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It's time for Iran and Israel to talk

It's time for Iran and Israel to talk

It's an unlikely scenario but Tel Aviv and Tehran will have to come to a modicum of co-existence at some point before all out war breaks out

Analysis | Middle East

The tit-for-tat strikes between Iran and Israel wrapped up, for now, on April 19 with Israel hitting Iranian targets around the city of Isfahan, with no casualties — just like the Iranian strike on Israel on April 14, which, in turn, was a response to an earlier Israeli bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, with seven Iranian military officers killed.

That both Israel and Iran seemed to message their preference for de-escalation at this point is encouraging. However, the conditions for a re-escalation remain in place. Iran’s proxies in Syria and Lebanon keep posing a strategic security challenge for Israel. However, simply returning to the status-quo prior to April 1, when Israel bombed hostile targets at will (including the Iranian consulate in Syria) would no longer be tolerable for Tehran as it would violate the “new equation described by IRGC commander Hossein Salami after the strike on Israel, namely, that henceforth Iran would directly respond to any Israeli attack on Iranian interests or citizens — broad enough a definition to cover the Iranian proxies as well. The dynamics that led to the April cycle of strikes and counterstrikes could thus be re-edited any time, with a far more destructive consequences, if it is not replaced with something else.

The time has thus come to entertain a radical idea: Tel-Aviv and Tehran have to move towards direct talks, initially through intermediaries, to agree on some principles of co-existence in the region. Political costs for doing so may look unpalatable for both sides at the moment. However, the alternative — a slide towards a full-scale war — would be even less appealing.

The strike on Israel is a continuation of the Iranian tactic to “escalate to de-escalate.” It was deployed on the nuclear file where Iran’s incremental violations of the JCPOA following the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement were designed to pressure other sides to deliver on their own commitments. Iran’s strike on the Saudi oil fields in 2019 was a precursor to a process that eventually led to a relative normalization of ties with Riyadh in 2023.

Admittedly, following the same path with Israel is fraught with additional difficulties. It is often alleged that Iran’s ideological hostility to Israel would preclude any talking with the “Zionist entity.” However, right from its outset, the Islamic Republic catalogued the “Wahhabi Saudi monarchy” as an enemy too, which did not prevent it from occasionally seeking a détente with Riyadh. Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may harbor a particular political and personal animus against Israel, but he is also known to display a pragmatic streak in matters of the national interest, as the limited nature of Iran’s strike on Israel attests.

Moreover, Khamenei is 85, and his successors may well turn out to be less ideological on Israel than he is. On a more strategic level, there is an ongoing debate in the Iranian elite and society about the extent to which hostility to Israel should keep conditioning Iran’s national security, foreign policy and economic prospects: as long as the conflict persists in its current form, not only are full normalization of Iran’s ties with the United States and Europe unthinkable but they will also be a source of tensions with Iran’s neighbors in the Arab world, Turkey, Azerbaijan and even partners like Russia and China. More immediately, for all the IRGC’s recent bouts of self-confidence, Israel remains a formidable military adversary, with the strongest army in the Middle East, and nuclear weapons.

From Israel’s standpoint, its conventional military superiority does not guarantee it invulnerability from the swarms of Iranian drones and precision strikes of its missiles. In fact, as the strike on April 14 has shown, even defenses as sophisticated as Israel’s cannot guarantee a 100% immunity given that 9 out of 30 ballistic missiles evaded the Iron Dome and struck several Israeli air force targets on two military bases.

Given Israel’s small territory, with a high level of concentration of valuable economic, infrastructure and military targets, any penetration of its air defenses could be highly damaging. Even more troublingly, the progress of the Iranian nuclear program after the derailment of the JCPOA (unwisely urged by the Israeli leadership) opens a prospect of those missiles to be armed with nuclear warheads.

While Israel can re-establish a short-term escalation dominance by striking back at Iran’s proxies or targets in Iran itself, it cannot win a protracted war against a 90 million-strong nation. While Israel retains strong support in both main political parties in the United States, it does not mean that Washington will get directly involved in a war with Iran — Biden’s urgings not to escalate testify to that. A possible comeback to the White House of his Republican rival Donald Trump might change that. Trump did after all signal he was willing to initiate a war with Iran by assassinating IRGC commander Qassem Suleimani. But even then, Trump faced considerable pressure from his political allies not to take the matter further.

In a longer term, even a bipartisan support for Israel in the U.S. could erode, albeit for different reasons: Democrats are increasingly repelled by Israel’s conduct of war in Gaza, while Republicans are growing skeptical of the U.S. entanglements in overseas conflicts on behalf of foreign nations.

There is a strong case, then, for both Iran and Israel to abandon the escalatory path and try to iron out some principles of co-existence in the region. Given the current state of hostility, it will require intermediaries trusted by both sides, such as Oman, possibly Qatar, Switzerland or Norway. The U.S. and EU cannot play that role due to their heavy pro-Israeli bias, but they should at least discreetly support such talks.

The Middle East has just stepped back from the brink of collapse. There are helpful ideas floating around about a “grand bargain” that would address all the conflicts in the region in a comprehensive manner. However, the long history of the Middle Eastern failures — the Oslo peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, derailment of the JCPOA, and finally the October 7 war — suggest that without achieving a modicum of co-existence between Israel and Iran, such schemes would remain inviable.

Vincent Grebenicek via shutterstock.com

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