Bible Commentator

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Rabbi Moshe Reiss


Iran has influence from Afghanistan to the Mid East including Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Shi'a parties in Iraq.  It has oil wealth and thereby influence in China and India whose need for oil is significant. Russia no longer poses any threat and the war in Iraq only benefits Iran.

While the Clerics control Iran and President Ahmadinejad is quite abominable we should not forget that almost 25% of Iranians are Turkish speaking, almost 10% are Kurds, and another 10-15% are Arab and other non-Persian ethnic groups. The Turkish speakers are Azens ethnically related to Azerbaijan and the Kurds would probably join Iraqi Kurdistan given a chance. (Azerbaijan is a moderate secular Islamic country having diplomatic relations with Israel.) Azens, Arabs, Kurds and Baluchis, have all staged protests in the past year as political dissent in the Iran has risen.

Professor Gartan Ash cited a conversation he had in Tehran in which a friend commented

‘I love George Bush but I would hate him if he bombed my country.’

Iran and Israel: A Strategic or Ideological Conflict

By Dr. Trita Parsi

(Dr. Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Triangle - The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States (Yale University Press, 2006). He wrote his Doctoral thesis on Israeli-Iranian relations under Professor Francis Fukuyama and Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski). He has conducted more than 110 interviews with senior Israeli, Iranian and American officials in all three countries. He is fluent in Persian/Farsi. Dr. Parsi's articles on Middle East affairs have been published in the Financial Times, Jane's Intelligence Review, the Globalist, the Jerusalem Post, The Forward, BitterLemons and the Daily Star.


By Strategic Dr. Parsi means a geopolitical conflict; by ideological he means religious conflict.


There is a common interest shared by these two non-Arab powerhouses in the Middle East: the need to portray their fundamentally strategic conflict as an ideological clash.

Israeli politicians began painting the regime in Tehran as fanatical and irrational. Clearly, they maintained, finding an accommodation with such “mad mullahs” was a non-starter. Instead, they called on the US to classify Iran, along with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as a rogue state that needed to be “contained.”

From the Israeli perspective, rallying Western states to its side was best achieved by emphasizing the alleged suicidal tendencies of the clergy and Iran’s apparent infatuation with the idea of destroying Israel. As long as the Iranian leadership was viewed as irrational, conventional tactics such as deterrence would be rendered impossible, leaving the international community with no option but to have no tolerance for Iranian capabilities. How could a country like Iran be trusted with missile technology, the argument went, if its leadership was immune to dissuasion by the larger and more numerous missiles of the West?

The Israeli strategy was to ensure that the world -- particularly Washington -- would not see the Israeli-Iranian conflict as one between two rivals for military preeminence in a fundamentally disordered region that lacked a clear pecking order. Rather, Israel framed the clash as one between the sole democracy in the Middle East and an illiberal theocracy that hated everything the West stood for. Cast in those terms, the allegiance of Western states to Israel was no longer a matter of choice or real political interest.

Throughout the 1980s, when Iran’s strategic interest compelled it to cooperate with Israel in order to repel the invading Iraqi army, the Khomeini government sought to cover up its Israeli dealings by taking Iran’s rhetorical excesses against Israel to even higher levels. In 1981, for instance, Ayatollah Khomeini introduced the ritual of observing an al-Qods Day -- Jerusalem Day -- during Ramadan precisely to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause at the same time that his regime was scheming to buy arms from the state it denounced as the “occupier of Jerusalem.”

The more Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership pressed the Iranian regime to live up to its promises to the Palestinians, the more Khomeini used his rhetorical weapons to cover up the fact that Iran refused to take any concrete measures against Israel.

After the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf war, the strategic considerations that had put Iran and Israel on the same geopolitical side evaporated. Soon enough, absent any common foes, Israel and Iran found themselves in a strategic rivalry for the ability to redefine the regional order after the decimation of Iraq’s military might. But it was clearly not possible to rally the Arab Muslim masses to Iran’s side for the sake of Iran’s power ambitions. Again, Iran turned to ideology to conceal its true motives, while utilizing the plight of the Palestinian people to undermine the Arab governments who were willing to partake in the Oslo process of the 1990s.

So Iranian speechwriters took the lead in inveighing against Israel’s “never-ending appetite for Arab lands,” its oppression of the Palestinians, its disregard for UN Security Council resolutions and the “insult to Islam” embodied that its continued occupation of Jerusalem. Indeed, until this day, the rhetoric of Tehran preaches that its struggle against Israel is not about geopolitical gains or even about Iran itself, but rather about justice for the Palestinians and honor for Islam.

With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cast in these terms, and fearing a backlash from their own populations, pro-Western Arab rulers have to tread carefully so as not to come across as belittling the announced goals of Tehran. In the eyes of many Arab states, the power of Iran’s rhetoric has made public opposition to Iran equivalent to acquiescence in or even approval of the Israeli and US stance on the Palestinian issue. Indeed, anti-Iranian statements such as Jordanian King Abdallah’s warning of a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran through post-Saddam Iraq into Lebanon or Egyptian President Husni Mubarak’s denunciation of Iraqi Shiites as Iranian loyalists have been poorly received by the Arab public. Tehran’s pro-Palestinian reputation is one reason why.

The Ahmadinejad camp forcefully argued that Iran should enlarge the conflict and make Israel a critical and visible part of the international debate. Viewing Iran’s nuclear program in isolation only benefited the West. Only by expanding the scope of the issue could Iran find the necessary levers to defend its position. At a minimum, the Ahmadinejad camp argued, a cost should be imposed on Israel for having made the Iranian nuclear program a subject of grave international concern and for having convinced Washington to adopt a no-enrichment policy.

More moderate voices in Tehran strongly opposed this approach, due to the difficulties they predicted it would cause for Iran’s nuclear diplomacy. They favored former President Mohammad Khatami’s tactic of invoking the suffering of the Palestinian people and Israel’s unwillingness to make territorial concessions, but avoiding hot-button issues such as Israel’s right to exist and the Holocaust. Taking the rhetoric to such levels, they argued, could backfire and turn key countries like Russia and China against Iran. Though the regime did not reach a full consensus, much to Ahmadinejad’s frustration, a decision was made that no Iranian official would be permitted to repeat the venomous Holocaust remarks. That decision stood for a couple of months until it became clear that the West was in retreat.


What was conspicuously absent from the internal debate in Tehran, however, was the very ideological motivations and factors that Iran uses to justify its stance on Israel. Neither the honor of Islam nor the suffering of the Palestinian people figured in the deliberations.

Rather, both the terms of the debate and its outcome were of a purely strategic nature. Both camps aimed at giving Iran the initiative in the confrontation with the US and Israel, rather than see Iran suffer the fate of Iraq, where from 1991 until the invasion Washington remained largely in firm control of events. Both Ahmadinejad and his major rival, National Security Council Adviser Ali Larijani, believe that Iran cannot make headway by playing nice with the Bush administration. In their view, Iran committed a mistake when it accepted suspension of uranium enrichment for two and a half years during negotiations with the Europeans.

The Ahmadinejad and Larijani camps further concur that Iran is better off taking the initiative to put its adversaries constantly in a defensive position. Iran should force the West to adopt a defensive position, rather than defend itself against the never-ending array of Western initiatives.

Whether agreeable or not, whether effective or not, the ideological pronouncements emanating from Ahmadinejad and other Iranian regime figures are an effect, rather than a cause, of Iran’s strategic orientation. Likewise, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s description of Iran as a “dark and gathering storm casting its shadow over the world” in his May 24, 2006 speech to Congress should not be taken at face value. There are distinct echoes of the Rabin-Peres approach in his further admonition: “A nuclear Iran means a terrorist state could achieve the primary mission for which terrorists live and die: the mass destruction of innocent human life.” Nevertheless, for now, both Iran and Israel seem to (mis)calculate that portraying their struggle in ideological and apocalyptic terms will provide them with a critical edge against each other in their efforts to define the order of the Middle East to their own benefit. Then again, those entangled in hegemonic struggles always do.



Tehran, Iran

WORKING as a journalist in Iran embodies the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again without getting any results. That’s how I felt at the height of the conflict in Lebanon, when I asked officials about Iran’s relations with Hezbollah, bearing in mind that posing such questions can be a futile, dangerous and sometimes even lethal exercise.

How was Iran helping Hezbollah? Did Iran really start the war to divert attention from its uranium enrichment program (which it vowed this week to continue)? Was Iran, as Hezbollah’s ally, if not patron, willing to put its money where its mouth was and enter the conflict?

Questions, questions. Of course no one answered.

So as a good Iranian, I indulged in fantasy. Fantasizing has become something of a national sport here. Our president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, predicted that the national soccer team would finish third or fourth in the World Cup. He also thinks we can become a nuclear powerhouse, even though we have a hard time manufacturing safety matches or making light bulbs with life expectancies of more than two weeks. By the way, the soccer team didn’t make it out of the first round.

The setting of my dream was a sauna, where I questioned an imaginary official for five minutes (alas, even our dreams have boundaries here). Why a sauna? For some reason, Iranian officials love going to saunas. Some of the most important decisions in our recent history have been made in saunas. I’m serious.

I politely approach the high-ranking official and give him the impression that he is actually as important as he thinks he is. A bearded man in his early 50’s, he usually wears a navy-blue suit and a collarless white shirt buttoned to the neck. (You can imagine how he would look in a sauna yourself. Hint: lots of hair). He is friendly and polite at first, but then his munificent smile turns to an agitated frown.

Q. How do you support the Lebanese resistance?

A. The Israeli regime has shown it has no concern for human rights and international law. It kills infants and pregnant women.

Q. How do you support the Lebanese resistance?

A. Americans have double standards. There is one for Israel and another one for the rest of the world. If it were not for America, Israel would never dare to kill innocent Lebanese citizens with such impunity.

Q. How do you support the Lebanese resistance?

A. I just answered you.

Q. No. You didn’t. You just repeated the slogans I heard people were chanting in the Palestine Square demonstration yesterday morning and at Friday prayers two days before that. How does Iran support Hezbollah? Financially? Militarily? Spiritually? How?

The official gets annoyed and looks to his bodyguards to take him away. He wipes the sweat off his face, adjusts his towel and leaves.

It is a silly fantasy, I admit. But the Iranian regime has reached a crossroads in its relationship with the rest of the world, and no one in the government is willing to give the public a straight answer.

There is a vague logic in the absurdity of the events here. But the people in the government tend not to share the obscure reasons behind their decisions with the public during crises. Officials usually leave it to pundits to interpret the government’s behavior as they wish (they must enjoy the French film critics who divine philosophical gesticulations in Iranian films in which absolutely nothing happens).

Using Hezbollah as a threat has always helped Iran in its negotiations with the West. Iran would like to keep it that way. Helping Hezbollah overtly, however, would lead to a direct confrontation with Israel and the United States, while officially staying out of Lebanese affairs means betraying revolutionary ideals the regime pretends to hold dear to its heart. For the moment, Iran is sticking to bombastic rhetoric while doing nothing, to the chagrin of many of its hard-line supporters.

Iran helped create Hezbollah in the early 1980’s, it is Hezbollah’s most vocal supporter, and before the war it sent the group millions of dollars of cash, medicine, arms and of course posters of Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, which accompanied every aid package and arms shipment.

Does this Iranian aid make Hezbollah Iran’s puppet? From all evidence, Hezbollah, to a great extent, makes decisions independently of Iran. Hezbollah is an indigenous Lebanese armed resistance group that owes its popularity to Israeli atrocities, biased American policies and corrupt Lebanese politicians. When the United States and Israel try to portray Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy, they are pointing the finger in the wrong direction.

But Iran definitely uses the threat of its influence over Hezbollah to further its objectives. And its prime objective is the survival of the Islamic regime at any price. The clerics and non-clerics (they are now mostly non-clerics) in power in Iran are not the old revolutionary zealots the Americans tend to imagine. They are pragmatic men who have enjoyed the fruits of power for 27 years and don’t want to lose them. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Iranian statesmen were so scared of American retaliation that for the first time since the revolution, no one chanted “Death to America” in Iran for 10 days.

The regime’s rhetoric about the United States and Israel is a remnant of the time when seizing embassies and staging revolutions were in vogue. But now the Islamic Republic has one of the world’s younger populations. Most young Iranians I know don’t care for their fathers’ ideals. They prefer the better things in life, like plasma TV’s on which to watch Britney Spears and the exiled Iranian pop diva Googoosh on illegal satellite channels. (No, Mr. Cheney, they don’t want the United States to invade their country.) The government spends much of its $60 billion in annual oil revenue to import goods and keep its youth happy.

The paradoxes of the regime have exposed its hypocrisies. On one hand, the fiery slogans are the raison d’être of the Islamic Republic, and on the other, acting openly on those slogans would spell its demise. The most expedient thing to do has been nothing, while continuing to chant.

Up until the start of the war in Lebanon, that was just fine. Iran benefited from a series of victories without doing much. First the Americans got rid of the Taliban, Iran’s enemy to the east. Then the Americans got rid of Iran’s archenemy to the west, Saddam Hussein. Finally, with Americans mired in both countries, the price of oil went through the roof, and Iran started enriching uranium again, knowing that the West could do nothing. The regime was intoxicated with oil money and regional influence.

But the war in Lebanon has made it impossible for the Islamic Republic to enjoy the same calm. Hezbollah has become a liability for Iran. Weakened, it now needs Iran’s petrodollars and rockets to regain its strength. At the same time, Israel and the United States are scrutinizing the transfer of arms and money from Iran to Hezbollah more closely than ever. The next shipment of arms from Iran to Hezbollah may result in direct confrontation with Israel and the United States.

The bearded men in the saunas must be sweating more than usual, even though in public they toast Hezbollah’s “victory” with glasses of pomegranate juice. The Islamic Republic is coming to the point where it has to choose: destroy itself by repeating the same old slogans, or come up with new definitions for itself, its friends and foes.

Maziar Bahari is a journalist and documentary film maker.