US-Iran-Israel Relations: A Tense State of Détente

Power Transition Theory (occasionally associated with the realist school of thought in international relations [IR]) places states in the international system along a hierarchy, with the range of states characterized by variations in both competition and cooperation.

Transitions of power concern the contrasts of growth and relative position of states. When these dynamics change, relationships among states change. A possible offshoot of this is the creation of new political actors. It is feasible (and likely) that (some) states will eventually grow dissatisfied with relative power dynamics given the emergence of a large power could lead to instability.

But do changes in the distribution of power in IR affect the possibility of war? The expansion of power creates specific opportunities for states in varying geopolitical contexts.

Certainly, the rise of Iran as a regional power in the Middle East is one of the most critical developments to have taken place during the early 21st century. Its leaders have been attracted by opportunities presented by its increasing military and political power to influence its neighbors. Pooling resources with Syria has also been instrumental in enhancing its position. Attractions to power in this way can, but do not necessarily, lead to war.

Iran’s Islamist regime, development of nuclear weapons, and its diverse geopolitical assets such as mineral resources, technologies, and its strategic aspirations, above and beyond several power vacuums have been important factors in Iran’s rise. It has also been the supporter of Israel’s most infamous and dangerous enemies, Hamas and Hezbollah, particularly during mid-2006, as well as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and sundry other extremist Palestinian organizations. It is no secret that Iran has supplied these groups with arms, trained their men, and advised them generally.

Coordinated efforts between Iran and Syria have also successful expelled United States (US) peacekeepers from Lebanon and, as professor of IR at Webster University Jubin Goodarazi explains, the alliance between Iran and Syria “thwarted Israel’s effort to bring Lebanon into its orbit during an 18-year occupation that finally ended in Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2000 … and together they have inflicted repeated setbacks on six American presidents.

Tehran and Washington have faced decades of tension with relations having fluctuated drastically since 1979. Several thaws in the US-Iran relationship have occurred over the course of those decades, but in the past two years, the possibility of war between the US and Iran have been higher than at any point over the past several decades.

Despite the absence of war, there have been signals that military clashes could come to fruition. “The probability of armed conflict between the United States and Iran,” states Council on Foreign Relations fellow Matthew Kroenig, “is higher now than at any point since 1988, and the risk will only increase over the coming year as Iran’s nuclear program continues to develop.”

This is a major change since the days of the ideological standoff between the US and the Soviet Union, when the US and Iran were actually Cold War allies. Washington once sent Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi hundreds of millions of dollars and assisted in the establishment of the Iranian intelligence agency (SAVAK [operating from 1957 to 1979]) during the late-1950s. The Shah even recognized Israel, as he became a dominant player in Middle Eastern politics.

The US-Iran relationship grew turbulent during the 1970s with subsequent criticism levelled at the shah by Washington for his poor human rights record and degradation of democratic values and institutions. Revolution and proxy wars followed during the 1980s with the shocking Iran-Contra Affair having been exposed in 1986. Of course, tension grew again thanks to accusations that Iran was “exporting” terrorism and supporting violent terrorist attacks that led to many deaths in Jewish communities in Israel.

President Mohammad Khatami’s 1997 election brought many to see an era of hope and revival in US-Iran-Israel relations. In response to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, Khatami introduced the idea of “dialogue among civilizations.” The events of September 11, 2001 (9/11) turned the relationship on its head with former President George W. Bush lumping Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his self-termed “Axis of Evil” under the grandiose security arrangement inanely dubbed the “War on Terror” (WoT).

Accusations were made that Iran provided Shiite Muslims with advanced weaponry with the aim of killing American soldiers. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005 applied even more pressure on the US-Iran-Israel relationship. Economic sanctions by the US, as a result of Iran’s enrichment program, are the result of international unity over the case.

The post-2008/09 financial crisis period brought renewed tension between the US and Iran, and in the Middle East, more generally. After a fourth dose of United Nations (UN) penalties against Iran, the US and Israel took part in a covert plan to derail Iran’s nuclear program. President Bashar Assad, meanwhile, was and remains Iran’s odd but cozy political bedfellow, enjoying support from Tehran while coalition forces currently support opposition groups and simultaneously battle with militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). President Barack Obama’s tough talk translated into tough action. Obama stated openly that military action was on the table and aims to “contain” a nuclear Iran.

“Crippling” sanctions cut Iran’s oil exports by half and left the Iranian economy torn. Washington continues, nonetheless, to dialogue with Iran albeit with softer language. Israel, however, maintains a harsh stance against a country having recently stated that Washington knows “aggression against the Islamic Republic of Iran would mean annihilation of Tel Aviv and spread war into the United States,” according to senior Iranian commander Massoud Jazayeri who made this statement early in 2014 (Arutz Sheva [Israel National News], 2014).

Who attacks first? This is a key question in discussions of war and warfare, and is part of a larger exchange about geopolitics and power transitions beyond the Middle East.

Rising powers challenge major powers—this is a common assumption. There is a need to differentiate between “challenge” and “war?” Iran’s expansion is certainly seen as a challenge by Israel and the US. Tehran’s military expansion and political strength challenge both of these on the side of the US and Israel. But this does not necessarily lead to a rising (regional) power pushing for war with major powers. Interestingly, the US and Israel have, to a degree, actually accepted Iran’s political and military (both instantiations of power) expansion.

Over the past several decades Tehran has successfully expanded its power without risking the major possibility of war.

Iran is still rising. Because of its ascent there is a discernable capabilities gap between Iran, and both the US and Israel. Iran’s religion and its religious leaders represent this gap. Although there is a great deal of talk about Iran’s possible use of weapons of mass-effect (WMEs) against Israel, religious leaders in Iran have asserted that such an act would simply be “forbidden under Islam,” just as suicide attacks are forbidden under classical Islamic law.

Expelling Palestinians from Israel under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion may have led to an Arab-free Israel, and at least discursively, one more stable in the long-term. However, an Israeli state free of Arabs would probably have provided Iran with a more attractive target. Arab communities living in Israel have provided the state with the sort of stability Ben-Gurion sought in the past, only now it may be considered reality cultivated through opposing logic.

Neither the US nor Israel have provoked Iran into waging war. Thus, it is rational to expect that Iran would not try to fight the US (as a major power) or Israel (as a regional power) simply unless it is provoked. Additionally, the US has not shown significant weathering in its relative power as a reigning hegemon.

Without the participation of major powers and most minor powers (i.e., system-wide), without the nature of the entire international order being at risk, and without the expansion of conflict to encompass the entire system, the possibility of hegemonic war remains a manifestation of old and new media makers. Instead, the US and the international community have shown signs of, at least trying to, (if even uneasily) accommodate the rise of Iran as a stable player in international affairs in the Middle East.

Although the international community has hit Iran hard with sanctions, there has always remained a negotiating position for both sides in order to make Iran a cornerstone of Middle East security rather than completely isolating it. A stable Iran serves the interests of the US, Israel, and the international community. This is even the case given ongoing violence in the context of ISIS. The past several decades, while indicating Iran’s ability to rise politically and militarily, are the same decades that have demonstrated measurable acceptance of Iran’s overall position.

While war between Iran seems implausible as no actor seems to cross that Rubicon, a negotiated settlement between all is also unlikely. There is still much posturing even though the US may have begun treading lightly discursively. Iran continues to show off its prized RQ-170 Sentinel drone that it purports to have captured from the US. Unless there is a radical change that provokes the US, Iran, or Israel to seek peace, then nothing will occur.

Scott Nicholas Romaniuk is a graduate student at the School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University. He specializes in military and strategic studies, and foreign policy analysis. His areas of research include conventional and asymmetric warfare, (counter)terrorism, (counter)insurgency, religious extremism, and processes of (de)radicalization.

About the Author
Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk completed his PhD at the School of International Studies, University of Trento. He holds an MRes in Political Research, an MA in Terrorism, Crime and Global Security, and an MA in Military Studies (Joint Warfare). His teaching and research specializations include International Relations, Military and Strategic Studies, Security Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Research Methods. He is a Senior Research Affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) and a member of the Conflict, Terrorism and Development (CTD) Collaboratory at Michigan State University.
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