A man holds a burning scarecrow with flags of Israel and US during a rally in Teheran June 23, 2017. (Reuters)

By Majid Rafizadeh

May 28, 2018

If you listen to Iranian politicians, the speeches of the Supreme Leader or Friday prayers in Iran, or study its state-controlled newspapers and other media, you will notice that hardly a day passes without the Iranian regime lashing out at Israel, which it commonly refers to as the “Little Satan.”

Some policy analysts argue this suggests two things; that Iran and Israel are natural enemies, and that the enmity is caused by the Iranian leaders’ determination to support the Palestinian people. Apologists for the regime frequently point to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s claim that Tehran’s animosity toward Israel is solely to help the “oppressed”  Palestinians.

These arguments fail to reveal the strategic, geopolitical, historic and ideological reality. When the ruling clerics of Iran came to power in 1979, Iran-Israel relations shifted dramatically. Before the Iranian revolution, Israel and Tehran enjoyed close geopolitical and strategic relationships. Military cooperation was robust and included arms deals worth millions of dollars.

Iran built amicable ties with Israel for several reasons. The first was that Tehran wanted to undermine pan-Arabism. Secondly, Iran desired to appease the US by aligning itself with Washington’s staunchest regional ally, Israel. Third, Tehran sought to obtain the support of the Jewish community in the US, which was believed to be a powerful lobby group with influence in shaping US foreign policy in the Middle East. Fourth, Iran was seeking to build alliances with countries that shared common interests with Tehran in order to counter the Soviet Union’s influence in the region.

But when the mullahs seized power, Israel became a core element and a focal point of the regime’s foreign policy because the clerical establishment projected Israel as one of its critical enemies. Iran’s late Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, coined the derogatory epithet“Little Satan,” and the chant of “Death to Israel” became an integral part of the regime’s rallies.

There are several reasons for this obsession, and the regime’s colossal and unexpected policy change toward Israel.

To begin with, the clerics did not view their power and revolution as limited to Iran’s borders. One of the vital parts of the regime’s pursuit of regional domination is expanding its influence in the Levant, which has considerable strategic importance in the region. Having a presence in the Levant ensures Iran’s access to the Mediterranean Sea and grants the mullahs a significant edge over the Arab world. Competing with, outdoing, outperforming, and dominating powerful Arab states is one of Iran’s regional aims.

To achieve such an objective, the most effective way was to create an enemy. Which enemy is better than a powerful state such as Israel?  From the mullahs’ perspective, having such a strong enemy would justify Tehran’s intensive military adventurism and expansionist policies in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine.

It would also justify Iran’s efforts to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and allocate a significant part of its budget to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its elite branch, the Quds Force, which is in charge of clandestine and extraterritorial military operations.

Secondly, projecting an obsessive hostility toward Israel paves the way for the Iranian leaders to defend establishing “resistance” groups, such as Hezbollah. In truth, these so-called resistance groups act on behalf of the Iranian regime, advancing its interest in the region, and assist Tehran in interfering in the domestic affairs of Arab nations.

Third, having Israel as an enemy helps the mullahs to repress domestic opposition.  One of the charges commonly used to silence dissidents and opponents is being a “Zionist spy.” The penalty can range from long imprisonment to death.

Finally, the Islamic Republic is a revolutionary regime that sits on the bedrock of its extremist founders’ ideology. One of the core revolutionary principals of Khomeini and his gilded circle was anchored in anti-Semitism. The execution in May 1979 of Habib Elghanian, the head of the Jewish community, a businessman, and a philanthropist — after a 20-minute trial on trumped-up charges — was the regime’s first robust anti-Semitic message to Jewish communities and the rest of the world.

Threats to annihilate Israel, Holocaust denial by senior officials such as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and hosting anti-Semitic events such the annual Holocaust Cartoon Competition are common practices within the clerical establishment, and are further examples of the regime’s anti-Semitic stance.

The mullahs’ obsession with Israel has nothing to do with defending and advancing the cause of the oppressed Palestinian people. It is for strategic and ideological reasons; to export the ruling clerics’ extremist ideology, to dominate and expand its influence in the Levant, to justify its military adventurism, and to more easily suppress domestic opposition and dissent.

Arab News

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.