Book Review: Middle East Mischief — Israel and Iran

Treacherous Alliances: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States

by Trita Parsi

Yale University Press, 2007 HB; 361 pages; $28.00

Any book which receives plaudits ranging from the Arab Washingtonian 1 (“one of its kind in providing in-depth understanding and information”) to the Jewish Chronicle 2 (“a valuable and perhaps long overdue reassessment of the Israeli-Iranian nexus”), must have something unique to say. Indeed, Trita Parsi’s “Treacherous Alliances: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States” breaks new ground in its analysis of the intriguing intersection between Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Washington. It’s also a must read for cynics and critics of the neo-conservative-driven Bush foreign policy. The author, an Iranian native who grew up in Sweden, holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and is frequently featured in media reports involving Middle East affairs. Parsi conducted some 130 interviews with key Israeli, Iranian, and American diplomatic, political, and policy experts to present his assessments. The result is a reader-friendly and revealing account of the connections and conflicts between the three nations.

Parsi gives a behind-the-scenes look at diplomacy as it really works or, more accurately, how it does not work. For example, the author writes about a May, 2003 Iranian proposal sent to the White House via a Swiss intermediary. Tehran actually offered to open its nuclear program to inspections, halt its support for Hamas operations in Palestine, help disarm the Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon, and enter into negotiations concerning the recognition of Israel. Whew. In return, Iran asked for an end to economic sanctions and for Washington to acknowledge Tehran as a legitimate regime in international diplomatic and commercial dealings.

“For many in the State Department the proposal was a no-brainer,” Parsi notes, “Iran offered major concessions in return for an end to the sanctions policy sponsored by the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) which probably had cost the United States more diplomatically than it did Iran economically … [Secretary of State] Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, favored a positive response to the Iranians … but instead of instigating a lively debate on the details of a potential American response, [Vice President] Cheney and [Secretary of Defense] Rumsfeld quickly put the matter to an end. Their argument was simple but devastating. ‘We don’t speak to evil,’ they said.”

The Bush Administration chose to simply neglect and forget the initiative: “ I honestly don’t remember seeing it,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Congressional hearing in February 2007. The complete text of the Iranian proposal can be found in “Treacherous Alliance.”

Trita Parsi unravels the strategic and tactical lines that pull Iran, Israel, and the U.S. into seemingly competing partnerships. The author illustrates this ongoing juxtaposition by recounting a situation from the early 1980s: “Only months after the eruption of the hostage crisis, Ahmed Kashani, the youngest son of Grand Ayatollah Abol Qassem Kashani, who had played a key role in the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry in 1951, visited Israel — most likely the first Iranian to do so after the revolution — to discuss arms sales and military cooperation against Iraq’s nuclear program at Osirak.” At that time, Israel snubbed U.S. policy and sold Iran military hardware including tires for Phantom jet fighters. In turn, Tehran allowed Iranian Jews to emigrate to Israel. Meanwhile, on stage for public viewing, Iran was trying to have Israel expelled from the United Nations. To discern the dynamics between Tel Aviv and Tehran, Parsi warns not to be “blinded by the condemnatory rhetoric.” He states that, “most observers have failed to notice a critical common interest shared by these two non-Arab powerhouses in the Middle East,” that being “the need to portray their fundamentally strategic conflict as an ideological clash.” The ideological rhetoric does not necessarily reflect the demographic, economic, and political needs of Iran, Israel, and the U.S.

3362802Parsi opines about Iran’s recent history when he writes: “The more the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy was presented as different from that of the shah [who abdicated in 1980], the more it resembled it at its core … the ideology had shifted astonishingly. But the end goal remained remarkably similar.” Parsi suggests Middle East policy contortions and contradictions between Israel and Iran “have all coincided with geopolitical rather than ideological shifts,” adjusting to meet the exigencies of a particular point in time. He asserts that “no force in Iran’s foreign policy is as dominant as geopolitical considerations.” Iran, Israel, and the U.S. have intermittently played one side against the other, switching tactics and rhetoric as self interests change. Parsi observes that “the Israeli-U.S.-Iranian triangle [has] shifted remarkably in just a few years. In the 1980s, Israel was the unlikely defender of and apologist for Iran in Washington, taking great risks to pressure the Reagan administration to open up channels of communication with Iran.” Now Tel Aviv does the opposite because Israel wants “the United States to put Iran under economic and political siege.” President George Bush’s current strategy is an attempt to segregate and alienate Iran as part of an “evil axis.” That course, says Parsi, challenges Iran’s historic role in the Gulf region and Middle East — earned by way of its location, population, resources, and military strength. “Washington has sought to establish an order that contradicts the natural balance by seeking to contain and isolate Iran,” Parsi argues.

In a February 27, 2008 op/ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer 3 Parsi is blunt in this assessment: “The Bush administration’s apparent disregard for the expressed wishes of Iranian human-rights defenders has made a bad situation worse. When it comes to human rights in the Middle East, the Bush administration has claimed to walk the walk. But that walk clearly has a limp.” Trita Parsi believes it is in the best interest of the U.S., and ultimately Israel, to reconcile with Iran and engage them in diplomatic, economic, and cultural exchanges — what he describes as “regional integration and collective security.” Parsi’s premise is backed-up by such newspaper headlines as “Iraq Credits Iran for Helping to Curb Attacks by Militias” and “Iran, Iraq to Cooperate in Development of Joint Oilfields.” 4 David Ignatius, in a March 30, 2008 Washington Post op/ed (“Mideast Openings”), supports this perspective: “We tend to think about conflict as an either/or proposition. Either we negotiate peace, or we destroy the enemy militarily. But in the Middle East, as Gen. John Abizaid, the retired chief of Central Command, liked to observe, it’s often a matter of fighting and talking. Right now, we do too much of the former and not enough of the latter.”

In Parsi’s view, the Iranian regime is neither maniacal nor malevolent. He reasons that, “when one scratches the surface, even Iran’s President Ahmadinejad’s venomous outbursts against Israel turn out to have strategic motivations.” The author quotes from a wide variety of credible sources — including former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami — to back-up his assessments. Ben-Ami categorically contends: “Iran is not driven by an obsession to destroy Israel, but by its determination to preserve its regime … The answer to the Iranian threat is a policy of detente, which would change the Iranian elite’s pattern of conduct.” According to “Treacherous Alliances,” Tehran is not necessarily motivated by opposition to Israeli or even religious ideology, but its actions and reactions are chiefly based on national self-interest. President Ahmadinejad and his nation’s ruling mullahs regularly seize on opportunities to enhance and assert Iran’s power and influence in the Gulf region — their opposition to Israel is due more to geopolitics than ideology. Parsi maintains:

The current enmity between the two states has more to do with the shift in the balance of power in the Middle East after the Cold War and the defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War than it does with the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Thus, despite Tel Aviv’s latest machinations to demonize Iran internationally, Washington could still broker a balance of powers in the Middle East based on strategic trade-offs. “It is the geopolitical imbalance in the region that renders that conflict all the more unsolvable,” Parsi insists, “unless the underlying conflicts in the region are addressed, any process seeking to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will be subject to geopolitical rivalries.” The realpolitik addressed in “Treacherous Alliances: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States” has received praise ranging from such journals as Mother Jones on the left (11/12/07) and American Conservative on the right (10/22/07). Long-standing Middle East issues are freshly framed by Trita Parsi; his book should be a welcome addition to any library shelf — especially those of Hill rats, Administration policy wonks, and political campaign operatives … if those people buy books.

1. (www.arabwashingtonian.org/english/article.php issue=19&articleID=537) 2.(www.thejc.com/home.aspx?ParentId=m12s39&SecId=39&Aid=57262&AtypeId=1)
3. “Bush Administration has fueled the Human-Rights abuses in Iran” 4. New York Times, November 18, 2007; Tehran Times, February 18, 2008

This review originally appeared on the website of the National Iranian-American Council in May, 2008

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