06/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are Iran and Israel Destined to be Enemies?

So are Iran and Israel destined to be enemies? Not at all. And contrary to the rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or last week's statement by Israel's Iranian-born Transportation Minister, Shaul Mofaz, who said that war with Iran was unavoidable, a military clash between Israel and Iran, or the US and Iran, is by no means inevitable.

Part of the reason for the increased rhetoric from Israel (besides responding to Tehran's invariably hostile rhetoric) is the Israeli fear that the US and Iran would negotiate a compromise that would benefit Washington, but come at Israel's expense. The fear of seeing "The Great Satan making friends with the Ayatollahs and forgetting about Little Satan," as one Israeli analyst told me, has driven Israel's opposition to US-Iran negotiations in the past 15 years.

But it doesn't have to be like this. In a piece published as a web exclusive for Foreign Policy Magazine, I argue that US-Iran negotiations can be of great service to Israel's security:

It might sound inconceivable that Iran, whose leaders since 1979 have used the most venomous rhetoric against the "little Satan," would ever moderate its stance toward Israel. Yet a careful review of the past three decades shows that Iran's hostile rhetoric is more a product of opportunism than fanaticism. Iran and Israel have even been willing to work together quietly at times, despite their conflicting ideologies.

The reason is simple: When forced to choose, Tehran invariably chooses its geostrategic interests over its ideological impulses. In no other area is the decisiveness of the strategic dimension of Iran's foreign policy clearer than when it comes to Israel. When these two pillars of Iranian foreign policy have clashed, as they did in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran's geostrategic concerns have consistently prevailed. Tehran quietly sought Israel's aid, and the Jewish state made many efforts to place Iran and the United States back on speaking terms. Faced with an invading Iraqi army and finding its U.S.-built weaponry starved of spare parts by a U.S. embargo, Tehran was in desperate need of help from Israel. Israel, in turn, was more than eager to avoid an Iraqi victory and to restore the traditional Israeli-Iranian clandestine security cooperation established under the shah, the mullahs' fierce anti-Israeli rhetoric notwithstanding.
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Iran never discarded its Islamic and anti-Israeli ideology, but for years it did refrain from translating that ideology into operational policy.

The key to tempering the Israeli-Iranian rivalry -- at least the Iranian side of it -- lies in playing Iran's ideological and strategic interests against each other. This isn't a new formula, nor is it untested. As I explained in Foreign Policy:

China refuses to discard its communist pretense, but global integration has made it loath to put communist economic principles into practice due to the devastating impact it would have on its economic interests.