The pro Israel banner in Iran
The pro Israel banner in IranIran international

Reza Parchizadeh, PhD,is a political theorist, security analyst and cultural critic. He is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

The relations between Israel and Imperial Iran were friendly but far from smooth. The Shah, who never officially recognized the Jewish State, pursued what could be called a policy of “intentional ambivalence” towards Israel. Based on that approach, Tehran kept a close security relationship with Jerusalem, but avoided acknowledging so lest it should stir up domestic opposition and perturb Iran’s Arab neighbors.

Nevertheless, the two sides closely cooperated to contain Nasserism, Pan-Arabism, and Arab radicalism during the 1960s. When the debacle of the 1967 Six-Day War and the subsequent 1968 Ba’ath coup in Iraq shifted the nexus of Arab radicalism to Baghdad, the Mossad and the SAVAK, the Shah’s security service, jointly conducted a proxy war against Baghdad in the Iraqi Kurdistan that effectively paralyzed the Ba’ath regime and led to its suing for peace with Iran in 1975.

Nevertheless, the Ba’ath remained the greatest post-Nasser existential threat to Israel. Saddam Hussein became the most ardent proponent of the PLO after Egypt and Jordan had mostly ceased supporting it. In the late 1970s, Baghdad began developing the notorious Osirak nuclear plant to counter Israel and Iran. Later, during the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq became the only Arab nation to openly attack Israel (with Al Hussein ballistic missiles) since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

That is why Israel initially overlooked the emerging threat of Islamism, spearheaded by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, to concentrate on the established threats of Ba’athism and Arab radicalism. As such, in the 1980s Jerusalem was more concerned about Baghdad than Tehran. Throughout the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Israel, either directly or as an American surrogate, would supply Iran with all kinds of arms and equipment to prevent the Ba’ath from coming out on top.

But even in the 1990s when Iraq became isolated due to its invasion of Kuwait, and then following the fall of Saddam in the mid-2000s the regional geopolitical landscape started to shift in favor of Iran, Israel remained rather dormant. In the face of the Islamists’ rising antisemitic and anti-Israeli rhetoric and acts, Israel satisfied itself with conducting limited sabotage operations against Tehran’s military and nuclear facilities, assassination of the Revolutionary Guards commanders, and air raids against Iranian regime’s proxies. For over two decades, despite Jerusalem’s impassioned war of words against Tehran, nothing really significant happened.

The October 7 Hamas massacre, otherwise known as “Israel’s 9/11”, came as a rude awakening. The heinous terrorist attacks that deliberately targeted Israeli civilians were openly supported by the Iranian regime and possibly even planned and partly executed by the IRGC. The attacks fully demonstrated that if the Islamists were allowed to have their own way, they would make good on their constant call to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. This came as a wake-up call to Jerusalem that the era of small operations and “the war between the wars” was over, and that the confrontation with Islamists has entered a new, much more dangerous phase.

Israel needs a paradigm shift towards Iran. Jerusalem must stop prevaricating and instead focus on eliminating the single most fundamental threat to Israel’s existence today, which is the Islamist regime in Tehran. It is obvious that Israel cannot remove the Iranian regime on its own. In addition to concentrating its intelligence and military efforts to pin down the regime inside and outside of Iran, Israel must embark on a wide-ranging political campaign to convince the regional and global actors, most important of all the United States, that ousting Islamists will serve their long-term best interests.

Arabs and other immediate Iranian neighbors are perennially concerned about the continuity of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Their fear is grounded in reality, as they have seen the change of regime from nationalist to Islamist did not make a dent in Tehran’s appetite for imperialism. Arabs are worried that the future regime might take up the mantle of the previous ones and continue Tehran’s longstanding trend of interventionism in the region. For a successful regime change to occur, Jerusalem needs to allay this fear by assuring Arabs that an ultranationalist, racist and revanchist regime for the future of Iran is out of the picture.

Due to war and civil unrest in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East, the EU is currently overwhelmed by the influx of immigrants and refugees. In case of a regime change in Iran, one potential scenario involving ethnic tension and sectarian violence can lead to civil war and spillover of conflict to the region and beyond. That will mean a dramatic increase in the number of refugees and an exacerbation of the fragile security situation in Europe. Jerusalem needs to persuade Brussels that its vision for a regime change in Iran circumvents a civil war.

For the US, Iran is an asset in the global conflict between the West and the East. Russia and China crave the Middle East. An effective regime change in Iran can foil their designs. But the caveat is, if during the process the country collapses and disintegrates into smaller states, this can actually play into the hands of Moscow and Beijing. Both, especially the former, are experts at making failed states and dealing with petty states, playing them off against one another and eventually against the interests of the U.S. and its regional allies. Jerusalem must reassure Washington that Iran can be delivered to the West in one piece so that it can continue to act as a bulwark against Russo-Chinese designs on the Middle East.

Last but not least, Israel needs to convince the people of Iran that it will ensure a transition to liberal democracy following the fall of Islamists. A stable democracy in Tehran is actually in the best interest of Jerusalem, as it enshrines Iran in the same U.S.-led liberal order that created and upholds modern Israel. The alternative to this, a purported pro-Israel dictatorship composed of the elements of the present and the previous regimes that some promote, will no doubt alienate the Iranian people and lead them to blame Israel for the evils of the autocracy, just as it happened during the reign of the Shah.