With a new “Iran deal” in the works (though whether it will come to be is impossible to say), we turned for this week’s podcast to my colleague at Shalem College, Colonel Dr. Eran Lerman, to ask a basic question that most of us can’t answer: “Why does Iran hate Israel with such intensity?” It’s not borders—we don’t share one. It’s not oil. It’s not water. It’s not being a Muslim country—look at the UAE, Bahrain and others.
So what is it? Why is Iran so committed to Israel’s destruction?
No one is better positioned to explain that than Dr. Lerman. Dr. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, prior to which he held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for over 20 years.
The link above will take you to our conversation, being made available today, along with a transcript for those who prefer to read.
There's a monument to the Israeli - Iranian friendship in Israel. It's 200 km long and it leaks from time to time. It's called the Eilat- Ashkelon Pipeline, and it was built to carry Iranian crude to the Mediterranean. So that gives you a sense of just how good [the relationship] was once upon a time.
It was once very good, and now it's, of course, very bad. But I think many people don't understand why is it so bad? Because we don't share a border with them. We don't really have any security issues with them. It's not a water issue, it's not an oil issue, it's an ideological issue. People understand that. But beyond that, many people don't understand it. Given the fact that Iran's back in the news and the fact that there's nobody better to explain this from an Islamic Iranian perspective to help us understand how they see the world- you’re the guy. So, thank you very much, first of all, for taking the time to have this conversation today. And let's dive right in. Why is Iran so absolutely committed, at least so they say, to Israel’s destruction?
Thank you for all these compliments, which I barely deserve. But let's get into it. Clearly, Israel has not taken a sheep from the Iranian people. We have no border issues, we are not economic competitors, there's no strategic reason. This is where the wisdom of realists come with us because Iran should not be an enemy of Israel under any realistic scheme of things. It is driven here by ideology. Ideas matters, identity matters. And this is a combination, a very lethal combination of aspects of the ideology of the present Iranian regime and the identity of the Persians, the Iranian people, historically, from the 15th, 16th century onwards, as the Shia standout in a largely Sunni Muslim world. And the combination is lethal because it generates a sense of mission. So let me walk this through step by step. The revolution in 1979 which brought Khomeini, back from his exile in Paris to power in Iran was the product of a hybrid idea which we see elsewhere also in the Sunni world. You see the imprint of modern totalitarian ideology, politics, the promise of a revolutionary change in the way the world works, in the existing international order, in the social and human conditions. The promise of a revolution through political means, which we saw in the red Bolshevik version. We saw the brown fascists and the black Nazi versions, totalitarian modern totalitarian movements that transform their countries, some would say to catastrophic results, clearly. But this was a very powerful influence on a certain generation, a certain class of thinkers in Muslim countries from the late 1920s onwards. And there were Sunni versions. The Muslim Brotherhood. Jamaat-e-Islami in India and later Pakistan. But in the case of Iran, there was an added dimension. And here we are talking about ideas such as those of Frantz Fanon, the French Caribbean officer, who basically crossed the lines and joined the Algerian rebellion, and then became a major intellectual influence. He writes about the wretched of the earth, how the world is divided between masters and people who are formerly their enslaved populations. In his case, he speaks clearly also about people of color, and in the case of the Shia story, it was not difficult for this to be absorbed into a worldview fed by hundreds of years of grievance in which the Iranians and others Shia look at the history of Islam.
Therefore, in the history of the world is something that has gone catastrophically wrong. Now, that's an idea we Jews can understand. For 2,000 years, we were in the wrong end of history. Sunnis are born to believe that the good guys won. Shias are bred to believe that the good guys lost in the great battle in the 7th century.
It actually is family and politics. The son in law of the Prophet Ali, therefore the father of the Prophet's grandchildren, known as Hussain. He was a caliph for a while until he was overthrown. And the belief of the Shia is that the line of the succession should have gone to him first, not third, and that he should have been always not only the caliphate, but to have to pass this on to his inheritance in the line of the family of the Prophet. And for the Shia, Ali is almost at the same level of holiness and importance as Prophet himself. And they believe that the fact that he was defeated and killed and then his sons, which rose against the new governing dynasty, were slaughtered in the battle of Karbala, most Shia believe that there was a succession of living descendants of the Prophet Ali who were leaders, even if they were hunted and if they were in hiding, but they were still the true leaders of the world.
There's a streak of messianic thought that is not unfamiliar to us in the Jewish tradition, Christian tradition. It exists very strongly in the Shia tradition, as opposed to the Sunni version, which basically sanctifies in retrospect what already happened, what actually happened. You cannot swear my nation to support a mistake. So, by definition, what happened was not a mistake. What happened was the true path that is the Sunni way. That's the basic origin of the Sunni- Shia divide. And why in the Shia way of looking at history, there's this inbred sense of a grievance that one day will be put to right. Now, combine this with the elements of modern ideology and the totalitarian state, and the manner of Khomeini in his exile in France, basically incorporates the sense of cosmic grievance of the wretched, where's the sheer tradition of a vision of a new world to come. And you have the making of a very lethal hybrid of totalitarianism in politics and a religious identity.
How does Israel, of all things, fit into this whole picture?
Okay, what happens is Iran and the Shah, of course, was Israel's friend. The enemy, the common enemy, was Arab socialist nationalism, let's not take it a step too far, but basically Nassar in Egypt, the Ba’ath in Syria, and pan- Arabism, the idea that the Arab world could be united under a revolutionary, secular, revolutionary leadership. Israel would be conquered in the process and others in the margins of the region would be subject to Arab hegemony in one way or the other.
Interestingly enough, in the late 50s, Ben-Gurion cooks up an alliance called Trident of Israel and Turkey as a secular country at the time, a secular republic, and the two monarchies, Iran under the Shah and Ethiopia still under the emperor. And at the time this was all to contain Arab hostility.
But from the 1970s onwards, we are seeing a turnaround. The most important Arab Sunni country, Egypt, signs a peace treaty with Israel. In 1994, so did Jordan.
Three things happen in 1979. There's a peace treaty with Egypt in March and then the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which also changes the way everyone looks at the place of the Muslim world in the context of the Cold War. So put all these things together and the Iranian position is essentially look, all these Sunni regimes, all these semi secularized nations which raised the flag of revolution, but not a true religious revolution they failed and laid down their flags and surrendered to the existence of Israel. Which to them is a regime imposed from the outside by the international order. By the Americans. By some Jewish Zionist conspiracy. But it is not a real nation, it is not a real people. It is all in piece of fiction, but it is part of the post 45 international order, and we are still in the game of destroying Israel and destroying this order, while the Sunnis have faltered and surrendered and failed. Now, the tragic aspect of this is that by now, 43 years after the revolution, the almost only legitimizing factors that remain for the Iranian revolution is this being in the business of destroying Israel and the nuclear quest because everything else went wrong.
When Khomeini came to power, Iran was significantly richer than its neighbor Turkey, which has roughly the same population. So, GDP and GDP per capita works the same way. Just a comparison. Turkey was distinctly poorer, it is now distinctly richer than Iran, and the average Turk is richer than the average Iranian. The idea that the revolution will bring purity, what it brought is corruption, concentration of control of industrial and other businesses in the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, there's prostitution, drugs, huge economic disadvantages. Instead of delivering for the Iranian people, the revolution basically impoverished their lives. Many Iranians know it. So, the one legitimizing factor for the regime is we are defined the international order. I know we are suffering, but one day all this suffering will be vindicated. When? Well, when we are a nuclear power, when we are a power to reckon with in the region, hegemonic power in the region and when we will be those who would lead to the liberation of Jerusalem and the destruction or the collapse and destruction of the Zionist entity.
I have two questions about that because it's fascinating. So, one question is whether or not it's working on the street? In other words, the average Iranian, does she or he walk me down the street saying, “Oh yeah, this regime is about wiping out Israel and I care about that”. Or do they kind of roll their eyes and think this regime makes a big deal about that, but obviously what I care about is putting food on the table and raising my kids and so forth. Where's the Iranian people on this?
Well, I think we have evidence from the demonstrations in recent years that for many reasons it's very difficult to do any effective survey in the country. But Iran does have a civil society of sorts that is still from time-to-time emitting signs of life. And we've had significant demonstrations against the regime, particularly in 2019. And you hear sometimes very brutal slogans against the Palestinians about why are we paying this price, why are we suffering because of an enemy to Israel which is not in our interest? Why are we sending so much money to Hezbollah and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and so on? There was even one case in which a very brave soul hanged an Israeli flag on a bridge in Tehran. But basically, I think that I don't want to speculate about the poor working class which are completely stuck in caring about having some food for tomorrow. I'm not even talking about chicken. Chicken is a fantasy, but bread. I think there's a lot of skepticism about all this propaganda of the regime. Clearly there is a pro American sentiment among many Iranians. We saw this after 9/11, for example, totally contrary to the forced marches of demonstrators organized by the regime and its tools besieged the volunteer young people of the IRGC. I hope and I believe that if the regime goes one day and it will not be a linear thing, it will happen probably in the way we saw in other places where solid all of a sudden becomes some of the Russian communist dictatorship, like Mubarak's dictatorship, etc.
Now let's turn to the current perhaps revival of the Iran deal before we get to whether it's good for Israel, bad for Israel. I just want to stay inside the head of the Iranian leadership for a second and ask you, if one of the keys to their still promoting the essential nature of the revolution and if their leadership is taking over the world order and destroying Israel in the process, why isn't making a deal with the Americans of all people and lessening the battle with Israel as a result, in theory at least, why doesn't that undermine their ideological legitimacy? Why doesn't that put them in the category of the Sunnis who've also capitulated?
Well, because they don't feel they have capitulated. They feel that the west has accepted their terms. This was true in 2015 when they were able to force the international community to accept the ongoing uranium enrichment on a fairly large scale as part of the ongoing mission for Iran to basically sustain a program that everyone knew was a military problem. They got the six negotiating powers to agree not to sign because it's not a signed paper. But they have managed to get them to agree to a text that begins with the bold assertion of a lie, which is that this is a civilian project. It's not, it has never been a civilian. Even its size is clearly the size of a military project. As I used to say, it's not a cat, it's not an elephant, it's a horse. It's a warhorse. And it was always built as a warhorse. And they got the west to basically desist from many things. Nobody pursued the hints about their previous military, possible military activities, so called a PMD file, possible military dimension. They had immense sanctions relief and they were not required to give up the project. They were basically asked to delay it. And they did delay it. If you think in terms of Persian history, what are, ten years, right? So, from their point of view, this was not a capitulation. And there's an interesting question as whether they are now going to accept what the west is hoping for, for example, that the IAEA International Atomic Energy Agency will actually be allowed to continue to conduct its investigation into the PMD. And the Iranians are saying, no, we didn't agree to that. So, I'm not yet sure if this is not going to fall apart at the last moment over the internal inherent contradictions between Western expectations in Iranian. The Iranian consensus is they are not capitulating. The west is capitulating.
And do you agree with that? That this is a capitulation of the west before an Iranian totalitarian murderous regime?
To a large extent, I would say that given the leverage, the immense leverage of the west, given the total disproportion of power, Iran could have been coerced into a much more demanding agreement or arrangement, whether it was in 2015 or not.
And the reason the west is not doing that?
Because the determinant is of course the American position and the United States is unwilling to even contemplate another military confrontation. And without a CMT, as I call it, credible military threat, there will be no resolution of the PMD and other aspects of the Iranian project without and this is where Israel comes in, we have been willing to project a credible threat going back to 2010. In fact, I don't think that there would have been the UN security passion resolution sanctioning Iran, UNSCR 1929. This would not have passed the way it did if it wasn't for Israel.
If you listen to what Lapid and Kochavi said, specifically on August 8 just now after the fighting died down with the Iranian proxy in Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Iran, they said let all our enemies sit up and take notice. From Tehran to Khan Yunis, we will take preventive action when we see fit. Now, this ties to also the threats of another Iranian proxy, Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah and Lebanon to attack the Israeli gas extraction facilities in the eastern Mediterranean, but it extends all the way to Tehran. Without a credible military threat, Western diplomacy is powerless to stop the Iranians from dictating their terms. And we are looking at an agreement or a deal that would leave very limited time until Iran is free to enlarge its uranium enrichment level, so that the breakout time for the bomb would be practically zero weeks. And that's a very dangerous.
Now what about the people who say, “Yes, the breakout time would be eliminated almost entirely, et cetera, but Iranians are rational human beings at the end of the day, and they know that Israel has second strike capacity.” They know that maybe other countries would come to Israel's defense if Israel was struck first. In other words, that to strike at Israel is to basically commit suicide as Iran. And therefore, they say, despite all the bluster and maybe even the ideological integrity, if you want to call it that, they just wouldn't do it because they know it's the end of the day for them. Do you buy that?
Well, that's literally a MAD perspective. Mutual assured destruction. It's basically the notion that nuclear Iran can be contained. By the way, even President Obama, loud and clear with his own voice, said no containment. Biden says the same. There's a reason MAD sounds intellectually stable. American people tend to forget that if it wasn't for a certain Comrade Petrov on duty one night in 1983, we wouldn't be here because he figured out that this image that he received from the Soviet systems of an American launch against the Soviet Union was a mistake and not the real thing. Otherwise, it was actually his duty to push the button. He didn't. He was actually even reprimanded for that. But that tells you that MAD is an extremely unstable condition, even with rational players like the Soviet Union and the United States. Let’s simply assume a different scenario. And here I'm relying on a bit of imagery from George Owell, which is a story I read in high school and stayed with me called “Shooting an Elephant.”
There was a colonial officer in Burmese village, the only Englishman there and the only one with a gun. And a rogue elephant had broken into the village and trampled a couple of people. By the time the officer arrives there with his gun, the elephant is completely docile. It's not going to do anything, but the entire village is standing behind him. He has the gun. You can see where this leads to. Now let's assume the situation emerges in Lebanon, in Gaza, in the West Bank that forces Israel to take massive military action. We are the rogue elephant, but now the Iranians are the one who has the gun. They've made the world know that they actually have it, and now the village gathers behind them, prodding them to action. How stable is a situation like this going to be? So, you don't need to assume madness in that sense, right? To see that a MAD relationship with a country like Iran is going to be extremely unstable. Moreover, living under the constant threat of Iranian proxies, firing us at us under the umbrella of an Iranian nuclear deterrent is a nightmare that no Israeli wants to live under.
So obviously you think that it's in Israel's interest for this deal not to go through?
Or for this deal to be much more robust. Also, I think most Israelis failed to see why the United States and its European allies, leave aside Russia and China, which have gone off in their own directions, but why should a combination of such economic and strategic and military power succumb to the whims of a regime that has failed its own people and has no real leverage beyond the sheer violence that they are willing to use? It's very difficult for us to accept. It is, to some extent, I think, a reflection of fatigue with the long wars that has set in American society.
Let’s assume that it does go through. And let's assume that it's not much more robust than it is now. It's some version of what it looks like now. Let's assume that it goes through. Israel's response should be just very quietly to prepare for the day where it needs to be able to have a military option, among other things?
It must make it very clear to the American administration at the highest level that we will not abide by this agreement. And if it has a clause, as did the JCPOA of 2015 that forbids action against Iranian nuclear infrastructure, we are not going to abide by it one way or the other. Whether we take action against their scientists or against their facilities or one day against their bomb production, military site, whatever, we must retain our freedom of action and we must distance ourselves from this text. It's an aspect of the present policy of Israel that is distinct from that of the previous government that they're doing their best not to give this a political overtime. Bibi made it easy for Obama to castigate his position as some kind of pro- Republican intervention in American politics, regardless of its content. And that was, of course, for many people, including many good Jewish friends of ours, as you may made very clear in your book, this was something that they found very hard to swallow. I remember a conversation I had with good friends, and I said “Look, if you think that Obama is right and we are wrong and this would stop the Iranians then let's have a serious discussion. But if you're just telling us that you don't offend an American president, then you've learned nothing from Roosevelt's abandonment of the Jews during the war.” But at the end of the day, this government in Israel is trying to conduct the conversation from the same substantive position. There is no daylight between Lapid, Gantz, Kochavi and Netanyahu on the question of the danger of a bad deal, but they're doing their best not to make it look as if they are lining up with one side of American politics against the other. Whether this would do us any good, I don't know. For one thing, I think Israel is fully entitled to make it crystal clear to America, to the world and to the Iranians that this agreement will not bind our hands in any way.
Dr. Eran Lerman is also one of the founders and Editor-in-Chief of the The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune. JST is a relatively new publication started by Dr. Lerman and Ahmed Charai, a Moroccan publisher and Mideast policy advisor. It is a US based journal showcasing both American and Israeli viewpoints that reflects Israel’s relationship with the wider Arab world….
Music credits: Medieval poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. Melody and performance by Shaked Jehuda and Eyal Gesundheit. Production by Eyal Gesundheit. To view a video of their performance, see this YouTube:
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