In the 1956 war with Egypt, Israel hoped for the downfall of its president, Gamal Abd al-Nasir, but he remained in power. This was one of the occasions in which Israel wished to create a regime change in the Middle East as a result of military action. Israel might also try to do the same in Iran. While Arab leaders Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan waged war against Israel and later made peace with the Jewish state, it is unlikely that the current Iranian regime would repeat this pattern. Although Iran and Israel did not directly meet on the battlefield, the ongoing tension between them, this “cold war,” and in particular the nuclear issue, might drive them to a shooting war. The two sides have no territorial disputes, but the rulers of Iran are firm in their belief that Israel must be deleted from the map. They may accept the idea of a Jewish state but not in the Middle East. Iran’s leadership also opposes a compromise between Israel and the Palestinians, which emphasizes Iran’s aspiration to gain influence by encouraging the continuance of violence at the expense of the Palestinians, about whom Iranians are supposedly concerned.
For those reasons, Israel might focus not necessarily on the Iranian nuclear infrastructure but on the regime itself. Obviously, Israel should strive to accomplish both aims, but it may have to choose between them, if only due to the critical need for military surprise and concentration of force against either goal: the nuclear sites or the regime.
None of those tasks would be easy to implement and the implications for Israel, solely from the Iranian perspective, might be severe. Still, for many Iranians the nuclear project is a national asset, while their regime is not. Israel could probably tolerate an Iran with nuclear projects, even a bomb, since this process started in the days the two states enjoyed friendly relations. As with Pakistan, Israel could bear a huge Muslim non-Arab state with a nuclear arsenal, as long as it does not seek to obliterate the Jewish state. Of course intentions may change, sometimes even overnight, especially if the regime is replaced by a dangerous opposition, but Israel could live with such a risk.
From time to time, there are signs of internal unrest in Iran. Economic difficulties, among other reasons, could cause political instability. Although this might not completely undermine the regime, it might force it to focus on strengthening the economy, even at the expense of its nuclear program. After all, of paramount interest to the Iranian government is its own survival, and placing the economy at the top of its list of priorities would ensure that. Such a development could cause a delay in the nuclear project. Gaining time is not the best outcome for Israel, but is still a reasonable compromise - at least until a better option presents itself. However, Israel can only hope for a global action on this issue, and should therefore seek as many allies as possible.
In the 1970s, the United States nurtured Iran and Israel as two of its strongest allies in the Middle East, one in the Persian Gulf and the other in the eastern Mediterranean. This was part of the American struggle against the Soviet Union and its allies in the Middle East.
From the early 80s, the U.S. developed its ties with Egypt instead of Iran because of the Islamic revolution. Over the years, the U.S. also pushed for a regime change in Iran. The latter, therefore, disconnected itself from the U.S., while continuing to pursue a position of hegemony in the Gulf and also, particularly since the ‘90s, to increase its involvement in the eastern Mediterranean. Those were both key regions for the United States, which put Washington and Tehran on a collision course. Thus, Israel and the United States have common goals: pushing Iran out the eastern Mediterranean, neutralizing its nuclear project and bringing down the current regime. Those goals are shared by other states, including Arab ones, irrespective of their antipathy toward Israel.
This article is based on an article that was published in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, (Volume Two Number Two, 2008). For questions, comments etc. please write to Ehud at firstname.lastname@example.org