As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chastised Iran through his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, the region surrounding Israel continues to be embroiled in strife. Next door, the Assad regime along with anti-Assad rebels, ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates are duking it out in a battle royal that is causing significant human suffering and which vitally threatens the stability of the region, not the least Israeli and Iranian national security.
U.S.-led coalition forces and parallel action by the Russian and Iranians are working to counter this jihadi threat all the while supporting opposite ends in the Syrian civil conflict. Israel, for its part, seems to be oblivious to what is happening next door and is continuing to raise alarmist assertions about a historic nuclear pact which much of the world approves. Instead, Tel Aviv should adjust its policy toward Tehran amid the common Sunni radical threat in the region. Indeed, so too should Iran as it relates to Israel.
Iran's battle against jihadi groups has become a national security imperative and is a concern shared by others in the region, including Israel. Tehran is presently threatened on its eastern and western borders by these groups. The proximity of these threats to Iran's borders and the risk Tehran's closest allies in the region are facing has prompted Iran's Quds Forces to assist its friends in the efforts against al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS in Iraq and Syria, tacitly cooperating with the United States in the former. Iran is also working with Russia by exchanging intelligence and is allegedly deploying troops to Syria where the Russians have begun air strikes. Among the reasons warranting the concern of Iranian decisionmakers is the effect these groups may have on domestic Islamic militant groups such as Jundallah in Iran's Baluchestan.
Likewise, Israel is under increasing threat of growing extremism by fundamentalist Salafi fighters who despise Jews and Shiites alike. In light of the growing threat of ISIS from the Gaza Strip, the Sinai and Syria, Israel, like Iran, is faced with jihadism at its doorstep. In a strange twist of fate, an increasing number of Israelis have called for the Netanyahu government to support the secular Assad regime in Syria, which would essentially align it with Iran and Hezbollah, to prevent its collapse in fear of Damascus becoming a jihadi launchpad against its western neighbour. To be sure, reports indicate that global jihad movements are a top concern for Israeli security practitioners. To the contrary of what Prime Minister Netanyahu may have anyone who is listening believe, Iran is not even on the list of top concerns for the Israeli Defense Forces. This reflects the views of more pragmatic elements of the Israeli government who are in favour of a nuclear deal with Iran. Within this backdrop, Iran's rivalry with Israel has taken a back seat. Even Hezbollah has shifted much of its attention to the battle against extremists in neighbouring Syria. Israel, too, is increasingly preoccupied with addressing this dangerous threat.
Once implementation of the nuclear agreement begins and if U.S. cooperation with Iran on regional issues takes form, and it seems that it may be with regards to Syria, the new found U.S.-Iran relationship may become a suitable vehicle to facilitate discussions between Tehran and Tel Aviv, even if in secret. While Israel's Netanyahu has been staunchly opposed to Iran and the nuclear deal, his statements that a nuclear deal must have included Iranian recognition of Israel suggests Tel Aviv's willingness to live with a post-nuclear deal Iran under the right conditions. In its 2003 "grand bargain" proposal to the United States, Iran offered concessions that could satisfy Netanyahu. Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were closely linked with this proposal. That they are at the helm of Iran's diplomatic rehabilitation could present unique opportunities for historic openings, as the nuclear negotiations have clearly demonstrated. To be sure, circumstances have changed in the region since 2003 but that does not necessarily negate the proposals in the "grand bargain" from becoming a reality over time, particularly now that a nuclear deal is reached and as Iran cooperates with global powers in the battle against ISIS.
While domestic political hurdles in both Iran and Israel will surely attempt to obstruct bilateral engagement, such obstacles can be overcome either by keeping discussions a secret, akin to how the United States and Iran began secret nuclear discussions in 2012, or by lobbying their respective body politic in favor of such engagement in support of the national interest, which is what has happened in the United States and Iran with regards to the nuclear deal, essentially shifting what was once taboo into acceptance. To be sure, political willpower will be an essential driver to overcome what is presently seen as insurmountable. Prime Minister Netanyahu has centered much of his political career on fearmongering about Iran. In Iran, the annual Quds (Jerusalem) Day highlights the institutionalized nature of the ruling establishment's opposition toward Israel. This enmity can be overcome however since precedent exists. These two arch-rivals have collaborated and engaged in the past, notably during the 1980s when Israel provided material support to the Islamic Republic during the war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Sporadic engagement continued the following decade or so on issues such as agriculture, Israel's petro-debt to Iran and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the 2003 Bam earthquake.
Despite the vitriol stemming from both capitals, the extremist threat is the appropriate issue to spark a strategic recalculation in Tehran and Tel Aviv, even if temporary. Although the idea of Iranian-Israeli engagement may seem to be rooted in fantasy, the same factors that prompted the United States and Iran to try something new, dialogue and negotiation, can and should drive Iran and Israel to follow suit, particularly as jihadi groups continue to engulf the region. If the United States and Iran can turn the page in their relationship, so too can Iran and Israel.
The views expressed here represent the author's own.
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