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Iran and Israel: A Couple at Odds

David Menashri, Incumbent of the Parviz and Pouran Nazarian Chair for Modern Iranian Studies and Professor, Department of Middle Eastern and African History, Tel Aviv University

Date & Time

Feb. 4, 2004
10:00am – 11:00am ET


Iran and Israel: A Couple at Odds Abstract of talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center

This abstract was prepared by Dr. Menashri based on his presentation February 4, 2004. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and in no way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


The Islamic Revolution was a major turning point in the history of modern Iran, representing a dramatic change in its domestic landscape and a momentous change in its foreign outlook. Gradually, much like other ideological movements in history, upon assuming power and facing the complex demands of governance, the new regime was forced to adapt itself to the newly emerging realities and adopt more pragmatic policies in a growing number of areas. Obliged to manage rather than theorize about affairs of the state, thus, the new rulers of Iran often had to make compromises, not from a newfound moderation, but in pragmatic response to the exigencies of their situation. Still, in terms of specific areas of policy change and with respect to appropriate degrees and rates of transform, the various domestic factions differed widely among themselves. 

Both main trends competing for sway – generally defined as "reformists" and "conservatives" – are struggling with fervor to dictate the policies of a new Iran. While both trends emanated from, and are inter-related to the ruling system, their differences are nevertheless profound. In a nutshell, this is a contest between the initial ideals of the 1979 revolution and the new spirit of the 1997 reform movement. It is equally a contest between institutions of power and emerging civil society; between the old guards and the new generation; between the elected and the nominated institutions of power. All in all, while reformists upheld greater political freedom, economic openness, and social change and advocated defusing tensions with the outside world, the conservatives emphasized the supremacy of dogma in formulating policy. It is a profound and vigorous debate on such focal questions as religion and state, idealism versus national interests, isolationism against globalization and the preferred attitude to be adopted vis-à-vis the outside world.

The pro-reform trend has gained popular support in the late 1990s, as can be seen in their electoral victories – to the municipalities (February 1999, but not 2003), the Majlis (February and May 2000, but not in 2004) and the renewed mandate that President Mohammad Khatami received in June 2001. However, the conservative faction continued to control the key decision-making institutions. Thus, while the momentous change was beyond argument, its combined impact did not necessarily generate a clear-cut policy. Iranian Islamic policies thus remained fluid, divergent and often contradictory and in constant search of an appropriate balance between the idealistic convictions and the realities of life.

One major area in which Iran's policy remained excessively uncompromising was its inherent hostility to Israel. In the view of the Islamic regime, Israel remained the enemy of Iran and Islam, and a threat to mankind. Yet, even in this realm, some initial signs of an "alternative approach" could be discerned in the 1990s, reflecting a more nuance attitude even on this basic dogmatic conviction. They were subsequently frustrated, following the conservatives' offensive on the pro-reform camp (Spring 2000) and the renewed Intifada (Fall 2000), but their main arguments may still remain valid.


Iran and Israel do not share common borders, have had no wars between them and have no territorial claims on each other. Moreover, under the Pahlavi regime the two countries had close ties, in fact a strategic alliance. This period of close ties had come to an abrupt end with the ascendancy of the Islamic regime. Among all the countries found blameworthy by the revolutionary movement, Israel was indicted on more counts than any other state. Moreover, Iran's Islamic arguments have put the Arab-Israeli conflict on a totally different footing – a religious crusade as against a political-national conflict. Iran's involvement in Lebanon and its moral, political and logistical support for Palestinian Islamist movements (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) made it more directly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its attempts (actual or alleged) to purchase and develop weapons of mass destruction, along with the missile technology to deliver them, were viewed as other serious challenges by Israel. Iran's support for the anti-peace camp in the Middle East conflict also added to the challenge facing the fragile process of peace making. 

Iran's attitiude towards Israel had its roots in the revolutionary dogma and, in the view of the ruling elite, thus far there have not been any sufficient pragmatic considerations to incite a retreat from this position. Not only conservatives, but also most of the leading pro-reform figures, still express a similar view. If they did entertain different policy preferences, with occasional exceptions such attitudes did not find public expression. 

Ideologically, Iran denied Israel's right to exist, regardless of boundaries and actual politics. Its policy reflected a deep sense of religious mission, identification with the Palestinian problem and opposition to Israel and to its policies. Although some of their arguments were similar to those raised earlier in Arab political discourse, significant religious elements were instilled into them. In line with its Arab counterparts, however, revolutionary Iran rejected the claim that Palestine was the historical home of Jews. Animosity towards Islam and hostility to Iran were thus inter-related, as was the rejection of Israel for its own demerits, for serving imperialism, and for its anti-Iranian policy. Iranian charges were also linked with deep anti-imperialist sentiments. Israel's close relations with Iran under the Shah were also held against it. The United States' anti-Iranian policy (such as "dual containment" and the sanctions) was also mostly attributed to Israel, Zionism and Jewish capitalism. In this case, they believed, it was "the tail that wagged the dog." Iranians revolutionaries also viewed Zionism as a racist ideology. The Israeli stance towards the Palestinian Intifada (from 1987) was seen as yet another example of its racist policy. 

In this case, so far, ideological hostility did not seem to conflict with the pragmatic interests of the state, as defined by the regime. Tehran's firm stance even seemed to offer some advantages. With other rejectionist states having withdrawn from the scene by the early 1990s, as a result of military defeat (Iraq), strategic choice (Syria) or marginality (Libya), Iran's leadership of the anti-Israel camp could enhance its credentials as a major Islamic power. Because of its self-view as the major center of anti-American politics, Tehran believed it had a duty to oppose any American-led peace initiatives. It viewed itself as the major foe of "America's unlawful son" (Israel) and felt its responsibility to resist any proposal aimed at legitimizing its existence. Tehran also viewed the success of the Palestinian Islamist movements – and the Hizballah – as a tribute to its revolution, a manifestation of the spread of its influence and evidence of Iran's regional centrality and Islamic leadership. No less important, all these benefits were gained for a relatively low political price. 

Still, over time there were some signs of a more diversified tone in the approach of several Iranians, even on the question of Israel. Milder expressions were infrequent, they were usually voiced by people with no official standing, and were customarily coupled with considerable reservations and pre-conditions. Yet, they revealed some cracks in the hitherto fortified front against Israel and the peace-making process. 

Clearly, Iranian reformists have been far from moderate on the question of Israel. Khatami did not spare criticism in speaking on the issue, and often used extremely harsh terms to denounce Israel and its politics, specifically in regard to the Palestinians. Yet, on other occasions, he also implied, that Iran will not actively disrupt a just agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinians, although he believed that given the nature of Israel, this was unlikely to happen. The tone voiced by Ayatollah 'Ali Khamene'i was usually harsher, reflecting the view of the more doctrinaire elements in the establishment. For him Palestine was the frontline of Islam's war against infidelity. More importantly, no substantial change could be discerned in Iran's support for the Hizballah or for the Palestinian Islamist movements. 

Yet, from time to time, relatively moderate views were also expressed, some even questioning the advisability of Iran's harsh hostility, while the Palestinians themselves were negotiating for peace with Israel. With all their reservations and pre-conditions – and regardless of the implicit or explicit criticism that they contained – such expressions signaled a measure of change. Milder views were expressed more frequently following Khatami's election (May 1997), reaching a new peak following the election of Ehud Barak (May 1999) as Israel's prime minister. It has reversed, however, since the speing of 2000. 

Some prominent figures provided the conceptual justification to a policy change, even though their argument did not directly refer to Israel. Most important, it was maintained, past principles should not necessarily define the current politics. Religious knowledge, it was argued, is relative and dogma should be reconsidered in light of the changing realities. Ahmad Naqibzadeh (professor at Tehran University) said: We raise the slogan "Israel should be eliminated," but is this at all practical? Most states now support a just peace in the Middle East, but only few speak about Israel's destruction. Moreover, if the Palestinians themselves decide to make peace, no other state should condemn them. Iran, he said, using a well-known Persian phrase, should not be "a bowl that is warmer than the soup" (kaseh daghtar as ash) – more Palestinian than the Palestinians. The milder approach gained a significant support from 'Abdollah Nuri, Khatami's first interior minister. Answering charges against him on his trial (November 1999), he did not hesitate to question the logic of the Iranian approach. Why should Iran claim the right to impose its own views on the Palestinians? What do Iranians gain from such an attitude, except from being blamed for supporting terrorism? Today, the Palestinians have a government that is in charge of deciding on behalf of its own people. Yassir 'Arafat, he said, had fought Israel all his adult life, but he is now negotiating with Israel for peace. The current situation may not be ideal, but we must come to terms with realities, and avoid being "a bowl warmer than the soup." Ahmad Zeidabadi (editor of a reformist paper) further argued in 1999, that the regional realities and the new international system made the peace process inevitable and irreversible. Whether "just or unjust" the peace process is taking place, and – its fruition could face Iran with "severe problems." Yet, involved in its own domestic problems and unaware of the regional developments, he grieved, Tehran failed to "adapt itself" to the regional changes, continuing its anti-peace policy. Limited as such arguments may appear, they have gained some support within society in the late 1990s – presumably greater than reflected in the public statements. For more and more Iranians, the main problem seemed to be the domestic situation, and Iran's own troubled neighborhood. 

Israel, for its part, consistently stressed the danger posed by Iran to itself and to the free world. Much as in Iran, this was one of the rare issues on which there seemed to be no major difference between the main political parties – Labor and Likud. If there were differences in Israelis' attitudes, they represented personal and institutional disagreements within the government agencies, rather than dividing across political lines. 

In the 1980s, still, the "Iranian threat" did not engage special Israeli attention. Iran's distance from Israel's borders, its preoccupation with the domestic difficulties, and – most importantly – its long war with Iraq, made the "Iranian threat" being viewed then as mostly rhetorical. In the mid-1980s, Israel was even involved in arms deals with Iran. This did not mean that Israel remained indifferent to the Iranian challenge. In fact, it has continuously stressed the threat, censoring the Islamic regime and castigating, among others, its attempts to "export" the revolution and particularly its engagement in Lebanon. In the 1990s, however, the "Iranian threat" was stressed by Israel again and again. Israel did not rest content with stressing the threat, but also made occasional warnings of its own directed at Tehran. 

However, with the passage of time signs of change could be discerned also in Israel. Consequently, in the late 1990s, Israel chose to refer to Iran as a "threat," not an "enemy." There were also growing voices in academic circles and eventually within government agencies too, suggesting the rethinking of the Israeli policy. General Amiram Levin (just after resigning his post as Deputy Head of the Mosad) warned that, the demonization of Iran and labeling it as the ultimate enemy might set in a momentum leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. This, too, may be viewed as a minor modification only. However, given the sensitivity of the issue, in Israel too, it represented a significant step forward. 

Two main developments in 2000 – the offensive against the reform camp (Spring) and the Palestinian Intifada (since the Fall) – frustrated whatever signs of softening could be discerned in the Iranian attitude. Given the deep strife at home and the breakdown of the peace process, both camps rallied around a firm anti-Israeli policy. Under such circumstances, the expression of milder views seemed futile, even risky. The radical voice thus turned harsher and louder. More recent developments – the American "war against terrorism" following 11 September 2001, and the war in Iraq in 2003 – had some impact on Iran-US relations, but have not seemed to change the attitude to Israel so far. 

In April 2001, a decade after the first "anti-peace conference" in Tehran, Iran hosted another conference in support of the Palestinian struggle. The radical tone in the conference, again, was set by the Supreme Leader. The occupation of Palestine, Khamene'i said, was part of a satanic design to "sow the seeds of disunity" among Muslims. Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon (May 2000) "proved the justness of the Islamic struggle," demonstrating that if Muslims put their trust in God, "victory will be certain." Khatami made clear again, that his moderate tone did not encompass the attitude towards Israel. While the Israeli policy was not unexpected, he said following the outbreak of the Intifada, it is surprising that some people still believe that they can compromise with the Israeli usurper and oppressive regime. Peace would be only restored, he said, if the tyrant is not supported and the oppressed are not suppressed. 

The events following 11 September 2001 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had a significant impact on Iran's relations with the US. Iranians seemed to believe then, that Israel was behind the American move to include Iran in its list of "axis of evil" (January 2002) and that the war in Iraq was also aimed to serve its interests. Israel on its part, did not hide its attempts to inflame anti-Iranian sentiments in Washington. It publicized intelligence evidence against Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and censored its attempt to acquire nuclear power. But even then, there were also some milder voices. Speaking at a seminar on the Palestine question (23 December 2001), presidential adviser Mohammad Reza Tajik suggested that the issue of Palestine should be taken out of its symbolic-ideological stance and looked at in a realistic way, with a glance at Iran's national security. Moreover, Iranians have been "more Palestinian than the Palestinians," against the will of the Palestinian people, paving thus the way "for our isolation." The martyrdom-seeking attacks, he concluded, "will achieve nothing." Thus while occasional milder attitudes were expressed, the general tone contiued to be extremely hostile.


Since 1979, there have been significant deviations from the revolutionary dogma and adoption of a more pragmatic policy by the new regime. The revolution has matured, recognizing the limits of its power and allowing greater room for national considerations in shaping actual policy. Yet, even in the realm of state interest and pragmatic considerations, which often prevailed over revolutionary dogma, the threshold of a policy change towards Israel has not yet emerged. In a way, the momentous changes in dogma pertaining to other policy realms may have made the softening of such a policy even more arduous. That animosity to Israel had become the main, if not the last major tenet in Iran's revolutionary creed, made it even more difficult to discard. 

The animosity towards Israel thus remained the main issue over which there seemed to be a considerable agreement within the main competing camps. Following his election in 1997, it appeared that President Khatami was trying to separate the anti-American and anti-Israeli flags, and to lower the former. Still, the anti-Israeli banner remained high in govrnment's announcements, although some relatively mild statemnets were made from time to time. Such newly emerging voices – expressed by people outside the establishment – may have had greater support within larger segments of the Iranian society than what was reflected in the official policy or public statements. Yet, such the pro-reform circles lacked the power to lead to a policy change in such a sensitive issue. Ayatollah Khamene'i and the conservatives, who control key decision-making machineries, may have been able to produce a change, but they seemed unwilling to take such a bold step. 

In order to produce a meaningful change in the position towards Israel, two main conditions are imperative: for Iran, a clear incentive to reshape the policy along with a leadership capable of implementing such a policy change; and for the region, a significant change in the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab relations, which would lead to mitigating their differences and creating a more peaceful atmosphere, if not peace. In both areas, the situation so far has not been conducive to produce a breakthrough in Iranian policy vis-à-vis Israel. Certainly, the recent developments – in both the domestic scene and regional arena – seemed to work against such a change. Under such circumstances, even the milder views expressed earlier were generally thwarted, although their logic may still motivate some elements in Iran. Still, in spite of intense anti-Israeli indoctrination, it appears that for most Iranians, their main concern is focusing on Iran's inner situation and in its immediate neighborhood, while Israel remains a distant foe. 

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