Iran’s Struggle with Israel Is Ideological and Religious—Not Geopolitical

September 14, 2021 | Eran Lerman
About the author: Eran Lerman is vice-president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and teaches Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Shalem College.

While the Islamic Republic invests enormous resources in supporting groups that attack the Jewish state, and the Jewish state likewise sees the Islamic Republic as its greatest strategic threat, the two have no fundamentally competing interests or territorial disputes. Instead, writes Eran Lerman, their conflict stems entirely from the ayatollahs’ theological commitment to destroying Israel:

At the root of the ancient rift between Sunni and Shiite (literally, the tradition vs. the faction) lies a dispute over political history: who should have been the rightful successor of [Mohammad]. With the Shiites loyal to the claim of his son in-law Ali and his progeny—the prophet’s grandsons Hasan and Husayn—their faction’s defeat at the hands of the Umayyads in the battle of Karbala in 680 became a cataclysmic event, an emblem of a history gone wrong. . . . [U]ntil the twist it took under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the last quarter of the 20th century, this Shiite mourning about the state of the world was not necessarily translated into a call to arms.

What Khomeini did—perhaps inspired, at least to some extent, by Frantz Fanon and his “Third-Worldly” Marxist creed aimed at “the wretched of the earth”—was to translate the ancient Shiite grievance into a modern revolutionary agenda. The redress of the shattering wrong of the 7th century became synonymous with the overthrow of the existing order of the late 20th.

As it happened, the coming to power of the Islamic revolution in Iran coincided with . . . Anwar Sadat’s peace with Israel, signed in March 1979, within weeks of Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran. This, in turn, gave Iran’s position on Israel a unique twist, which grew and persisted now for more than four decades: namely that while the treasonous Sunni regimes have laid down their arms, it is now the duty of the true faith of Islam—the Shiite version of revolutionary Islamism—to prove itself by remaining, alone if necessary, “in the business” of destroying Israel.

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