Of Redlines, Blue Jeans, and Yellow Cakes: Iran and Israel, the Way Forward

Teaser Image Caption
Yes, Iranians do wear jeans. Fashion store in Tehran.

This winter marks the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The 1979 Revolution, toppling Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the last king of Iran, established the Islamic Republic. Since then, Iran and Israel, two former collaborators, have had a complex and mostly conflictual relationship. Indeed, much of the political and security narratives of Tehran and Jerusalem are shaped around each other. The rhetoric has covered the whole pallet of colors, from the black “wolf” to the white “sheep,” with blue “jeans,” “yellow cake,” and “redlines” in between. Each side has legitimate fears and concerns, which cast a shadow over all the commonalities and interests the two countries and nations share. For their part, Israelis feel threatened by the Islamic Republic’s anti-Israeli discourse, terrorist activities against Jewish communities around the world and support for anti-Israeli terrorist groups, as well as its controversial nuclear program. On the other side of the equation, the Israeli government beating the drum and encouraging more sanctions, along with allegations regarding its role in the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists and its involvement in Stuxnet, have led Iranians to increasingly fear and distrust Israel. Despite these understandable concerns on either side, and especially with the recent deal reached between the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) and Tehran regarding Iran’s nuclear in Geneva, it is high time for a paradigm shift in the relations between these two Middle Eastern countries.

A new horizon: the interim deal

Iran and Israel are waking up to a new regional and international climate. The recently-agreed interim nuclear deal on Iran’s nuclear program is receiving support from across the board as a “good deal.” Yet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to pout as his government denounces the deal reached. While criticism on the deal is to be expected, and concerns over Israeli interests and how the deal will serve to protect them is due, Netanyahu’s continued offensive – against Iran, against the deal, and hence its negotiators – might not be leaving Israel in a position where its concerns are actually taken into account. From an Iranian perspective, the deal entails much needed progress toward the settlement of the nuclear dossier, which has carried many political, strategic, and economic consequences for both population and its leadership.

In the context of this new reality, it would be in the best interest of both Israel and Iran to work, even if informally, towards easing some of the tensions between them. For Iran, the deal, delivered on President Hassan Rouhani’s 100th day in office, symbolizes the climax of a new path, which began with his election. Undertaking additional substantial steps towards regional security and easing of tensions vis-à-vis Israel will only bolster its new internationally-accepted course and will therefore strengthen the international community’s trust in a country isolated and demonized for eight years. For Israel, particularly if it is concerned with Iranian nuclear intentions and its compliance with the negotiated deal, not seeming as the spoiler to this deal would be meaningful in the long run. Beyond the bilateral relationship, reducing the tensions between this duo of key regional actors could also be conducive to greater stability in the Middle East.

In fact, it is important to remember that as dire as relations between the two countries are, this is to a large extent a relatively recent development. It is often forgotten that Iran and Israel did not only cooperate before the Islamic Revolution, but that the post-Revolutionary era has also seen cooperation between the two countries, albeit covert. During Iran’s darkest moment in the past four decades, Israel was one of the only countries – not only in the region, but also on the international level as well – that came to its rescue: During the Iran-Iraq War, Israel provided Iran with much-needed modern weaponry. Iran and Israel share certain interests and security concerns, and despite the formal rivalry, have succeeded in cooperating to advance those shared interests.

Although the difficulties in the Iran-Israel relationship are clear and the criticism, from either side against the other, has for the most part not developed out of completely thin air, rapprochement between these two states should not be discarded as an irrelevant possibility. We are not expecting our two countries to engage in bilateral and direct relations or to walk hand in hand into the sunset any time soon, as we ourselves have done, and many others from across the chasm. However, some steps can be taken, even in the troubled time we are currently in, to alleviate the situation and move toward better relations. In the following, we propose some such steps, in the hope that they will inspire others to think constructively about the issue and to develop further ideas, which could lead toward substantial and sustained progress.

Understanding that direct and formal cooperation is still some ways away, our goal is to present realistic yet constructive steps, and hence such that can be undertaken independently, without bombastic announcements of rapprochement that are still unlikely. The unilateral measures discussed below could be implemented independently by Iran and Israel, thus contributing to threat reduction, enhancing of security, and ultimately a bilateral re-building of trust.

The war of words: understanding the discourse

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency was marked by controversies surrounding his belligerent rhetoric against Israel, which even in the difficult climate between the two countries was extremely vehement. In fact, for much of the 1990s and early 2000s (until Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005), Iranian moderates and reformists alike attempted to ease the tension between Iran and Israel, and former presidents Aliakbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami championed this trend.

During his time in office, Ahmadinejad famously denied the Holocaust and stated that Israel had no place in the Middle East and that a regional “storm” would “uproot” the Jewish state. Yet, even under Ahmadinejad, the discourse was not as one-dimensional as many depicted. Indeed, one of his most controversial and proliferated statements was actually a mistranslation of a phrase taken out of context. The former president never said that “Israel should be wiped off the map,” nor that Iran should wipe it off the map. Even former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Dan Meridor, recognized this fact. Instead, Ahmadinejad had said that Israel, “like the Soviet Union, will fall apart when its people no longer want it [to exist].” During Ahmadinejad’s term in office, his close friend and Chief of Staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, had stated that the Iranian people were ‘friends of all people in the world — even Israelis’.

Despite these mistranslations and common misperceptions, it is clear that this rhetoric by Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders, accompanied by their support to Hamas and Hezbollah, has been viewed by the Israeli leadership and people as belligerent and pursuing an active anti-Israeli policy.  In this context, the suspected military dimension of the Iranian nuclear program is understandably perceived as an existential threat to the State of Israel. This perception has only reinforced existing views in Israel that its territorial integrity and sovereignty are threatened by other states in the region, many of which it does not have relations with and which perceive it as illegitimate.

Nevertheless, since his inauguration, Rouhani has attempted to distance himself, his government, and the country from his predecessor’s rhetoric. To do so, Rouhani has taken several concrete steps. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Rouhani declared that “any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crimes committed by the Nazis, whether against Jews or non-Jews, is completely condemned in our view. Likewise, today, any crime against any nation, religion, ethnicity, or belief, we condemn that crime and genocide. Therefore, the crimes of the Nazis are condemned.” Likewise, Iran’s Foreign Minister and Chief Nuclear Negotiator, Javad Zarif, dismissed the idea of the Holocaust being a myth and called it a “heinous crime” and a “genocide,” which should not be repeated. Furthermore, the President canceled the annual anti-Zionist conference, which was established under Ahmadinejad.

Some have dismissed Rouhani’s acknowledgment and condemnation of the Holocaust, by saying that it did not go far enough in its denunciation of the crimes. Others have chosen to ignore the steps he has taken in toning down the anti-Israeli rhetoric. However, these criticisms fall short of recognizing the intricacy of Rouhani’s enterprise, as he has many factions to appease within Iran, while he attempts to remain constructive. Therefore, the level of expectation must be adjusted to the complex reality and the “all or nothing” approach needs to be abandoned in order to recognize the constructive process underway. The official Israeli discourse has accused Rouhani’s statement as merely cheap talk with no action to back it, thus completely failing to recognize some concrete actions that could be considered as backing the talk, like a nuclear deal.

Iran and its nuclear program have been the central project of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since he took office in 2009. Netanyahu has been leading a very offensive rhetorical campaign against Iran’s nuclear program for several years, which at times, has seemed on the verge of slipping into the realm of action, igniting concerns of an eminent war in both Israel and Iran. Keeping in line with the historical period, Netanyahu’s rhetoric of demonizing Iran has also reverted to the same time for which Ahmadinejad gained his infamy: Netanyahu has stated that now “is 1938 and Iran is Germany,” and has compared Iran’s nuclear installations to the Holocaust concentration camps.

Even before the latest elections in Iran, the Prime Minister estimated that the elections would not make a difference in its strive for a nuclear weapon. With the onset of Rouhani’s so-called “charm attack,” the significant change in tone apparently left no impression on Netanyahu. Despite a report by the Israeli intelligence, which identified significant and strategic changes in the Iranian political scene (while still seeking nuclear threshold status), as well as the quarterly Iran safeguards report by the International Atomic Energy Agency in November 2013, stating that Iran has slowed its nuclear program since Rouhani’s presidency, Netanyahu continues his offensive. To stress that continuous view of Iran, Netanyahu stated formally in his United Nations General Assembly address that Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as opposed to Ahmadinejad, who was a wolf in wolf’s clothing.

Understandably, Israeli reading of both reports which imply a shift in the Iranian position is hesitant to recognize a meaningful transformation regarding what it already considered the greatest threat to Israel – Iran’s strive for nuclear weapons. Yet while the international community has turned to a thorough diplomatic engagement with a view towards reaching agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, Netanyahu’s vocal offensive has been perceived as hysterical and counterproductive.

While Israel diplomatic offensive is aimed at influencing those who sit in the White House, Netanyahu’s rhetoric is loudly heard in Tehran and was recently reciprocated with an attack by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei intensifying the tension between the countries even further, and so the cycle continues. Yet, the recently negotiated deal on the Iranian nuclear program should be incentive enough for both sides to work towards reducing tensions: Iran, to prove its commitment to the deal and to a changed approach to foreign policy; and Israel, to give the well-received deal a chance, without being perceived as the spoiler. 

Moving forward in the bilateral relationship – unilaterally 

The Iran-Israel nexus has been a key plank in discussions surrounding international affairs in the past decades. Yet, much of the debate has been centered on finger-pointing and the challenges, while very little attention has been paid to identifying opportunities for constructive and substantial progress toward alleviating some of the tension between the two countries. We believe that a number of steps could be realistically undertaken to make things better for both sides.

a. Managing expectations

The first step each state needs to take is simply to recognize the efforts and delicate shifts towards each other. This is also a pre-requisite to the rest of the measures proposed below. It is vital for both states to be open to recognizing each other’s efforts. This does not have to be done officially, but each state needs to provide some feedback to the other that they are listening and taking note of the other’s undertakings. This can be achieved by a simple gesture, such toning down the rhetoric on some level. Hence, steps forward by one side should not be dismissed as “smile attacks”, as they have been.

For instance, the Iranian people have shown that they are in favor of distancing themselves from Ahmadinejad and his rhetoric. The 2009 post-electoral events, known as the Green Movement, as well as the sustained demand for change, leading to the recent election of a moderate President are a clear sign of the general discontent with the policies and rhetoric of Ahmadinejad.  This is not only the case on a societal level but has increasingly manifested itself on the official level as well, with across the board reforms undertaken by Rouhani and his team.

This goal of recognizing shifts towards each other cannot be attained if the two states are interested in an “all or nothing” solution. For instance, Israel cannot fail to consider all efforts made by Iran short of official recognition or the suspension of its nuclear program as futile. Indeed, while an Iranian recognition of Israeli statehood, sovereignty, and right to territorial integrity would be optimal; it is simply not feasible for the foreseeable future. Yet, some Israelis undermine the possibility of any cooperation as long as Tehran does not fully recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. This is while Iran did not officially recognize Israel prior to the Islamic Revolution either, abstaining to vote in 1947 when the question was raised at the United Nations General Assembly, while later cooperating with Israel on various levels. Likewise, some in Tehran reject any rapprochement and dialogue with Israel and refuse to engage with it on any level. This faction will not accept any solution to the Israel-Palestine issue short of Israelis packing their bags and going back to “where they come from” (wherever that may be…).

b. Iran and the Palestinian question: a case of the bowl being hotter than the soup(1)

This leads us to the second step, a step, which can be taken by Iran independent of all other developments in the region. Israel and Israelis are here to stay and Tehran should recognize this and get used to the idea. Better yet, the Iranian leadership should understand that it cannot eternally go on ignoring Israel, or worst, fighting it, whether directly or indirectly. Doing so does not only isolate it internationally, and create and intensify tensions between Tehran and the West, but it also hampers the regional quest for stability and security. In turn, the stability and security of the Middle East affects all states equally, and given their status, Iran and Israel have an enormous impact on it. Therefore, Tehran should officially recognize and pledge support for the two-state solution, if it is the will of the Palestinian people and as per direct negotiations between the relevant parties, Israel and Palestine.

Its official endorsement of the two state solution would in effect convey Iran’s understanding that the State of Israel is an inherent part of the region, de-facto recognize its existence. So far, a number of officials have expressed Iranian support for such a development but others have repelled it. This should be articulated as Iran’s official policy, perhaps even through officially and formally supporting the Arab Peace Initiative. This would not only inspire Israel to tone down its rhetoric toward Iran, it would also help Tehran’s relations with the West. Moreover, such a move would delegitimize to some extent the arguments used by Israeli hardliners, which would promote a military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities due to the “existential threat” represented by the country’s policies.

c. The interim nuclear deal: a case of the mourner among the celebrators(2)

Much of the Israeli rhetoric around the Iranian nuclear issue has revolved around redlines, military strikes against nuclear facilities in Iran, encouragement for the implementation of further sanctions, and the drawing of parallels between Iran and Nazi Germany. Recently, this discourse has been in spite of the progress made by the P5+1 and Tehran in Geneva in November 2013 on the Iranian nuclear dossier and U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. The continued offensive rhetoric by Israeli officials only serves to empower the hardliners in Iran and weaken not only the reformists but also the moderates, including Rouhani. Furthermore, creating an environment, where Iranian constantly fear an Israeli attack against their soil, especially against nuclear facilities, discourages them from demanding change domestically and increases the likelihood of a closed climate.

This is yet another conundrum in the relationship between the two states, where Israeli hardliners, to some extent, credit the change in the Iranian position to be the direct result of the Israeli insistence on dealing seriously with Iran’s nuclear program. In other words, they attribute the Iranian willingness to even “come to the table” to the “crippling sanctions” accompanied by credible military threat and demand for intensified sanctions. This view, however, ignores other important factors, which have shaped Iran’s new foreign and nuclear policy, including domestic politics. It is clear that there is a general understanding in at least certain circles in Israel that without Netanyahu’s “personal” mission to show the world just how dangerous Iran is, the situation would have been much worse by now.

Either way, Israeli concerns of the nuclear deal with Iran are legitimate, considering what many perceive as Iran’s record of concealment regarding its nuclear program, as well as its support of terrorist attacks and belligerent rhetoric in the past and failure to formally and categorically refute certain statements. Indeed, change, by definition, can only be gradual, but the judgment must be passed on a trend of cumulative actions, and the rhetoric coming from Israel does not allow for this. The Israeli position as continuously proclaimed by Netanyahu and incessantly aggressive towards Iran, unwilling to even recognize the meaningful changes in Iran since Rouhani’s inauguration, appears to be counter-productive to the efforts of the international community to ensure the civilian nature of the Iranian nuclear program.

While Israeli concerns regarding the agreement are understandable, its complete rejection is isolating Israel even further, as it walks around as the nearly-sole mourner among the celebrators. Despite concerns, it is important to tone down the rhetoric and give the agreement, as well as the new Iranian government, the time and space they need to prove the viability of the diplomatic solution. Words and discourse have been a central part of the rivalry between Iran and Israel in the past decades. As they served in the past to exacerbate the conflict, so could they now be used to alleviate it. Even simpler than changing the discourse, an initial constructive step would be to simply refrain from certain activities, mostly aggressive statements.

d. Tests and trust

Iran and Israel are both signatories to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), but neither has ratified the Treaty. Their ratification would be very meaningful as both states would commit not to test nuclear weapons. Globally, both countries play a central role in the entry into force process of the CTBT, as they are part of the group of states whose ratification is required for the treaty to enter into force.

An Iranian ratification of the CTBT is almost self-demanding. The country signed the Treaty in 1996 and has already certified one of the five monitoring stations planned for its territory, although it has yet to connect it to the CTBT’s International Data Center, the forefront component of the Treaty’s verification regime . As first steps showing greater commitment to the CTBT, Iran could begin to transmit data from its certified monitoring station by connecting it to the International Data Center, and continue with the installation and certification of the further stations to be established in its territory. CTBT ratification would certainly be considered a substantial step towards greater nuclear self-restraint and would undoubtedly boost Iran’s credentials in the handling of its nuclear dossier. This would also provide further evidence to Tehran’s claims that its nuclear program is merely peaceful in nature.

Israel’s ratification of the CTBT, which it also signed in 1996, would give it a substantial legitimacy boost and show its commitment to the non-proliferation regime. With Israel specifically, the same can be stated regarding Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) ratification: Israel signed the CWC as early as 1993, but has yet to ratify it. The ratification of this central disarmament treaty would go a long way in terms of proving the country’s seriousness regarding the non-proliferation regime in general, and a meaningful regional arms control process in particular. This is especially the case since the developments on the Syrian chemical weapons front, have rid Israel of its greatest and most consistent concern regarding these weapons. Iran, incidentally, ratified the CWC back in 1997.

Israel’s central concern with both the CTBT and the CWC is the treaties’ verification regimes. Israel fears that these could be misused by Arab states and Iran to force a wrongful challenge inspection or on-site inspection in Israel. This concern, as well as others regarding these treaties, would have to be addressed to enable Israel to ratify.

Bilaterally, ratification of these arms control mechanisms by Iran and Israel would not likely be publicly and formally considered or intended as confidence building measures vis-à-vis each other. However, this would certainly greatly contribute to a calmer WMD-climate in the region.

In a greater regional context, if both states are indeed interested in the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, these particular steps would be significant to that process. A WMD-free zone process, backed by a regional security dialogue, would be meaningful for both states’ security and therefore well-being. As the only two non-Arab states in the region, Iran and Israel share several procedural considerations regarding such a regional process. As such, both countries, for instance, share an interest in promoting a consensus-based decision-making processes in such environments. While, as mentioned, it is not likely that this alone would bring them to formally cooperate, recognizing their shared perspectives and interests could contribute to an atmosphere of greater civility in the relations between these two central actors.   

Conclusion:  the ways forward

Iran and Israel distinguish themselves from the rest of the Middle East due to a combination of factors. They are both non-Arab, non-Sunni, states, which have found themselves in conflict with neighboring countries over the years. They are often isolated from the rest of the region and are outnumbered by the Arab majority in the context of multilateral talks and negotiations on regional security. For both states, their unique characteristics make this isolation, whether political or organizational, a potential threat to their security, as they fear that their concerns would not be aptly addressed.

Despite these shared characteristics and what could be recognized as common goals, relations between Israel and Iran would not soon lend themselves to cooperation, so much is clear. However, each can take unilateral steps to reduce tension, promote national interests, build confidence and enhance regional security. No such step would likely be identified formally as meaning to serve as reassurance to the other party. Yet, managing expectations will allow the symbolic and concrete uses of such measures not to be negligible.

The successful social campaign, which began with a viral categorical statement by several Israelis speaking clearly against the possibility of attacking Iran, has developed into a parade of reciprocal symbolic gestures between the two peoples. While relatively small in scale, this experiment seems to show the reluctance of the two peoples to be forced into rivalry. Indeed, the official relationship is tainted to say the least, yet it seems illogical to ignore the societal level and the possibilities therein for a brighter future. 

But perhaps the most important step that must be taken by both the leaderships and nations of Iran and Israel is to get to know one another and refrain from making baseless assumptions. So, here are some myth busters to start this enterprise: Yes, Iranians do wear jeans. No, most Iranians do not want to see Israel wiped off the map. No, Iranians do not believe that the Holocaust is a myth. Yes, Israelis, despite being told otherwise, recognize that Iranians are not all out to get them. No, most Israelis do not actually want to get into war with Iran.


The authors are members of the Middle East Next Generation of Arms Control Specialists Network, created by Dr. Chen Kane at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

This article was first published on the website of The National Interest, A quarterly journal of international affairs and diplomacy.



(1) “The bowl is hotter than the soup” is a Persian idiom, which describes a situation in which a certain party is more eager about another party’s interests than the stakeholder themselves.

(2) “Walking around as the mourner among the celebrators” is a Hebrew idiom, which refers to the only person who is not taking part in a celebration joined by all (e.g. a wedding).