"War or Peace: Applied History and the
Prospects for an Israeli-Iranian Rapprochement"

About the Project

This project applies historical research, interviews with leading officials and researchers, and primary and secondary sources in Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian to investigate two central questions: 

  1. What, if anything, could effect a rapprochement between Israel and Iran

  2. What, if anything, could trigger the breakout of an open war between the two countries? 

These questions are, in many respects, two sides of the same coin. If we understand the current state of Israel-Iran relations as a context in which conflict is seen as highly feasible and politically justified, the extension of this context extends the risk of war. While wars do not start “accidentally”, wars often start with individual incidents which occur within a context of serious enmity.[i] The First World War is a simple example: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28 provided a political trigger for the activation of extant contingency plans, extant alliances, and extant mobilization schedules. In our case, a change in the prevailing geopolitical context is needed to effect a change in a political situation that lends itself to war. If the drivers of the antagonism are not addressed, the state of enmity will persist indefinitely while the means and planning for a war will continue to aggregate. The risk of war will rise rather than attenuate, and a single incident could activate years of planning and stockpiling. Crisis can graduate to catastrophe. 

In other words: if rapprochement is truly “impossible”, then war should be a base expectation for all. 

To try and address this essential question, it is necessary to first answer several subsidiary questions, such as: 

  • What are the intellectual origins and political drivers of Israeli and Iranian strategy?

  • What could cause a diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries?

  • What could cause the breakout of open war between the two countries?

  • How does the Israel-Iran antagonism play into other aspects of Middle Eastern geopolitics?

Beyond the strategic and material dimensions of Israeli and Iranian war planning, it is also necessary to address broader ideational factors. Among those factors are the assumptions that each country’s policymakers has about their counterparts; each country’s domestic rhetoric about the other, as well as their respective ‘schools of thought’ about how to approach the other; the strategic culture and diplomatic history of both countries; and the regional and global factors that contribute to their strategies. It is also necessary to consider relevant historical analogies. History is full of examples of how rapprochement and war come about. Broadly analogous experiences of enmity, détente, and conflict can shed light on possible scenarios for the subject of our study. 

Mission Statement

“We have survived the violence of the revolutionary fever. We have seen Jacobinism deprived of its fascination. If the views of France [are] correspondent with our own, we [have] every prospect of enjoying a long peace.”[ii] 

After a decade of war, former Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger gave his assent to the Treaty of Amiens, which recognized Revolutionary France and, for a short while, ended the French Revolutionary Wars. The causes of the war were not addressed. The newly-recognised French Republic was based on principles that fundamentally denied the legitimacy of most of Europe’s great states. But even Pitt, one of the French Revolution’s fiercest opponents and the instigator of war with France in 1793, accepted the possibility that an ideological conflict could end without the total victory of either side. Another statesman would echo this sentiment almost two centuries later. 

“History teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbours… Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable”.[iii] 

At a university commencement in Washington D.C. in June 1963, President John F. Kennedy struck a hopeful chord. He had earned the right to optimism. Eight months prior, a crisis in Cuba threatened to graduate into a global cataclysm. Kennedy walked the crisis back, and suggested to a captive audience that the defining geopolitical antagonism of the age—the Cold War—might be walked back. The rivalry, Kennedy opined, was hardly a novelty. Many similar antipathies that dissolved over the course of time. Britain and France fought for almost a millennium, and were now the closest of allies. Kennedy himself had lived not once, but twice, through the rehabilitation of a belligerent Germany. We now know that around the time of the speech, Kennedy even sought peace with Cuba.[iv] But the execution of that plan was inhibited by another historical event: the assassination of Kennedy that November. 

As Kennedy opined, the passage of history can open up possibilities hitherto viewed as inconceivable; this is even more-so the case as sudden and unpredictable events blow the ship of history off its ostensive course. It is the premise of the unpredictability of history that enables us to ask a question which many readers will view as absurd: What, if anything, could reverse today’s great geopolitical antagonism, namely the antagonism between Israel and Iran? 

In 1979, Iran’s Islamic Revolution changed the Middle East forever. One of its many consequences was a radical redefinition of the relationship between Iran and Israel. Iran’s transformation into a revolutionary theocracy was based on several intellectual premises, including a radical anti-Americanism and an equally radical antagonism for its would-be Middle Eastern instantiation. After almost 30 years of partnership between the Jewish State and the Iranian Empire, spanning the realms of defence, economics, and intelligence, Israel became the “Little Satan.” Israel has since become Iran’s principal regional nemesis. For the last thirty years, Iran’s nuclear program and the expansion of its regional proxy network have added new layers of intrigue and jeopardy to this antagonism. 

For Israeli policymakers, the Iranian acquisition of nuclear capabilities is an insupportable prospect, to the extent that war would be a preferable outcome. Israel has a record of keeping such promises, Iraq and Syria offering two clear examples. At the same time, Iran has expanded its network of proxies around the region, extending support and training to its Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese, and other ideological ‘fellow travelers’ as a means of building leverage over Israel. At the time of writing, Iran and Israel continue to plan and amass the means for a massive military confrontation that would almost certainly result in enormous loss of life and a much larger regional crisis. A multifront war between Israel and Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, and possibly Iraq and Yemen would cause thousands of civilian casualties on all sides of the conflict.[v] It would almost certainly end in direct strikes on Iran. 

In Western capitals, there seems to be a consensus that were such a showdown to be possible, it would have happened already. In other words, a major conflict has been predicted—or threatened—enough times that the drums of war are nearly consonant with the ambient of incessant sabre-rattling. But in Tehran and Tel Aviv, the eruption of this crisis is often seen as a question of “when” rather than a question of “if”. The vast resources expended on preparing for this contingency, as well as the continued exacerbation of the fundamental antagonism between the two countries, attest to this. But to paraphrase Kennedy: Is peace truly impracticable? Is war inevitable? 

“We left at about the time the sun was setting in October… I wondered if I’d ever see another sunset like that”.[vi] On October 27, 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis entered its decisive stage, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara contemplated the prospect of apocalypse. War was possible. But as we now know, it was not inevitable. In our time, a ‘hot war’ between Israel and Iran is possible. But like the consummation promised by the Cold War, it is not inevitable. 

War or Peace: Prospects for an Israeli-Iranian Rapprochement” is not a roadmap for peace between Israel and Iran. It is, rather, an honest attempt to understand which trends and contingencies might change the course of events in favor of an unlikely rapprochement; and an equally honest attempt to understand what the future may hold if this outcome is not forthcoming. The only way to attempt to answer this question is through what H.R. McMaster refers to as ‘strategic empathy’. By relating to the strategic predicament and the historical experience of both, it is possible to consider the drivers of current thinking in both Israel and Iran and the possible triggers for either escalation or détente. While no decisive answer is possible, what emerges from this investigation is a comprehensive attempt to answer perhaps the most important question in the Middle East today: Is peace possible? Or will there actually be a war? 

Two last quotations from the commencement speech of June 1963 are apt for this project: 

“We are not engaged in a debate, seeking to pile up debating points. We are not here distributing blame or pointing the finger of judgment. We must deal with the world as it is.” 

The benefit of approaching this question as a historical one, concerned primarily with historical experience of two countries, is that moral judgment can be suspended. Value judgement may have a place in history, but can only serve to distort attempts to apply history in order to discern the future. ‘Strategic empathy’, an idea so central to applied diplomatic history, demands the ability to be in two minds. In our case, it requires an ability to deeply sympathise with the ideas and experiences that have led policymakers to their present actions—however objectionable one might find them. It also requires an attempt to relate to the values and perceptions of those policymakers, as those values and perceptions are the products of historical experience and, like historical experience, determines the range of possible outcomes. 

“Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace… until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do… But I also believe that we must re-examine our own attitude–as individuals and as a nation—for our attitude is as essential as theirs.” 

The subject of this project is one that has not been discussed, certainly not at the length that it aspires to. One suspects that the main reason for that is that the entire discussion is regarded as, well, “useless”. In the last half-century, the apparition of Middle East peace has only made itself manifest to a small few, possessed of either deeply heterodox views or messianic conviction. The rest of us have wrestled with two types of pessimism: the unpredictable misery of the status quo, or the ominous foreboding of a bleak future. Yet Kennedy’s assessment of the Soviet Union and indeed of the United States offers an extremely tentative off-ramp. Entailed in that off-ramp is a drastic change of “attitude,” and an alertness to the possibility of an alternative course of action. 

The object of this project is to discern the trends, events, conditions, and contingencies—if there are any at all—which might produce the change of attitude needed to make a seemingly impossible peace possible. But a secondary object of this project is not only to answer that question: it is to ask the question, and to enjoin others to consider the full range of its implications.

[i] Thomas Schelling. Arms and Influence, Yale University Press, 1966, Chapter 3.
[ii] William Pitt. Orations on the French War, to the Peace of Amiens. J.M. Dent and Sons, 1913.  430-433.
[iii] John F. Kennedy, Commencement Address at American University, June 10, 1963. https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/american-university-19630610
[iv] “Cuba:  Item of Presidential Interest,” November 25, 1963. White House Memorandum, Top Secret, cited at The National Security Archive. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB103/631125.pdf.
[v] Dan Williams. “Israel Expects Hundreds of Civilian Casualties in next War with Hezbollah.” Reuters, April 1, 2015. https://www.reuters.com/article/israel-lebanon-hezbollah/israel-expects-hundreds-of-civilian-casualties-in-next-war-with-hezbollah-idINKBN0MS3FO20150401.
[vi] Sheldon M. Stern. The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis. Stanford University Press, 2005. 183-4

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