Book Reviews

Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.

Maurice Labelle
University of Akron
Parsi, Trita. Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

1 In Treacherous Alliance, Trita Parsi undertakes the daunting task of telling the story of the triangular relationship between the United States, Iran, and Israel from the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 to the present. Geopolitics and a penchant for realpolitik, according to Parsi, serve as the foundations of this triad. In the process, he rebuts the popular idea that Iranian-Israeli enmity is based for the most part on ideological and cultural differences, otherwise referred to as a clash of civilizations. “Blinded by the contemporary rhetoric,” Parsi explains, “most observers have failed to notice a critical common interest shared by these two non-Arab powerhouses in the Middle East: the need to portray their fundamentally strategic conflict in ideology. (p. 2)

2 Ideology and the subsequent diplomacy of emotions were and continue to be used by Israel and Iran to obtain support from other actors and greater geopolitical power. “The conflict between Iran and Israel wasn’t sparked by an ideological difference, nor is it ideological fervor that keeps it alive today,” the author explains. “Certainly, this does not mean that the ideologies of these states are irrelevant; at a minimum, the rhetoric they produce makes a political accommodation more difficult.” (p. 262) After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, for example, Israel depicted Iran as the enemy-Other “mad mullah” and characterized its nascent rivalry with Tehran “as one between the sole democracy in the Middle East and a totalitarian theocracy that hated everything the West stood for.” (p. 3) Similarly, Iran sought to define its regional power struggle with Tel Aviv along ideological lines. For the Islamic Republic, religion was used to foster the image of Iran as the leader of the Ummah, the greater Islamic community, and foment admiration amid the “Arab streets.” The United States, a foreign regional power, is left to contend with these supposed opposing forces as it seeks to maintain its hegemony in the Middle East.

3 A good example that unearths the primacy of geopolitical rivalry in this triangular relationship is the arms-for-hostages/Iran-Contra affair, which Parsi examines in great detail. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Reagan administration dispatched a “peacekeeping” mission to Lebanon. In retaliation for the United States’ endless support of Israeli aggression, Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported political-military group in Lebanon, kidnapped a number of US civilians. Consequently, secret negotiations between the United States and Iran over hostages were facilitated ironically enough by the latter’s regional “nemesis,” Israel, who was growing fearful of Iraq’s increasing regional power. At this time, Washington and Tehran negotiated the release of US hostages in exchange for sophisticated US armament — needed by Iran to defeat Saddam Hussein’s forces — which would be delivered by Tel Aviv. Once the international community discovered these secret talks, US President Ronald Reagan was obliged to publicly confess “that despite the United States’ own arms embargo and its effort to stop other countries from selling arms to Iran, America had sold arms to Iran and transferred the money to the Contra guerilla army that was fighting the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. (p. 124) During this affair, Parsi argues, Iran used Israel to foment a rapprochement with the United States. “To Tehran, Israel wasn’t an asset of itself, it was a consumable good, a short-lived tactical relationship that could reduce the threat to Iran while safeguarding Iran’s real strategic goal, regional leadership.” (p. 129)

4 A noticeable shortcoming of Treacherous Alliance is its large scope. Despite displaying the continuity of geopolitical strategy in US-Iran-Israel relations, many fascinating sub-topics are underdeveloped. Some very important questions, in the process, are left unanswered: What is the role of religion? What role did the United States play in cultivating Iran-Israel relations before the Iranian Revolution? How did the Jewish Diaspora in Iran influence this triangular relationship? What are the links between Iranian anti-US and anti-Israeli sentiments? What was the influence of the US Israel lobby?

5 Nevertheless, Parsi’s book is surely a great resource for prospective graduate students and faculty members alike. It is, after all, the first comprehensive work to examine the triangular relationship between Washington, Tehran, and Tel Aviv and will serve as the launching pad for further research in this domain. But perhaps most importantly, Treacherous Alliance presents a refreshing and nuanced outlook that contests the notion of a pre-destined clash between Muslim Iran and the Judeo-Christian US-Israeli alliance.

Maurice Labelle is a Graduate Assistant with the Department of History at the University of Akron.