How serious is the animosity between Israel and Iran?

Sunday 25/12/2016
Iranian demonstrators raise their fists while holding an anti-Israeli placard and posters showing late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini and Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock in an annual rally marking Al-Quds Day in Tehran, last July. (AP)

London - The Israeli government confirmed that it was aware that Iran had a 4.5% stake — which could pay Tehran tens of mil­lions of dollars in dividends — in ThyssenKrupp, a German firm that is selling submarines to Tel Aviv.
“We have known Iran was a shareholder in the German com­pany since 2004,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said, adding that Israel “had no other al­ternatives”.
The revelations that the state-owned Iran Foreign Investment Company (IFIC) has shares in a Ger­man company that has supplied the Israeli Navy with ships and subma­rines sparked controversy in Israel.
Critics of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused him of seeking to make personal profit from the deal while undermining Israel’s security and breaking Is­raeli law, which bans “trading with the enemy”. The German company is represented in Israel by Netan­yahu’s personal lawyer.
Israel’s Finance Ministry said that the deal does not break Israeli law as Iranian investment in Thyssen­Krupp is too small. Israeli Defence Ministry officials said the German company assured Tel Aviv that Iran did not have access to sensitive in­formation on the submarines.
The episode nevertheless has been embarrassing for Netanyahu, who is a vocal critic of internation­al dealings with Iran, most notably the nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers. Is­raeli arms dealers previously sold military equipment to Iran but such deals are not publicly state-sanctioned.
Netanyahu has at times been at odds with his own defence estab­lishment, which does not share his view regarding the level of threat Iran poses to Israel. Some analysts say Netanyahu’s anti-Iran rhetoric is motivated more by political gains than genuine security fears, as it would distract attention from the occupied Palestinian territories.
They argue that Iran and its prox­ies in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen also exaggerate their animosity towards Israel as that would serve their local and regional interests.
“Iran’s rhetoric against Israel is often for local or regional con­sumption. They use the plight of the Palestinians, who are Sunnis, to hide their sectarian agendas in the Middle East,” said Ghassan Ibrahim, a London-based Syrian analyst.
“Take for example Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s al-Quds (Jerusalem) Force, who is involved in battles in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere but never set foot in Jerusalem,” he added.
“The same could be applied, to a large extent, to Hezbollah. The militant group now dominates Leb­anon in the name of ‘resistance’ against Israel but it is Hezbollah that is making sure that Israel’s bor­ders are not being attacked from anyone in Lebanon.”
Patrick Hilsman, a New York-based journalist who has reported from Syria, said the hostile rheto­ric from Iran, Assad and Hezbollah against Israel cannot be taken seri­ously because all three parties, with the exception of Hezbollah in 2006, have long been avoiding large-scale direct conflict with Israel.
The Syrian regime with the tacit blessing of Iran and Hezbollah has been building stronger relations with Cairo to secure Egyptian sup­port to quash the Syrian rebellion. “If they really cared about Pales­tinians, they would have pressed Egypt, which enjoys good ties with Israel, to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza,” said Hilsman.
Mohammed Mohsen Abo El- Nour, an Egyptian researcher who specialises in Iranian affairs, ruled out any military conflict between Iran and Israel. “For purely geopo­litical reasons, the two sides (Israel and Iran) do not pose an existential threat towards each other, as they do not share borders,” he said.
Abo El-Nour said the two sides enjoyed strong bilateral relations before the 1979 Islamic revolution but added that even when Iran’s former supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini took power and sided with the Palestinians, Israel and Iran have never been involved in direct wars against each other.
Iran was at war with Iraq in the 1980s and Israel bombed Iraq early in that decade but neither Tehran nor Tel Aviv were fighting each oth­er, said Abo El-Nour. “Add to that the Iran-Contra scandal,” in the mid-1980s in which Israeli weap­ons were purchased by Iran to fight Iraq, he said.
Mahan Abedin, an Iranian ana­lyst based in London, said that, although Israel and Iran seek to avoid direct clashes, there is strong enmity between them.
“The Israelis struggle to under­stand Iran’s anti-Israel ideology be­cause geopolitically the two coun­tries should not be foes but the Iranian leadership is ideologically committed to Israel’s destruction,” said Abedin.
“Otherwise the Iranians wouldn’t have pursued costly regional poli­cies, such as supporting militant Palestinian and Lebanese groups, which also invited the wrath of the United States, resulting in sanc­tions. If they didn’t believe in it why pay such a high price?”
“Iran needs to be seen to be reaching out to Arab Sunnis,” said Abedin. “That’s why (Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei met with representatives of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad in the midst of Aleppo battle.”
Omair Anas, a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Af­fairs, said Iranian-Israeli relations may become less hostile after the departure of Khamenei. “Relations may mature once the new supreme leader is elected and if the exist­ing Western-educated executive of (President) Hassan Rohani and (Foreign Minister) Mohammad Ja­vad Zarif remain popular.”