflammatory rhetoric that has backfired on Iran.

Echoing this sentiment, two other potential presidential elections, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s mayor, and Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a conservative lawmaker who is close to the Supreme Leader,  have also seen fit to criticize Ahmadinejad’s “denial of Holocaust” as a campaign issue.

“Suddenly, the issue of the Holocaust was raised without any attention to its repercussions and impacts. Did that have any benefit for the progress of Iran and the Palestinians?”  Ghalibaf was quoted in the Iranian media as saying last week.  The question now is whether Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who advises the Supreme Leader and has formed an alliance with Ghalibaf and Adel for the coming race, will publicly express a similar sentiment.

Irrespective, the fact that some leading politicians have explicitly distanced themselves from the Ahmadinejad administration’s hardline anti-Israel policy reflects the depth and seriousness of policy debates in today’s Iran and underscores the ruling elite’s growing concerns about the effects of Iran’s isolation due to the nuclear crisis.

As a result of the impasse over the country’s nuclear program, Iran’s status at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries cartel has slipped and will likely slide even further in the coming years if the Western boycott of Iran’s energy sector, which is in dire need of modernization, continues and the Gordian knot of the nuclear standoff is not somehow resolved. That is a near-impossible task as long as Israel blocks Iran-West nuclear diplomacy and a broader regional diplomacy covering such issues as the future of Syria.

Concerning Syria, some Tehran analysts have concluded that some Israeli politicians share Tehran’s misgivings regarding the threat of a Jihadist takeover there. Such a prospect, pushed for by the conservative Saudis, poses a serious national security threat to Israel – that often toys with the notion of a “staged anti-Iran” strategy that would knock off Damascus first as a prelude for regime change in Iran.

The problem with that strategy, however, is the underlying assumption that Iran is more threatening than the conservative Sunni bloc headed by Saudi Arabia, or that Israel can indeed afford to “shuffle the cards” so dangerously as to tamper with the Iranian buffer against the Arab bloc.

Consequently, the overall context of multiple crises in the Middle East, and a rapidly shifting balance of forces, has raised the prospect of a de-escalation of the Iran-Israel conflict, which has both nuclear and non-nuclear connotations.

Lest we forget, the origins of the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, whereby Israel pushed Washington to supply Iran with missiles in order to prevent an Iraqi victory, were rooted in a cold calculation of the regional balance of power.  That particular episode is certainly not devoid of precious insights with respect to the “policy dilemmas” faced by both Tehran and Tel Aviv today;  that is, how to maintain their respective “red lines” in the face of the onslaught of a Salafi movement that is fundamentally opposed to “apostate Shi’ites” as well as Zionism?

Iran’s “red line” on Israel is primarily an ideological one that has been a hallmark of the regime’s identity for the past 34 years, that is, since the inception of the Islamic Republic.  On the national security level, given Israel’s distance with Iran and Iran’s primary preoccupation with its more pressing national security worries – in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf and the Caucasus –  Israel does not figure prominently. In fact Israel is regarded an “out of area” issue by many Iranian policy analysts.

In other words, there is a bit of a “lack of fit” between the ideological and national security requirements as regards Israel, which can no longer be ignored by policy makers in Tehran who are keen on ending the nuclear crisis and putting the country back on the path of economic progress, in light of depressing reports that only a third of the Fourth Economic Plan has been implemented.

Any suggestion that Iran should ameliorate its tough anti-Israel stance is, ideologically speaking, troublesome and bound to cause internal frictions.  If this is a mere ‘tactical’ maneuver for the sake of the presidential race, this is unlikely to bring about any tangible difference in Israel’s anti-Iran stance as dutifully duplicated by Western governments.  Yet, if it signals a strategic re-thinking on Iran’s part, then this would have multiple side-effects both at home and regionally, particularly among Iran’s Lebanese allies, thus warranting a delicate balancing act.

According to a Tehran political analyst who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity, how Israel responds to “these feelers from Tehran” can be important.  “If Israel sends the right signal, then Tehran’s politicians know there is a ‘light at the end of tunnel’,” said the Tehran analyst, adding that Israel’s “constant threats” have caused a “siege mind-set in Iran that is unhealthy.”

On the other hand, if Israeli politicians choose to, they can even use their Turkish friends as important interlocutors with Tehran, in light of the three countries’ status as the only non-Arab nations in the Middle East.  An indirect Tehran-Tel Aviv dialogue can thus be established and important issues such as the future of Syria discussed, as a part and parcel of a concerted effort to disallow Damascus’ fall in the hands of radical Sunni Islamists.

Without doubt, the prerequisite for such drastic foreign policy revisions is a ‘cognitive re-mapping’ as to what constitutes the greatest threats to each county’s national security interests, particularly since Israel’s right-wing politicians have demonized Iran as the “biggest existential threat” to Israel.  The message from Rafsanjani and others in Iran is that it is time for Israel to re-think this inapt conclusion.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, click here. Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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