Commentary | October 25, 2010

An Iran-Israel Treaty: The Indirect Approach

Greg Austin wrote this piece for his weekly column in New Europe.

In military strategy, the idea of “indirect approach” gained prominence in Europe only after the First World War in a book published in 1929. Many would say that it has been an enduring feature of the military strategies of Asian countries for much longer. What can we learn from this idea for transforming the Iran-Israel confrontation?

As the British strategist rightly observed in the preface to a later edition of his work, the principle of indirect approach has an application outside of military combat. It is, he said, a “key to practical achievement” where a “conflict of wills tends to spring from an underlying concern for interests”. He wrote that in such cases, the “direct assault of new ideas provokes a stubborn resistance”. Change, he suggested, is possible, and can happen rapidly, only “by unsuspected infiltration of a different idea or by an argument that turns the flank of instinctive opposition”.

If the Supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, accepts the reality of Israel’s existence as a state, and he does, then why can’t we start to think about a treaty between Iran and Israel. We know there are obstacles, the first being the need for Israel and Palestine to have recognized each other as states.  The second is President Ahmedinejad’s reliance on anti-Israel rhetoric for political purposes. There is an even chance that within five years, both obstacles will have disappeared.

One interesting question is whether promotion now of the idea of regional peace and prosperity underpinned by an Iran-Israel treaty could actually hasten the elimination of both obstacles.

It has to happen. States use treaties to end wars and promote mutual economic security. There will be a treaty, either in fifteen years or five years. Why not aim for the five year milestone?

The treaty will be important for the obvious benefits it can bring in terms of peace and military security. Its enduring importance will be its potential to serve as an engine for regional economic development, including the development of transport links, educational advance and technology transfer. While both Israel and Iran ban bilateral trade, it does occur at relatively low levels, sometimes unwittingly through third parties.
It might be convenient to dismiss the robust (if unofficial) relationship between Iran and Israel before 1978 as a weird outcome of another time, but there were some basic economic and human realities at play in that, including Iran’s (small) Jewish community and Israel’s community of Iranian Jews.

Once Iran and Israel have normalized political relations, the trade floodgates will open. Although little remarked, Iran is – according to the IMF and World Bank – among the top 20 economies in the world in terms of GDP (purchasing power parity estimates). Iran ranks higher than Saudi Arabia, which is a member of the G20 while Iran is not.

Iran’s re-integration into the global economy in a post-sanctions world will be a productive process (once Israel and Palestine are at peace and the disputes over Iran’s nuclear program are eliminated).

A little known fact is that Israel, Iran and Palestine are currently all parties to a 2002 treaty on regional economic and security cooperation. This is the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). It has ambitious frameworks for building trust between its members. There is not much agreement between Iran and Israel in this forum, but their common membership in it – where Palestine is, it seems, treated as a state – is certainly worth noting. A Turkish diplomat referred to CICA as a “unique group of dis-similars”, and the forum is inevitably a politicized one. For now, it is the only regional organization bridging Israel, Palestine and Iran. Based on this precedent, a bilateral treaty between Iran and Israel within five years is not impossible – once the two obstacles are removed.