“If the Palestinians are happy with the solution [Israel-Palestinian negotiations] then nobody outside Palestine [including Iran] could prevent that from taking place.” – Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
Just the other week news broke that Iranian President Rouhani had decided to give the Dr. Sapir Hospital and Charity Center, Tehran’s Jewish Hospital, $400,000 on behalf of the government. This followed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s remarks on Monday that “if the Palestinians are happy with the solution [an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal] then nobody outside Palestine could prevent that from taking place,” which despite some domestic backtracking was seen as a signal of Iran’s willingness to one day recognize Israel under the right conditions.
This remarkable shift in tone coming from Iran has been noted in Israel as well. According to a recent report from Al-Monitor, the recent changes in Tehran have been “inspiring great hope” in Israel’s defense establishment. So much so, it appears, that Israel defense minister Moshe Ya’alon was willing to sit in the front row of a German TV interview with Zarif – a rare sight indeed. All this follows Israeli President Shimon Peres’s recent tweet that “as far as Israel is concerned we are ready to make peace with the Iranian people, historically they have never been our enemies.”
What is Peres referring to when he says Iranians have never been historic enemies?
The classic example of the historically close relationship between Jews and Persians comes in the 6th century BCE. Cyrus the Great of Persia freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity and ordered their destroyed temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt. A more modern example occurred during World War II when Abdol Hossein Sardari, a high ranking official in the Iranian embassy in France, risked his life helping thousands of Iranian Jews escape the Nazi invasion of France by providing them with Iranian passports.
We even bore witness to a social media based “Israel love Iran” campaign in 2012 that was reciprocated by thousands of Iranians.
To this day, a large Jewish minority has lived in Iran despite a drop after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. With approximately 20,000 Jews still living in Iran, the country hosts the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel. Large populations of Iranian Jews are found in Tehran and Isfahan where synagogues, both modern and historic, can still be found. In fact, Iran’s constitution requires Jewish representatives in the majles (parliament).
How did we end up with the current situation?
Before the Revolution the Shah of Iran built a cordial and economically focused relationship with Israel, initially bonded by their distaste for their Arab neighbors and the creep of Soviet influence in several of them. Of course, the revolution changed the rhetoric coming out of Tehran –but not quite yet the substance in the relationship. According to Iran expert Trita Parsi’s book Treacherous Alliance, it was actually the end of the cold war and the fall of the Soviet Union (a uniting enemy for the two countries) that shifted their attention to one another in a more regional rivalry. Instead of words masking actions (think Iran-contra) in the 1980’s, words and actions became synced with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Today, there may finally be a reason for their strategic relationship to return to its status quo once again. From instability in Syria to the potential economic gains, there are many reasons why détente would benefit both countries. Of course, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. If Rouhani has his plate full with domestic opponents as he pursues diplomacy with the United States, then Israel may prove impossible –for now. If Zarif’s comments mentioned earlier turn out to be an indirect signal as generally believed, then success in Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to acquire a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians would also become a huge investment in another history making geopolitical shift.