Iran-Israel Rivalry: Is it Ideology or Realpolitik?

Iran’s missile and drone attacks on Israeli territory this past week were unprecedented in many ways. Firstly, the direct attacks were a departure from Tehran’s decade-long shadow war, which saw the Shia state use proxies and non-state actors to target Tel Aviv. Secondly, the world witnessed a rare display of open Arab-Israel cooperation as the news of Saudi and Jordanian help in repulsing attacks started coming in. Lastly, the attacks elicited strong pro-Iran sentiments from amongst the Sunni populace of Arab states.

Though unprecedented, the attacks hardly surprised anyone as both countries are seen as apocalyptic rivals. The rivalry is often termed pathological, grounded in ideological divergence, with its roots in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Before the revolution, both countries shared a surprisingly close relationship. The deterioration of ties is thus seen anchored to the watershed moment of the revolution, which recast Tehran’s foreign policy as anti-Western and anti-Zionist.

Before the revolution, the two countries enjoyed a close working relationship involving intelligence and security cooperation, an energy alliance that included the Israeli import of Iranian oil. Besides, both states shared common positions on the threats posed by the Soviet Union and pan-Arabism. Israel viewed Iran as part of its “periphery doctrine,” a strategy to ally with non-Arab states in the region to offset its numerical and wealth disadvantages compared to Arab nations. Iran, in turn, sought a powerful military ally to deter Soviet aggression, counter Arab antagonism, and establish influence in the Persian Gulf, among other goals. Israel benefited from this relationship by reducing diplomatic isolation, aligning with the United States, and obtaining financial gains from arms sales to Iran.

The events of 1979, however, changed the geopolitical scenario, where Iran found itself in a precarious position immediately after the revolution. Most of the Arab monarchies suddenly saw Iran as their biggest threat. The inability of the Shah to gain any leverage amongst Arab nations was largely blamed on his affinity to Israel. The revolutionaries then took up the agenda of anti-Zionism to gain Arab support for their nascent revolution. Though the ideological stance of the Iranian regime became increasingly anti-Israel, it was not until the end of the Cold War that a more pronounced dip in relations occurred.

Hard as it is to imagine, revolutionary Iran continued to cooperate with Israel during much of the 1980s despite the mutually bellicose rhetoric out of Tehran and Tel Aviv. Both countries saw each other as a counterweight to Arab and Iraqi threats. For Arabs, Israel posed a retaliatory threat, which would respond only if attacked first, whereas Iran, Arabs believed, could initiate hostilities to establish its ascendency in the Middle East. The ideology behind the Iranian revolution was to establish a pure and just Islamic state, which was meant to spread to other Arab Muslim nations. Israel did not fit the bill of being a natural enemy of ideology as the revolution could not have been exported to a Non-Muslim Jewish state.

During the Cold War (after 1979), Iran translated its ideology into operational policy while dealing with Israel, thus forging a workable relationship. This distinction between Iran’s public posture and operational policy was exemplified by Khomeini’s blocking of attempts by more radical elements in the government to dispatch 10,000 Iranian soldiers to southern Lebanon to fight the Israelis. Israel, on its part, played a pivotal role in supplying weapon spare parts to Iran during the critical period of the Iran-Iraq War. Yitzhak Rabin, in 1987, called Iran Israel’s best friend and added, “We do not intend to change our position in relation to Tehran.” Thus, even after the revolution, there were occasions when both countries worked together for some common critical goals.

However, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the strategic landscape of the Middle East underwent significant changes. The unraveling of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War removed two major threats for both Tehran and Tel Aviv. Iran and Israel emerged as two of the most powerful states in the region, and they increasingly came to view each other as rivals and competitors. However, Iran also found itself increasingly isolated in the new global order. This isolation was in part due to its revolutionary ideology, which had distanced it from both the United States and its allies, as well as from many neighboring Arab states which had leanings towards the West or had their own reservations about Iran’s intentions in the region.

To counterbalance this isolation and to forge new alliances, Iran began to aggressively champion the Palestinian cause, which resonated widely among Arab nations. This move was strategic, aiming to overcome sectarian divides and to position Iran as a leader in the Muslim world despite the predominantly Sunni composition of the Arab states. Iran’s support for Palestinian groups and its anti-Israel stance were tools used to gain strategic depth and influence within the Arab world, moves that were rooted in the realm of realpolitik rather than purely ideological commitments.

The unwavering support for the Palestinian cause allows Iran to project itself as a champion of Muslim issues beyond its Shi’a identity and to position itself as a leader in the broader Islamic world against perceived common adversaries. Iran’s financial and military support to Hamas, a predominantly Sunni organization that emerged from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, should be seen in this light. It underscores a strategic convergence of interests, where sectarian and ideological differences have been trumped by larger strategic objectives of countering Israeli influence and bolstering its position in the Muslim world.

The Iran-Israel rivalry was not sparked by ideological differences, nor is it being sustained by ideology. To fully comprehend the contours of this rivalry, it is imperative to look beyond the surface-level narrative of ideological antagonism and delve into the calculated strategic decisions that have characterized the Iran-Israel entente as a theatre of realpolitik.

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