In his first major speech to parliament, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf vowed revenge for the US drone attack in January that killed Qasem Soleimani. File photo: AFP

Hostility between Iran and Israel has been a fixture of Middle East politics for decades, and one of the conundrums derailing peace and stability in the region. The two sides have consistently provoked each other, exchanged threats and been entangled in a proxy conflict in such diverse places as Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Syria and Yemen, dragging on with no clear end in sight.

In response to the recent assassination of the mastermind of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear enterprise, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and on the anniversary of the killing of the Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani, a group of legislators in Iran’s parliament, dominated by ultra-conservatives opposed to President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, have tabled an unusual motion that if passed, will obligate the government of Iran to lay the groundwork for the “annihilation” of the State of Israel by 2041.

The legislation is broad-ranging and includes other stipulations as well, including declaring as illegal any cooperation between Iranian nationals and the US government and requiring the government of Iran to finance and support the Palestinians’ “Great March of Return” demonstrations and attempt to break the siege of the Gaza Strip.

Pedram Partovi (left) is an associate professor of history at the American University in Washington, DC. A historian of the medieval and modern Muslim world and an observer of Iran politics, his first book was Popular Iranian Cinema before the Revolution: Family and Nation in Filmfarsi (2017).

Asia Times spoke to Professor Partovi to discuss the recent parliamentary motion, its implications for the stability of the Middle East and the prospects of Iran’s foreign relations.

Kourosh Ziabari: Does Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament have the potential to instigate a large-scale conflagration in the region through radical legislation and passing laws that can drag Iran into an all-out regional conflict?

Pedram Partovi: From my understanding, the conservative parliament in this “plan” for the annihilation of Israel does not mandate military attack to accomplish its so-called goals. It is an attempt to formalize the Islamic Republic’s moral and material support of Palestinians and Palestinian causes.

Hostilities between Iran and Israel are these days seemingly always threatening to break out into full-blown war but the parliamentarians’ motion, even if it does become law, seems to be more for internal consumption than a serious actionable plan threatening Israel’s existence.

Unfortunately, some Israeli politicians have also engaged in this kind of posturing and saber-rattling over the years. In the propaganda war between the two countries, these kinds of actions do have consequences and certainly [could] contribute to a hot war, but I see little appetite for it on either side at present. 

They both have bigger fish to fry, so to speak, at home. In both Israel and Iran, the political classes are jostling for position in preparation for elections. In the short term, that’s where most of their attention will be focused.

KZ: Do you think the new motion is a continuation of the provocations hardline parliamentarians have started by requiring the government to pursue 20% uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility? What are their objectives?

PP: The so-called principlists in both elected and appointed government organs again appear to me to be attempting to strengthen their hand at the expense of their rivals at home. 

While some may believe that this latest move to return to 20% enrichment is a poison pill for negotiations with the West, earlier statements from parliament Speaker [Mohammad Bagher] Ghalibaf asserting his superior ability to negotiate with the Americans and their European allies would suggest that the principlists see this new law as a negotiating tactic that at once strengthens Iran’s negotiating position and weakens the Rouhani administration’s ability to get sanctions lifted before the June elections.

Of course, Ghalibaf made these comments about negotiating over the nuclear file before the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. But so far Ghalibaf and company have only used the assassination to put more pressure on the Rouhani administration and not to disavow the nuclear deal altogether. 

KZ: Why doesn’t parliament take steps to remedy the many woes of Iran’s troubled economy, including hyperinflation of historic proportions and the steep devaluation of the national currency, instead of spending its time and resources on ploys like making the destruction of Israel an official Islamic Republic policy? Is this aimed at serving as a distraction from the nation’s economic challenges?

PP: I’m not sure any branch of the government is in much of a position to alleviate the economic pain that most Iranians are facing. Decades of sanctions and widespread corruption and mismanagement have tied their hands effectively even if they wished to do more. 

Some plans have been floated in parliament. A recent one is the motion to raise the subsidized exchange rate 400% to curb exchange-rate manipulation and the embezzlement of foreign currency, which have contributed to sharp price hikes in basic commodities. While such plans may help to solve one aspect of the problem, they often exacerbate another.

The fact of the matter is that without a serious crackdown on corruption and a negotiated settlement of all outstanding issues with the United States and its allies, political elites in Iran cannot in any substantive way solve the country’s economic problems.

The idea of economic self-sufficiency pushed for years by the office of the Supreme Leader is admirable on its face but wholly unrealistic, especially for a country like Iran reliant on oil revenues to keep it afloat. Of course, the lack of oil revenues in the short term also makes any efforts to create a more diverse, sustainable, and self-reliant economy in the long term more difficult. There is no distraction that can obscure that fact.

KZ: Provided that the proposed legislation is passed by the parliament, do you expect further tensions between Iran and the international community and a new period of isolation for Tehran?

PP: One can hope for the sake of ordinary Iranians that the tensions with the international community are dialed down in the weeks and months to come. 

The Rouhani administration has repeatedly signaled its willingness to return to its commitments in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The recent parliamentary action also allows for a return despite its belligerent facade. 

Perhaps the secret intention of the new law is to make sure that Iran is at the top of the [Joe] Biden administration’s to-do list, but that may be wishful thinking on my part. Still, I think the economic situation and the ongoing coronavirus crisis in the country will force even those Iranian leaders who are quite happy with the country’s isolation from the West to acknowledge the need for renewed and serious dialogue.

KZ: It is widely expected that Iran’s next president, to be elected in the June polls, will be a conservative or an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps figure. How do you think Iran and the United States, and the West in general, will craft their relations in the aftermath of Iranian elections? Should we brace for a serious confrontation, possibly amounting to a military showdown, or are there hopes for a thaw?

PP: It is hard to say but there does seem to be some interest among the principlist faction to solve the America file. In the long run, the political and economic stability of Iran and the wider region depends on it.

While ideological fervor has certainly contributed to the survival of the Islamic Republic over the past four decades, so has political realism. I don’t see any appetite for war among the military brass in Iran, or in the US for that matter. That fact will hopefully moderate the ideological positions taken by both sides in any future negotiation.   

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.