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Would we be surprised by an understanding between Iran and Israel in the New Year?

January 24, 2014 at 2:56 am

The potential scenarios for the New Year pose some interesting questions. Will an understanding between Iran and Israel, for example, be one of the options for the re-structuring of the Middle East?

I know that simply asking the question is taboo for those who consider that its mere thought damages the legitimacy of the Islamic Revolution; one of the constants of Imam Khomeini’s policies was not only to be against the Shah’s regime, but also to be hostile towards the United States and reject the state of Israel.

After the fall of the Shah, those chanting “Death to America” also wished the same fate for Israel, which was the basis for the revolutionary leaders’ rhetoric, early on, about the liberation of Palestine. There are those who also continued to reiterate the elimination of Israel from the map of the region, as if it is an inevitable fate that will be achieved sooner or later. I understand all of this, and I have much more evidence of the fact that for the past 35 years the Islamic Revolution in Iran has not only taken a hostile position against Israel but also supported the resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon.

Although I maintain that many within the Iranian elite continue to adopt this position and are not willing to abandon it, I believe that there are changes in the politics on a regional and international level that have required new visions and encouraged some to reconsider some of the revolution’s constants. Such changes have resulted in a type of reconciliation with the US, which, according to the traditional revolutionary culture, was considered a symbol of Satan. This may open the door to accepting the idea of reaching an understanding with a lesser evil, especially if it serves Tehran’s interests to do so; Israel fits the bill.

Since the Geneva nuclear deal was signed on November 24th, political commentators have been competing to monitor its background, circumstances and repercussions. Most have agreed that the agreement represents a new phase in global and regional relations and the balance of power. Some have said that the Obama administration moved to close the file on foreign policy militarisation and end the war in the best interests of the Middle East; and then decided to adopt a more realistic policy in which Washington recognises the influence of Iran and its role. Tehran, meanwhile, acknowledges the reality of the region.

In the light of this realistic policy, the US administration regarded Tehran to be Washington’s window of opportunity for ending its unsuccessful ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration was encouraged to do so by the decline in its interests in the Arab world, especially due to the strong indications that the US will soon be self-sufficient in oil and gas thanks to newly-discovered reserves (see Andrew Bacevich, a history professor at Boston University, in the Washington Post, 6 December). The editor of France’s Le Point news magazine, Nicolas Baverez, did not deem this idea unlikely in his analysis published on December 5.

It has been reported that Washington is obsessed with maintaining its world leadership in the face of China and decided to shift its focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, a move helped by the fact that it is on the verge of energy independence and can therefore afford to reduce oil imports from the Middle East. With this shift, the relative importance of the region in America’s strategy has declined; the US found that the agreement with Iran could contribute to its stability.

In his article in the Washington Post published on 30 November, Eugene Robinson noted that the agreement with Iran is important on a number of levels, the most important of which is that it is the crucial means of stabilising the Middle East and avoiding the likelihood of tension and escalation leading to war, which neither the United States nor Europe want.

He also noted in this regard that Iran’s ability to manufacture nuclear bombs has increased over time, despite the sanctions. When the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006, he pointed out, it had 3,000 centrifuges; it now possess 18,000 and can enrich uranium by 20 per cent, which is nine-tenths of the amount needed for the production of fuel for a bomb.

In Iran, Kayhan Barzegar, editor of Tabnak newspaper, published an article on 9 December in which he wrote that the Geneva agreement opened the door for more cooperation with Western countries to solve regional and international issues. This helps move the political and security system from the balance of power to the strategic balance of interests and regional cooperation. He mentioned that these interests include maintaining the political system status quo, combating terrorism and extremism, and working together to achieve a Middle East that is free of weapons of mass destruction.

You may have noticed that the previous analyses, and many others, made no mention of a role for the Arab world in the discussion of the new map of the area or the balance of power. And that the United States, which has made confronting China its foreign policy priority and which is in the process of achieving oil and gas self-sufficiency, no longer requires anything from the region except calm and stability, as well as the security of Israel, of course.

Since the Arab world is now in a state of instability and weakness and is no longer able to provide the desired stability, all eyes have been set on outside elements that can do the job. In this regard, the agreement with Iran has become important, not only because of its strategic importance and the stability it adds to America’s politics and its oil and military capabilities, but also because Iran has become a key player in the region. It also has presence in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and has even extended its influence to Bahrain and Yemen, has an alliance with Russia and is backed by China.

Although Turkey is a party that cannot be ignored because it is a member of NATO and possesses strategic importance and economic development while being a party to the Syrian scenario, the Iranian role has more weight, especially since relations between Ankara and Cairo have become difficult. As such, Turkey’s sole real ally in the Arab world is Qatar.

Moreover, Israel stands out in this context, either because Washington cannot afford to ignore it or because it is considered a military and nuclear power whose role has grown now that the Arab world has been removed from the power equation with the destruction of the Iraqi and Syrian armies. The Egyptian army, of course, is distracted with internal affairs and its open war in Sinai.

Due to this situation, Israel’s presence in the corners of the new maps has become inevitable since it is an indispensable party in the plans for the desired stability. This is despite the fact that it is one of the main causes of tension in the region having occupied most of Palestine in 1948 and continued to grab more land right up to this day with its policies of Judaisation and settlement-colony expansion.

If this analysis is correct, it would mean that the new maps would put Iran and Israel in one box (with Turkey not too far off) at least in terms of the United States counting on them to maintain the stability in the fight against so-called “extremism” in the region. There are voices in the United States claiming that the extremism in question comes mainly from the Sunni faction of Islam so the Shia should be called on to confront them. One of the main advocates of this idea is well-known Orientalist Bernard Lewis.

I have said in a previous comment on the Geneva agreement that, logically, Iran cannot strike a deal with the United States while it continues to support the Palestinian resistance. I have wondered aloud what price Tehran would have to pay in order ensure the success of its agreement with Washington, especially given that is on probation for the next six months. I did not have the information needed to answer the question at the time, but I thought that proposing such a matter made sense in the current situation.

I knew that Iranian nationalists, along with some of the liberals and reformists, saw nothing wrong with establishing relations with Israel, not least because some Arab states have normalised relations with it. I also heard from some that Imam Khomeini did not cut ties with Egypt after the peace treaty signed by Anwar Sadat with Israel in 1979 until he was pressured to do so by the then Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. However, all this time I have considered these voices to have no effect on the decision-making circles in Tehran. That was evident in the firm position adopted by Imam Khomeini towards Israel; Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current Supreme Leader, has continued to follow the same path.

Although I heard this after he had left power in 2005, I was once told that the former president Mohammad Khatami did not mind the restoration of relations with Israel. My source at the time begged me to keep it to myself but I believe that the current circumstances allow me to reveal this.

The image of Israel-Iran relations that I have imagined for the past three decades was shaken after reading a report in America’s Newsweek magazine published on November 25, titled “The Burgundy Back Channel”, written by the magazine’s editor, Owen Matthews. In the report, Matthews mentioned secret meetings between Iranian, Israeli and Chinese generals in a chateau in France during which the points discussed were the subjects of the dispute between Iran and the major powers that delayed an agreement over the nuclear programme issue. The outcomes of those secret meetings played a role in overcoming the obstacles which prevented the agreement being signed.

The report noted that the private talks were held at the Chateau de Selore, in Burgundy, and that the three groups were hosted by Jean-Christophe Iseux von Pfetten, an advisor to the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party. One of the mediators who contributed to the arrangement of the meeting as well as to the mediation process was former Australian Prime Minister Robert Hawke.

The report also mentioned the names of others involved in the talks, including General Doron Avital, former commander of Israel’s Special Forces and a Knesset Defence Committee member, and former French Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie; however, he did not mention the names of the former leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who were present.

One of the important observations cited in the report was the fact that the reason behind China’s presence in those secret meetings was not only due to the fact that it is a member of the group of countries that participated in the meetings in Geneva (“P5+1”), but also because the Chinese leadership believes that it should be present in any discussions concerning the future of the Arab world, especially the Gulf region. China imports 70 per cent of its total oil needs from there and Beijing is not willing to allow others to determine its industrial future.

I do not find it unlikely that the Israelis are behind the leak about the meetings held in Burgundy because the information mentioned in the report indicated that close relations developed between the Iranians and Israelis during the discussions. This possibility was confirmed when I read that Radio Tel Aviv broadcast a story this week about the historic meeting between the Saudis and the Israelis in France; it was the first to announce this openly, without announcing other meetings held by the security services behind closed doors. It is as if they wanted to tease and mock us and prove that we are being tricked by everyone.

Despite the accuracy of the details published in the Newsweek report, I am trying not to believe them. I prefer to pose this possibility as something that I hope the Iranians will deny.

This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Jazeera net on 17 December, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.