ISRAEL AND IRAN HAVE MUCH IN COMMON
This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), October 2, 2008, who distributed it with permission to publish.
On its 60th anniversary, Israel is still concerned about survival. Even with nuclear weapons and the strongest military in the Middle East, the Jewish state remains anxious. Iranian leaders are similarly concerned about the future of their administrations, even as the country approaches the 30th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution.
Israel fears any potential threat, whether it comes from Hamas, Hezbollah, or political Islamic groups. Israel also has begun to fear its shifting demographics, where birth rates are significantly higher among Palestinians than Jews. But above all, Israel perceives a threat from Iran.
In a similar vein, Iran is threatened by an outside force that would roll back its revolution. The religious conservatives in Iran are resistant to perceived reformists, which at various times have been supported by the United States, and stands alone as one of the only Shia majority countries in the region.
Yet the conservatives of Iran, heirs to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, also face the possibility of seeing their regime replaced by the followers of former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami.
Iran and Israel share a sense of isolation: Israel is comprised of an ethnic and religious minority (Jewish) in a largely Arab and Muslim Middle East. Likewise, Iran’s government is an ethno-religious minority (Shi’a Persians) surrounded by Sunni countries.
Few know that Iran is home to the largest number of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel. There are 80 synagogues (11 of them in Tehran), many with Hebrew schools. And over 25,000 Jews, most of whom are determined to remain, because they are as proud of their Iranian culture as they are of their Jewish roots. Iran and Israel should stop writing the narrative of the other as “enemy”. Ahmadinejad is perceived by Israel as a threat, while Israel’s extremists believe that the world’s evil emanates from Iran.
These views are too black and white, and too polarising. Both are spreading fear to their people when indeed they should be promoting solidarity, first by turning down the aggressive rhetoric. The countries should work to build better communication between their societies, so that the two peoples might find a common ground of understanding.
The Iranian people are less concerned with the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad than they are with the country’s pressing domestic issues. In his latest statement, Hasan Rouhani, Khatami’s security advisor, strongly criticised Ahmadinejad’s policies, and attacked him for “destroying the dignity of Persian people as well as making them poor.” These criticisms are likely to become more frequent as the presidential election in Iran approaches in June 2009.
The economy is now the Iranian people’s top priority, not Palestine. The younger generations of Iran and Israel, who are looking toward a better future, do not support the drum beats of war.
They would only lead to a war that would destroy countries and stifle development throughout the Middle East. No country can win, but all countries stand to lose.
What can save Israel and Iran from destroying each other? Only the seeds of peace lying dormant in both countries. These seeds lie in the Iranian and Israeli people. They need to be cultivated with civil society exchanges ˆ between students and intellectuals, scientists, doctors, engineers, university professors, and even clerics ˆ where both sides share their experiences in fighting common challenges.
Leaders in both countries need to care for these seeds so they can spread and grow. This is the role for those who want to save their people and heritage while building a future for the next generation.
*Anthony Zeitouni (<mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>email@example.com) is a Washington-based conflict resolution researcher.