War between Israel and Iran is not inevitable, argued Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, in an event sponsored by the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School last week.
Parsi, who earned his Ph.D. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, spoke to a group of students and community members about the tensions between the two Middle Eastern states, as well as how the conflict has affected American diplomacy in the region.
Parsi outlined the historical context of Israeli-Iranian relations in order to show that the conflict is a recent geopolitical phenomenon rather than an ideological one dating back 2000 years. He explained that shortly after its creation in 1948, Israel sought alliances in the region to help balance threats from neighboring Arab nations. Populous Iran, with its access to energy, made for an attractive ally, and the security collaboration between the two countries was backed by the U.S. Fearing that the relationship would incite anger from Arab states, Iran went to great lengths—including the adoption of an aggressively negative rhetoric against Israel—to cover up diplomatic dealings.
The relationship continued for a few decades, even after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, according to Parsi. “It survived for a very simple reason: The geopolitical context in the region had not changed. In fact, to the extent that it changed, it actually increased Iran’s need of Israel,” said Parsi, citing the continued presence of the Soviet Union in the region and the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980.
The two countries maintained contact through the early 1990s, when the source of the current conflict arose. The Soviet Union collapsed, and a U.S.-U.N. coalition defeated the Iraq military, the last standing Arab army to pose a conventional military threat to both Iran and Israel.
“That was a time in which the geopolitical map of the Middle East was dramatically redrawn,” said Parsi. “… Israel and Iran increasingly emerged as two of the most powerful states in the region, jockeying to be able to define the new order of the region in the way that would be beneficial for them.”
Eventually, fear of political Islam prompted the U.S. to begin sanctions against Iran as part of its dual containment policy, and this, Parsi said, played a role in influencing the Iranians to become major supporters of Palestinian groups, toward whom they had previously maintained an antagonistic relationship.
Since the 1990s, tensions have intensified between Iran and Israel and are now reaching a climax, said Parsi. However, no matter how the conflict is currently being framed, he believes history has demonstrated that none of the major shifts in Israeli-Iranian relations has coincided with ideological shifts, but with changes in the geopolitical structure of the region.
“And this is, at the end of the day, good news, because in an ideological battle, there is no such thing as a draw,” said Parsi. “But in a strategic conflict, you can always, however difficult it may be, find some sort of solution, perhaps even a win-win. There are other solutions rather than confrontation.”