A War of Words? Reply

Identity, ideology, and the roots of the Iranian-Israeli Cold War.

By Geoffrey Levin

It’s that time of year again.

Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s annual trip to the United Nations set off a string of reactions in the familiar choreography of the Iranian-Israeli Cold war. Then Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s red line speech initiated a fresh round of speculation that the conflict is heating up. 

Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York was again marked by a series of controversial statements that many saw as anti-Semitic or otherwise threatening to Israel’s existence. Before the summit this year, the Iranian president stated that the Jewish state has no roots in the Middle East and would be “eliminated.” During his speech at the United Nations, which coincided with the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, he referred to the threat of “the uncivilized Zionists” and attributed the world’s woes to unnamed “centers of power who have entrusted themselves to the devil.”

Representatives of Israel, the United States, and Canada were among those who did not attend or walked out of the speech. Others claim that there has often been ambiguity in the Iranian president’s most controversial statements, which should not necessarily be categorized as calls to violence or genocide.

Netanyahu’s speech did little to calm the nerves of those fearing war, though it might have sent the message that there is still time for a peaceful resolution. And though the prime minister’s use of a Wile E. Coyote-esque prop earned him ridicule, it certainly got people’s attention.

At the same time, media reports claim the countries are at the brink of war over Iran’s nuclear program. A recent Washington Post op-ed encourages readers to imagine an Israeli strike and America’s reaction. Intrade, an online stock prediction website, puts the odds of an Israeli or American strike before January at 16 percent or before June at nearly 40 percent. 

Before getting into an analysis of the prospects of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, it’s worth considering what the Iran-Israel conflict is really about. 

Israel has a long running conflict with the Palestinians, and their dispute is both concrete and multifaceted, with longstanding grievances related to land, violence, occupation, and terrorism. Israel has also fought bloody wars with its other neighbors, including Lebanon and Syria, and remains in a land dispute with the latter. 

Israel’s relationship with Iran is different. Separated by a thousand miles, there are no territorial disputes between the two, nor is there a history of conventional warfare. There is no resources dispute, nor do their economic interests collide in a significant way.

History matters, but no one familiar with Iran’s support of Bashar al-Assad can say that Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric on Palestine has anything to do with human rights or historic wrongs.

Rather than 1948 and 1967, it is the years 1938 and 1979 that shape the relationship between Israel and Iran, outlining a conflict that is more based on internal identity than interest-driven rivalry. 

Before the 1979 revolution, the Shah’s regime, which emphasized Iran’s Persian heritage more than Islamic unity, had strong though discreet ties with the Jewish state. After the establishment of the Islamic Republic, religious solidarity became far more important for Iran — one reason conflict with Israel became more prominent.

The idea of expanding the Islamic revolution was prominent in Ayatollah Khomeini’s ideology, which saw Iran playing a central role in the region. As a Shi’a Islamic entity, it can be difficult to garner support in the Sunni Arab world. Confrontation with Israel is an easy way for Shi’a leaders to become popular with Sunnis.

Historic feelings of persecution have made Shi’a Muslims particularly sensitive about fairness — including on the nuclear issue. This is not to say that Iran’s Shi’a identity makes confrontation more likely. Rather, it may provide more political cover for the government’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, which has become increasingly costly for the average Iranian.

For Netanyahu, the year that matters is always 1938. Though he left the analogy out during his most recent U.N. speech, he frequently draws the comparison between Iran and pre-Holocaust Germany. Though Zionism predates the Holocaust by many decades, Netanyahu’s analogy underlines the key Zionist mission of securing a safe homeland for the Jewish people — with a military to credibly enforce the rule “never again.”

Even for those who do not expect Iran to be dropping bombs on Tel Aviv anytime soon, the idea alone of an enemy state wielding nuclear weapons puts Israel’s entire purpose into question. If Israel is not a safe haven for Jews, why not move elsewhere?

Is Netanyahu’s rhetoric an attempt to deter Iran, a cynical ploy to ensure his continued political survival, or both? As long as the Iranian threat remains a major issue, some say, it is unlikely that Israelis will vote for an inexperienced leader over the incumbent. Others point to Netanyahu’s family history as evidence of his sincerity. His father, a right-wing historian of the Spanish Inquisition, emphasized the idea of perennial existential threats to the Jewish people. The urgency conveyed by the Prime Minister may well culminate in action.

Whether Iran and Israel come to blows ultimately depends on whether their leaders mean what they say, or if they are playing a dangerous ideological game, flirting with national identity, fear, and domestic politics. Only time will tell if recent U.N. speeches mean war — or only a war of words.

Geoffrey Levin is a Senior Editor at The Jerusalem Review.

Photo credit: AP

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