Iran and Israel Need to Talk

It’s now been about four weeks since Iranian missiles filled Israeli skies, as humanity held its breath for nuclear war and possible extinction. If that strikes you as hyperbole, consider this: Had Israel suffered great damage, the war could have gone nuclear, and don’t think for a minute that Russia and China would allow their ally Iran to be torn to pieces by the west. Everyone would have piled on; but we all got very lucky. The worst could have happened, except Israel did not strike back massively. It didn’t because a quick alliance with the U.S., some European and moderate Arab countries shielded Israelis from Iran’s humongous barrage of drones and missiles. This shield, in turn, was possible because Iran telegraphed its intentions loud and clear and far in advance.

So maybe, just maybe there are enough rational actors to protect our species from any repeat of those terrifying days in April? That appears to be the case, but those who want to avoid a repeat cannot rest on their laurels. You can’t relax with a threat of this magnitude or count on what happened before, willy nilly, happening again. Instead put your faith in diplomacy, the only diplomacy that counts, the only diplomacy that will guard us from the unthinkable, namely a repeat without Iran’s 72-hour notice, without Israel’s restraint – and that diplomacy is talks between Iran and Israel.

Many view this notion as too far-fetched even to bother with. But bear with me: for those talks to occur, there must be a just and acceptable settlement for the Palestinians, with the end of this horrifying war in Gaza, without which, Tehran likely won’t come to the table. What that settlement would be is the hard work negotiators must thrash out, but one thing is sure: we need wiser heads directing the dialogue than the ones currently in charge. Hardliners in Jerusalem, Tehran and Gaza will only try to kill each other and, in the process, all the rest of us. Those hardliners are allergic to the nuanced thought necessary to end this standoff, which is profoundly unlucky for the human race – but we still have some moderates on the scene, those vitally essential rational beings who exist in small but influential numbers. (The elephant in the room, of course, is Hamas. After October 7, Israel will have nothing to do with it. If Chinese and Russian mediators are serious, they will take that into consideration.)

So: A prompt end to the war, then a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian impasse, and then actual face-to-face discussions between bigwigs in Jerusalem and Tehran. This is imperative, because those raging rulers of the Middle East owe it not only to their people but also to the rest of us to sort this horrible mess out, once and for all. And they’re not the only ones: powerful allies on each side – the U.S. and Europe versus China and Russia – need to goad the two adversaries to the bargaining table, so that there are no more bombings of embassies, no more barrages of missiles. That is the goal: neither of those things happens again.

This is not the first suggestion of talks between Jerusalem and Tehran in the current wartime context. On April 25, Eldar Mamedov wrote in Responsible Statecraft that while the good news was that Israel and Iran preferred de-escalation, the bad news was that “the conditions for a re-escalation remain in place.” Mamedov cites Iran’s proxies in Lebanon and Syria. (I would add the war in Gaza itself and the dire straits of the Palestinians.) At the time of Mamedov’s article, it was unclear how far Tehran would go to protect those proxies; it’s still unclear though it’s also again obvious that regarding Israeli actions in Jerusalem’s backyard, Iran is not trigger-happy.

“The strike on Israel is a continuation of the Iranian tactic to ‘escalate to de-escalate,’” Mamedov writes, citing this approach regarding the Iran nuclear pact (JCPOA) after the U.S. withdrew from it, and “Iran’s strike on the Saudi oil fields in 2019.” Mamedov calls that strike “a precursor to a process that eventually led to a relative normalization of ties with Riyadh in 2023.” And who midwifed that normalization? China, because Washington could not have achieved it; so that raises the question of who could bring Jerusalem and Tehran to the table. The U.S. is invested in the notion of an alliance against Iran, a posture antithetical to peace and one that, ultimately may very well not be in the interests of that region’s nations.

If Washington cannot shed its dream of a united front hostile to Tehran, someone else, another great power will step in; but it’s not the threat of losing the diplomacy sweepstakes to China – and the attendant loss of face – as much as the actual menace of a West Asian war that could compel, finally, some strategic rationality in the U.S. Washington does not want to fight a war against Tehran. Some loony congressional Republicans may, but in this context it’s worth noting that even GOP presidential candidate Donald “Bust up the Nuclear Deal” Trump has been unusually quiet. Maybe it’s finally dawned on him, too, that war with Tehran means a much wider war, likely a global one, and one that thus involves nukes.

In any event, as Joe “Mini-NATOs Everywhere” Biden fantasizes about a U.S.-Israel-Saudi-plus pact strong enough to face down Iran, the world has moved on. Biden should, too. After all, during the Iranian missile barrage, Washington also showed restraint, limiting itself to defending Israel and not going on the offense. It’s so painfully obvious that this was the only rational response that it hardly bears mentioning.

How else has the world moved on? Well, Tehran recently offered to use its civilian nuclear knowledge to help Riyadh develop nuclear power, a very real possibility if Washington’s dream of a Saudi-Israel pact falls through. The world has moved on in many other ways, as well, with most of the Global South inclining to the Chinese model of peaceful investment and development rather than to the installation of foreign military bases and great power, martial tensions. True, China has issues along the Indian border and with other nations in the China Sea, disputes the U.S. would be very wise not to inflame, because if it avoids them, those disagreements will likely get resolved – without war. The only sure thing is that the more Washington meddles in Beijing’s relations with its neighbors, the more likely becomes some catastrophic military eruption.

Like it or not in Washington, Moscow and Beijing are in West Asia. This can be regarded as a threat or an opportunity to stop playing a deadly game, the opportunity being that Russia and China also want to do business there, and for commerce you need peace. The war in Gaza has been absolutely calamitous for the Palestinians, the Israeli economy and global standing have taken huge hits, hostilities have put all of West Asia on edge and, in April, contributed to an Iran/Israel blow-up the world never wants to see again.

The current moment bears some resemblance to December 2021, when, before the Ukraine War began, Moscow fired off desperate messages to Washington, beseeching it to settle the crisis with some recognition of the Kremlin’s security interests. The U.S. turned up its nose and thus opened the gate for the horseman of war to gallop across the southwestern steppe. At this moment, Middle East nations stand at a similar crossroads, because while the Iran/Israel dispute may appear to have receded for now, in reality, it has not. It casts a long shadow over the region and the world. To prevent that becoming humanity’s shadow of death, a conversation needs to start, the type of conversation Joe Biden refused to entertain in December 2021. That conversation won’t happen out of the blue; someone has to facilitate it. Where are the diplomats, the statesmen who can do that? The world is waiting.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.