Iran-Israel History Suggests a Different Future

That, at least, is the view of some readers of my last column on India’s lenient attitude toward Iran’s nuclear program. They reprimanded me for being naive. For Iran, run by Islamic fundamentalists committed to the destruction of Israel, desires no such reconciliation with the country Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini indelibly called the “Great Satan.”

Alas, such a view, which sees fixed essences where there is movement and change, will always grievously misread geopolitical situations.

True, a regime such as Iran’s, which is discredited in the eyes of its people, will stoke internal and foreign animosities in order to survive; it can no more abandon such tendencies than a leopard can change its spots. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken such strategic zealotry to an obscene level -- to the point where his oft-expressed desire to see Zionism wiped off the map makes it seem as though Iran has a foreign policy committed to genocide (and suicide).

But Ahmadinejad’s position, as recent elections in Iran reveal, is far from secure among even hardliners. Syria, Iran’s closest ally, is beset by civil war; Hamas, a crucial Iranian client, seems to be breaking away from its patron.

Friends Become Enemies - It is also true that in 2003, Iran’s apparently intransigent ayatollahs considered a “Grand Bargain” -- a proposal to restart relations that was rejected out of hand by the drum majors in George W. Bush’s administration who initiated what are now increasingly loud beats of war. Recent history furnishes an even more complex picture of a country, which, according to Benjamin Netanyahu, is run by a “messianic, apocalyptic cult.” It shows that Iran’s motivations can only be adequately assessed in the context of its longstanding ambitions as a regional power.

Certainly, they cannot be reduced to the fantasies of a crude populist like Ahmadinejad.

To take an even moderately long view of geopolitical tensions is to recognize how quickly friends turn into enemies and vice versa. For many Indians in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no meaner or more resourceful international adversary than the U.S.; Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ranted then as frequently, if less intensely, than Ahmadinejad now about the CIA’s conspiracies against her. But within two decades, and over the course of several different governments, India agreed to be adopted by the U.S. as a strategic counterweight to China in Asia.

Neighborhood Hegemony – (…) In the 1980s, Saddam’s chemical warfare against Iranians, mostly overlooked by Western countries, convinced the Iranians that they had to build a nuclear deterrent. Over those years, radicals within the regime also sought to revive the shah’s plan for Iranian leadership of the Islamic world; they ratcheted up the anti-Zionist rhetoric and built such proxies as Hezbollah and Hamas. Finding an opportunity in Saddam’s fall, they created a political bastion for themselves in their once vicious rival Iraq.

But these plans for exporting Iran’s essentially Shiite revolution have run into the complications of the Arab Spring. Emboldened by the fall of the pro-American Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Tehran has subsequently watched with disquiet the isolation of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the potential loss of Hamas, not to mention the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Liberation Mythology - Presumably, the Iranian regime can already go some way toward wiping Zionism off the map by launching missiles loaded with biological and chemical weapons at Israeli cities. Such an attack would cause extensive devastation, including among the Palestinians whose cause Tehran stridently advocates. Israel’s response would be swift and terrible, more than fulfilling any craving for a grand self-immolation nursed by the messianic, apocalyptic mullahs.

But the Iranian regime is struggling to regain its geopolitical advantages in what it sees, correctly, as a multipolar world -- one in which the U.S. and its allies will have limited influence. This is hardly the time for the outside world to misread Iran’s strengths and weaknesses, or to ignore the link between its quest for nuclear capability and the larger Iranian quest for regional pre-eminence, a realization of national and civilizational destiny.

Pankaj Mishra, whose new book, “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” will be published in August, is a Bloomberg View columnist and a fellow of Britain's Royal Society of Literature.

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