Former Iranian diplomatic consultant and media professional now turned academic says Israel is not the real enemy of Iran; main goal is to compete with Turkey for regional power.
Filled with a sense of trepidation, I set out on a bright autumn morning in London for a reunion of sorts with an old university friend. Far from a normal social engagement, my companion was Iranian while I have been an Israeli citizen since birth. This of course wouldn’t have presented such a problem if Farhad Shirazi (not his real name) had been one of the many Iranian dissidents living in the West and a critic of his country’s government. But in this case, not only did he live in Tehran at the time, but he was also a self-professed supporter of the Islamic Republic.
When the meeting took place late last September, tensions between Israel and Iran were not what they are at present. The threat of all-out conflict did not loom as large, and the tit-for-tat secret war of assassinations and bombings were also not common-place. But even back in September when I told friends and family what I was planning to do, they strongly advised me against it. “Far too dangerous” they said. “You haven’t seen him in years, he’s been living in Tehran all this time, he could have been recruited by Iran’s secret intelligence services or even the Revolutionary Guards.”
They had a point. As an Israeli abroad, I was potentially a “soft” target and there had been hushed rumors that the Iranians still might be planning a revenge attack for the Israeli assassination of Senior Hezbollah commander, Imad Mughniyah back in February 2008.
But despite the dangers, I persisted, determined to go ahead with the meeting. I am not sure exactly what was compelling me to do it: was it simple curiosity or a grander notion that such a meeting could serve as a small gesture towards building understanding. Whatever it was, the main question driving me was how did the regime in Iran really think and what was their real attitude towards Israel? As Shirazi had apparently risen up the ranks in the state-run media, and moved in pro-government academic and diplomatic circles, I was sure that his perspective would be especially valuable.
Indeed, he did not disappoint. The young Iranian hadn’t really changed since university and was his usual candid and controversial self, providing insights which broke with normal perceptions of Iran in the West. In recent discussions he had with high-level Iranian diplomatic officials for example, Shirazi told me that Tehran did not view Israel as its main enemy in the region. Instead they were far more concerned with the recent emergence of Turkey as a major regional competitor. In fact, Shirazi said that these officials viewed confrontation between Turkey and Iran at some point in the future as “inevitable”, regarding it as a natural return to the historic rivalry between the Persian and Ottoman empires of old.
“Ideology is merely a tool of influence for Iran”, said Shirazi. “Its not the main factor motivating its behavior on the international stage. Iran’s anti-Israel statements invoking the Holocaust do not stem from some crazy theology propagated by a couple of mad Mullahs sitting in Tehran. Instead it’s the logical result of a cold calculated policy by the political class attempting to pander and win support for Iran in the Arab world.”
At other times in our short conversation, Shirazi had a great deal to say about Israel and how its weaknesses are viewed in Iran. “The problem with Israel, is that it has no self-sustaining organic life-force. It is totally dependent on outside US military aid, and in economic terms, overly reliant on exports – mainly diamonds and a small high-tech sector. Israel has failed to integrate itself naturally into the Middle East and therefore it can never become a serious regional contender.”
But his criticism was not just reserved for Israel. He was also scathing of the systemic domestic problems facing Iran. “Iran simply does not function properly today,” said Shirazi. “It is a country beset by nepotism, corruption and mismanagement, and yet still has vast ambitions for regional power and dominance in the Middle East. At the end of the day, the only thing that really works in Iran is oil and security.”
When asked whether there were any limits to Iran’s pursuit of power and hegemony in the region, his response was at once both humorous and ominous: “Its like asking a fat kid if he wants more cake”, he replied. “There is always the desire for more”.
And so in the end my somewhat irrational fears concerning my personal safety turned out to be unfounded. On a personal level, the friendship seemed to have endured the test of time and the great political tension between our two countries throughout the years. But with the region still in turmoil, particularly in Egypt and Syria, and no end in sight to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the future relations between Israel and Iran today remains as uncertain as ever.