Iran and Israel: Beyond Red Lines and Blue Jeans

By Aviv Melamud and Ariane Tabatabai – Iran-Israeli relations have been on a collision course since the Islamic Republic of Iran’s inception, thirty-five years ago this February. While the two peoples, Iranians and Jews, have a long shared history, harking back to the Persian King Cyrus (Koresh), a key figure in both of their histories, the Revolution in Iran has shifted the relationship between the State of Israel and Iran from complicated to open hostility. Since the 1990s particularly, the political and security narratives in each capital have frequently focused on the threats posed by the other.

A common perception among Israelis is that a nuclear-capable Iran poses an existential threat to Israel. This is reinforced by the Islamic Republic’s anti-Israeli discourse, and its support of terrorist activities against Jewish communities around the world as well as for anti-Israeli groups. Iranians, for their part, have been hearing the Israeli leadership beating the drums of war and pushing the international community to strengthen the sanctions regime, which has deeply and devastatingly affected their lives. They further fear Israeli covert operations, ranging from the alleged assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists to Stuxnet. The concerns on both sides are legitimate but the two nations often fail to recognize the other’s fears, histories, and narratives, sometimes even undermining or dismissing them.

Despite persisting hostilities and much pessimism regarding the prospect of Iran-Israeli relations, easing tensions is a worthwhile endeavor. One of the key challenges en-route to better relations between the two countries lies in their political rhetoric. This has especially been the case in the past few years, with the belligerent rhetoric of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In Israel, the military option is perceived as a legitimate one to Iranian nuclearization. In Iran, where the wounds of a devastating war with neighboring Iraq have yet to heal, the military option often seems like the only one on Israel’s table. The looming threat of a war has not only made the Iranians afraid but also often unable to ask for a change of policy. The lack of communication between the two peoples makes it difficult for them to beyond the sensational statements of their leaders – on the holocaust, “red lines”, and “blue jeans” (or lack thereof) in Tehran.

While Netanyahu has dismissed the Iranian “charm offensive” since the election of President Hassan Rouhani, but the new leadership in Iran has led to new and tangible change. It seems that the political atmosphere in Iran is opening up, and this means that more voices, including critical ones, are being heard in Iran, which promises a more moderate political rhetoric and policy. The Iranian public is becoming again more involved in the political process and demands more integration in the international community, personal freedoms, and economic prosperity.

Rouhani and his team have shown they are interested in reaching out to countries in the region and the world and ending the Ahmadinejad hostile approach in foreign policy. The best evidence of this change lies in the agreement of the interim nuclear deal concluded last month in Geneva between Tehran and the P5+1. Lastly, Rouhani and his team have toned down the anti-Israeli rhetoric. This was shown in the statements by both Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recognizing the Holocaust, and the cancelation of the annual anti-Zionist conference, which was established under Ahmadinejad.

And still, in Israel the change has not been noticed. The rhetoric coming from Israel, especially Netanyahu’s statement denouncing the interim deal as a “historical mistake,” does not allow for recognition of these important developments in Iran. In light of these, the official, aggressive Israeli position towards Iran, unwilling to recognize the transformations in Iran since Rouhani’s inauguration, appears to be counter-productive for Israel’s long term security. While the suspicions and distrust are understandable, it is important to relinquish offensiveness. Change, by design, is gradual, and is assessed on a trend of cumulative actions. And actions have been taken.

Even without either side dropping their guard, some of the tension in the Iran-Israel nexus can be relieved, first and foremost by toning-down the rhetoric and simply refraining from belligerent and violent statements on either side. This is a meaningful step particularly now, as Iran begins implementing the Interim Agreement and entering into the next level of negotiations with the P5+1. Belligerent statements will certainly not create the hoped change in the other side’s behavior, rather they simply serve to intensify tension and mistrust.

It is just as important for both sides to correspond expectations and reality. It is important for each side to accept the reality of the other’s political regime and security concerns. When one side makes efforts and delicate shifts in policy and discourse, these too should be acknowledged, or at least not undermined. It is high time to leave behind the “all or nothing” approach and start an informal conversation aimed towards figuring out how both nations can live together without threatening each other’s existence.

Aviv Melamud is an Israeli research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), a Heinrich Böll Foundation Fellow, and a PhD student at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

Ariane Tabatabai is an Iranian Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School and a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

The authors are members of the Middle East Next Generation of Arms Control Specialists Network, created by Dr. Chen Kane at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Ha’aretz on January 22, 2014