Members of Congress have in recent months drawn frequent reference to Munich 1938 as an analogy for the Obama administration’s diplomatic engagement with Iran. The historical reference has long been used to conjure the specter of a genocidal dictator devilishly manipulating the naïve leader of a war-weary democracy into concessions intended to appease but instead whetting his appetite for more.
While Congress should certainly not trust Khamenei to stand by his declaration that nuclear weapons are forbidden according to his interpretation of Islam—as Secretary Kerry has emphasized, the international community must “test and verify”—legislators are making the equally dangerous mistake of caricaturizing the Supreme Leader of Iran. Continuing to do so could lead to strategic missteps that may undermine the international sanctions regime and lead the United States into another costly and disastrous war.
Congress, however, seems to have missed more nuanced statements from Khamenei indicating that while his position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is certainly not acceptable, it is not genocidal or irrational. It logically follows, then, that he can be negotiated with on this issue. A moderation in Iran’s policy toward Israel would in turn facilitate a more secure and stable nuclear agreement.
Khamenei believes that the State of Israel was illegitimately founded in violation of the rights of Palestinians and therefore that Israel should be dissolved as a political entity and replaced with a state whose constitution would be determined by a referendum held by the native Muslim, Christian, and Jewish families of pre-1948 Palestine.
He also views Israel as a hostile foreign entity that was established in order to exploit and subjugate the Muslim world through financial, economic and political penetration as well as military means. He believes the United States supports Israel in pursuit of its economic objectives in the region and because of the powerful influence of the Zionist lobby.
Khamenei sees this as a growing threat to Iran and the broader Muslim world. He also sees Israel’s continuing colonization of the West Bank and claim to Jerusalem as an injustice to the Palestinians and an affront to Islam. He views the Islamic Republic’s resistance against this colonization as a moral and religious obligation as well as integral to his pan-Islamist vision.
Khamenei’s paranoia, rooted in his personal experience of torture and exile under the U.S.-backed Shah, as well as his longer-term historical perspective on foreign impositions in the Middle East, make his statements on this issue more than rhetorical hyperbole calculated to stir up the Muslim world. His hostile rhetoric is in part a defensive response to his fear of renewed foreign dominance and humiliation.
While Khamenei’s proposed one-state solution is highly idealistic—if it were actually imposed, it would undoubtedly lead to civil war—it is nevertheless based on his conception of justice. Therefore a negotiated solution to this problem—one Khamenei could accept or would at least not attempt to sabotage via Hezbollah and Hamas—would be one that substantively acknowledges the rights of Palestinians and unfettered Muslim access to Islamic religious sites in and around Jerusalem.
This would require Congress to make economic aid to Israel contingent upon the dismantlement of its West Bank settlements and international jurisdiction over the religious sites. Israel unequivocally has a right to security but it does not have a right to territorial aggrandizement—and in fact its settlement expansions are detrimental to both Israeli and American security. Nevertheless, domestic political forces in Israel dictate that they will continue without the counterweight of promised reductions in U.S. aid.
Moderation of U.S. policy on this issue is certainly not guaranteed to lead to reciprocation by Khamenei but his hardline position on this issue would become increasingly untenable if the U.S. demonstrated itself to be a genuine peace broker in the region. A moderation in Khamenei’s position on Israel would in turn facilitate a positive sum, sustainable nuclear agreement that the region could not only live with but also benefit from in terms of technological advancement and improved security relations. Negotiations on Israel-Palestine should not be linked to the nuclear negotiations given the latter’s more pressing timeline but they should be explored in parallel.