The prospective Israel-Hizbullah prisoner swap that has been discussed in recent weeks is perhaps more than a bilateral deal that also happens to involve Iran and Germany. Given the close relationship between Tehran and Hizbullah, Iranian involvement was not entirely unexpected. This leads one to reflect on the prospects for an improvement in Iranian-Israeli relations Iranian interests cannot rule this out even if such an option is highly improbable at present.
According to press reports, Israel seeks information on the whereabouts of air force navigator Ron Arad, the remains of three Israeli soldiers and the release of Israeli reservist and businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum. In return, Hizbullah wants the release of all Lebanese prisoners, including two officials directly or indirectly affiliated with the party, Abdul Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, as well as that of Palestinian and Arab detainees.
The Iranian angle was hinted at in early August in the Tel Aviv Russian-language daily Novosti Nedeli. Citing anonymous Israeli government sources, the daily said that during Iranian-American negotiations over the possible exchange of Al-Qaeda suspects in Iran for members of the Iranian Mujahideen Khalq opposition group in Iraq, an Iranian representative raised the possibility of releasing Tennenbaum and repatriating the dead soldiers remains. Washington reportedly rejected the proposal, but according to Novosti Nedeli the Iranian and Israeli sides pursued their talks. Added to the mix was Tehrans demand that four Iranian diplomats who disappeared in Lebanon in 1982 be released. Iran believes Israel is holding them.
Confirmation of an Iranian angle appeared in late September, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that Iranians imprisoned in Europe might be part of a deal with Hizbullah. This appeared to be a reference to Iranian intelligence officer Kazem Darabi, who along with several Lebanese men was convicted by a Berlin court in April 1997 for the 1992 killings of Kurdish dissidents. The role of German mediator Ernst Urlau in the negotiations is not unprecedented. In 1996, for example, Berlin brokered the exchange of two dead Israeli soldiers for 45 prisoners and the remains of 123 Lebanese combatants. In late-1999, five Hizbullah members held by Israel were released following negotiations also involving Iran and Germany. As of Oct. 9, the status of the Hizbullah-Israeli negotiations remained undetermined, with questions being raised about Tennenbaums physical state and with Arads family trying to block Diranis release through a court injunction. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz asserted on Oct. 3 that Arad was alive and that Iran was responsible for returning him to Israel. Arads family repeated the charge a few days later. However, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi reaffirmed that Tehran had no information on the airman.
Less obscure is the current state of Iranian-Israeli relations. It seems unlikely that any deal, whether it involves Iranians or not, will have a positive impact on a very hostile relationship. During a military parade in Tehran on Sept. 22, for example, Irans new 1,300-kilometer-range Shihab-3 missiles bore the slogan Israel must be wiped off the map. At an August conference at Tehran University organized by the student committee for the Support for the Palestinian Intifada, a group headed by Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, the final resolution called for annihilation of the Zionist regime. Speakers praised Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, referring to them as martyrdom operations. Iran also hosted Support for the Palestinian Intifada conferences in April 2001 and June 2002. At the latter event representatives of Hamas, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command heard Mohtashami-Pur refer to Israel as a cancerous tumor.
It is too simplistic to dismiss such statements as rhetoric meant only for internal consumption. Words have an impact on perceptions and can strengthen preconceptions. In an August interview with the French daily Le Figaro, Sharon referred specifically to the Shihab missiles and Tehrans relationship with Hamas, Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad, adding: In the Middle East, Iran is now (Israels) greatest threat. During a September trip to India, he tried to dissuade New Delhi from transferring technology to Iran.
Iranian officials are masters of realpolitik. Tehran criticized the US attack on Taleban-led Afghanistan, but cooperated with the US military and with the post-war negotiations in Bonn. Even though it has criticized the US-led war in Iraq and the subsequent occupation, Tehran has tacitly recognized the interim Iraqi Governing Council and will participate in a multilateral donors conference in Madrid later this month. For all the Iranian chanting of death to America, Iran and the US hold intermittent bilateral discussions on matters of mutual concern.
Can this lead to expectations of a similar trend in Iranian-Israeli relations? Irans hostility to Israel has religious roots and is also a welcome source of agreement with Irans predominantly Arab and Sunni neighbors. These factors, plus the negligible direct benefits of relations with Israel, suggest that Iran will see little advantage in changing the status quo. Nor is Israel keen to improve its relations with Tehran. After the bombing in Haifa last Saturday that killed 19 people and wounded 60 others, Sharons adviser, Dore Gold, described an axis of terror that begins in Iran.
Such mutual perceptions play strongly against bilateral, government-to-government contacts in the near future. This could change, however, as the current generation of Iranian leaders dies off. Approximately two-thirds of the Iranian population is under the age of 30, and has no memory of such formative experiences as life under the pro-Israel monarchy, activism during the 1978-1979 revolution, or fighting in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. They will undoubtedly sympathize with the Palestinians, but are unlikely to support the activities of groups like Hamas. Until, indeed if, such a change occurs, Iranian-Israeli contacts will continue to take place through intermediaries, even when they are of direct concern to both sides.
William Samii, a regional analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Inc., writes the RFE/RL Iran Report (www.rferl.org/iran-report). The views expressed here are his own. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR