One day after senior Israeli government officials raised eyebrows at an international conference by remaining in the room when Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took the stage to speak, Zarif told a German television interviewer that Tehran could restore diplomatic relations with Israel in the event of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. “Once the Palestinian problem is solved the conditions for an Iranian recognition of Israel will be possible,” Zarif said in the interview Monday.
The statement was not the first suggestion from a senior Iranian official that the Islamic Republic could find a way to reconcile itself with the existence of Israel – but it may the most hopefully timed. More than a decade ago, the reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who held office from 1997 to 2005, also moved to ratchet back the maximalist position often articulated by Iranian hardliners who called for erasing Israel from the map. Khatami framed the issue in less absolutist terms, saying that if the Palestinians negotiated a state of their own next to Israel, why should Iran be “more Palestinian than the Palestinians”?
But Khatami did not have what Zarif’s boss, President Hassan Rouhani, apparently enjoys, at least for now: the blessing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nor was Iran in the early stages of a possible realignment of its relations with the United States – a tentative rapprochement that has emerged in recent months that both looms behind and guides negotiations on the future of Iran’s nuclear program.
The stakes are high in the nuclear talks; some experts warn Iran might be just months away from the ability to build a nuclear weapon. But the spirit of bonhomie surrounding the talks – there were many smiles and handshakes between negotiators at the talks in Geneva in late November and at the U.N. General Assembly two months earlier – rises from hopes that their success will be the bridge that ushers Iran back into what President Obama calls “the community of nations.” In Syria, where Obama has acknowledged Iran played a role in the removal of chemical weapons, a way may open for serious talks on ending the horrific civil war, in which Tehran is deeply involved on the side of President Bashar Assad. A more moderate Iran might also encourage the transition of Hizballah – the Shiite militia it created in Lebanon a generation ago to combat Israel – from a military organization with a formidable terrorist capability into an exclusively political entity. Washington also would like to see Iran ratchet down its support for the most militant Palestinian groups, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, which rules the 1.7 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.
This is where Israel comes in. Should U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry manage to cajole both Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (led by Mahmoud Abbas, head of the secular Fatah faction) into a peace deal, Iran would have one more rationale for moderating its position.
And that’s why the subtle diplomatic signals both Tehran and Jerusalem sent one another over the last couple of days made news: They may have been small, but they were encouraging. Those kind of signals have rarely been seen between those two capitals in recent years.