On 2 March 2015, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the historic chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives to tell a joint meeting of Congress that President Obama’s diplomatic initiative on the Israel-Iran conflict was bound to backfire, particularly within the context of assisting the Islamic republic to obtain nuclear weapons which would ignite a regional arms race in the Middle East (Baker par. 2). In a similar visit to the White House in 2009, the Likud’s party boss put much focus on Iran’s nuclear program and went ahead to crystallize the issue as the biggest threat to peace and stability in the region and globally (El-Khawas 31). Despite these deeply entrenched concerns about the prospects of having a nuclear-armed Iran, the knowledge that the centerpiece of President Rouhani’s regional and international policy ever since he assumed office in August 2013 has been the concerted attempt to ink a deal on the nation’s nuclear power program between the P5+1 powers (United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, France plus Germany) and Iran is in the public domain.
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Drawing from this exposition, it is evident that Israel bears a multiplicity of threat perceptions of Iran (Bahgat 518), and that it is such threat perceptions that inform the country’s general ideological framework and the political considerations been witnessed, leading to more hostility between the two countries (Menashri 108; Toukan & Cordesman 6-7). Yet, despite all the available studies on the Israel-Iran conflict, only a few have analyzed the threats posed by Iran on Israel and how these threats are perceived inside Israel (Beker 29; Eilam 11-13). More still, few studies have assessed the strategic, political, and ideological foundations that make Israel reject the ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 powers and Iran (European Council on Foreign Relations 2-3). Based on these deficits or shortcomings in important knowledge, the present paper seeks to explore the strategic, political, and ideological groundings that inform Israel’s threat perceptions of the Islamic State of Iran and their wider implications for the peace and stability of the region.
Conceptualizing the Problem
Owing to the increasing competition between Israel and Iran in terms of geostrategic interests (Salem 47), the ongoing nuclear talks between the 5+1 powers and Iran (European Council on Foreign Relations 2), the Iranian foreign policy in the Persian Gulf region under the leadership of President Hassan Rouhani (Osiewicz 249), as well as the possibility of Iran developing the nuclear capability to intimidate Israel and her allies (Byman 1), it is of immense importance for policymakers and officials to know the strategic, political, and ideological underpinnings that inform Israel’s threat perception of Iran and how these perceptions impact regional peace and stability. As the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other players embark on talks that are likely to give Iran huge concessions to dissuade it from developing a nuclear weapon, it is important to have adequate knowledge on how Israelis perceive the threats posed by Iran and how such perceptions are likely to affect the talks. The present paper aims to not only filter and explore these threat perceptions of Iran based on the prevailing strategic, political, and ideological groundings, but also delineate how the threat perceptions impact opportunities for regional peace and stability. Correspondingly, the findings of the present paper will challenge readers to understand how knowledge of these threat perceptions can be utilized to bring peace and stability not only between Israel and Iran but also regionally.
Brief History of Israel-Iran Conflict
Several scholars agree that the Israel-Iran conflict can be traced back to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which undoubtedly led to a substantial shift in the country’s foreign policy landscape as well as its engagement in the international domain. Although the new Iranian regime was forced to use more pragmatic approaches to adapt itself to newly emerging realities owing to the intricate demands of governance, the conservative faction continued to control the country’s key decision-making institutions including the security and foreign policy organs (Menashri 107). One foremost locale in which Iran’s regional and foreign policy remained extremely inflexible, according to this author, was its intrinsic hostility to Israel. In the view of the Islamic regime that assumed power immediately after the revolution, “Israel remained the enemy of Iran and Islam, and a threat to mankind” (Menashri 108). This view is reinforced in the literature by another scholar, who argues that the overthrow of the Shah and the ascent to power of the revolutionary regime catalyzed the replacement of Iran’s secular and Western-oriented elites with Shi’ia clerics who perceived the U.S. and Israel as their main enemies (Bahgat 524).
Available scholarship demonstrates that “Israel and Iran have come to view each other over the past decade as direct regional rivals, increasing the risks for regional crises leading to military conflict” (Kaye, Nader, & Roshan iii). Indeed, as postulated by these authors, the revolutionary objective was unequivocal that Israel should be annihilated based on the fact that Tehran perceived it as an illegitimate entity. Despite these threats to the survival and sovereignty of Israel, it was not until the late 1990’s that Israel’s security establishment started to consider Iran as its predominant security challenge against the backdrop of expanding Iranian missile capabilities and nuclear advances (Kaye et al x), dangerous anti-Israel rhetoric and Holocaust denials by the Iranian leadership (Brands 862; Menashri 156), as well as shifting geostrategic concerns and Iranian ideology (Osiewicz 250). Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that most Israeli policymakers and analysts perceive almost every regional threat to peace and security through the prism of Iran and the country’s shifting strategic and ideological concerns (Kaye et al ix).
Towards Understanding Israel’s Threat Perceptions of Iran
This section sheds some light on some of the possible or potential strategic, political, and theoretical groundings that may, in the view of various research studies, serve to inform Israel’s threat perceptions of the Islamic State. However, the studies consulted do not directly relate these underpinnings to the wider implications for the peace and stability of the Middle East.
There are several streams of research that have sought to demonstrate the strategic imperatives surrounding Iran’s attempt to develop nuclear capability as well as perceived geo-strategic interests; however, only a few of these studies have shown interest in demonstrating how the strategic imperatives inform Israel’s threat perceptions of Iran concerning these variables. One such study demonstrates that “Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program, and potentially a nuclear weapons capability, has particularly heightened tensions between the two nations” (Kaye et al 1). Other such studies acknowledge that many Israeli analysts, military personnel, and officials not only view the Islamic state as a radical, revolutionary force projecting hegemonic regional aspirations (Byman 1-2; Zannotti, Katzman, Gertler, & Hildreth 7 ), but also worry that nuclear capability may avail a cover that would bolster Iran and its associates, facilitate superior regional alignment with Iran, degrade U.S. influence in the region, and activate wider regional propagation that would further limit Israel’s freedom of action (Beker 29-30; Kahl, Dalton, & Irvine 5-7; Poulin 1-2; Parsl 10). Irrespective of the ongoing talks between P5+1 powers and Iran, research is consistent that most Israelis remain doubtful to varying degrees about the commitment of the Islamic state to develop nuclear energy for civilian use, particularly against the backdrop of incessant provocations of Israel by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (European Council on Foreign Relations 2).
The Iranian nuclear program, it seems, has been used as a strategy to intimidate other countries in the region including Israel. Indeed, on various occasions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has viewed Iran’s nuclear program as “the biggest threat to peace in the region” (El-Khawas 31). It is clear that the scope and nature of the Islamic State’s nuclear program have been of foremost concern to the Israeli security establishment (European Council on Foreign Relations 2), that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a substantial challenge to the United States and Israeli interests and would enhance the prospects for regional conflict (Kahl et al 5), and that Iran may at some point intentionally deploy a nuclear weapon or transfer a nuclear device to non-state actors for use against Israel if no proactive actions are taken to prevent it from making nuclear weapons (Salem 46-47; Toukan & Cordesman 3-4). To date, most Israelis believe that the ongoing serious and sustained diplomacy between the P5+1 and Iran is bound to yield too many concessions to the Islamic State and provide it with the capacity to build a nuclear weapon based on the fact that President Rouhani is merely being used as a pawn by the Supreme Leader and other hard-line Islamists.
Available scholarship demonstrates that “Iran appears to be pursuing a strategy of nuclear hedging that aims to develop a technical capability to produce nuclear weapons rapidly, should Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decide at some point to do so” (Kahl et al 9). The demonstrable strategy, according to these authors, includes the Islamic State’s renowned attempts to master the science and technology of generating nuclear fuel, as well as its overemphasis on concealed weapons-related research and the development of superior ballistic missiles. On the strategic front, Iran’s nuclear ambitions aim to progress several interests namely (1) regime survival, (2) making Iran the pre-eminent regional power in the region, (3) leading resistance to the perceived “injustices” perpetrated by “egotistical” powers, the first and foremost being the West and Israel, and (4) enhancing Iran’s specific brand of revolutionary Islamist ideology (Kahl et al 9).
In geostrategic interests, available literature demonstrates that Israel and Iran perceive each other as direct regional rivals (Kaye et al iii), that strategic pressures have increasingly moved Israel and Iran toward greater competition (Menashri 154-155), and that Iran has in the last decade amplified its anti-Israel rhetoric and is asserting its geostrategic and geopolitical interests in areas that border Israel (Menashri 109). Additionally, “Israeli analysts worry about Iran capitalizing on the unrest in the Arab world to assert its influence and point to such developments as the passing of two Iranian ships through the Suez Canal to illustrate such concerns (Kaye et al 2). Although the concerns and anxieties may be premature, it is becoming increasingly clear that the ongoing narratives are suggestive of the fact that Iran is keen to capitalize on the regional turmoil to promote its rejectionist regional agenda. For the Jewish State, Tehran’s mounting regional influence is predominantly alarming not only because it is reaching Israel’s borders in Lebanon and Gaza through its political support to Hezbollah and Hamas, but also due to its progression and persistence in acquiring nuclear weapons capability which could be used against Israel either by design or during a crisis that soars beyond the initial intentions of leaders on either side (Kaye et al 3; Menashri 157).
There are several streams of research that could be used to understand some political events and experiences that, in the view of political analysts and commentators, may inform Israel’s threat perceptions of Iran. The first stream grounds its argument on the 1979 Islamic revolution and the events that have taken place after the revolution. It is documented in the literature that, since the 1979 revolution, most Iranian political and spiritual leadership has not only adopted an uncompromising stance towards Israel but has also failed to recognize the Jewish state as a legitimate entity (Zanotti et al 9). This line of thought is supported by other researchers who acknowledge that, although the Pahlavi regime in Iran granted Israel de facto recognition and established close economic and military cooperation with the Jewish state before the 1979 revolution, the total annihilation of Israel has been the overriding political and propagandistic agenda of most post-Islamic Revolution political leaders (Bahgat 517; Osiewicz 251). Such a political disposition, according to these authors, makes Israel perceive Iran as the primary threat to peace and security in the region.
The other thread of research revolves around Iran’s association with terrorism and terrorist operations both regionally and globally. On this front, one researcher reports that “terrorism and support for violent substate movements have long been integral to Iran’s foreign policy, making it one of the most dangerous state sponsors of terrorism in the world”(Byman 1). This particular researcher further acknowledges that Iran is known to support terrorist activities not only to influence regional politics but also to deter Israel and other Western powers including the United States. A seminal report on the future of Iran in its neighborhood notes that “there is near consensus in Israel on Iran’s negative regional role, especially its support to non-state armed actors hostile to Israel such as Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as concern that Iran has outmaneuvered the west militarily and strategically in Syria” (European Policy on Foreign Relations 3). Still, many Israelis feel that Tehran could exploit the perceived protection it would gain if it developed the nuclear capability to destabilize Israel through the use of militant groups and terrorist outfits (Osiewicz 253-254).
Another line of research revolves around Iran’s preoccupation to become a regional powerhouse. Several researchers acknowledge that, upon the realization that its military and economy are weak, the regime in Tehran has taken to using intimidation and fear with the view to influencing events far from its borders (Poulin 6; Zanotti et al 2). Indeed, some political analysts are convinced that Iran uses its threat of nuclear weapons and brazen acts of terrorism as a form of a deterrent not only intended to make it immune from retaliation, but also to ensure the sustenance of its hegemonic interests in the region (Kahl et al 5). An influential report acknowledges that the Islamic State’s regional policy is “aimed at expanding Iran’s influence or so-called hegemony, in part through the use of armed proxies and terrorism” (European Council on Foreign Relations 9).
Still, another line of research scrutinizes Iran’s political and spiritual leadership as a possible driving force in informing Israel’s threat perceptions of the Islamic State. Three Iranian leaders take the frontline position in research studies advancing this line of thought – former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, current president Hassan Rouhani, and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The knowledge that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly called for the complete annihilation or destruction of Israel is in the public domain, not mentioning that the former president refused to admit that the Holocaust ever took place (Kiintzel 43). When it comes to the current president, it is documented in the literature that although Hassan Rouhani came into office in August 2013 riding on a wave of public excitement and high hopes, Israelis are skeptical to varying degrees about whether his election heralds a new moment or merely a change of window dressing (European Council on Foreign Relations 1-2).
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Although Rouhani cuts across as a far more moderate leader than his predecessor, most Israelis are still unsure about the real objective of electing such a leader in a country that is widely viewed under the prism of aggression and revolutionary tendencies. However, it is well known that “the carefully managed vetting process of Iranian elections means that no candidate can stray too far from the confines set by the Supreme Leader, who controls the key security and foreign policy organs” (European Council on Foreign Relations 2). This implies that the election of Rouhani is most likely perceived inside Israel either as a mere cosmetic exercise that does not subscribe to the notion that the current president might constitute a departure from Ahmadinejad’s legacy (Osiewicz 255) or as a new beginning of managed reform and new directions both in Iran and regionally (European Council on Foreign Relations 2-3).
The ideological underpinnings can be analyzed from two fronts, namely religion, and indoctrination. The religion front traces its origin to the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran at the height of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In what historians and political analysts view as a decisive attempt to draw a distinction between Judaism on one hand and Israel and Zionism on the other hand, the spiritual leader assured Iranian Jews that they had nothing to worry about from the Islamic revolution and that they could live and worship in Iran in a much better manner than under the Shah (Bahgat 521). Additionally, Iran has been known for not only enhancing its particular brand of revolutionary Islamist ideology which aims to assert leadership in the wider Islamic world and expand the country’s regional influence (Kahl et al 9) but also for supporting a confrontational foreign policy engineered by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini (Rasmussen 2).
Further afield, the indoctrination question remains paramount as one which may inform Israel’s threat perceptions of Iran. It should be recalled that “when the Islamic Republic was born in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini declared that Iran should try hard to export [its] revolution to the world” (Byman 2). This initial objective, according to this particular author, remains entrenched in the Islamic State’s constitution and the charter documents of important organizations including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), elite military and paramilitary outfit in charge of many of Tehran’s undercover relationships with terrorist groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. The indoctrination ideological policy, according to several researchers, is meant to give Iran a subversive threat which it uses to press its regional neighbors to distance themselves from Israel and her allies including the United States (Poulin 6; Rasmussen 4-5).
From the findings of this paper, it is evident that few studies have analyzed the threats posed by Iran on Israel and how these threats are perceived inside Israel. Additionally, although there is evidence of some studies which have evaluated the strategic, political, and ideological foundations that inform Israel’s threat perceptions of Iran, the presentation appears largely fragmented to inform future policy directions. More still, only a few studies appear to have made a direct link between the threat perceptions and the wider implications for the peace and stability of the region, albeit in a rather subtle and understated manner. Consequently, this paper exposes a research gap that needs to be filled so that analysts can understand how these threat perceptions can be better used to bring peace and stability in the Middle East.
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