Israeli intelligence revelations last year of Iranian leaders' deception regarding their nuclear weapons program have understandably jaded Israeli and American leaders against continued diplomatic engagement. Yet, a mutually complementary combination of pressures and policy compromises, including efforts to bring Iran into the fold of the two-state framework of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, could lead to reciprocal moderation of Iranian policies. Recognizing nuances in the Supreme Leader of Iran's rhetoric is the first step.
During his remarks at the Munich Security Conference on February 14, Vice President Mike Pence asserted that “the Iranian regime openly advocates another Holocaust” against Israel. Numerous American and Israeli leaders have echoed this over the years, whether based on misinformation or calculated efforts to sway international public opinion in favor of regime change. President Trump himself during his State of the Union speech in February accused the Iranian government of genocidal intent against Jews more broadly, despite the fact that Iran has one of the largest Jewish populations in the Middle East outside of Israel—albeit only around 10,000—and has a seat in its parliament reserved for a Jewish member to represent them.
It is undeniable that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like his predecessor, has consistently advocated for the annihilation of the state of Israel as a political entity and asserted that this is a religious obligation incumbent upon the Muslim world. Khamenei has made no secret of this; he has repeatedly broadcast his intent to the world in English.
He has also repeatedly denied any genocidal intent that would indicate a degree of irrationality comparable to Hitler, however. Moreover, his aggressive behavior is partly rooted in Iranian leaders’ threat perceptions of Israel, as counterintuitive as this may be to Americans unversed in Iran’s history over the last 65 years. This raises the question of whether the current American and Israeli political leadership has prematurely dismissed diplomacy with Iran on this issue by disregarding arguably important nuances.
Entertaining this possibility does not mean the West should ultimately give Khamenei the benefit of the doubt, of course; particularly given his record of deception on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
On the contrary, the U.S. should continue to provide full diplomatic as well as intelligence and any other necessary support for Israel’s defensive air campaign against Iran’s military build-up in Syria. Although Iranian military deployments to Syria are in the short term intended to maintain Bashar al-Assad in power, they are not ultimately intended for deterrence but are rather in preparation for a war of aggression against Israel.
While robustly deterring this aggressive behavior, the White House and Congress should also publicly support maintaining open diplomatic channels with Iran on this issue and reinvigorate their support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. American political leaders must acknowledge that the balance of political power in Israel has been as much an obstacle to peace as it has been on the Palestinian side. They must then act accordingly by exerting substantive pressure on both sides to return to the negotiating table and increasing that pressure as a consequence of continued obstinacy.
Although Iranian leaders have stated that they will not negotiate under threat, their decision-making on their nuclear weapons program demonstrates that a combination of pressures and incentives have been necessary to persuade them to moderate their most important foreign and national security policies. They must also understand that they cannot make threats against the existence of a state with the full recognition of the UN General Assembly without expecting challenges to the future of their own rule.
There is admittedly little reason to be optimistic that Iran will negotiate on its absolutist policy against Israel until after it has suffered a major military defeat in Syria and Lebanon. The U.S. should nevertheless maintain an open diplomatic channel on this issue in an effort to challenge Khamenei’s narrative vis-a-vis his more moderate political rivals, make it more difficult for him to maintain his hardline policies, and limit the potential scale of the growing Iran-Israel conflict. This is particularly important considering that it would involve three nuclear-armed states—Israel, the U.S., and Russia—and Russia remains firmly aligned with Iran.
The Arab-Muslim world has since 2002 offered Israel full recognition contingent upon its acceptance of a Palestinian state. The Organization for Islamic Cooperation reiterated this commitment in 2018. The diplomatic framework for peace is established. It now awaits compromise from Iran, Israel, and the U.S., ideally before a new, potentially catastrophic layer of conflict erupts across the region.
About the author: Thomas Buonomo is an international relations and foreign policy analyst with expertise in U.S.-Iran relations. His writing has been published by the Atlantic Council, Middle East Policy Council, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Fikra Forum, The Cipher Brief, Securing America's Future Energy's The Fuse, Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Small Wars Journal, Diplomatic Courier, and other outlets. Twitter: @ThomasBuonomo