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Diplomacy With Iran: Not a Zero-Sum Game for Israel

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Co-authored with Alex Vatanka, scholar at the Middle East Institute, in Washington, DC.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously lambasted the November interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 as a "historic mistake." Netanyahu has since muted his anti-Iran rhetoric as the negotiating parties work hard to hammer out a comprehensive agreement. But as the negotiations move forward, there is little doubt that Israel has become the "white elephant" in the room, prompting speculations over whether the Jewish State will accept an agreement that does not fully dismantle Iran's nuclear program, as repeatedly demanded by Netanyahu. Meanwhile, a potential showdown between the Obama-administration and Israel's supporters in the U.S. Congress seems to have been temporarily averted by Netanyahu's recent AIPAC address.

Amid these shifting variables, certain facts about Iran and Israel are lost. For one, Israel is not against Iran diplomacy per se. What Israel fears, however, is that the negotiating parties won't fully take her interests into account as the Jewish state legitimately fears Tehran's vision for the Middle East. While critics of Netanyahu frequently paint him as a "fearmonnger," with a plan to manipulate international opinion on Iran, it is important not to forget that two countries have had an adversarial relationship over the past 35-years. Given the size of Iran -- with a population of nearly 80-million -- and its region-wide reach and influence, the trajectory chosen by the leadership in Tehran matters to Israel and her security. The Israeli angst about Iran's nuclear intentions should be seen within this basic context.

Another basic fact, however, is that the Iranian-Israeli animus is not naturally bound to be permanent. In fact, below the surface, officials in both countries have over the past moths lowered the all too well known contentious rhetoric, a possible signal that a far less ominous prospect might await Iranian-Israeli relations. Unlike when Ayatollah Khomeini resumed power in 1979, hoping his hardline stance on Israel would turn the Islamic Republic into the vanguard of the Islamic World, today its "resistance" narrative has brought it international isolation and the toughest sanction regime a nation has ever seen. Iranian pragmatists have over time -- and during the Ahmadinejad period in particular -- come to realize that Tehran's stance on the question of Israel has not only become failed policy but reduced the descendants of the great Persian civilization into an international pariah.

As the Arab Spring has proven, Arab Islamists have been unwilling to look to Iran for leadership, despite Ahmadinjad's uncompromising Israel rhetoric. While Hamas has willingly accepted Iranian funding and arms for the past decade, the Gaza-based Islamist group quickly turned its back on Tehran's strategic interest by supporting the Sunni insurgency against the embattled Syrian government.

Growing Sunni radicalism across the Middle East and in Syria in particular has not only become a strategic threat to the way of life of Shiite communities, but also forced Iran to respond to sectarianism as opposed to driving a regional agenda. These developments coupled with Iran's traditional hardline stance towards a fellow UN member state have denigrated its international standing. Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, promised his people to bring Iran into the global mainstream as his campaign pledge last year.

President Rouhani and his faction within the Iranian establishment have since made subtle gestures towards the Jewish state. Take Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a onetime president and a mentor to Rouhani, who recently boldly declared: "Iran is not at war with Israel." Beyond rhetoric, Tehran carried out an apparent goodwill gesture toward Israel in January at a UN energy conference in Abu Dhabi when its energy minister, Hamid Chitchiyan, refrained from the usual boycott and stayed during the speech of his Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom. This was a groundbreaking moment: A small, but clearly telling step.

Meanwhile, Israeli President Shimon Peres' consolatory language towards Iran should not be glanced over, either. The elder statement expressed last December his willingness to meet with Rouhani. Although it cannot be dismissed that Israel and Iran define each other as strategic threats, viewing regional developments through a zero-sum prism, Peres also acknowledged that the ongoing negotiations could benefit his nation, adding: "The purpose is to convert enemies into friends. If it was only him [Rouhani] I'd take it with greater assurance, but there are other structures, other people..[in Tehran].. And I'm not so sure they support the president. We have to see the balance of the situation."

While it is clear that Rouhani -- limited by the existing taboos within the Islamic Republic's revolutionary ideology -- cannot alone engineer a change of policy toward Israel, he can aim to re-define Tehran's stance. That is exactly what former reformist president Mohammad Khatami sought to do: During his administration (1997-2005), Khatami carefully re-framed Tehran's opposition to Israel. Instead of open-ended hostility, his government stressed -- for the first time -- that Iran would be able to accept whatever compromise Israelis and Palestinians reached. Khatami's stance should be considered a tantamount recognition of Israel.

At the present state, Rouhani could find a middle ground between conservatives at home and the need to reduce tensions with Israel. After all, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has clearly made a strategic decision to support the ongoing negotiations with the world powers. As negotiations move forward, neither Obama nor Khamenei can afford pro-Israel groups demanding additional sanctions as they've vested their personal prestige, to the point of no return.

As we have argued, Israel has become the "white elephant" in the room. Given this fact, coupled with Israel's many friends in the U.S. Congress who remain "distrustful" of Iran, Israel-Iranian "reconciliation" of sorts has to take place in order for U.S.-Iran diplomacy to fully succeed.

At this critical juncture, President Rouhani could tackle the question of Israel indirectly by supporting the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. By doing so, Tehran signals that it could accept Israel sometime in the future without having to deliver an immediate policy change at the present stage. Iranian support for the Arab Peace Initiative would be received favorably by Saudi Arabia, its main rival. Iranian support for Arab-Israeli peace would inevitably reduce tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, Tehran's powerful Lebanese ally. In Israel, Iranian support for the Arab Peace Initiative would send an unmistakable message: Iran does not seek to wipe the Jewish state off the map, as repeatedly stated by Ahmadinejad.

In return, Israel should let nuclear diplomacy succeed by preventing -- at all costs -- a showdown between the U.S. administration and its friends in Congress. Should Israel fail to do so, it could quickly lose its ability to influence a final agreement -- an accord that could also be favorable to its interests -- and instead bring Tehran and Washington to the brink of war: After all, neither Obama nor Khamenei can afford to back down. Netanyahu, however, can as U.S.-Iran dialogue is not a zero-sum game for Israel.