Saturday, September 02, 2006

Iran and Israel

Few people outside of Israel realize how much Iranian President Ahmadinejad's remarks over the past year have dismayed Israelis. It makes little difference to them whether his mentions of eradicating Israel are in the subjunctive -- ah, that Israel were eradicated -- (as Prof. Juan Cole parses them) or in the imperative. For Israelis putting Israel and its eradication in the same sentence, together with Iran's nuclear ambitions are enough to raise the spectre of the Holocaust. To be sure, in Israel that spectre is never far away. In Israel, someone wisely put it, "the Holocaust is still memory, not history." This is one reason why the response to the provocation by Hezbollah, which most Israelis see as a proxy for Iran, was so severe and so broadly supported. Now after the conduct of the war further shook Israel self-confidence, some Israelis have have called for a strategic reassessment: Israel must regard Iran as its foremost enemy. In addition, the neoconservative term "Islamic-fascist" has entered Israel discourse. Except there it has the more pointed meaning of "Islamic Jew-killer."

The calls for new strategies do not necessarily demand greater Israel aggressiveness. Veteran military writer Zev Schiff thinks a regional balance of power coud emerge if Syria were split off from Iran. That could be achieved through a Syrian-Israel deal based on land (the Golan Heights) for recognition and peace (of Israel). He also raises the need to reach an enforceable peace with the Palestinians in order to defuse the ideological conflict between Israel and the Arab world. On the other hand, Schiff recognizes that US and Israel interests are not identical. He urges that Israel make clear to the US the "red lines" regarding its security that cannot be violated in a US or UN deal with Iran.

It is a good idea for Israel to rethink its needs and priorities in dealing with its neighbors. However, Schiff and others who work this vein have several shortcomings. Foremost is their undifferentiated image of Iran. They have no insight into the structural role that Ahmadinejad plays as an individual and the nuclear ambition plays as a value in the politics of Iran. Rather they seem driven by the false idea that the Europeans in the 1930s did not take Hitler seriously. (They did, but for other reasons could not get their act together to stop his aggression.) But it would be helpful to know, as do Iran analysts Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, that Ahmadinejad is a hardline conservative, whose populism helps prop up a mullarchy and state institutions. These have been losing touch with the Iranian lower clergy, middle class and some of the working class. Similarly, the nuclear ambition is a military, nationalistic value. Such values were invoked in the past when the state apparatus could not deliver on its economic and social promises to the Iranians. These distinctions do not imply that Iranians will reject Ahmadinejad's apparent effort to turn Iran into the regional power, but they do qualify his room for maneuver. For that reason, the threat of sanctions or even of Iran's isolation by the rest of the world can be potent weapons.

On a bleaker note, those who want Israel to play "balance of power" at the regional level should ask whether the pan-Islam movements have superseded the traditional games of states. To be sure, how the Islamic revival shapes institutions and collective choices is being determined within each state, sometimes in struggle with countervailing instutitions and interests. Yet, there is the strong possibility that the revival can set priorities for states that differ from the traditional national interests of territory, security and wealth. Put less abstractly, the Alawi "heretics" who rule Syria may find Muslim objections blocking their path to a deal with Israel.

One more point: The recent support of Hizbullah in the Arab and Muslem worlds suggest that most observers overrate the enmity between Sunni and Shia, at least during the current Islamic revival. On the other hand, they also tend to ignore the ethnic differences of Arabs and Persians. In the mid term future these might thwart Iran's pretensions to dominate the region. A scholar I know studies long term, territorial conflicts, the average of which is three hundred to four hundred years. I once asked him what was the longest in his database. He replied immediately, with a smile: "Over the Shatt al-Arab; about 3500 years."


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