top of page

Source: NY Times

May 8, 2024

How Iran and Israel Are Unnatural Adversaries

By Karim Sadjadpour

Mr. Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“History is littered,” the British writer and politician Enoch Powell said, “with the wars which everybody knew would never happen.”

A full-blown conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Israel once seemed implausible. But last month, the long-running shadow war between the two nations burst into the open in a series of unprecedented drone and missile strikes, raising the specter of a fight that would contain enough advanced technology, paramilitary forces and mutual acrimony to incinerate large parts of the Middle East, collapse the global economy and entangle the United States and other major powers.

Now the two sides appear to have hit pause, but for how long? As long as Iran is ruled by an Islamist government that puts its revolutionary ideology before the national interest, the two countries will never know peace, and the Middle East will never know meaningful stability.

Iran and Israel are not natural adversaries. In contrast to other modern conflicts — between Israel and Palestine, Russia and Ukraine, China and Taiwan — Iran and Israel have no bilateral land or resource disputes. Their national strengths — Iran is an energy titan and Israel is a tech innovator — are more complementary than competitive.

The nations also have a historical affinity dating back over 2,500 years, when the Persian King Cyrus the Great freed the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity. Iran was the second Muslim nation, after Turkey, to recognize Israel after its founding in 1948.

Their modern animosity is best understood through the lens of ideology, not geopolitics. It began with the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the dogmatic Shiite cleric who led the 1979 revolution that transformed Iran from a U.S.-allied monarchy into an anti-American theocracy.

Mr. Khomeini’s 1970 treatise “Islamic Government,” which became the basis of the constitution that governs the Islamic Republic, is laced with tirades and threats against “wretched” and “satanic” Jews. Then, as now, antisemitism often lurked below the surface of anti-imperialism.

“We must protest and make the people aware that the Jews and their foreign backers are opposed to the very foundations of Islam and wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world,” Mr. Khomeini wrote. “Since they are a cunning and resourceful group of people, I fear that — God forbid — they may one day achieve their goal, and that the apathy shown by some of us may allow a Jew to rule over us one day.”

In the same manifesto, Mr. Khomeini casually advocates what in modern parlance is best understood as ethnic cleansing. “Islam,” he wrote, “has rooted out numerous groups that were a source of corruption and harm to human society.” He went on to cite the case of a “troublesome” Jewish tribe in Medina that he said was “eliminated” by the prophet Mohammed.

Very few of the Iranian revolutionaries and Western progressives who backed Mr. Khomeini in 1979 — some of whom compared him with Mohandas K. Gandhi — had bothered to scrutinize his vision for Iran. Once in power, he built his newfound theocracy on three ideological pillars: death to America, death to Israel and the subjugation of women.

Over four decades later, the worldview of Iran’s current rulers has evolved little. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mr. Khomeini’s 85-year-old successor and now one of the world’s longest-serving dictators, denounces Zionism in virtually every speech, and was one of the only world leaders to publicly praise Hamas’s “epic” Oct. 7 attack on Israel. “We will support and assist any nation or any group anywhere,” Mr. Khamenei said in 2020, “who opposes and fights the Zionist regime.”

As Mr. Khamenei’s words make plain, the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the few governments in the world more dedicated to abolishing another nation than advancing its own. “Death to Israel” is the regime’s rallying cry — not “Long live Iran.”

Mr. Khamenei’s regime has backed this rhetoric with action. Iran has spent tens of billions of dollars arming, training and financing proxy militias in five failing states: Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Iraq and Yemen. Together these groups constitute its so-called Axis of Resistance against America and Israel. These groups are elbow-deep in corruption and repression in their own societies, including illicit drug dealing and piracy, while pledging that they seek justice for Palestinians.

Hostility toward Israel is a useful tool for predominantly Shiite, Persian Iran to vie for leadership in the predominantly Sunni, Arab Middle East. But it should not be confused with concern for the well-being of Palestinians. In contrast to American, European and Arab governments that fund Palestinian human welfare initiatives, Iran has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into arming and financing Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Iran’s goal is not to build a Palestine, but to demolish Israel.

And yet as much as the Islamic Republic is committed to its ideology, it is even more committed to staying in power. As the German American philosopher Hannah Arendt once put it, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution.” As its careful response to Israel’s recent military strikes on Iran showed, when faced with the possibility of full-blown war or existential economic pressure, Tehran tactically retreats.

After decades of living under an economically failing, socially repressive police state, Iran’s people long ago recognized that the greatest obstacle between themselves and a normal life is their own leadership, not America or Israel. In a 2021 public opinion poll conducted from Europe, only around 1 in 5 Iranians approved of their government’s support of Hamas and “Death to Israel” slogan.

Few nations have Iran’s combination of natural resource wealth, human capital, geographic size and ancient history. This enormous gap between Iran’s potential and its citizens’ reality is one reason the country has experienced numerous mass uprisings over the two past decades.

Iran’s Axis of Resistance has empowered right-wing Israeli politicians far more than Palestinians over the past two decades. The threat of a Holocaust-denying Iranian regime with regional and nuclear ambitions has stoked Israeli anxieties, diverted attention from Palestinian suffering and facilitated normalization agreements between Israel and Arab governments equally fearful of Iran.

Indeed, Iran and its proxies were such a useful adversary that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu helped prop up Hamas’s rule in Gaza until the deadly attacks of Oct. 7.

“The dream of Israeli leaders,” a retired Israeli general, Amos Yadlin, told me recently, “is to one day restore normal relations with an Iranian government.”

The dream of Iran’s Islamist leaders, on the other hand, is to end Israel’s existence. Israel’s conflict with Iran has been a war of necessity, but Iran’s conflict with Israel has been a war of choice. It won’t be over until Iran has leaders who put Iranians’ interests over Israel’s destruction.

bottom of page