The commonly offered logic behind America’s push for war against Iran is that it, at least in part, is pushed by Israeli desire for war with Iran. But that explanation defies the logic of the geopolitics of the Middle East. In the logic of the Middle East, Israel does not obviously seek war with Iran.
According to the commonly accepted history, Israel had been allies with Iran when Iran was under the Shah. The revolutionary eclipse of the Shah by the clerical leaders of the Islamic revolution, however, made such an alliance impossible. Israel could not ally with the Ayatollah or the Islamic State of Iran.
But, in fact, they did. Israel’s relationship with Iran – contrary to accepted history – did not end with the 1979 Islamic revolution. Israel’s relationship with the Islamic regime would continue for many years in secret.
Israel sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. The Israelis were Iran’s best lobbyists in Washington, pushing the Reagan administration to talk to Iran, to sell arms to Iran and even to ignore Iran’s tough talk on Israel. Israel cooperated with Iran militarily and even sold them weapons. So far did Israeli-Iranian relations go after the revolution that the Israelis actually began working with Iran to modify an Israeli missile so that Iran could have a missile with the longer range of two hundred miles. Incredibly, these weapons were capable of being fitted with nuclear warheads. According to Iranian expert Trita Parsi, though the two countries did not exploit this possibility at the time, Iran read Israel’s signals “as indications that this possibility could be explored down the road.” According to General Hassan Toufanian, then in charge of Iran’s military procurement, secret Israeli documents left “no doubt about it.”
Israel did not pull the plug on its relationship with Iran because of the Islamic revolution. The government of the Ayatollah did not present an existential crisis to the Israeli government: it offered an existential solution.
It was not until several years later, in 1992, that the newly elected Labour government of Rabin and Peres would pull the plug on the relationship. From their perspective, two seismic events had altered the geopolitical landscape. The cold war was over, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was destroyed.
Both of these changes were seen by the Israelis as positive, but both had unintended consequences. The defeat of Iraq was the defeat of Iran’s greatest enemy: that left Iran stronger. Most importantly, the end of the cold war meant the departure of the Soviet Union from the Middle East: that left Israel’s traditional Arab enemies enfeebled.
In an important way, the end of the cold war was a catastrophe for Israel: it devalued Israel’s role to the United States. The cold war logic was that Israel was an indispensable western ally because Israel was the primary bulwark against Soviet penetration into the Middle East. But there was no more Soviet Union. “There was a feeling in Israel that because of the end of the Cold War, relations with the U.S. were cooling and we needed some new glue for the alliance,” Trita Parsi quotes Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center as saying. “And the new glue was radical Islam.”
But, it was a very specific kind of radical Islam: not the kind Saudi Arabia was financing and exporting – because Saudi Arabia had been neutered by the departure of the Soviet Union– but Iran’s radical Shiite Islam. Selling a stronger Iran unfettered by Iraq as the number one global threat invented a new Middle East enemy that replaced the Soviet Union and reinflated Israel’s value to the U.S. in the region. “Iran,” Inbar went on to explain, “was radical Islam.”
In the logic of the Middle East, despite its hostile rhetoric, Israel does not seek regime change in Iran. Replacing the regime of the Ayatollah with an American friendly regime removes Israel’s value to the United States. It returns Israel to the panicky, unneeded days that followed the end of the cold war. Israel wants to see the Iranian government, not replaced, but isolated. Israel wants to maintain an environment in the Middle East that ensures an isolated Iranian that America and the world does not accept or talk to.
That is why Israel opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran. Israel did not oppose the deal because an Iran with no pathway to a nuclear bomb wasn’t safer for Israel. Israel opposed the Iranian nuclear deal because an Iran that America talked to wasn’t safer for Israel.
There couldn’t have been a bigger sign than the JCPOA that Iran had squeezed out of its isolation and was being accepted and legitimized by America and the world. The threat of the JCPOA to Israel was that Iran would be seen as a potential partner to the west. One that could negotiate treaties like a legitimate power and, perhaps, even partner with America in areas of common interest, like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and even the Middle East in general.
That is also one of the reasons why, though Israel constantly threatened to unilaterally strike Iran throughout the Iran nuclear crisis, they never did. In 2008, the Israeli air force carried out a massive exercise while government officials loudly threatened war on Iran “[i]f Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons.” In his book Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, Gareth Porter says that, while Pentagon officials publicly took the exercise very seriously, US intelligence officials had concluded that the whole show was a “sham.” Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak had cooked up a plan “to create the impression that Israel was preparing for an attack on Iran in order to increase the pressure on Iran.” Porter says that Secretary of Defence Robert Gates also accepted that Europe, Russia and China would be more willing to sanction Iran if the alternative was an Israeli attack.
Though the Israelis actually knew that they neither had the ability to carry out a successful strike against Iranian nuclear sites nor the ability to strike Iran without American approval, Porter quotes Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel as saying that the sham had to be put on display to “prod the United States and Europe to exert more pressure on the Islamic Republic.” In an interview, former Mossad official Yossi Alpher told Porter that Netanyahu was “bluffing and keeping the international community on edge, keeping the pressure on Iran.”
The Israelis weren’t trying to go to war with Iran or bring about regime change in Iran. They weren’t really trying to push the US into war with Iran. They were trying to force sanctions on Iran, to prevent negotiations with Iran, to prevent Iran from escaping isolation and being accepted.
And so, Israel, despite the Middle East logic usually presented, may not want to push for war with Iran; instead, they may want to prevent a war with Iran. The ironic logic of the Middle East is that, while Israel wants the world to see Iran behind every terrorist attack, every conflict and every threat; while they want Iran delegitimized, ostracized and isolated; they may not want Iran defeated or the regime changed because that would eliminate the special role they play for the United States and neuter Israel of its special value.