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Iran, Israel and Foreign Minister Zarif

December 27, 2018 at 6:26 pm

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Moscow, Russia on 19 February, 2018 [Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency]

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif used French magazine Le Point to challenge the world to find a specific statement made by an Iranian official threatening or vowing to eliminate and destroy Israel. He gave a new reading of the statements and fatwas (opinions) of the first Supreme Leader and Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, repeated by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other senior Iranian religious, military and political officials. According to Zarif, Khomeini meant that Israel’s policies and approaches in the region will result in its own elimination and destruction, and did not mean that his country would be the cause.

I really want to believe the minister’s narrative and accept his “innovative” interpretations of Khomeini’s statements, even though I don’t think anyone believes what he has claimed. This is because most, if not all, Iranian rhetoric regarding Israel was based on this “theory” and all of Iran’s allies have at one point raised the slogan “Death to America, Death to Israel”, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and some of the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq.

Nevertheless, there are those who see the Foreign Minister’s statements as the beginning of a formal shift in Iran’s positions towards Israel, and the tendency to view it as a “normal state” in the region with which it could either be a friend or an enemy. Whatever it is, the option of elimination and destruction is not on the table as far as Iran is concerned.

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I never actually believed that Iran would go through with its threats and did not take the speeches about eliminating Israel seriously. There was no doubt, however, about its hostility towards Israel but this is a separate matter. Its hostility did not make the elimination of Israel one of Iran’s strategic priorities in the region. It was thus with astonishment that I watched how Israel and some Western states dealt with Iran’s statements, which were regarded as genuine threats to the Zionist state. Did they really believe what was being produced by Tehran’s propaganda machine, or were they trying to invest these statements with other meanings and objectives, such as dragging the Arabs into a strategic alliance with Israel, under the pretext of having a “common enemy”?

It has always been certain that Iran, like many Arab and other regional countries, has always approached the Palestinian issue from propaganda angles with the aim of achieving other goals. Getting close to Palestine gives a government credibility and popularity. If we look back at history, we find that every dictator or authoritarian regime has done something similar; Iran is no exception. Its strategy to play a dominant regional role is well known, and its desire to be the main player from the Caspian to the Mediterranean makes slogans like “liberating Palestine” and “Death to Israel” both important and necessary. Its conflict with other Muslim states over the leadership of the Islamic world also prompts it to invest in this issue.

It is understandable that Iran’s revolutionary period and attempts to export it required Tehran to intensify its rhetoric against global arrogance and various “Satans”, and so it is logical to expect that there will at some time be a change in the language and vocabulary of the discourse. Iran and its revolution are going through one of the most difficult stages in the past four decades, with the US sanctions really biting hard.

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Iran’s reformist school of thought, which holds the presidency, the government and the foreign ministry in Tehran by the scruff of the neck, has long decided that the country should shift from the revolution to the state in order to reintegrate it into global markets. It has also decided to conduct a large-scale normalisation campaign with Iran’s opponents regionally and internationally. If it weren’t for the “fatal coincidence” that made Donald Trump the President of the US, the path of the reformists would have been paved with flowers, and they would have had what they wanted and planned for. It seems that today, though, Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and resumption of sanctions on Iran, has not prevented the icons of this school of thought from walking down the same path. I believe that Zarif’s Le Point challenge falls within this context, and sends a message to the West that Iran is changing and will be subject to more change if it finds a willing hand on the other side.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Addustour on 27 December 2018

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