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TEDGlobal 2013

Trita Parsi: Iran and Israel: Peace is possible

June 26, 2013

Iran and Israel: two nations with tense relations that seem existentially at odds. But for all their antagonistic rhetoric, there is a recent hidden history of collaboration, even friendship. In an informative talk, Trita Parsi shows how an unlikely strategic alliance in the past could mean peace in the future for these two feuding countries.

Trita Parsi - Political scientist
Trita Parsi delves into Middle Eastern history and politics, uncovering fresh perspectives on Iranian, Israeli, and U.S. relations -- and discovers potential solutions to brewing conflicts. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
"Iran is Israel's best friend,
00:12
and we do not intend to change our position
00:14
in relation to Tehran."
00:16
Believe it or not, this is a quote
00:20
from an Israeli prime minister,
00:22
but it's not Ben-Gurion or Golda Meir
00:24
from the era of the Shah.
00:26
It's actually from Yitzhak Rabin.
00:28
The year is 1987.
00:31
Ayatollah Khomeini is still alive,
00:33
and much like Ahmadinejad today,
00:35
he's using the worst rhetoric against Israel.
00:37
Yet, Rabin referred to Iran
00:40
as a geostrategic friend.
00:43
Today, when we hear the threats of war
00:46
and the high rhetoric,
00:49
we're oftentimes led to believe
00:50
that this is yet another one of those unsolvable
00:52
Middle Eastern conflicts
00:55
with roots as old as the region itself.
00:57
Nothing could be further from the truth,
01:01
and I hope today to show you why that is.
01:05
The relations between the Iranian and the Jewish people
01:09
throughout history has actually been quite positive,
01:11
starting in 539 B.C.,
01:14
when King Cyrus the Great of Persia
01:16
liberated the Jewish people from their Babylonian captivity.
01:18
A third of the Jewish population
01:22
stayed in Babylonia.
01:24
They're today's Iraqi Jews.
01:26
A third migrated to Persia.
01:28
They're today's Iranian Jews,
01:31
still 25,000 of them living in Iran,
01:33
making them the largest Jewish community
01:36
in the Middle East outside of Israel itself.
01:38
And a third returned to historic Palestine,
01:41
did the second rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem,
01:44
financed, incidentally, by Persian tax money.
01:47
But even in modern times,
01:52
relations have been close at times.
01:54
Rabin's statement was a reflection
01:57
of decades of security and intelligence collaboration
01:59
between the two, which in turn
02:03
was born out of perception of common threats.
02:06
Both states feared the Soviet Union
02:10
and strong Arab states such as Egypt and Iraq.
02:13
And, in addition, the Israeli doctrine of the periphery,
02:18
the idea that Israel's security was best achieved
02:22
by creating alliances with the non-Arab states
02:25
in the periphery of the region
02:29
in order to balance the Arab states in its vicinity.
02:31
Now, from the Shah's perspective, though,
02:36
he wanted to keep this as secret as possible,
02:39
so when Yitzhak Rabin, for instance,
02:42
traveled to Iran in the '70s,
02:45
he usually wore a wig
02:47
so that no one would recognize him.
02:48
The Iranians built a special tarmac
02:50
at the airport in Tehran, far away from the central terminal,
02:53
so that no one would notice the large number
02:56
of Israeli planes shuttling between Tel Aviv and Tehran.
02:58
Now, did all of this end with the Islamic revolution
03:04
in 1979?
03:07
In spite of the very clear anti-Israeli ideology
03:10
of the new regime, the geopolitical logic
03:13
for their collaboration lived on,
03:16
because they still had common threats.
03:19
And when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980,
03:22
Israel feared an Iraqi victory
03:25
and actively helped Iran by selling it arms
03:27
and providing it with spare parts
03:30
for Iran's American weaponry
03:32
at a moment when Iran was very vulnerable
03:35
because of an American arms embargo
03:38
that Israel was more than happy to violate.
03:41
In fact, back in the 1980s,
03:44
it was Israel that lobbied Washington
03:46
to talk to Iran, to sell arms to Iran,
03:49
and not pay attention to Iran's anti-Israeli ideology.
03:53
And this, of course, climaxed
03:59
in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
04:01
But with the end of the Cold War
04:06
came also the end of the Israeli-Iranian cold peace.
04:08
Suddenly, the two common threats
04:12
that had pushed them closer together throughout decades,
04:14
more or less evaporated.
04:17
The Soviet Union collapsed,
04:20
Iraq was defeated,
04:22
and a new environment was created in the region
04:24
in which both of them felt more secure,
04:26
but they were also now left unchecked.
04:28
Without Iraq balancing Iran,
04:31
Iran could now become a threat,
04:34
some in Israel argued.
04:36
In fact, the current dynamic
04:39
that you see between Iran and Israel
04:42
has its roots more so
04:44
in the geopolitical reconfiguration of the region
04:46
after the Cold War
04:49
than in the events of 1979,
04:50
because at this point, Iran and Israel
04:53
emerge as two of the most powerful states in the region,
04:56
and rather than viewing each other
04:59
as potential security partners,
05:01
they increasingly came to view each other
05:03
as rivals and competitors.
05:05
So Israel, who in the 1980s
05:09
lobbied for and improved U.S.-Iran relations
05:11
now feared a U.S.-Iran rapprochement,
05:14
thinking that it would come
05:18
at Israel's security interests' expense,
05:19
and instead sought to put Iran
05:23
in increased isolation.
05:25
Ironically, this was happening at a time
05:27
when Iran was more interested
05:30
in peacemaking with Washington
05:32
than to see to Israel's destruction.
05:34
Iran had put itself in isolation
05:38
because of its radicalism,
05:40
and after having helped the United States indirectly
05:41
in the war against Iraq in 1991,
05:44
the Iranians were hoping
05:47
that they would be rewarded by being included
05:49
in the post-war security architecture of the region.
05:53
But Washington chose to ignore Iran's outreach,
05:57
as it would a decade later in Afghanistan,
06:01
and instead moved to intensify Iran's isolation,
06:03
and it is at this point, around 1993, '94,
06:07
that Iran begins to translate
06:11
its anti-Israeli ideology
06:13
into operational policy.
06:16
The Iranians believed that whatever they did,
06:18
even if they moderated their policies,
06:20
the U.S. would continue to seek Iran's isolation,
06:23
and the only way Iran could compel Washington
06:26
to change its position was by imposing a cost
06:30
on the U.S. if it didn't.
06:33
The easiest target was the peace process,
06:36
and now the Iranian ideological bark
06:40
was to be accompanied by a nonconventional bite,
06:43
and Iran began supporting extensively
06:47
Palestinian Islamist groups that it previously
06:51
had shunned.
06:54
In some ways, this sounds paradoxical,
06:57
but according to Martin Indyk
07:00
of the Clinton administration,
07:02
the Iranians had not gotten it entirely wrong,
07:04
because the more peace there would be
07:07
between Israel and Palestine,
07:09
the U.S. believed, the more Iran would get isolated.
07:11
The more Iran got isolated, the more peace there would be.
07:14
So according to Indyk, and these are his words,
07:17
the Iranians had an interest to do us in
07:20
on the peace process
07:23
in order to defeat our policy of containment.
07:25
To defeat our policy of containment,
07:28
not about ideology.
07:31
But throughout even the worst times of their entanglement,
07:35
all sides have reached out to each other.
07:38
Netanyahu, when he got elected in 1996,
07:42
reached out to the Iranians to see
07:45
if there were any ways that
07:47
the doctrine of the periphery could be resurrected.
07:48
Tehran was not interested.
07:52
A few years later, the Iranians sent
07:54
a comprehensive negotiation proposal to the Bush administration,
07:57
a proposal that revealed that there was some potential
08:00
of getting Iran and Israel back on terms again.
08:04
The Bush administration did not even respond.
08:08
All sides have never missed an opportunity
08:12
to miss an opportunity.
08:14
But this is not an ancient conflict.
08:20
This is not even an ideological conflict.
08:25
The ebbs and flows of hostility
08:28
have not shifted with ideological zeal,
08:31
but rather with changes in the geopolitical landscape.
08:34
When Iran and Israel's security imperatives
08:37
dictated collaboration, they did so
08:39
in spite of lethal ideological opposition to each other.
08:42
When Iran's ideological impulses collided
08:45
with its strategic interests,
08:48
the strategic interests always prevailed.
08:50
This is good news, because it means
08:54
that neither war nor enmity
08:57
is a foregone conclusion.
09:00
But some want war.
09:03
Some believe or say that it's 1938,
09:06
Iran is Germany,
09:09
and Ahmadinejad is Hitler.
09:11
If we accept this to be true,
09:14
that indeed it is 1938, Iran is Germany,
09:16
Ahmadinejad is Hitler,
09:19
then the question we have to ask ourself is,
09:22
who wishes to play the role of Neville Chamberlain?
09:24
Who will risk peace?
09:28
This is an analogy that is deliberately aimed
09:31
at eliminating diplomacy,
09:34
and when you eliminate diplomacy,
09:37
you make war inevitable.
09:39
In an ideological conflict, there can be no truce,
09:42
no draw, no compromise,
09:45
only victory or defeat.
09:47
But rather than making war inevitable
09:51
by viewing this as ideological,
09:54
we would be wise to seek ways
09:57
to make peace possible.
09:59
Iran and Israel's conflict is a new phenomenon,
10:02
only a few decades old
10:06
in a history of 2,500 years,
10:08
and precisely because its roots are geopolitical,
10:10
it means that solutions can be found,
10:14
compromises can be struck,
10:17
however difficult it yet may be.
10:20
After all, it was Yitzhak Rabin himself who said,
10:22
"You don't make peace with your friends.
10:26
You make it with your enemies."
10:29
Thank you.
10:32
(Applause)
10:33

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Trita Parsi - Political scientist
Trita Parsi delves into Middle Eastern history and politics, uncovering fresh perspectives on Iranian, Israeli, and U.S. relations -- and discovers potential solutions to brewing conflicts.

Why you should listen

Writer and political scientist Trita Parsi is an expert observer of the labyrinthine relationships between the U.S. and the Middle East, cutting through conventional stereotypes to laying bare the often-contentious history of the region.
 
When Parsi was only 4, his family fled to Sweden from Iran to escape political repression. Parsi later relocated to the U.S., where he earned a PhD and founded the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a grassroots organization promoting the interests of the U.S./ Iranian community.

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