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Behind Iran's hard-line on Israel

IRAN'S BELLIGERENT foreign policy toward Israel is among the more puzzling issues in international relations. At a time when most Arab governments, including the elected Palestinian leadership, have come to accept Israel's existence as an unalterable fact, non-Arab Iran continues to call for eradication of the Jewish state. Over the course of the last several weeks President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran attacked Israel as a ''tumor" that should be ''wiped off the map of the world" and asserted that the holocaust was a ''myth." Despite widespread international criticism, the Iranian president has been unrepentant, saying, ''Western reactions are invalid. . . . My words are the Iranian nation's words." In actuality, however, the Middle-Eastern country where Ahmadinejad's declarations resonate least is Iran.

There are contending explanations why he chose such a sensitive time in Iran's nuclear negotiations to engage in such inflammatory rhetoric. Since his surprise election in June, there has been a subtle attempt by the elders of the revolution to curb Ahmadinejad's powers, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even giving his rival, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an expanded role in setting the national course. What's more, contrary to the recommendations of the president's more hard-line followers, Iran has decided to resume its long-suspended nuclear negotiations with the Europeans. By provoking a crisis, Ahmadinejad may be seeking to not only scuttle such negotiations, but to reassert his control over the state machinery and regain the political influence he has steadily lost over the past few months.

In the past, Iranian factions have often provoked international crises to advance domestic political agendas. The hostage crisis of 1979 was not just a strike against America, but an attempt by Ayatollah Khomeini to radicalize the population and firmly implant the foundations of Islamic rule. Beyond such domestic political considerations, Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners have long bemoaned the loss of revolutionary fervor and Iran's seeming abandonment of the pan-Islamic dimension of Khomeini's vision. A persistent slogan of Ahmadinejad's campaign was the need to return to the ''roots of the revolution," and rejuvenate its grandiose ambitions. By pressing a dogmatic position on Israel, Ahmadinejad may perceive an opportunity to rekindle the long-extinguished revolutionary fires and reclaim Iran's leadership of radical Islam.

Whatever the calculations of Iran's new president, throughout nearly three decades of calls for the ''liberation of Jerusalem," Iran's revolutionary regime has never come to terms with an essential reality: There exists no inherent reason why the Israeli-Palestinian struggle should be an overriding concern to the average Iranian. Iran has no territorial disputes with Israel, no Palestinian refugee problem, a long history of contentious relations with the Arab world, and an even longer history of tolerance vis-à-vis the Jewish people. To this day, the Jewish community in Iran is the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel.

Beset by practical concerns such as double-digit inflation and unemployment, Iran's youthful population is well aware of the fact that the ideological hubris of their parents' generation -- often a half-baked hodgepodge of anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism, Islamism, and Marxism -- has borne the country little fruit apart from a soiled international reputation and political and economic isolation. During the 2003 summer student protests, one popular slogan, delivered in lilting Persian, was ''forget about Palestine, think about us!"

Much of Iran's political elite has also come to terms with the fact that the regime's rhetoric toward Israel is self-defeating. As revolutionary-cum-reformist leader Ali Reza Alavi-Tabar told us a few months back, ''We need to reinvent ourselves. We shouldn't be chanting 'death to Israel'; we should be saying 'long live Palestine.' We needn't be more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves." The popular reformist party, the Islamic Participation Front, quickly criticized his comments, saying, ''When the country is facing an international crisis, such expressions impose a heavy burden on the country's political, security, and economic interests." In a surprising convergence of views, even the conservative lawmaker, Heshmatollah Falahatzadeh, similarly claimed, ''Our officials should realize that there are many facts in the world that we should not pass judgment on in a way that the world finds fault with."

Increasingly isolated abroad and beleaguered at home, Ahmadinejad would be wise to remember that his electoral mandate was not to fight Israel, but rather to alleviate an economic situation that, for many Iranians, teeters between subsistence and poverty. In making blusterous statements that only increase Iran's isolation, however, Ahmadinejad's impact will likely tip that balance toward greater poverty. In their relentless calls for justice and democracy in the holy land, Iran's leaders incorrectly assume that the Iranian population wants more for the Palestinians than they want for themselves.

Karim Sadjadpour is an analyst with the International Crisis Group.Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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