The Arab-Israeli conflict is often thought of as a Muslim-Israeli conflict, although it is not. Israel has normal relations and even alliances with a number of Muslim-majority countries – with Turkey, Albania, Azerbaijan, and some others. Kurdistan, if it existed as a sovereign nation, would instantly align itself with Israel against the Arabs. A number of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government officials told me they are not-so secretly friends with Israel now.
Iran used to have normal relations with Israel. I met Israel’s last ambassador to Iran in Jerusalem in 2006. He was posted in Tehran before the old regime of the Shah was overthrown by the Khomeinists. His very existence reminded me that hostile relations between Israel and Iran need not be eternal. A post-Khomeinist Iran, whether it comes into being now or later, might resume normal relations with Israel or at least dial down the hostility to a lower volume.
In his new book The Persian Night, Iranian author and COMMENTARY contributor Amir Taheri describes how and why the Khomeinists imported an alien Arab ideology and its attendant grievances into a land of Persians, Azeris, and Kurds:
Despite the presentation of the Jew by the Khomeinist regime as the ultimate “other” and object of hatred, anti-Semitism has failed to find a wide audience in Iran. Leaving aside what one might call “vulgar anti-Semitism,” there is no evidence that hatred of the Jews has any echoes in contemporary Persian literature or art. Part of this is because the overwhelming majority of Iranian writers, poets, and other “producers of culture” reject Khomeinism as a form of anti-Iranian fascism. The main reason, however, is that the average Iranian, though he may sympathize with the Palestinians, cannot identify with the Arabs, whom he regards as an ancestral foe. The fact that the only major war that Iran has fought in the past three hundred years was started by an Arab nation – Iraq under Saddam Hussein – makes it hard for most Iranians to contemplate an Irano-Arab front against Israel.
So, why has the Khomeinist regime tried to present itself as an advocate of the most radical anti-Israel, not to say anti-Jewish, strategy? The answer lies in the regional and even global ambitions of a regime in search of hegemony and empire. If Iran were to use Iranian culture and the Persian language as vehicles for projecting those ambitions, the regime would have to tone down its Islamic pretensions, thus losing its principle claim to legitimacy.
The only theme that the Khomeinist regime might use to find an audience among the Arabs is one that has resonated with at least some of them since the 1950s: hatred of Israel. Israel has all the qualifications to become the scapegoat for the Arab audience that Ahmadinejad seeks. To start with, Israel is Jewish and thus presumed heir to the “Jews who made Muhammad suffer in Medina.” Israel is also the “outsider” because millions of its citizens, though perhaps no longer a majority, have Western backgrounds. Being a democracy also makes Israel the exact opposite of the despotic Khomeinist system. Having adopted a capitalist market economy, Israel is perceived as a challenge to the Islamo-fascistic populism that Khomeinists present as their political ideology. In any case, Israel must be doomed because it has already had a woman as prime minister, and, as Muhammad is supposed to have said, a nation ruled by a woman is bound to perish.
The Khomeinist regime hopes to achieve a number of objectives by adopting the destruction of Israel as its cause. It will attract the attention of the Arab intelligentsia, a good part of which has built its utopian vision of the world around deep hatred of Israel. Hatred of Israel also provides a bond between the Islamic Republic and the broader Arab masses who are suspicious of Iran’s Shiism. The same is true of the remnants of the left in the Middle East, to whom an anti-Israel stance is part of a broader anti-imperialist strategy that Khomeinism, too, claims to espouse.
Ahmadinejad’s message to the Arabs is simple: Forget that Iran is Shiite, and remember that today it is the only power capable of realizing your most cherished dream, the destruction of Israel. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood promised you it would throw the Jews into the sea in 1948, but failed. Pan-Arab nationalists, led by Nasser, ushered you into one of your biggest defeats in history, enabling Israel to capture Jerusalem. The Baathists under Saddam Hussein promised to “burn Israel,” but ended up bringing the American infidels to Baghdad. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian “patriots” promised to crush the Jewish state, but turned into collaborators on its payroll. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda never gave two hoots about Palestine, focusing only on spectacular operations in the West to win publicity for themselves. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Hamas did all they could to destroy Israel but lacked the power, like flies attacking an elephant. The only force now willing and able to help realize your dream of a burned Israel and drowning the Jews is the Islamic Republic as created by Khomeini.
It is not easy to present Israel as a threat to Iran, let alone a Muslim world of 1.3 billion people. There is no history of enmity between Iranians and Jews. On the contrary, most historical narratives on both sides radiate with genuine warmth and affection. Ancient Persians helped save the Jews from extermination in Babylon. Jews always remained loyal to Iran, fighting and dying for it whenever given an opportunity. Even when Israel was reborn as a state, few Iranian Jews were prepared to choose it over Iran. Iran and Israel do not face any of the problems that set one nation-state against another. There is no border dispute between them. They are not competing over access to rare natural resources or markets. They do not suffer from a collective memory of hatred and war. Any Western visitor to Iran would quickly realize that Iranians do not hate Jews and would not be prepared to sacrifice them for the Arabs. This lack of a popular base for a policy of hatred and war may well prove to be the ultimate check on Ahmadinejad’s messianic illusions.
Before Ahmadinejad wiped Israel off the map, moreover, he would have to deal with the third “other” in the Khomeinist demonology: the American Great Satan, which, although weakened by its internal squabbles and surrounded by squeamish allies, remains the world’s sole superpower. Between Ahmadinejad and the light of day stands the shadow of a heavily armed foe that has all but encircled the Islamic Republic, and, its tergiversations notwithstanding, remains capable of doing quite a bit of mischief.