Has Iran been signaling openness to a thaw in relations with Israel? Opinions are divided, with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissing Rosh Hashana greetings from Iranian leaders on social media and delivering a hardline speech against Iran at the United Nations General Assembly. But the Iranian delegation included a Jewish member of the Iranian parliament and a number of Iran analysts see reason for cautious optimism.
1. Iran and Israel have a history of cooperation
Before Iran’s 1979 revolution, Israel sent agricultural engineers to train Iranians in irrigation systems, while Iran provided Israel with about 70 percent of its energy [oil] needs. The two countries also shared intelligence and defense information.
“Israel also secretly sold Iran weapons that the US wouldn’t, said Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S. Parsi added that, “[Israel] lobbied Washington to sell arms to Iran and ignore Iranian rhetoric on Israel” as late as 1989. This later became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
2. Attitudes among Iranians show signs of change
Today, Iranian expatriates who support the Reformist regime say that despite anger at Israel for pushing sanctions, war rhetoric , and policies they see as discriminating against Palestinians, Iran should recognize Israel as a legitimate state and disagreements should be dealt with through diplomatic means. There are no polls, but Parsi says that the sentiment is common.
3. Iran's reputation is based on its rhetoric, but not on its deeds
Israel’s focus on Iran as its enemy is based more on Iran’s past rhetoric than its nuclear capabilities, argues Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin, head of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution.
“Israel calls Iran the biggest threat to Israel and the West but does not see China or Pakistan as threats, despite each being a major world power with nuclear arms, and Pakistan being highly unstable and Islamic,” Gopin said.
“Iran never created an offensive war, but it is [Iran's] rhetoric against Israel, not the development of nuclear power, that brought the West against them—the [Rouhani] cabinet knows that and is trying to reverse course. Gopin added, “If Netanyahu refuses every gesture and in fact makes fun of them, then [Iran] is putting its country in better light in the court of public opinion...language matters in war and peace.”
4. Iranians consider Jews an important minority
Iranians have often said they consider their attitudes about Israel separate from their attitudes about Jews. In the ancient city of Esfahan, the Jewish population of Iran typically had positive relations with their neighbors.
This Rosh Hashanah, the Jews of Iran received state greetings on their holy day for the first time, said Iranian journalist Ali Reza Eshragi, 35, who grew up in Esfahan and came to the U.S. in 2008 as an Iran analyst and teaching fellow. A senior editor at Reformist daily newspapers in his native country, Eshragi described his reaction to the Rosh Hashanah messages as “surprised” and “happy.” Iranians view Jews, who have had a continuous presence in the country for 2,500 years, as an important part of Iranian history, he said.
Dr. Robert Mnookin, Chair of Harvard University’s negotiations program said, “To assume it [Iran’s social media messages towards the Jewish people] means nothing is unwise; to exaggerate its importance is also unwise.”
5. Indirect gestures can lead to dialogue between enemy states
In diplomacy and negotiations, small, indirect gestures are often used to try and thaw relations with hostile countries. Well before President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, which opened diplomatic relations between the two countries, the U.S. president started making conciliatory gestures. For example, he referred to China for the first time as “The People’s Republic of China” instead of “Red China. Later gestures included relaxing trade restrictions, said international affairs expert John Mueller of Ohio State University.
6. Iranians are offended by Netanyahu
Long before Netanyahu exasperated Iranians by erroneously asserting that Iranians aren’t free to wear jeans, his dismissive response to Iran’s Rosh Hashanah greetings outraged Iranian newspaper readers. Commenters called the Israeli prime minister “extremist” and “rude,” and asked why he saw himself as representative of all Jews. They wrote similarly angry comments in response to Netanyahu’s UN speech this month, in which the Israeli leader called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and implied that he supported a military attack against Iran.
7. Some Israelis and Iranians think Israel should go on a charm offensive
Iranian journalist Eshragi said that Iran may have taken a cautious diplomatic step last week when it called Israel by its name for the first time in decades, instead of its usual rhetoric, “the Zionist occupier regime.”
“This trend started during the Iranian delegation visit to New York,” he noted. “[Iran's foreign minister, Mohammed Javad] Zarif responded directly to Netanyahu’s claims. The very fact that Iran is calling Israel by name could be the first step toward reducing enmity.” The new language, said Eshragi, “is an important breakthrough that could and should be proportionally reciprocated by the Israeli regime.”
Former Mossad director Efraim Halevy said that it’s important to pass diplomatic messages to Iran that speak to the human concerns of its people. “Ultimately, the only way to settle conflicts is to speak to and engage the enemy,” he said, “even when the enemy is not responding.”