U.S. and Israel: Different Strategic Interests

By Robert Hazo

Originally published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , January, 1987

Although by no means unnoticed, one of the least emphasized aspects of the arms to Iran scandal has been the Israeli role in the whole affair. Indeed, the revelations of continuous Israeli sales of weapons to the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran long before the US became directly involved have been virtually eclipsed by the revelation of the contra connection. Whatever President Reagan's primary motivations may have been in authorizing the shipment of military hardware to Iran, however, they were far different from those of the Israelis.

In fact, the whole episode sets in high relief not only the fundamental differences between American and Israeli interests in the Middle East but, more important, their basic incompatibility and, therefore, inevitable conflict.

To begin to make the case for American and Israeli interests being at odds in this matter, it is necessary only to recall that there were reports of Israel supplying Iran with war material as early as 1980-81. In 1982 Moshe Arens, then part of the Begin government, told a Boston newspaper openly that Israel was selling arms to Khomeini's Iran.

This was a continuation of Israel's long and relatively close relationship with Iran under the Shah. The Shah arranged, for example, for the Mossad, Israel's equivalent of the CIA, to train his secret police, Savak. The Shah also guaranteed a regular supply of oil to Israel on good terms. At various times he collaborated with the Israelis in staging Kurdish uprisings against the Iraqi government, and in the Henry Kissinger era the US was also included in that anti-Iraq collaboration. The Shah did these things and more not only because he had no particular love for the Arabs, but also because he knew the strength of the Israeli lobby in America and what it could do to American policy towards Iran.

After the Shah

After the Shah was overthrown, Israel re-established its connection with Iran, primarily with the military. Now, however, the reasons for Israeli-Iranian collusion were no longer even within hailing distance of American policy since the Shah had been a friend of the United States while Khomeini has declared himself and his nation archenemies of the "Great Satan." For its part, America has been officially neutral in the Iran-Iraq war. However, after the Iraqis retreated to their original boundaries and called for an end to the war, the US began to tilt towards Iraq. The tilt accelerated after Iranian forces seized and held the Faw peninsula because of US fears of the effect of an Iranian victory on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other Gulf states. Since there is no prospect of an Iraqi victory, the US interest is for the war to end as quickly as possible, with no winner and no loser to destabilize the areas upon which US allies in Europe and Japan depend for their petroleum. Israel, on the other hand, has no desire for the war to end. Its spokesmen admit that Israel has been supplying Iran with US spare parts and weapons. Israel regards Iraq as one of its most dangerous enemies. The prospect of Iraq as a major barrier to Khomeini's self-proclaimed march on Jerusalem would end if the fighting stopped. Continuation of the war weakens both sides, and keeps the other Arab states distracted and divided, since the radical governments of Syria and Libya are backing Iran. CBS's "Sixty Minutes" on November 31 aired an interview with retired Israeli General Bar'Am, one of a number of individuals awaiting trial in the US on charges they planned to sell $2 billion in armaments to Iran. The former Israeli General said flatly that the shopping list for the purchase had been provided by the Israeli government. He dismissed the claims of official Israeli spokesmen that the sole reason Israel undertook to ship weapons to Iran was to accommodate the US. As far as he was concerned, he said, it was obviously better that two sworn enemies of Israel be fighting each other rather than fighting Israel.

By no means least among Israel's motivations is the large amount of money it has been acquiring by selling at premium prices military equipment, some of which it had received free from the US. It has been estimated that Iran has purchased up to $10 billion in armaments from all sources since the beginning of its war with Iraq. What part of this total Israel garnered is not known. In the case of the one sale we have been told about, thanks to the revelation of the Reagan Administration's attempt to deal with Iran, the Israelis sold $12 million worth of arms for $42 million, a markup of 250 percent for a net profit of $30 million. Given the number of years involved, and the frequency with which shipments from Eilat in Israel to Bandar Abbas in Iran have been described by Danish sailors among others, suggesting that Israel got a substantial part of the $10 billion, perhaps $1 billion or more, does not seem like a wild guess. Gary Sick, an NSC staffer in the Carter Administration and a Middle East expert, has estimated that in the last two years alone, Israeli sales, plus whatever modest US arms sales were made to Iran, totaled between $500 million and $1 billion.

Within the past two years, and with only a very slight increase in unemployment, Israel has reduced its inflation rate from 400 percent to 40 percent. Large infusions of Iranian cash constitute one possible way of accounting for such a dramatic economic change.

The Acceptable Risk

Obviously Israeli leaders have had to consider the effect on Israel of a possible Iranian victory. They apparently decided that an Iranian victory was improbable or that supplying Iran with weapons was an acceptable risk considering the havoc it was creating among the Arab states. Or, rightly or wrongly, Israel simply rejected the idea that an Iranian victory would result in a wave of fundamentalist fervor that would sweep away moderate governments in the Arab countries and unite them with Iran in a massive struggle against Israel. One serious observer of the Middle East, former CIA Director William Colby, believes, however, that an Iranian victory would have "repercussions from Indonesia to Morocco." US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has voiced similar warnings and some think it would result in changes in the Middle East unmatched by anything since the breakup of the Ottoman empire.

Aware of this train of thought, Israel no doubt thinks that it could present to its US patron the image of an Israel besieged by hordes united in a holy war, ensuring an increase in its all-important economic and military assistance from the United States.

If an Iranian victory produced an aggressive fundamentalist movement, its most immediate targets would be Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States, Jordan and Egypt. One reason, therefore, that Israel may be willing to risk an Iranian victory and, indeed, may even be seeking it is the knowledge that an assault on any of those states would almost certainly draw the United States directly into the military struggle.

The Reagan administration and the Carter administration before it have said that the US would not permit aggression towards friendly states in the area to succeed. The possibility of an assault on the Arab states of the Gulf was, in fact, why the Rapid Deployment Force was brought into being. The United States knows that it can do without Gulf oil if need be, but that Western Europe and Japan (with whose economies its own is so entwined) cannot. Thus, an Iranian victory, made possible in part by Israeli-supplied equipment, could very likely result in an Americanization of Israel's war with its enemies, as Israel partly succeeded in accomplishing in Lebanon. Such an American involvement would clearly serve Israeli interests in the area, but would be directly contrary to those of the United States.

Against the backdrop of this kind of strategic thinking, it is understandable that the Israeli Government, aided by pro-Israel Americans close to the National Security Council or perhaps even within it, sought repeatedly to link the US desire to get back on speaking terms with Iran with Israel's desire to supply that country with arms. As journalist Robert Novak observed, once again the Israeli tail wagged the American dog. It is also noteworthy that he is one of the very few to say so publicly. However, even Henry Kissinger, whose patience with Israel seems almost limitless, allowed himself to say of the American delivery of weapons to Iran that it is folly to give arms to someone whose victory is against US interests. He did not add that it is just as foolish to allow a "third country" (as President Reagan prefers to refer to Israel) to deliver significant quantities of American arms for years to a country whose victory would imperil all US interests in the area and likely result in the spilling of still more American blood.

A primary goal of Israeli policy is to become America's sole valuable ally in a vital region. To do so Israel has, over the years, made substantial efforts to alienate all of its neighbors from the United States. For only thus can it continue to secure the $3 billion or more it receives annually to allow it to realize its geopolitical goals.

America has clear political and economic interests in having friendly relations with 150 million Arabs whose force in world politics is bound to grow. It cannot protect those interests while at the same time guaranteeing the security of an aggressive Israel that refuses even to discuss returning the Arab lands seized in 1967: Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. Many Arabs have taken (and many more will take) the position that they cannot be friendly, however much they might like to be, with the United States as long as it either supports or does nothing to prevent abrasive and threatening Israeli policies. Meanwhile, Israel, through the pursuit of such policies, has made it abundantly clear that it intends to remain the sole ally of the US by alienating America from its Arab neighbors. That it has not always succeeded in doing so is certainly not due to any lack of effort.

A Long History

As far back as the 1954 Lavon affair, in which Israeli agents planted incendiary devices in US Embassy and Consulate installations in Cairo and Alexandria in hopes of creating bad blood between the U.S. and the budding Nasser regime, Israel has spared no effort to alienate America from the Arabs, and particularly the so-called Arab moderates who are most likely to become U.S. allies in the region. One of the principal ways Israel accomplishes this is through unilateral military actions using American equipment, or hostile political actions, or both, without consulting the US. Examples are the Sinai invasion of 1956, and in the 1970s and 1980s the annexation of Jerusalem, the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, the annexation of the Golan Heights, and the bloody invasions of Lebanon.

That American decision makers over the years have allowed this pattern to continue, while they economically subsidize the West Bank colonization that they politically deplore, labels them in the eyes of the world as either dupes or victims of the Israeli lobby. The ultimate irony is that US acquiescence in Israel's aim to be America's one reliable ally in the Middle East will turn that goal into a self-fulfilling prophecy.