There are many in the United States and Israel who long for the good old days before the Iranian Revolution in 1979 when Iran was a friend to the United States and had close, clandestine security relations with Israel. Iran had been one of three states (the other were Turkey and Ethiopia) that Israel used to counterbalance the hostile ring of Arab countries that surrounded it.
In negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, the United States apparently is hoping for a return to those days, Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher said last week during a visit to Washington.
“The U.S. attitude appears to be that there is a strong moderate stream in Iran and if you can reach an agreement with them you can strengthen them,” he said. “That may be true. I don’t see any evidence that they’re going to succeed.”
Alpher, who spent much of his career in intelligence and security work, draws from his years as an Israeli army intelligence officer and Mossad agent in his new book, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies, about Israel’s strategy to survive the threats on its borders by forming relations with more distant neighbors. The most fruitful of these was the relationship with Iran and Turkey, called Trident. But Israel also had relations with South Sudan, Morocco, Yemen, Oman, the Iraqi Kurds and the Maronite Christians in Lebanon.
Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, signed in 1979, is worth more than all of them, Alpher said. It was a strategic shift that removed the Arab world as an existential threat.
“Our peace agreement with Egypt is more important than Trident ever was, and it has lasted longer.”
That hasn’t stopped the search for peripheral relations. He said the cultivation of Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim state that borders Iran, reflects the periphery strategy.
“It has an abysmal human rights record, and it cultivates Israel and the American Jewish community as a way of gaining U.S. government support,” said Alpher, who provides analysis for the dovish Americans for Peace Now.
“From the Israeli standpoint, I don’t think we have the luxury of deciding who our friends should be based on their human rights record” – Egypt is the prime example. “It may be the place of the United States, but not Israel.”
He said the American-Jewish romance with Azerbaijan is reminiscent of the nostalgia that drove support for the shah of Iran, before 1979. “People allowed themselves to be deluded into thinking that Jews and Persians after 2,400 years were hooking up again. The Iranians were not deluded.
A Washington native, Alpher made aliyah in 1964. “I went straight into the army,” he said. “When I went into the army you could count the number of American youth on the fingers of one hand.”
An early scene in Periphery has Alpher, fresh out of basic training, being assigned to translate an IDF manual into English for an undercover Israeli team to use to train Kurdish troops to fight the Iraqi army.
“That was my introduction to the ‘periphery doctrine,’ ” he wrote.