Where’s Iran?

I’m at the Association for Israel Studies annual conference right now. It’s a pretty typical academic conference in most ways. There’s an abundance of panels on a melange of topics. Some are interesting, many are not. The size of the conference (there are nearly one hundred panels) means that nearly every element of Israel’s politics and culture is covered in some way. In terms of international relations, there are discussions on Israel’s relationships with Palestinians, the broader Arab world, and the Western — and even Far Eastern — world. Just about everything is covered. Everything that is, except Iran.

Other than two presentations on the negotiations over the nuclear agreement, no one is presenting any research on Israeli-Iranian relations. I just came from listening to one of those presentations. It mostly amounted to a rehashing of the nuclear deal and why, despite its flaws, it’s still worth keeping. Yet even in this benign take, the presenter found time to rehash many of the common stereotypes about Iran, including that it is ruled by religious extremists who are so “hell-bent” on destroying Israel that they might endanger the survival of their country just to achieve this goal. In this professor’s view, the Iranian nuclear and missile programs exist solely for the sake of targeting Israel. It’s like Saudi Arabia doesn’t exist.

For what it’s worth, I decided to attend the conference pretty late, well after the deadline for paper submissions for panel participation, so I didn’t have the chance to correct that imbalance myself. Still, it’s amazing to me that no one else studying Israel appears very interested in what is happening in Iran and how that relates to Israel. In trying to figure out why that is, I’ve come up with three possible explanations:

1. The perception that the Iranian issue is overblown: Back when I was looking into doing a Ph.D., I recall having several exploratory conversations with academics who expressed skepticism at my proposed topic of Iranian-Israeli relations. The Iranian issue, they said, wasn’t really a big part of Israeli society. Sure, Israelis love to talk about Iran, but ultimately, all this bluster doesn’t have much influence on Israeli politics or foreign policy. If there’s no effect, the thinking goes, then the alleged cause isn’t worth studying.

I find this rationale odd. Typically, the idea that words matter is a pretty fundamental premise for academics, who spend most of their time analyzing every detail of language. Furthermore, even a cursory glance at Israeli media or political discourse over the past several years reveals an intense Israeli interest — some may even say preoccupation — with Iranian affairs. For evidence of this trend, look no further than Prime Minister Netanyahu. Many, if not most, of his major international speeches over the past five years have focused on the existential threat Iran poses to Israel. Similarly, there has been an explosion in Israeli media discussion of Iran over the past decade, dating back to the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iranian President. Given this level of interest and volume of discussion, how could Iran NOT have an effect on the country’s politics?

2. There’s nothing to study:  Another strange argument I’ve heard from Israeli scholars is that the Iran issue doesn’t offer any interesting angles for innovative research. Iran hates Israel. That’s it. Of course, this explanation does little to address the why of that statement. When pressed on this question, the answer usually involves some vague references to Anti-Semitism and/or Islamic fundamentalism that is built into the Iranian regime. This version of Iran is ruled by a group of long-bearded “Ayatollahs” and robed-and-turbaned “Mullahs,” for whom hatred of Israel is a core religious tenet.

This explanation is as lazy as it is ignorant. It reflects a strange antipathy to learning rarely seen in academic circles. Moreover, it is a rejection of the historical record. Iran wasn’t always an enemy of the Jewish State. Under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s rule, Iran was an ally of Israel under the Periphery Alliance. Even after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Israel continued providing Iran with weapons and military supplies during the Iran-Iraq War. Some of the motivation for that decision stemmed from a belief that Iran represented the lesser of two evils, but it was also partially driven by a desire to maintain relations with a state they believed still harbored a faction sympathetic to Israel. Somewhere along the way, this nuanced perception of Iran faded and was replaced with the more simplistic view that dominates today.

3. Everyone’s already an Iran expert: Over the course of my research, I’ve identified something I like to call the “Transitive Property of Iranian Knowledge in Israel” (it’s a working title): if you know x, and Iran is related in some way to x, then you must know Iran. Take nuclear proliferation, for example. One Israeli expert on nuclear proliferation I interviewed for my research began by stressing that she was not an Iran expert before later telling me that she’s certain that Iran hates Israel because of “its ideology.” Another researcher who writes extensively on Iran said he had never even heard of two of the most prominent books on Iranian-Israeli relations, Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance and Haggai Ram’s Iranophobia.

This logic also applies to broader regional or Arab experts, as well. If you know Iraq, or Syria, or Lebanon, then you must also know Iran. They’re both Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East — how different could they really be? Sometimes, even the most surface level exposure is all it takes to become an “Iran expert” in Israel. The result is that Iran is boiled down to a single issue or characteristic while the larger whole is ignored.

Whatever the actual reason, the scant attention paid to Iran by Israel scholars is an unfortunate outcome. I would have hoped that by this point, the quality of Iranian analysis in Israeli academic circles might have progressed beyond “they hate us,” but that will have to wait until next year’s conference.

Maybe I’ll write a paper for that one.

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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