29 September, 2023
Ilinca Şerban (photo: Ilinca Şerban)

Interview with the young expert on the Middle East on the relations between Iran and Israel in the present and in the past and on the role, which Romania and Bulgaria can play in these relations

Vladimir Mitev

Ilinca Şerban has a master’s degree in Political Science at the University “Babeş-Bolyai” in Cluj Napoca. She has accumulated experience on the problems of the Middle East through research, studies, internship and voluntary service programmes – both at national and at international level.

Mrs. Şerban, you have studied the relations between Iran and Israel within your master degree thesis. What are the characteristics of these relations in the different periods of the existence of the two states?

First of all, thank you for the opportunity to give you this interview. Indeed, my master degree thesis analyses the relations between Israel and Iran. It covers a long time period, because of the complexity of these two states’ relations. There are many factors, which have influenced the relations between Israel and Iran and we can identify different stages, in function of the dynamics, which we take into consideration. First of all, we have the pre-revolutionary period, before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Under the monarchic regime Iran had concrete relations of cooperation with Israel. These relations meant a de facto recognition of the State of Israel’s legitimacy, in the conditions in which it faced the arab states’ rivalry. This period has coincided more or less with left-wing governments in Israel, who adopted the periphery doctrine: given that the alliances with the neighbours can not be concretized, an appropriation with the non-arab countries in the region, such as Iran and Turkey, or with non-state actors, such as the Kurdish community in Iraq and the Christian community in Lebanon was a priority.

These things changed after 1979, when not only there were no more any open contacts between the two states, but also a very violent rhetoric between their officials became visible. Fortunately, this rhetorics never took the form of a real war between these two countries. But there were violent clashes between Israel and groups such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, which protect to a greater or to a smaller extent the interests of Iran. Sometimes, especially after the death of ayatollah Khomeini, when there were changes in the internal balance between the poles, we can see similar tendencies for moderation of the foreign relations. I speak most of all about the presidential mandates of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and, recently, Hassan Rouhani. In these times an opening for dialogue with European countries and even with the United States was seen. However, the approach towards Israel remains constant: opposition and refusal to recognise its legitimacy. Maybe the most open position, which Iran had towards Israel was Khatami’s declaration of 1998, when he said that Tehran will respect any decision of the Palestinians in the peace process, meaning inclusively a possible recognition of Israel’s legitimacy.

I can say that what is constant in the relations between Iran and Israel is the pragmatism, which is seen in both parties. Iran often uses an ideological discourse against Israel, but makes it, because it is an important fundament for the legitimacy of its post-revolutionary state. At the same time, Israel insists on the threat, which Iran present, in spite of the fact that Tel Aviv is not under the risk of isolation and the need to identify an existential enemy was always present in its policies.

We are taught by media to consider Iran and Israel as adversaries. But how did it happen that in a moment for existential test for the Islamic Republic – the Iran-Iraq War, Israel was the main supplier of arms for Iran? What should we think about curious facts, such as the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s relations with the anti-zionist Jewish communities in the world? Could it be that between Iran, Israel and its people there is a special relation – in the past and even today?

If we judge by the divergent interests of Iran and Israel, these two countries are adversaries indeed. There is no ideological incompatibility or historical rivalry between them. The way the define their national interest today is that divides them.

In the times of the war between Iran and Iraq, the USA was the main seller of arms for Iraq and was also selling arms and spare parts to Iran through Israel. When this connection became public it has a very negative impact on the administration of the president Reagan. The relations of Israel with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were not good at all. Among the main threats, with which the Israeli state confronts in this time is the pan-arabism, which was promoted by the Iraqi president. So, maybe, Israel was looking for a way to bring balance to the situation and the pre-empt the accumulation of even greater power by Iraq.

As far as the relations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with some Jewish communities are concerned, they have given a boost to the president’s image. He was often accused of antisemitism and tried to eliminate the incompatibility between his opposition to Israel and the tolerance towards the Jewish community.

If we speak about the two states’ communities, there are indeed historical connections, which encourage cultural affinity. The conflict for which we talk is not between the two people, but between the two states, just as the Israeli activist Ronny Edry from the movement “The Peace Factory” says in a Ted Talk, which I saw recently.

Doesn’t the international press lose from sight that Israel had a president of Iranian origin (Moshe Katsav) and that it has a big community of Jews, who come from Iran, while Iran hosts the second biggest Jewish community in the Middle East – facts about which you also write in your master’s thesis?

The cultural affinities about which I spoke earlier have something to do with these demographic figures. Over history the Persian cultural space had a big Jewish population. The anti-semitic tendencies have existed: in 1830 there was a massacre upon the Jewish community in Tabriz, which was extended after that to other regions. Also, their condition is influenced by the theocratic character of the state – just like any other religious minority. They created their cultural identity, which is preserved today among 25 000 Jews, who live in Iran. The big majority of them has an Iranian national identity.

The distinct identity characteristic is seen among the Jews of Persian origin, who have emigrated to Israel. There were two waves of important migration: in 1948, when Israel was founded and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Today more than 200 000 Jews from Israel have roots in the Persian space. The former president Moshe Katsav and the former politician Shaul Mofaz are only two of the Israeli persons, who have come from Iran.

What could bring Iran and Israel close in the international relations? How possible is such appropriation, when we take into account the ideological confrontations, the international relations and security conflicts between the two countries in the Middle East and in the world? When Obama was in the White House the relations of Israel with Benyamin Netanyahu were not good, but he signed the nuclear agreement with Iran. It was a period, when Russia intervened more in the Middle East and it achieved very good relations with all the players in the region. At the same time the EU and China have their interests in the Middle East, related to the regional cooperation and economic development. How do the relations between the great powers – the USA, the UK, the EU, Russia and China influence the Iranian-Israeli relations?

An appropriation between the two state cannot take place without internal changes in both countries. The present power in Tehran receives a lot of internal and external support on the basis of its rivalry with the USA and Israel. Iran managed to unite the society in internal and external plan around the delegitimation of Israel and around the desire for liberation of Jerusalem. Even if it would have more moderate policies in the future (which is difficult to think, when we take into account the present developments in the region), it is most likely that there will be no drastic change of the Iranian rhetoric towards Israel. A success of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, through which both parties remain satisfied, could open the road to the gradual improvement of the Iranian-Israeli relations. But the peace process doesn’t give any signs for advancing. The most recent attempt for its reopening – the peace plan of Donald Trump, was rejected completely by the Palestinians and is considered to strongly biased in favour of Israel.

In the last years, Benjamin Netanyahu’s governments used a very hard rhetoric against Iran, as they presented it as an existential threat in the context of possible acquiring of military nuclear capabilities. This discourse was often exaggerated and “its factual base” was contradicted even by the Israeli security apparatus. It remains to be seen what will be the attitude of the future Israeli cabinet. But it must be taken into account that Israel will not be under the threat of isolation, until the USA is its primary ally. Also, we see that there is a tendency for appropriation with Saudi Arabia, which is an important US ally in the region and an enemy of the Islamic Republic. Most likely, especially if Netanyahu remains in power, the demonisation of Iran will continue.

Indeed, the interests and the implication of all the major powers in the region must be taken into consideration. But the USA has the greatest influence over the relations between Israel and Iran. Maybe it will remain like that in the future. There were some tensions between the administration of Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, such as the White House’s opposition against the construction of new Israeli settlements in the Western Bank and in Eastern Jerusalem. But the relation between the USA and Israel remained special in this period. The signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran was one of the main foreign policy successes of Obama. The power, which the USA has, can been seen in the fact that the other countries or international organisations couldn’t uphold the nuclear agreement after it was abandoned by the USA in 2018. The reimposition of economic sanctions against Iran radicalised its positions towards the international community and Israel.

The coming in the White House of Donald Trump was very beneficial for Israel. Trump not only exited the nuclear agreement with Iran (which Israel considered inefficient and very favourable for Iran), but also moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognised the Israeli sovereignty upon the Golan Heights and stopped the donations towards the UN Relief and Work Agency for the Palestine. These acts represent the abandoning of policies, which were upheld for decades. The result is that the forthcoming election in the USA will have a big impact for Israel, Iran and the other countries in the region, as well as for the relations between them.

Unlike the Eastern Block, Romania had diplomatic relations with Israel in the socialist times, but also had advanced economic and political relations with Iran. Today Romania and Bulgaria and member states of the EU, which have a lot of cultural similarities with the people in the Middle East. What role do countries such as Romania and Bulgaria play in the relations between Iran and Israel?

In the communist period Romania had a foreign policy, which allowed for the maintenance of good relations with both states. These relations are seen today as well. On the other hand, neither Romania, nor Bulgaria have important communities of Jews or Iranians. The Jewish community, which could represent a significant relation with Israel is approximately 3000 strong in Romania and 2000 strong in Bulgaria. Still, Romania and Bulgaria can play a role in the Iranian-Israeli relations through cultural diplomacy, namely because of these cultural similarities, about which you speak.

As far as the conventional diplomatic relations are concerned, the role, which we could play, depends a lot of the way, in which we decide to relate to the great powers Romania and Bulgaria both have important alliances with the USA. Sometimes, especially in the recent period, the USA’s vision for the Middle East differed a lot from the EU’s vision. I believe that Romania and Bulgaria could have greatest impact through the multilateral diplomacy in international forums, where they should take into account their long-term interests.

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