Are Iran and Israel Trading Places?

By Abbas Milani; Israel Waismel-Manor | International New York Times, April 12, 2014 | Go to article overview

Are Iran and Israel Trading Places?


Abbas Milani; Israel Waismel-Manor, International New York Times


Iranians are gradually liberalizing while increasingly orthodox Israelis are drifting toward theocracy.

Although the Israeli and Iranian governments have been virtually at war with each other for decades, the two countries have much in common.

Both are home to some of the oldest civilizations on earth, and both are primarily non-Arab states in a mostly Arab region. In the 1950s, David Ben-Gurion's Israel and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's Iran were bastions of secular nationalism; the shah pushed authoritarian modernization, while Ben-Gurion advanced a form of nonreligious Zionism. Only after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran did radical Islam all but eclipse this secular brand of politics. It held on for much longer in Israel but is now under threat.

Both Iran and Israel are now entering potentially challenging new stages in their relations with the outside world, and particularly with the United States. Over the last seven years, United Nations Security Council resolutions have imposed sanctions on Iran with the aim of halting its nuclear program. For years, Iran's former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad railed against the "Great Satan." But even if Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is still opposed to reforms, it appears that some officials inside Iran have finally realized that continued intransigence and bellicosity will beget only more sanctions and catastrophic economic consequences.

As the winds of change blow across Iran, secular democrats in Israel have been losing ground to religious and right-wing extremists who feel comfortable openly attacking the United States, Israel's strongest ally. In recent months, Israel's defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, called Secretary of State John Kerry "obsessive and messianic," while Naftali Bennett, Israel's economy minister, labeled Mr. Kerry a "mouthpiece" for anti-Semitic elements attempting to boycott Israel.

Israel's secular democrats are growing increasingly worried that Israel's future may bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Iran's recent past.

For more than three decades, Iran's oil wealth has allowed its religious leaders to stay in power. But sanctions have taken a serious economic toll, with devastating effects on the Iranian people. The public, tired of Mr. Ahmadinejad's bombastic and costly rhetoric, has replaced him with Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who has promised to fix the economy and restore relations with the West.

But Mr. Rouhani's rise is in reality the consequence of a critical cultural and demographic shift in Iran -- away from theocracy and confrontation, and toward moderation and pragmatism. Recent tensions between America and Russia have emboldened some of Iran's radicals, but the government on the whole seems still intent on continuing the nuclear negotiations with the West.

Iran is a land of many paradoxes. The ruling elite is disproportionately made up of aged clerics -- all men -- while 64 percent of the country's science and engineering degrees are held by women. In spite of the government's concentrated efforts to create what some have called gender apartheid in Iran, more and more women are asserting themselves in fields from cinema to publishing to entrepreneurship.

Many prominent intellectuals and artists who three decades ago advocated some form of religious government in Iran are today arguing for popular sovereignty and openly challenging the antiquated arguments of regime stalwarts who claim that concepts of human rights and religious tolerance are Western concoctions and inimical to Islam. More than 60 percent of Iranians are under age 30, and they overwhelmingly believe in individual liberty. It's no wonder that last month Ayatollah Khamenei told the clerical leadership that what worried him most was a non-Islamic "cultural invasion" of the country.

As moderate Iranians and some of the country's leaders cautiously shift toward pragmatism and the West, it seems that many Israelis are moving away from these attitudes. …

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