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IGLP Post-doctoral Fellow Hengameh Saberi recently interviewed Dr. Trita Pasi, President and Founder of the National Iranian American Council, about his views on the tri-polar Iran/US/Israel relationship.  A transcript follows.

Hengameh Saberi: Treacherous Alliance, your award-winning book, brilliantly passes beyond the commonly held and simplistic ideological assumptions about the triangle relationship between Iran-Israel-US.  Now in 2011, with much happening after the publication of the book, do you still believe in the book’s principal thesis?

Trita Parsi: Yes, I believe the thesis has been vindicated by the recent turn of events. The thesis spelled out that it was not ideological factors that drove the Israeli-Iranian enmity, but rather geostrategic forces due to the efforts to create a new order in the region. With the latest developments in the region I believe it is increasingly clear that efforts to divide the region between moderates vs radicals, democracies vs non-democracies etc is of little utility and has no real explanatory value. Israel, for instance, who had sought to frame its rivalry with Iran as a struggle between the region’s sole Western democracy against a fanatical Islamic tyranny, favored the status quo in Egypt and opposed the efforts to oust Mubarak.

With the decline of the US, Israel’s strategic paralysis and increased isolation in the region, the rise of Turkey, the “revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt, and Iran’s continued difficulties in translating its strength to regional acceptance, the region is experiencing momentous changes both in its political structure and in its balance of power. An ideology based approach towards understanding these shifts won’t get you far.

HS: “If we, that is, U.S. don’t slap Iran, Israel is going to kill it!”  Recently, this is no longer merely a Jeffrey Goldberg type of argument — you hear it from a wide range of folks, from juvenile bloggers, to more seasoned voices on the center and leaning to the left, and even some academics who crave to get credit for taking a middle ground position on the Israeli international politics too.  What do you have to  say to them?

TP: I have continuously been skeptical of Israel’s threats of bombing Iran, and I continue to be so. Israel certainly makes the argument that Iran is an existential hazard, and it has good political reasons for doing so. This, however, does not mean that Israel’s foreign policy establishment has actually operated according to this belief.

Iran’s attainment of nuclear capabilities, short of obtaining nuclear weapons, does no existential harm to Israel, though it does threaten the country’s regional primacy.

There are mainly two reasons for this. First, an Iran that does not have nuclear arms– but has the capacity to build them – will significantly damage Israel’s ability to deter militant Palestinian and Lebanese organizations. It will damage the image of Israel as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region and undercut the myth of its invincibility. Gone would be the days when Israel’s military supremacy would enable it to dictate the parameters of peace and pursue unilateral peace plans.

This could force Israel to accept territorial compromises with its neighbors in order to prevent Iran from exploiting Arab hostility towards Israel for its strategic gain. Israel simply would not be able to afford a nuclear rivalry with Iran and continued territorial disputes with the Arabs at the same time.

Second, Israel – as well as many Arab states – remains fearful that, in mastering the fuel cycle, Iran would gain enough deterrent and bargaining power to compel Washington to cut a deal, in which Iran would be recognized as a regional power and gain strategic significance in the Middle East. This has been a major Israeli fear since the end of the Cold War, when Israel’s strategic utility to Washington lost considerable justification due to the absence of a Soviet threat. Under these circumstances, U.S.-Iran negotiations could damage Israel’s strategic standing, since the common interests that the United States shares with Iran would likely diminish U.S. deference to Israeli concerns with the Iranians. In other words, Israeli officials fear that the “Great Satan” will eventually make up with the ayatollahs and forget about the Jewish state.

Given the possibility of a U.S.-Iran breakthrough, which would alter the status quo in favor of Iran, Israel’s bottom-line strategic apprehensions (as opposed to the more commonly and publicly stated existential fears) are understandable. No country, whether it be Iran or Israel, would want to lose its strategic advantages.

HS:  Do you see the Iran question, so-to-speak, as having had a significant bargaining chip value for Israelis vis–vis the US in the Israeli -Palestinian negotiations? Did the Obama Administration’s resistance against the war drums have any impact on the failing of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or was that explanation only a scapegoat?

Both issues have been played agianst each other. The threat of Iran was utilized by the Rabin-Peres government to extract concessions from the US in the 1990s in return for Israeli flexibility on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Lately, the threat of Iran has been utilized for the opposite purpose — in order to ensure that no progress is made on the Israeli-Palestinian front. And US demands for greater Israeli flexibility on the Palestinian issue has been beaten back patly through Israeli threats to take military actions against Iran — a threat the US had to take seriously due to the devastating effects such a measure would have for US interest in the region.

HS: As someone who’s had a solid leg in policy-making world and with an international orientation coming to the US, do you have something to say to our readers, mostly young aspiring intellectuals from around the world who envision a different global order in their works and often wonder about the links between the world of ideas and the policy-making scene?

It has been said that no new ideas come out of Washington. I fear that may be true. The policy process and the many entrenched interests often times create a very harsh intellectual environment. The best new ideas came from the outside, where there is a safer and more nurturing environment. The real challenge then is to take those ideas to DC and see through their fruition.

HS: Finally, you’re at work on a new book on Obama Administration’s Iran policy.  Would you mind giving us a prelude of your assessment of the current US government’s treatment of Iran? They almost lagged behind in their reaction to Egypt!  Did Obama do justice to Iran’s 2009 resistance movement?

The book looks at the Obama administration’s first two years in office dealing with Iran. It’s a story a very ambitious administration that at times is masterful in its handling of the Iranian challenge and at times can not break the path dependency in Washington’s Iran policy, and by that repeats old mistakes. More than anything, it’s a story of how difficult it is to undo the institutionalized enmity between the US and Iran. In the course of discovering this, the Obama administration commits some decisive mistakes, including a continued singular focus on the nuclear issue at the expense of all other matters – including the human rights situation in Iran and the Iranian people’s struggle for democracy.