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The bonds that tie Persians and Jews Print E-mail

International Herald Tribune, Stanley A. Weiss     
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/10/opinion/10iht-edweiss.2165689.html

LONDON — As an American Jew visiting Iran, I apparently made an irresistible target. "Zionist Israel," an Iranian official instructed me, was the root of all problems in the Middle East; a Western "colonial imposition" on Muslim lands that must be reversed.

"It's Iran's own fault," I replied. "If Cyrus the Great hadn't freed the Jews from Persian slavery 2,500 years ago and told them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple, there wouldn't be an Israel." The official chuckled and changed the subject.

Today, it's hard to imagine two more bitter enemies than Iran and Israel. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls for Israel to be wiped off the map. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert calls a nuclear- armed Iran an existential threat to Israel.

Yet animosity between Iran and Israel is an historical aberration. Before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, ancient cultural bonds and common strategic interests between Persians and Jews made Iran and Israel close allies. Even today, enduring strategic interests suggest that a revived Persian-Jewish partnership, while by no means imminent, is inevitable.

If he knew his history, Ahmadinejad would recall that Iranian diplomats in Europe saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust and that Iran served as an escape route for Iraqi Jews fleeing to Israel after the 1948 war for Israeli independence. In fact, Iran was one of the first Muslim countries to establish diplomatic and trade relations with the state of Israel.

Common Sunni Arab enemies made Persians and Jews close friends for the next three decades. Iran's Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi depended on Israel for a steady stream of arms and intelligence. Israel depended on Iran as part of its "periphery policy" of security alliances with non-Arabs on the Middle Eastern periphery along with Turkey, Ethiopia and Lebanese Christians.

Persian Iran sat out all three Arab-Israeli wars and even during the Arab oil boycott of the 1970s, continued supplying Israel with oil. The 100,000 Jews in Iran helped sustain robust Iranian-Israeli trade.

Even after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution severed these ties and sent most Iranian Jews fleeing, overlapping interests allowed these arch-enemies to do business. Mutual animosity toward Iraq - and Israel's desire to preserve influence with Tehran moderates - led Israel to supply weapons to the Islamic Republic well into the 1980s, including service as middleman in the Reagan administration's arms-for-hostages deal.

Flickers of an Iranian-Israeli rapprochement continued even during the heightened tensions of the 1990s, despite Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian militants and the bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish cultural center in Argentina.

By the time of my visit to Iran, during the first year of Mohammad Khatami's reformist presidency, Israeli officials were exploring ways to repay shah-era oil debts to Iran. Israeli exports to Iran, mostly agricultural equipment through European third parties, were said to exceed $300 million.

Although hardliners in Tehran, Jerusalem and Washington have sabotaged attempts at dialogue at every turn, Iran and Israel's common interests endure. Both have a vital interest in avoiding Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities and preventing the fracturing of Iraq along ethnic lines. In the event of a wider regional war between Sunnis and Shiites, Iran and Israel could once again find themselves with a common adversary.

Israel will need Iran, and Syria, to reign in Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Iran will need Israel, and its powerful lobby in Washington, to repeal U.S. economic sanctions.

Indeed, now that Washington has ended its 27- year-old policy against direct talks with Tehran, the door has opened, if only slightly, to a broader Iranian-American rapprochement. But for both Tehran and Washington, the road to reconciliation runs through Jerusalem.

When their governments are ready, the best bridge between Iran and Israel will be the enduring cultural links between their peoples.

Israel's community of 200,000 Iranian Jews - including a deputy prime minister, military chief and a Farsi-speaking president - are well-placed to forge new ties and trade with their ancestral homeland.
The Iranian people - led by the country's Jewish community, at 25,000 the largest in the Middle East outside Israel - would welcome Israeli overtures.

As Benjamin Disraeli famously observed, "nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests." Though hard to imagine today, the permanent interests between Persian Iran and Jewish Israel will, in time, make these enemies friends again.
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