In the course of the past thirty-six years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has demonstrated a curious mixture of ideological zeal and pragmatism in its dealings with Israel. Increasingly however, the contours of Tehran’s new strategy toward the Jewish state are becoming more visible: isolating and bypassing Jerusalem while encouraging jihad against Israel.
“We will bypass Israel and deal directly with the kadkhoda [village head],” a close adviser to President Hassan Rouhani told this author a few weeks after the June 14, 2013 presidential election in Iran. The Iranian official was clearly referring to Rouhani’s May 13, 2013 address at Sharif Institute of Technology, in which Tehran’s Mehr News Agency reported that he said: “The Americans are the village head, and it’s easier to reach a deal with the village head than with his deputies.”
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concluding negotiations between Tehran and the P5+1 must have validated the optimism of Rouhani and his adviser. After all, the JCPOA was reached in spite of considerable opposition from the government of Israel, which indicates the regime in Tehran indeed managed to “bypass” Israel and directly deal with the village head.
There may be those who perceive Tehran’s acceptance of the JCPOA as a sign of “pragmatism” of the Islamic Republic and “moderation” of its leaders. Pragmatism and moderation however, are not synonyms and the past record of “pragmatic” behavior of the regime in Tehran shows the tactical nature of those maneuvers rather than a change in the strategic worldview of the regime’s top leadership.
In the course of what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair, the Islamic Republic leadership agreed to exchange American hostages in return for much needed arms and spare parts from the United States and Israel in the course of the war with Iraq in the 1980’s. This however, was tactical cooperation and the Islamic Republic did not change its perception of the United States and allies as its strategic enemies.
Representatives of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the United States intelligence agencies held clandestine meetings in Geneva in preparations for the war against the Taliban in 2001, but that cooperation too proved short-lived. The Islamic Republic was interested in the removal of the Taliban regime, but not interested in American success in Afghanistan.
Tehran took a similar line against the United States in Iraq, where the Islamic Republic’s proxies aimed their guns at the United States military as soon as the Ba’ath regime was toppled. The result was the killing of American servicemen and women—U.S. estimates are between 500 and 1,500 killed as a direct result of Iranian participation in the Iraq war. A similar outcome is likely for the coordination, if not cooperation, between Tehran and Washington in the struggle against ISIS, since the Islamic Republic has not changed its fundamental threat perception and definition of the United States and U.S. allies as its strategic enemies.
Apart from the tactical nature of instances of pragmatic behavior of the Islamic Republic in the past, Rouhani’s recent diplomatic victory has resulted in anything but moderation in Tehran. Addressing the Iranian public on September 9th, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered his latest broadside against Israel:
I hear that the Zionists in Occupied Palestine say: “With these negotiations, we don’t need to worry about Iran for the next twenty-five years. After these twenty-five years, we will find a solution!” Let me say this in response: First, you will not see the next twenty-five years! God willing and thanks to divine wisdom, there will not be such a thing as a Zionist regime in the region twenty-five years from now! Second, until that time, the combatant, jihadi and epic Islamic spirit will not give the Zionists a moment of peace!”
There of course is nothing new in Khamenei’s rants against Israel. As early as August 5, 1980, Khamenei used his Quds [Jerusalem] Day sermon to call for the annihilation of Israel, as cited by Saeed Solh-Mirzaei in his Felestin Az Manzar-e Hazrate Ayatollah al-Ozma Khamenei [Palestine From His Holiness Grand Ayatollah Khamenei’s Perspective]:
The Iranian nation is the vanguard of the struggle for liberation of Palestine… Iran’s revolution reached victory within the borders, but we should not be content thinking we have achieved final victory. As long as [there is] an infectious sore, a filthy tumor called the usurping Israeli government, in the heart of Arab and Islamic lands, we can’t feel victory and can’t tolerate presence of our enemy in the usurped and occupied lands.”
Khamenei continued to blame Arab states, which do not come to Palestine’s aid, the “imperialist powers” who he self-contradictorily accuses of using Israel as their “unleashed dog,” and being “tools in the hands of the Zionists.”
Khamenei’s recent statements clearly demonstrate one of the fundamental flaws of the JCPOA.
In the best scenario, the JCPOA will only postpone rather than solve the crisis over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Worse yet, the JCPOA allows the Islamic Republic to remain a revolutionary regime, a regime for which the revolution of 1979 is an ongoing process rather than a historical event of the past. A regime that continues to perceive the United States and U.S. allies as its strategic enemies, and a regime that uses slogans such as “death to Israel,” and “death to America” in an attempt to mobilize the Muslim masses—Shiite and Sunni alike—against shared enemies. This, in turn, also allows the Islamic Republic to seize the mantle of leadership in the Islamic world.
If the past is any indication of future behavior of the Islamic Republic, one should not expect much good from Tehran. As in the past, Khamenei, and possibly future leaders of the Islamic Republic, will accuse Arab leaders of betraying the cause of Palestine and conspiring with Israel against Palestinians and the regime in Tehran. This would contribute to the existing gap between Arab leaders and the disenchanted public. Effective manipulation of public opinion in the Arab world may even force Arab leaders to reconsider their diplomatic relations with Israel.
The same is true for economic and trade relations between the Arab countries and Israel, which most likely will come under attacks of the Islamic Republic leadership. Continued calls for boycott of Israeli products, and inciting the public against Israel has always been and are likely to remain traditional tools in the hands of the regime in Tehran.
This of course does not need to be the end of the story. An alternative future development for Iran/Israel relations is possible, but that involves the regime in Tehran freeing itself of its revolutionary vocation. The JCPOA unfortunately, is not working toward that outcome.
Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and specializes in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).