Trita Parsi is founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on U.S.-Iranian relations, Iranian politics, and the balance of power in the Middle East. He is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States (Yale University Press 2007), for which he conducted more than 130 interviews with senior Israeli, Iranian, and American decision-makers. He is currently an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Ali Ahmadi Motlagh (AM): In the fall of 2010, an article featured on the cover of the Atlantic by Jeffery Goldberg suggested that Israel would attack Iran if the United States failed to do so. What was your reaction to this article and do you agree with Goldberg’s assessments?
Trita Parsi (TP): In my opinion, more than anything else, the Goldberg article represents the opening salvo in a campaign to bring about a U.S.-Iran war at some point down the road. The article appears to have been part of an attempt to create a narrative of failed diplomacy, in which talks with Iran have faltered and sanctions have been ineffective, so as to present only one remaining option as viable – bombing Iran. This narrative may not force Obama to take military action in the very near future, but it will be effective in portraying him as a weak president and likely will be deployed politically to prevent his re-election in 2012. Should that happen, the next Republican president – who will probably support military action against Iran in order to distinguish him or herself from Obama – will find options towards Iran limited upon taking office, with a concomitant increase in the risk of war between the two countries.
My assessment is that the possibility of a war with Iran is currently relatively low, but absent a solution to the U.S.-Iran stand-off, the risks of armed attack will likely increase significantly in two years, particularly if there is a change in the U.S. administration.
AM: Can you describe Israel’s concerns about Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability? How legitimate are these concerns? Does Iran pose an existential threat to Israel?
TP: Historically speaking, Israel’s stated fears about Iran’s threats to its existence are not borne out by Israeli foreign policy. Israel certainly makes the argument that Iran is an existential hazard, and it has good political reasons for doing so. This, however, does not mean that Israel’s foreign policy establishment has actually operated according to this belief.
The Israeli government has several concerns, many of which are quite understandable, but that suggest its problems with Iran are more strategic than existential. Since the early 1990s, a rivalry has existed between Israel and Iran over power, dominance, and U.S. policy in the region. Given these tensions, Iran’s attainment of nuclear capabilities, short of obtaining nuclear weapons, does no existential harm to Israel, though it does threaten the country’s regional primacy.
There are mainly two reasons for this. First, an Iran that does not have nuclear arms– but has the capacity to build them – will significantly damage Israel’s ability to deter militant Palestinian and Lebanese organizations. It will damage the image of Israel as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region and undercut the myth of its invincibility. Gone would be the days when Israel’s military supremacy would enable it to dictate the parameters of peace and pursue unilateral peace plans.
This could force Israel to accept territorial compromises with its neighbors in order to prevent Iran from exploiting Arab hostility towards Israel for its strategic gain. Israel simply would not be able to afford a nuclear rivalry with Iran and continued territorial disputes with the Arabs at the same time.
Second, Israel – as well as many Arab states – remains fearful that, in mastering the fuel cycle, Iran would gain enough deterrent and bargaining power to compel Washington to cut a deal, in which Iran would be recognized as a regional power and gain strategic significance in the Middle East. This has been a major Israeli fear since the end of the Cold War, when Israel’s strategic utility to Washington lost considerable justification due to the absence of a Soviet threat. Under these circumstances, U.S.-Iran negotiations could damage Israel’s strategic standing, since the common interests that the United States shares with Iran would likely diminish U.S. deference to Israeli concerns with the Iranians. In other words, Israeli officials fear that the “Great Satan” will eventually make up with the ayatollahs and forget about the Jewish state.
Given the possibility of a U.S.-Iran breakthrough, which would alter the status quo in favor of Iran, Israel’s bottom-line strategic apprehensions (as opposed to the more commonly and publicly stated existential fears) are understandable. No country, whether it be Iran or Israel, would want to lose its strategic advantages.
AM: Will Israel attack Iran without U.S. support? What will be the consequences of such an attack?
TP: I find it unlikely that Israel would attack Iran without U.S. knowledge or approval. The Israelis are aware of the irreparable damage this would do to their most important political relationship, that with the United States. They have been mindful of the U.S. military’s very vocal warning that such an attack would have devastating effects on the region and would put U.S. troops in great danger.
AM: In your opinion, should Iran obtain nuclear weapons, what are the chances the Iranian government would attack Israel?
TP: I find it extremely unlikely that Iran would attack Israel with nuclear weapons – if it even ever gets such weapons. We should keep in mind that Iran is actually a very long way from actually having a deliverable weapon and, perhaps more importantly, most intelligence agencies agree that Iran has yet to decide whether even to build a bomb.
AM: While Iran has been a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty since the founding of its nuclear program in the 1970s, Israel has never joined the Treaty. Nonetheless, can you explain Western reluctance to press Israel to open up its nuclear program and reveal its capabilities?
TP: Sympathy with Israel is widespread in the United States and there are many organizations in this country that remain focused on protecting Israel from such criticisms and pressures. All politics is local, and in the case of U.S. policy vis-à-vis Israel, it is primarily driven by domestic U.S. politics.
AM: Is Iran trying to develop nuclear weapons or is the country’s nuclear program solely intended for civilian purposes?
TP: According to most experts, Iran is trying – just as it did during the time of the Shah – to gives itself the option of developing a nuclear weapon should it later chose to do so. From Israel’s perspective, this is sufficiently problematic. Undoubtedly, Iran’s nuclear program could also have civilian purposes. The bottom line, however, is that the program seems to have more than one motivation and conceivably has several concurrent purposes.
AM: In your book on Israeli-Iranian relations, you trace the often-tortuous history between the two countries. What is the current status of Israeli-Iranian relations? How has the nuclear issue impacted this relationship? Has Israel always been opposed to a nuclear Iran?
TP: The Israel-Iran relationship has gone through several phases, from strategic partners to distant allies to a cold war stalemate to the current hostilities. At this point in time, the gloves are off between the two countries and the cold war is getting warmer. There may not be open warfare, but there is certainly evidence to suggest that a dirty intelligence war is taking place behind the scenes and away from the headlines.
As for the nuclear issue, it is symptomatic of a larger conflict. Certainly the nuclear problem exacerbates underlying tensions, but it is not the root cause of the conflict. Absent an Iranian nuclear program, the Israeli-Iranian conflict would still exist.
AM: Is there consensus within the Israeli government about policy towards Iran? Is there a consensus on policy towards Israel within the Iranian government? How, if at all, does public opinion in the two countries come into play?
TP: To a large extent there is consensus about Iran within the Israeli government, but it is important to note that some very important politicians and individuals dissent from some fundamental tenets of Israel’s current policy. People like Ehud Barak, for instance, reject the idea that Iran is an existential threat to Israel. Others publicly reject the notion that Iran is an irrational actor.
There are voices of dissent within the Iranian government as well, at least when it comes to tactics. Nonetheless, whether within the Iranian or Israeli governments, I do not believe there is much opposition to the notion that the two countries are regional rivals. Public opinion factors in very little on this, particularly in Iran where the political system is far from democratic.
AM: In what way does the messianic rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters influence the debate within Israel on Iran’s nuclear program? How seriously should this rhetoric be taken?
TP: Let us not forget that the conflict between the two countries started long before Ahmadinejad entered the scene. In fact, Israeli-Iranian relations were characterized by significant behind-the-scenes cooperation during the 1980s, at a time when Iran’s rhetoric towards Israel was even worse than it is today.
That does not mean, however, that Ahmadinejad’s comments have not exacerbated the situation, which I believe has in fact been the case. The negative impact of this rhetoric was particularly visible in early 2009, when the Obama administration sought to reach out to Iran but to avoid Ahmadinejad, as he was too politically toxic from a domestic, American perspective. This “toxicity” has mainly stemmed from his rhetoric regarding Israel, the Holocaust, etc.
AM: One argument put forth in support of stopping Iran’s nuclear program is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities would trigger an arms race across the Middle East. What are your thoughts on this?
Certainly it is difficult to envision the region becoming safer with the introduction of more nuclear weapons. It should also be noted that building a nuclear weapon may turn out to be a significant strategic mistake for Iran if it leads to the nuclearization of the Middle East as a whole, since that would eliminate Iran’s conventional military superiority in the region.