At the UN General Assembly last week, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warned the U.S. that they were being fooled by Iranian promises of nuclear concessions in peace talks, calling Iranian president Hasan Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But the real threat, suggests Trita Parsi, isn’t between Iran and the rest of the world but between Israel … and Israel.
Trita Parsi: Iran and Israel: Peace is possibleIn today’s talk, Parsi explains that despite their seemingly irreconcilable ideological differences, throughout their history both Iran and Israel have forged alliances when it was strategically advantageous. In other words, he says, “Enmity is not inevitable.” Parsi’s talk is especially relevant this week, following the first direct contact between an American president and an Iranian leader in over thirty years — and Israel’s subsequent condemnation of any real negotiation.
In Foreign Affairs last week, Parsi — who is the president of the National Iranian American Council — suggested that Israel should stop being uncompromising and learn to love the U.S.-Iranian peace talks. As he wrote: “Israel should moderate its rhetoric and stop encouraging Congress to undermine diplomacy through additional sanctions.” He suggests that Israel stands to gain much more from cooperation than petulance.
The TED Blog wanted to know what such cooperation would look like for Israel, so we asked Parsi to expand on last week’s article.
First of all, Parsi said over the phone, we wouldn’t see any direct friendly contact between Israel and Iran anytime soon (as he points out in his talk, a strategic partnership between the two in the ’70s was kept a secret), but what is achievable at this moment is reduced hostilities on both sides. On Israel’s part, it could be most helpful, early on, by not being unhelpful. “At the first stage,” says Parsi, “before you can actually create any positive relationship, you have to end the active animosity.”
Second, it’s in everyone’s best interest that Israel be at the diplomatic table rather than commenting on the action from afar, says Parsi. Iran might need Israel’s help to make a deal with the U.S., while Israel should be involved to ensure that it has a say in the agenda. And of course U.S. President Barack Obama, who has a critical friendship with Israel, wouldn’t want to make a deal with Iran that could be deemed anti-Israel. It’s a non-zero-sum game.
Would the U.S. ever actually break from this friendship? Says Parsi, “If Netanyahu adopts a posture in which he is essentially unappeasable and there’s nothing Obama can do to make Netanyahu happy, then at some point the U.S. is going to strike a deal without caring what the Israeli side says.” Though this may seem unlikely, Parsi believes it could happen if the American public is faced with military conflict, even in spite of the longstanding friendship between the U.S. and Israel.
Some, including Netanyahu, might argue that the potential for military confrontation with Iran is precisely why the U.S. should be wary — that the danger of Iran’s nuclear program is too great. Parsi shrugs off these claims, saying that while there is genuine danger in Iran’s program, Netanyahu has been “wildly exaggerating” them. Whatever danger exists, he says, “There’s really no solution that is superior to a diplomatic [one] based on inspections and verification.” Nor does Parsi buy the argument that Israel would seem weak or conciliatory if it stood aside: “The number of unnecessary conflicts that have started because of some weak leader fearing that he’s going to come across as weak is staggering. At this stage, that type of reasoning, which unfortunately does exist, I find unfitting for leaders.”