Threatened destruction! We hear it every day in the news: Iran demands civilian nuclear capabilities and Israel raises alarm bells over their evil intentions.
Do you understand why? Your answer will likely depend on your political leanings. Right wingers will broadly blame Islam and Axis of Evil, and left wingers blame the oppressive regimes in both Israel and Iran.
These answers, while based in decayed ruins of the truth, are ultimately misleading; some are simply based on fear.
To be frank, most people do not understand Iranian-Israeli relations because the path to understanding is both incredibly boring and frustrating to the point of exasperation- unless you’re a history and politics nerd, which most people are not.
I will attempt to give background in narrative form- hopefully you won’t fall asleep…
Our story begins with Abraham (Warning for Muslim readers-the link has a picture of the Prophet), the Middle Eastern fellow many of you may be familiar with from the Torah, Bible, and the Quran. He was the strong, patriarchal type and had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael.
Fast forward- It’s after 610 AD and the lines of these two sons have branched out into the three major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Here’s where they start to lay the foundation of our problem. The Prophet Mohammed was being attacked by polytheistic tribes from the Arabian Peninsula. It was some epic fighting, and things were pretty close for awhile. *Spoiler Alert* Mohammed wins, but before he does three Jewish tribes ally with him. Before the ultimate victory they have a few issues that do not permanently destroy Mohammed’s relations with the Jews, but do set a precedent that Islamic extremists use to fuel anti-Israel propaganda.
Ultimately, Islam takes over the Arabian Peninsula and begins to spread out into the Middle East through a series of conquests. This is, however, after the Prophet Mohammed’s death.
The Conquerors are led by Abu Bakr, who was one of Mohammed’s top followers. He successfully took over leadership of the majority of Muslims, but his rule was not undisputed.
There was faction who believed the real successor was meant to be Mohammed’s cousin: Ali. The followers of Ali, now known as Shias (Shi’ites) fought many battles with the followers of Abu Bakr now known as Sunnis. They lost. The Shia were not totally wiped out, but they were driven to the edges of the Islamic territories.
Most of the Shia ended up settling in Iran. They believed that Ali was what they called an Imam, a leader with divine right. This will ruffle a few feathers, but the Shia Imam can in many ways be compared to the Catholic Pope in station and function. I will go even further and suggest that for westerners, it can be useful to think of Shia as Catholics and Sunni as Protestants. The comparisons are not perfect but they can help you to relate culturally if you are from the West.
Shia also have a similar concept of original sin, feeling compelled to mourn and punish themselves for their martyrs and past defeats.
This is Catholic self-flagellation in commemorate Easter:
And this is Shia self-flagellation to commemorate the month of Ashura:
Shia followed up to twelve of these Imams over the years, with different sects breaking off at different points. The last of these Imams disappeared in 941 AD. The Shia believe he went into something called Occultation, which is sort of a willful hidden wraith-state. The Ayatollah, the current religious AND political ruler in Iran, claims the same authority as an Imam, without actually being one.
There is a Shia prophesy. One of many, but it is the most critical in its impact on international relations and peace in the Middle East. The last Imam, the one in Occultation, is expected to return. In fact, in most versions of the prophesy, he is also the Return of Christ and comes in a time of apocalyptic warfare.
This is an official Iranian Government video:
Yes folks, that was real. In fact, in July 2010, the Ayatollah Khamenei told close associates that he had privately met with the Mahdi and was told that he’d arrive before his time as Supreme Leader ends.
This means that since Iran is a Shia Theocracy, and therefore Religious authorities control the government, they are fundamentally opposed to the existence of Israel and have an interest in creating conflict and chaos. They see further warfare as a sign that the Second Coming is approaching. Also, as we have seen, this attitude is neither fringe nor considered a secret.
The previous president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, was spouting off about his divine mission to help bring the Mahdi every time he opened his mouth. The current President Hassan Rouhani has been more careful, but also less transparent. It is unclear if his change in official government rhetoric means a real change in stance or is simply a tactic to avoid the sever economic hardship suffered by the regime in recent years.
I think the moral of this story is that the Government of Israel cannot make peace with Iran without a separation between church (Mosque) and state within Iran itself. I believe that this is a more likely course of events than that separation occurring in Israel. I do think that it is possible for a secular Iran to make peace with a religiously-based Israel.
I not spent much time discussing Sunni Islam in relation to Israel because, like Christian Protestantism, there are too many branches and schools of thought in Sunni Islam for it to be easily categorized. I am comfortable saying, however, that the issues that Sunni countries have with Israel are political, and do not share the same theological basis as their problems with Iran.
This was still pretty dense, I suppose, but hopefully you as a reader have a better picture of why Israel and Iran are constantly at each other’s throats. I have a strong commitment to accuracy so please feel free to contact me if you find any factual errors.