Israel and the Origins of Iran's Arab Option: Dissection of a Strategy Misunderstood

By Parsi, Trita | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Israel and the Origins of Iran's Arab Option: Dissection of a Strategy Misunderstood


Parsi, Trita, The Middle East Journal


This article argues that Iran's "Arab option" - the Arab and pro-Palestinian tilt in Iran's foreign policy - did not emerge out of the ideological musings of Iran's Islamic revolutionaries, but out of Iran's new-found position of preeminence in the later years of the Shah's rule. The sustainability of Iran's regional leadership required Arab acceptance and support, which could only be won through a pro-Arab orientation in Iran's foreign policy.

Iran's strategy of wooing the Arab states of the Middle East and pursuing an Islamic framework for state-to-state interaction is often believed to be rooted in the Islamic Republic's ideological worldview. At first glance, the contrast between this foreign policy and that of the late Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi is striking. While the Iranian monarch nurtured strategic ties to strong but remote states, such as the US and Israel, to balance Iran's Arab neighbors, the Islamic Republic has pursued the Arab option to bridge the Arab-Persian divide by promoting a pan-Islamic political order and by adopting a radical pro-Palestinian position.

While the more extreme expressions of this policy were tempered during the presidency of Muhammad Khatami (1997-2005), the election of Iran's new conservative President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has reinvigorated Iran's Islamic orientation, which may win Tehran points with the discontented Arab masses but only at the expense of increased tensions with Arab governments.

To many of its critics, Iran's policy of tilting towards the Arab and Islamic masses and against the West is ill-advised, defeatist, and incomprehensible, and has as a result been deemed ideological. Indeed, it is viewed by some as an oxymoron that Iran, whose tensions with the Arabs stretch back to the 7th century AD or even earlier, has adopted a pro-Arab policy against Israel, a nation with which Iran has no historical grievances. Some go so far as to argue that Iranian-Arab enmity is an enduring and permanent feature of Iran's security environment.1 As a result, these analysts would conclude that any Iranian foreign policy that does not seek to tie Iran permanently to a strategic partnership with the region's non-Arab states is simply incorrect and counters the region's geo-political equilibrium.

This criticism is also shared by Israeli analysts who adhere to David Ben Gurion's doctrine of the periphery.2 According to Eliezer Tsafrir, former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in Iraq, evidence for the permanent nature of Iran's rivalry with its immediate neighboring Arab states is evident in history:

Whatever the name of Iran-Pars, Elam, Media-and whatever the name of Iraq-Babylon, Assyria, Akkad, Sumer-there was always a rivalry and sometimes war [between the two]... Koroush-e Kabir [Cyrus the Great] knew that there is a common interest between the two sides of the Middle East-Iran and Israel. That is why Koroush let Ezra and Nehemia come back and rebuild the temple. It was obviously an interest of his in order to dominate [Iraq]. Iran is Muslim but not Arab, and [to keep this balance] Iran needs another [non-Arab] people [who share that] common interest.3

There are numerous problems with this analysis of Iran's Arab option. First, it assumes a static view of the power balance in the Middle East; it perceives historic, realities as objective laws and fails to recognize the root causes of those conditions. secondly, it fails to take into account systemic changes to Iran's security environment and cyclical shifts in the distribution of power in the region. Third, it fails to recognize how the actualization of Iran's leadership aspirations necessitated a shift in its foreign policy realignments. Finally, and perhaps most noticeably, it neglects the fact that Iran's gravitation towards the Arab states preceded the Islamic Republic.

This article argues that Iran's Arab option did not emerge out of the ideological musings of Iran's Islamic revolutionaries, but out of Iran's new-found position as the region's preeminent power under the Shah. …

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