In the early 1970’s Ariel Sharon won on a political platform advocating a comprehensive settlement to the Palestinian issue. He reasoned that as a hawk he was the one to deliver peace since he could be sure not to make any short-sighted compromise. This was, incidentally, around the time that a man famous for his anti-Communism hawkishness in Indochina went to Beijing in 1971 in what has become known historically as the Nixon goes to China moment. And of course we later had President Ronald Reagan, another committed and outspoken anti-Communist hawk, who entered into negotiations with the Soviet Union, or the “evil-empire” as he dubbed it in the early 1980’s. Both those cases indicated that headway could be reached between seemingly incompatible powers.
Today in the wake of the deal brokered between Iran and the P5+1 countries over the formers nuclear program we are seeing hardline elements in both Iran and Israel shore-up their bases. In Iran the real power is wielded by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has long expressed his skepticism with the policies of the Hassan Rouhani government. After the deal was passed he stressed that nothing fundamental had changed in the relationship between Washington and Tehran. Seemingly affirming what many opponents of the deal in Israel and the United States have argued Khamenei asserted that the talks were ad-hoc, on the nuclear issue and the sanctions regime that has long been levelled against Iran, nothing else. His Iran, he insists, will continue its support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in the region. He also stressed to his followers that he is personally reviewing the criterion of the deal to ensure that Iran’s interests were not violated.
Shoring up his hardliner base Mr. Khamenei attended one of those rallies which Tehran, sadly, became infamous for during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s time in office. “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” chants reverberated throughout the gathered crowd he addressed–chants which he agreed with and revelled in. But believe you me, as with all successful and large demonstrations in Tehran, this was hardly a spontaneous phenomenon. If you go to Tehran today you’ll find the place has a general paucity of anti-American/anti-Israel graffiti. I’d even go so far as to wager that streets in Belfast, Northern Ireland sport more of that kind of thing.
In Israel, as expected, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu staunchly opposed the deal and those who engaged in it as wilfully naive. He pointed to that aforementioned Khamenei rally in Tehran as indicative of Iran’s true motives in the region. He is presently on a public offensive in the United States against the deal. After all, lawmakers in the United States Congress have as many as 82 days to review this bilateral deal and decide whether or not to go ahead with it. Many, but certainly not all, Republicans in Congress have been staunch in their opposition to it as have many hardliner supporters of Khamenei in Iran who have, through their state-owned media outlets, had some very harsh words indeed to say about it. That’s was to be expected. Such a delicate deal on a delicate and divisive matter for all the powers involved is certainly going to see the staunch hardliners express their doubts and severe reservations so they do not look like they are making any compromises whatsoever.
Netanyahu, who has been warning about the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear bomb since at least 1995, reiterated to some young Israeli Air Force trainees the other day his belief that the framework of this agreement will enable Iran to assemble some kind of a nuclear device within the space of the next decade if further steps are not taken. Saying this to military personnel was sending a clear signal that he, as Prime Minister of Israel, would not let this stand in a not overly dissimilar way to how Khamenei’s stirring up of anti-American/Israeli sentiment at such a critical juncture sends to his followers a message that nothing has changed despite the fact that his regime is agreeing to a compromise in order to garner much needed economic sanctions relief for Iran.
A questionable Israeli foreign ministry produced video in recent days essentially forwards the notion that Iran is not only worse than the notorious Islamic State group, but is a similar evil with much greater capabilities to forward its designs on the region. Given how Israel has been preoccupied with combating Iranian proxies in the region (particularly the Hezbollah group) in recent decades it sees Iran as the most formidable rival in the region. This has led to Israeli figures, such as the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., to prescribe Iran a much greater evil than ISIS. In other words, Iranian-backed Shia elements in the region are the biggest long-term threat–not the marauding ISIS group. ISIS of course despises Iran and Shia Muslims in general and Iran’s Shia militia proxies in Iraq are presently fighting ISIS there.
The Nixon goes to China model has been channelled by proponents of a deal with Iran. They have been arguing that Iran is essentially a pragmatic power that shares many of America’s interests in the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Iraq where they both essentially had the same enemies over the years (the Taliban and Saddam Hussein). Sunnis across the region believe that the United States has gradually been selling them out. While conspiratorial, this view is genuinely felt throughout the region where sectarian identification is on the rise as countries there fracture and fragment. As Syria-expert Joshua Landis has often pointed out, since the Shia were elevated to power in Iraq following the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003 the U.S. hasn’t come to the aid of beleaguered Sunnis. The regime of Bashar al-Assad is crushing Sunnis in Syria and the US now seems to be reorienting itself closer to its long-time rival Iran, the world’s biggest Shi’ite-majority nation. The Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf fear this will prove to be the case. At a Camp David summit with Gulf leaders recently U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter actually wondered aloud how he could convince them they are not about to imminently pivot toward forming an alliance with Tehran! And indeed to an extent if this were true it would not be wholly unlike the Nixon goes to China moment. After all, that was a realist foreign policy initiative driven by a recognition that the two primary Communist blocs in the world had fallen out (see the Sino-Soviet split), and that it was better to side with one of them against the other instead of remain against both.
While it’s doubtful that a similar outcome will transpire whereby Washington and Tehran’s converging interests in the region are concerned, it is nevertheless not as impo