Growing Rivalry Between Israel and Iran Poses Danger of Military Conflict

For Release

January 5, 2012

While Israel and Iran once were de facto allies, the two nations have come to view each other as direct rivals for power and influence in the Middle East, increasing the risk for a possible military conflict, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

"The Iranian regime views Israel as a regional competitor bent on undermining its revolutionary system," said Dalia Dassa Kaye, co-author of the study and a senior political scientist with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "Israel, on the other hand, views Iran as its main security challenge, posing serious strategic and ideological challenges to the Jewish state, particularly as Iran continues its pursuit of nuclear capabilities."

In order to prevent the current rivalry from escalating toward conflict, the study suggests U.S. leaders should continue to bolster security cooperation and intelligence-sharing with Israel, making such efforts visible to the Israeli public, while quietly counseling against unilateral action and continuing to focus on steps to further isolate, penalize and weaken Iran's capacity to project power and influence throughout the region.

The United States should engage in activities that increase understanding about how a deterrence relationship between Israel and Iran may evolve, and encourage direct communication between Israelis and Iranians through informal diplomatic channels. The United States also should continue both engagement and sanction policies that may affect the internal debate in Iran on nuclear weaponization.

Despite the current animosity, Israel and Iran have not always been rivals, nor are they natural competitors, researchers say. Arab governments tend to regard both nations with suspicion, and Israel and Iran do not have territorial disputes or compete economically. The two nations cooperated together for years before and after Iran's 1979 revolution, based on shared geopolitical interests.

Only in the last decade have the countries begun to see each other as rivals. As late as the 1990s, Israel's security establishment did not consider Iran as its predominant security challenge. However, Iran's expanding missile capabilities, nuclear advances and the rise of fundamentalist leaders with vitriolic anti-Israel rhetoric have fueled anxiety. This is particularly the case as Israel perceives Iranian influence on the rise.

Alireza Nader, co-author of the study and a senior policy analyst with RAND, notes that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 effectively eliminated Iraq as a common enemy of the two nations, and the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel—in which Iranian tactics and arms were seen as effective against Israel—reinforced concerns over Iran's growing regional reach. The Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 also have fed Israeli concerns about Iran's rising influence, although the protests also created new vulnerabilities and limitations for Iran.

Israel believes a nuclear Iran would undermine what some of its leaders view as an evolving tacit alliance between Israel and pro-Western Arab states opposed to Iranian influence and embolden Iran's nonstate allies toward greater conflict with Israel. In fact, many Israeli leaders and security analysts are less worried about Iran using a nuclear weapon against Israel than the greater influence a nuclear Iran would have, and the limitations it would place on Israel's and the United States' military and political maneuverability in the region.

At the same time, the RAND study says, rifts are emerging within Israel's strategic community about the value of a military strike option. Although some senior Israeli officials believe Israel could launch a unilateral attack on Iran's nuclear facilities with limited retaliation from Iran, others believe such a strike would not be worth the cost because at best it would only delay Iran's program and could lead to a dangerous region-wide conflict. Still others think the best scenario would be for Iran to provoke the United States into taking military action.

Three key factors have shaped Iran's conception of and behavior toward Israel: regime perceptions of the United States as its most significant adversary; a belief in the near symmetry between Israeli and U.S. interests; and a deep-seated ideological hostility toward Israel, especially as compared with Iran's Arab neighbors.

Iran's ongoing nuclear program is primarily directed toward the United States—Iran's chief military, political, economic and ideological rival—more than it is at Israel. However, Iran's elite believe that international sanctions and other coercive measures against Iran are in large part driven by Israeli interests and executed by the United States, rather than by larger concerns shared by much of the international community. The regime also blames the United States and Israel for fomenting internal instability in Iran.

A future Iranian regime—one not dominated by principlist officers from the Revolutionary Guards—is likely to view Israel differently, Nader said. Supporters of the Green Movement, for example, include the youth, the professional classes, students, women's rights groups and ethnic minorities, and believe in a less isolated and more democratic Iran.

Nader said the United States should consider future scenarios in which the current Iranian regime is radically transformed. Iranian fundamentalists appear to have consolidated power after the 2009 Iranian presidential election, but the regime continues to demonstrate severe fractures and faces critical vulnerabilities. The United States should pay close attention not only to Iran's nuclear program, but also to issues such as human rights abuses, which would signal to the Iranian people that the United States cares about Iran as a nation, and does not merely view it as a problem to be solved.

The study, "Israel and Iran: A Dangerous Rivalry," can be found at Other authors include Parisa Roshan.

Research for the study was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense intelligence community.

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