When Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood in front of the UN General Assembly and pronounced Iran to be a greater threat that ISIL, it wasn’t a huge surprise. After all, the Israeli leader’s main mood music in office has been to warn about evil, on-the-verge-of-nuclear Iran, which, he told the UNGA, is of greater concern that the “militant Islamists on pick-up trucks” currently terrorising chunks of Iraq and Syria.
Indeed, the case of Iran being foreshadowed by ISIL would be of grave concern if Netanyahu’s appraisal were accurate – but even some of his own top security and intelligence officials have disagreed with him on that.
In December last year, former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin, said that the threat posed by Iran, rather than being bigger than ISIL, is in fact dwarfed by the dangers posed by Israel failing to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians.
Diskin joined other former high-ranking officials, such as former Mossad head Meir Dagan and former Israeli army chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi in having openly urged their prime minister to stop banging the drums of war over Iran.
Netanyahu’s fears are focused on the P5 + 1 talks between Iran, the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany. Having already reached a transitional deal over Iran’s nuclear programme in January, these negotiations are now pushing hard for a final agreement.
Bogeyman of choice
But talking fear about Iran is nothing new. For decades, the nation has been the bogeyman of choice for the West – a role its own former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alas played into well. The casting of Iran as arch enemy is notionally based on various factors – one being Iran’s appalling human rights record, which is often presented as supporting evidence that the country hates the West because of its freedoms.
Iran’s nasty nation status is what facilitates the ease with which it has been dismissed as partner in the quest to deal with ISIL – despite it being blindingly obvious that Iran is crucial to that. Western air strikes can’t rid the region of ISIL, or address the power vacuum that allowed the group to flourish.
Few would deny the severity of Iran’s track record on human rights violations: In 2013 it ranked 167 in the world, according to the International Human Rights Indicator.
But the trouble is that a cursory glance at US allies present and past – Mubarak, Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, at one point – shows us that human rights are not a membership requirement for America’s client state club.
Compliance with foreign policy agendas, on the other hand, clearly is: Egypt’s former dictator Hosni Mubarak showed his worth to the West by not opposing Israeli military assaults in Lebanon or the occupied Palestinian territories while granting the US free access to the Suez Canal.
Libya’s late former tyrant President Muammar Gaddafi was a rehabilitated friend of the West until he started talking about nationalising Libya’s oil – in which so many other countries had too big a stake.
Meanwhile, Iran’s evil enemy rap sheet is further fleshed out by its suspicion of the West, which is depicted as an inherently hateful Iranian state of being (the dire Hollywood blockbuster Argo, excelled at this portrayal), as opposed to a fairly understandable reaction to a US coup of a democratically elected government and installation of a brutal puppet ruler in 1953; a deadly war with US-backed Iraq and the imposition of what have been described as the harshest sanctions in history.
Oh, and also: the country can’t be trusted, according to Netanyahu and a string of commentators; the gist being that any charm and approachability currently emanating from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is all manipulation. But that’s a curious claim because Iran, given its history with the US, could just as easily make the same observation. In fact, why would any nation trust any other? International law and agreements made between signatory nations are established precisely to forestall and pre-empt any absence of trust.
Still, Iran’s nasty nation status is what facilitates the ease with which it has been dismissed as partner in the quest to deal with ISIL – despite it being blindingly obvious that Iran is crucial to that. Western air strikes can’t rid the region of ISIL, or address the power vacuum that allowed the group to flourish. Unless there is an unacknowledged interest in perpetual instability in the Middle East, then the goal must be immediate political solutions in the region. And that means talking with Iran, not least because its influence over Shia leaderships in both Syria and Iraq make it a vital stakeholder.
It should by now be clear that the strategy pursued in Syria by the West and some of its Gulf allies – backing groups perceived as “moderate” – has made the situation worse. And, as Ellie Geranmayeh, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, writes: “It is clear that the rise of [ISIL] has presented new possibilities for regional engagement between the West and Iran.”
Conversations between the US and Iran are presumed to be happening behind the scenes. And some are taking place in public: British Prime Minister David Cameron met with Rouhani in late September – the first time the heads of those two countries had met since 1979. At around the same time, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran held a meeting. Writing in the Telegraph, the British Labour party MP and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, urged that, for the greater good, the West should “risk” a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.
These are encouraging signs. Now we need much more of them.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.