Iran and Israel compete to influence the region

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

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This year, the United Nations General Assembly seems to have rattled one of America’s closest allies - Israel. The exchange between the American and Iranian presidents, the pleasantries between other government officials, the high–level meetings between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and the signs of U.S.-Iran rapprochement have worked to infuriate Tel Aviv and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has subsequently rigorously accused Tehran of enriching uranium to obtain a nuclear bomb.

While Iranian leaders have repeatedly pointed out that uranium enrichment is a legal right according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that the country’s nuclear ambitions are peaceful, Netanyahu used his speech at the General Assembly this week mainly to address Tehran’s nuclear defiance, the Iran-West stand off, and to express his infuriation about the signs of American-Iranian rapprochement.

As Israel boycotted President Rowhani’s speeches in the previous week, causing Israeli leaders to not attend Rowhani’s talks at all, Iranian leaders chose to respond to Israel by leaving their seats vacant at Netanyahu’s appearance.

Netanyahu clearly laid out his position on the softening of Rowhani’s tone and his adoption of a charm offensive by stating, “I wish I could believe Rowhani, but I don’t,” adding, “because facts are stubborn things and the facts are that Iran’s savage record flatly contradicts Rowhani’s soothing rhetoric.”

Stark contrast: competition to influence the region

The speeches given by Rowhani and Netanyahu at the U.N. General Assembly stood in a complete contrast. While Rowhani attempted to use more conciliatory language and tone by avoiding saying “Israel” or “Netanyahu,” stayed away from antagonizing the West, and kept a slight smile while delivering his speech, Netnyahu took a more serious route, using a lot of sarcasm in his speech, rarely smiling, trying to show negative aspects and repercussions of action, and using Rowhani’s name 25 times in his speech.

The economic austerity, the regional and international isolation that Iran is facing, is unprecedented. These economic challenges have justified Tehran’s political actions

Majid Rafizadeh

As his speech was broadcasted live in Israel, Netanyahu used the podium at the U.N. General Assembly not only to address the United States and the West’s potential mending of diplomatic relationships and the easing of sanctions with Iran, but also to satisfy his constituents, supporters, and audience in Israel.

For the Netanyahu government, the very reasons that Rowhani was allowed to run for office by Iran’s Guardian Council later became apparent, and the purpose of Rowhani’s charm offensive are to alleviate the economic sanctions placed on Iran.

Labeling a potentially nuclear-armed Iran as a nation 50 times worse than North Korea, and likening Iran’s behavior to that of Europe’s fascist dictatorships of the 20th century, Netanyahu pointed to Tehran’s attempts to ease the sanctions as Rowhani “think[ing] he can have his yellowcake and eat it too.” He added: they’ve all served that same unforgiving creed, that same unforgiving regime.”

The economic austerity, the regional and international isolation that Iran is facing, is unprecedented. These economic challenges have justified Tehran’s political actions to reach out to the West and the United States. Economically speaking, Tehran’s oil exports and sales, which were around 2.5 million barrels a day in 2009, have plummeted down to less than a million barrels a day. The inflation has spiked significantly, the value of Iran’s currency, the Rial has devaluated from 9000 Rial per dollar to almost 31000 Rial to a dollar. The discontent among Iranian youth, which roughly constitutes the majority of the population at more than 55%, has increased. These factors are even endangering the power of the ayatollahs and ruling clerics in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Tehran is now enriching uranium at 20% purity, considered to be a relatively technical short step away from obtaining weapons-grade material and arms. As a result, for Tel Aviv, Rowhani’s charm offensive is just another strategy and tactic to buy time and become a nuclear power.

Balance of power and future prospective

However, looking deeper into the issue, the Netanyahu government seems to be more concerned with maintaining the regional balance of power, rather than being concerned about the domestic politics and economic situation of Iran. Reportedly, Tel Aviv has more than 200 hundred nuclear warheads, and is considered the closest ally of the United States in the region. Any kind of rapprochement and reparation of relations between Iran and the United States (and its allies), will work to alter this regional balance of power against Tel Aviv. After all, when the Shah of Iran was considered the closest ally of the United States in the Middle East and labeled as the Gendarme of the region, the U.S. and the West did not need to rely solely on Israel, as they had another powerful partner in the region.

Both contrastingly and similarly, Rowhani and Netanyahu used the U.N. General Assembly podium as point of competition to have greater geopolitical influence in the Middle East, gain the attention of the United States, and to impose their version and narrative on major issues.

Whether Netanyahu’s speech will impact the American-Iranian diplomatic outreach and Iran’s attempts to mend ties with the West still remains to be seen. This will primarily depend on Tehran’s next step with regards to its nuclear program and enrichment of uranium. Iran and Israel will surely keep competing, Rowhani will try to get the attention of the U.S. and West through conciliatory language and Israel will definitely keep urging President Obama and the international community to step up sanctions on Iran to push Rowhani’s government to offer immediate concessions by suspending sensitive nuclear projects.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington, DC.

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