Dr. Parsi is an adjunct professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University SAIS and the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007).
The summer war between Israel and Lebanon was not limited to the Israeli Defense Forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah. The 34-day war, whose immediate spark was a border attack by Hezbollah that left several Israeli soldiers dead and several taken prisoner, has much deeper roots than a simple border dispute. At the heart of the conflict lies a shifting geopolitical balance in an order-less Middle East where two traditional allies — Israel and Iran — have been pitted against each other for control of the region. While America’s self-defeating policies in Iraq and the conflict around Iran’s uranium-enrichment program have caused this conflict to come to a head— by prompting Washington’s regional decline and accelerating Iran’s rise — the roots of the conflict stretch back to the end of the Cold War. But even though Iran and Israel are currently entangled in a strategic rivalry that neither one sought, a climactic military confrontation between the two is far from inevitable.
Only decades ago, Iran and Israel, the Middle East’s two key non-Arab states, enjoyed a close but secret relationship. The essence of this entente was not the inevitability of a non-Arab alliance against the Arab masses per se, but a congruence of interests formed by the configuration of power in the region. Iran and Israel shared interests because they shared common threats: the Soviet Union and militant Arab states. In the power balance of the region at the time, an Iranian-Israeli entente made sense.
Due to the continuing existence of these threats, many aspects of the Israeli-Iranian relationship survived the Iranian Revolution in spite of Iran’s new state ideology. For instance, Israel was a key provider of arms to the new theocracy in Iran during the Iraq-Iran War, and there are indications that Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear site at Osirak in 1981 was facilitated by Iranian intelligence and assistance. In addition, Israel lobbied Washington extensively in the 1980s to open up relations with Iran, in spite of Ayatollah Khomeini’s venomous rhetoric against the Jewish state. These efforts culminated in the Iran-contra scandal.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 1991 — the last Arab power that could pose a significant conventional military threat to Iran and Israel — the geopolitical map of the Middle East was reconfigured and the rationale for the covert or overt cooperation between the Jewish state and the Islamic Republic evaporated. In the new emerging Middle East, the two non-Arab powerhouses no longer shared common security imperatives.
The distribution of relative power shifted toward Iran and Israel and formed a nascent bipolar structure in the region. While the elimination of key threats improved the security environments of both, it also left both states unchecked.
Without Iraq balancing Iran, Tehran could now become a threat, Israeli strategists began to fear. In addition, Iran could become Israel’s strategic competitor for Washington’s support, particularly when Israel’s strategic utility to America had been put in question. Without the Soviet Union to be a bulwark against in the Middle East, Israel’s role in America’s strategic calculations had lost much of its raison d’être.
While the New World Order provided Iran with an opportunity to reintegrate itself into the region in political and economic terms, it posed a major challenge to Israel. It did not take long before these former allies began acting against each other.
Israel inverted its periphery doctrine and sought peace with its immediate Arab neighbors largely in order to focus its resources on the challenge Iran could pose. In addition, in stark contrast to its policies in the 1980s, Israel now took the lead in opposing any dialogue or diplomacy between Washington and Tehran.
Iran, in turn, interpreted the peace process as an attempt to establish an Israel-centric Middle East order founded on Iran’s prolonged isolation. Peace between the Arabs and Israel could not be sustained without a common threat perception by these states against Iran, Tehran feared. The statements of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which spelled out this very vision and the strategic logic for the peace process, did little to alleviate Iran’s fears.
The peace process itself, however, was the weakest link connecting the parts of this vision. Without successful peace making between the Israelis and Palestinian, the Israeli-centric Middle East order could be evaded, Iran reasoned. Hence, in the early 1990s, Iran reached out to rejectionist Palestinian organizations that Tehran had traditionally enjoyed poor relations with — partly because they supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and partly because they were Sunni fundamentalist organizations that rejected the Iranian theocracy’s Shiite identity. The peace process provided Iran and the rejectionist Palestinian groups with a common threat.
While Iran’s obstructionism played a minor role in undoing the Oslo process, Oslo’s collapse removed a strategic threat to Iran and revealed that even peripheral disputes would now be encapsulated within Iran and Israel’s geopolitical rivalry. By 1994, both Israel and Iran began undermining any U.S. policy initiative in the region— however removed from their core interests — that they deemed beneficial to the other.1
THE SUMMER WAR
This struggle between Iran and Israel was primarily fought through proxies. Iran supported violent anti-Israeli groups, and Israel used its allies within the American domestic political scene to isolate Iran. This did not prevent the summer war of 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah from reaching a new and heightened phase in the conflict.
Since 2003, America’s position and credibility in the region had become significantly weakened by the chaos in Iraq. Iran, on the other hand, had serendipitously benefited from America’s policies. The defeat of Iran’s traditional Arab rival, Iraq, and the emergence of a pro-Iranian Shiite leadership there, the removal of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, America’s unpopularity in the region, the Arab governments’ perceived inability to act independently of Washington or oppose its policies, America’s perceived inability to push Iran back militarily and Tehran’s unhindered march towards a nuclear capability all served to strengthen Iran’s position in the region and increase Israel’s strategic vulnerability.
These developments significantly increased Israeli fears that American inaction against Iran could leave Israel alone in facing a nuclear Iran riding on a wave of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment in the region at a time when the Jewish state had failed to reduce tensions with its immediate Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians.
The summer war between Israel and Lebanon took place against this backdrop. The fighting may have been sparked by Hezbollah’s cross-border raid, but Israel’s unprecedented decision to expand a border clash into a full-scale war was motivated by an intent to preempt Iran. With a potential future showdown with Iran in mind, Tel Aviv seemed to have sought an opportunity to neutralize Hezbollah and Hamas in order to weaken Iran’s deterrence and retaliation capabilities. (The summer war was preceded by heavy Israeli bombardment of Gaza.) Through these groups, Iran could bring the war to Israeli territory, a scenario that further accentuated Israel’s vulnerability to asymmetric warfare. By preemptively attacking Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel could significantly deprive Iran of its ability to retaliate against the Jewish state in the event of a U.S. assault on Iran.In fact, the Jewish state had planned and prepared for war against
Hezbollah for more than two years. In 2005, a senior Israeli army officer began giving off-the-record PowerPoint presentations to American diplomats, journalists and think tanks, setting out in great detail the plan for the expected operation. “Of all Israel’s wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared,” Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University explained.2
According to Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, war with Iran was not a question of if, but when. “War with Iran is inevitable,” he told me at a conference in southern Europe on July 28, 2006, halfway through the war. “Lebanon is just a prelude to the greater war with Iran,” he said with frightening certainty.
Once Iran obtained a nuclear capability, however, this option would no longer be available to Israel. In addition, even absent a U.S. assault on Iran, such a strategic pushback against Iran would be beneficial to Israel and the United States. In fact, Tehran was expecting some form of Israeli offensive against its Shiite Lebanese ally, though the Iranian intelligence services had predicted that a much smaller campaign would occur in the fall of 2006.3
As it became increasingly likely, though, that Israel would fail to debilitate Hezbollah quickly through its massive air campaign, Washington and London provided Tel Aviv with the political cover to continue the war in spite of the international community’s protests and calls for an immediate ceasefire. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to the fighting as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” and argued that a return to the status quo was unacceptable.4
After some initial successes, the Israelis were stunned at Hezbollah’s powerful response, including its firing of thousands of Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. Rather than facing an amateur militia, the Israelis soon realized that they were fighting a well-trained and well-equipped guerrilla army. Hezbollah even used a Chinese-made C-807 missile against an Israeli warship off Lebanon’s coast, catching the Israelis off guard and disabling the ship. Israeli intelligence had failed to fully discover before the war what Hezbollah was hiding in its arsenals.
The Lebanese fought a high-tech war, and they paid as much attention to the media battle as they did to the fighting on the ground. Trained and equipped by the Iranians, Hezbollah fighters cracked the codes of Israeli radio communications, intercepting reports on the casualties they had inflicted. Whenever an Israeli soldier was killed, Hezbollah confirmed it by listening to the Israeli radio and then sent the reports immediately to its satellite TV station, Al-Manar, which broadcast the news live. Thus, Arab audiences knew the names of Israeli casualties and where they had been killed well before the Israeli army had a chance to inform the soldiers’ families. The psychological impact of this on the Israelis, who had grown accustomed to superiority over the armies of their Arab neighbors, was devastating.
As the war progressed, Israeli tactical miscalculations and strategic shortsightedness changed the situation on the ground, as well as public opinion in Israel. At the outset, the vast majority of the Israeli public supported the war. It was seen as a defensive and necessary war to finally put an end to Hezbollah’s border attacks.
However, the initial euphoria of the Israeli leadership — and the Israeli public — soon turned to despair. After a few weeks of hard fighting with no clear gains for the Israeli Defense Forces, polls showed that 63 percent of Israelis believed that Olmert should resign, while 74 percent wanted the inexperienced Moroccan-born defense minister, Amir Perez, to step down as well.5 The battle cry at the beginning of the war — “Let Israel win!” — had by the third week turned into “We’ll settle for a draw.”
Even the Iranians were surprised by the outcome and Hezbollah’s fighting power. The fear, and to some extent the expectation, had been that Israel would destroy Iran’s Lebanese ally, after which “the entire regional calculus would changein Iran’s disfavor.”6 Instead, Iran’s — and even more so, Hezbollah’s — stock in the Arab street rose to unprecedented levels; Israel and the United States were weakened; and pro-Western Arab governments found themselves squeezed between their disgruntled populations and a White House that showed little consideration for the interests and wishes of its allies.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan — three key U.S. allies whose regimes would have much to lose from Iran’s rise — took the unusual step in the early days of the war of chastising Hezbollah for having started the war. Never before had an Arab government so publicly denounced an Arab group fighting Israel.7 The Saudi calculation was that, by offering political cover for other countries to condemn Hezbollah, America would rein in the Israelis. But the Saudi move backfired. The Bush administration worked to prolong the war rather than shorten it, embarrassing the Saudi leadership by revealing its lack of influence over the Bush White House.8
At the same time, popular support for Hezbollah was so strong in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt that their leaders were quickly forced to change their anti-Hezbollah line. In a double irony, Iran was not only strengthened by Israel’s move, it benefited even further from Washington’s weakening of its Arab rivals.
By the end of the 34-day war, Hezbollah had won a stunning victory by simply having withstood and survived Israel’s onslaught. Rather than reinforcing the deterrent effect of Israel’s invincibility, the war to weaken Iran only made Israel itself more vulnerable.
CAN WAR BE AVOIDED?
A year later, Israel and Iran continue to gravitate towards open military conflict. In a chaotic Middle East guided by a balance of-power paradigm, where powerful states vie for regional preeminence, where Israel seeks a guaranteed strategic military edge over all regional states that have Israel within their reach, where Iran views religious fanaticism and asymmetric warfare as legitimate political tools, and where the United States justifies its regional presence on the grounds that the local giant (Iran) must be counterbalanced, conflict will remain the norm rather than the exception. With Washington unwilling
to recognize Iran as a regional power with legitimate security interests, with Israel insisting on maintaining military superiority over its neighbors while clinging to its arsenal of 200 nuclear warheads, and with Iran openly predicting the military exodus of the United States from the region, open warfare may be avoided, but peace will remain elusive.
A sustainable peace in the Middle East can only be achieved if coupled with a sustainable security order. Such an order must, by definition, be inclusive and reflect the reigning geopolitical balance. The order the United States pursued in the 1990s, under the policy of dual containment, was based on the exclusion of two of the strongest powers in the region, Iran and Iraq. The order the United States seeks today is equally disconnected from regional realities, particularly Iran’s growing influence and America’s declining position.
Over the past 12 months, the security situation in Iraq has continued to deteriorate while an increasing number of Republican lawmakers have turned against the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. The Ehud Olmert government in Tel Aviv— blasted by the Winograd Commission for its abysmal performance during the 2006 war— is widely unpopular in Israel and risks being replaced by the hardline Likud party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu. In Tehran, the clerical regime’s nuclear program has rapidly grown and may soon reach an industrial scale.
Disregarding these power realities is becoming increasingly costly for Washington and Tel Aviv. Yet, Israel seems trapped in old thinking. As Iran’s power rises, Israel fears that Washington will be increasingly compelled to strike a deal with Tehran. Such a deal will most likely include some level of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil, which theoretically will enable Tehran to master the fuel cycle. Even if Iran doesn’t weaponize, Israel views such an arrangement as unacceptable since an Iran with nuclear technology would significantly limit Israel’s maneuverability in the region. Fearing that Washington will betray Israeli security interests in a U.S.-Iran dialogue, many in Tel Aviv prefer war over negotiations.
But lacking the military capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program itself — in spite of much fanfare to the contrary — Israel is pressuring the Bush administration to strike Iran before the end of 2007. In June of this year, Israel’s deputy prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, visited Washington to hold strategic discussions regarding Iran’s nuclear program with Bush administration officials. According to press reports, Mofaz urged the United States to give diplomacy with Iran an expiration date of the end of the year, after which the military option would be exercised. “Sanctions must be strong enough to bring about change in the Iranians by the end of 2007,” Mofaz told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.9
An alternative route would be for Israel to initiate an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities with the calculation that Tel Aviv’s inevitable failure to eliminate the nuclear program and Iranian retaliation against Israeli and American targets would force the United States to join the military campaign. Some elements in Washington may quietly be encouraging Israel to pursue this strategy since it would provide the United States with a casus belli and enable the administration to bypass a war-weary Congress and U.S. public. This course of action would, however, come at a high cost for Israel since it would reveal the Jewish state’s inability to destroy the Iranian nuclear program on its own and thereby expose the limits of the operational capabilities of the Israeli air force, instead of leaving them ambiguous. Much like the war with Hezbollah, this option may end up significantly undermining Israel’s deterrence, particularly if Iran uses the Israeli attack as grounds to abrogate the nonproliferation treaty and redouble its efforts to achieve nuclear status.10
Moderate elements in Israel, however, recognize that recent events indicate that the security of the Jewish state is no longer served by this balance-of-power paradigm. Israel cannot indefinitely balance its more populous neighbors, particularly as they — like Iran — begin to master nuclear technology. Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s former foreign minister, argued in the pages of Haaretz last year that “the question today is not when Iran will have nuclear power, but how to integrate it into a policy of regional stability before it obtains such power.… The answer to the Iranian threat is a policy of détente, which would change the Iranian elite’s pattern of conduct.”11
This is indeed no simple task. But, given the new balance in the region and the likelihood of continued Iranian power accumulation, Israel’s security will be better achieved through a significant restructuring of the security environment that deprives Iran of any incentives to continue its aggressive stance towards the Jewish state. The only policy that can achieve such a strategic redesign is comprehensive negotiations between the United States and Iran with the aim of détente and a new security order. Rather than objecting to such negotiations and rendering them more difficult by beating on the war drums, Israel’s security would be better served by supporting U.S.-Iran talks and by pushing for Israel’s security needs to be addressed in those discussions. As problematic as détente or negotiations with Iran may be, if the goal is peace and not just the mere avoidance of war, there is much to suggest that no alternative path to a policy of regional integration exists.
1 For an in-depth discussion on Iran and Israel's tug of war in the 1990s, see Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007).
2 Matthew Kalman, “Israel Set War Plan More Than a Year Ago,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 21, 2006.
3 Interview with Javad Zarif, Iran’s UN ambassador, New York, October 12, 2006.
4 Doyle McManus, “Iran Is Bush’s Target in Lebanon,” Los Angeles Times, July 30, 2006.
5 Uzi Mahnaimi, “Humbling of the Super-troops Shatters Israeli Army Morale,” Sunday Times, August 27, 2006.
6 Interview with Javad Zarif, Iran’s UN ambassador, New York, October 12, 2006.
7 Hassan M. Fattah, “Fearful of Iran, Arab Leaders Criticize Militants,” The New York Times, July 17, 2006.
8 “Dampened Trust? A Conversation with Nawaf Obaid,” SUSRIS, August 22, 2006.
9 Eli Lake, “Israel Seeking New Deadline on Iran Bomb,” New York Sun, June 8, 2007. According to Channel 2 News in Israel, Mofaz went on to declare to Rice that Israel would bomb Iran's nuclear facilities by year’s end if diplomacy and sanctions fail to persuade Tehran to suspend its enrichment activities.
10 Even in the best-case scenario, a military campaign against Iran's nuclear program is unlikely to destroy the expertise Iran has amassed over the years. As a result, military action can at best delay the nuclear program, not destroy it.
11 Shlomo Ben-Ami, “The Basis for Iran's Belligerence,” Haaretz, September 7, 2006.