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How Israel's relationship with Iran could impact the war

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

As Israel readies its land, air and sea invasion of Gaza, the country also continues to deal with clashes with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has backing from Iran. And for more on the relationship between Iran and Israel, we turn to Missouri University of Science and Technology's Mehrzad Boroujerdi. Welcome to the program.

MEHRZAD BOROUJERDI: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So as a longtime watcher of the region and the relationship between Israel and Iran, what is striking to you most about this moment when it comes to these two countries?

BOROUJERDI: Right. So with the advent of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, what we have seen for the last 44 years really has been a period of cold war between Iran and Israel and no love lost between the two sides here. The question right now that we are, you know, encountering is this operation that we saw from Hamas, the attack - to what extent was this done with the green light of Iran? - which if it is the case, it really signals a major escalation in terms of the conflict between the two sides. So that's really a big question.

RASCOE: You know, U.S. intelligence shows that Iranian officials were caught off guard. And there's a lot of talk in the U.S. about how Iran had $6 billion in assets unfrozen in September after a prisoner exchange with the U.S. What would Iran have to gain strategically by orchestrating an attack on Israel now?

BOROUJERDI: I think that's really the million-dollar question, right? What is Iran going to gain at a time where it is suffering from a really weak economy, at a time when it has tried a rapprochement with, you know, Saudi Arabia, at a time when it's trying to, you know, release these, you know, prisoners and gain the U.S. agreement to perhaps, you know, enter into a new round of nuclear negotiations? My sense is that even though we might have this sort of, you know, proxy relationship between Hamas and Iran, I'm not quite sure that the Hamas leadership let the Iranians know on the secret of, you know, what this attack was all about.

RASCOE: How does the current path to normalization of relations with Arab states, with Israel, particularly Saudi Arabia, play into the nature of the relationship between Israel and Iran?

BOROUJERDI: Right. So the Iranians were, of course, dead opposed to any type of normalization of relations, you know, between countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and others with Israel. They see it as, you know, betraying the Palestinian cause. And certainly, if we assume that the recent attack has basically put this rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel on the back burner or even has, you know, killed it, this certainly appeals to Iran's political agenda in the region.

At the same time, I think they are raising also a valid point directed at various U.S. administrations, and that one is the following. They are saying, look - this Abrahamic peace between Israel and these set of Arab countries that are not bordering Israel is a way of bypassing the Palestinian issue. And I think, you know, if anything, the events of the last week has shown to us that it is not possible to ignore the plight of the Palestinian people. No matter how many other Arab countries come and make peace with Israel, Israel's immediate problem remains with what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza, and therefore, that issue needs to be addressed.

RASCOE: Lebanon and Syria are allies of Iran. Both countries have been the site of shadow conflicts between Iran and Israel. Most recently, Syrian state media says Israel struck two of its airports last week, rendering them unusable. And Israel has also engaged in shelling with Lebanon. What do you make of the timing of these attacks?

BOROUJERDI: Yeah. I - my sense is that the Israelis are trying to basically warn players such as, you know, Hezbollah not to open a second front. Now, the question - and I think this is really the key question - we know, in terms of its military prowess, Hezbollah is much more powerful than Hamas. So would the Iranians risk and, you know, ask Hezbollah to open a second front? Would the Hezbollah leadership themselves decide to open a second front knowing that Lebanon currently is an extremely fragile country without, really, a true functioning government? It's in many ways, really, a failed state - same logic applies to the Assad regime in Syria.

Despite the disparity that exists in terms of the military prowess between Israel and the others, the question, really, that worries everyone is, how would this sit with this young generation, the young demographic of many countries in the region? Are we going to be feeding the radicalism of a younger generation of Palestinians if the attack on Gaza is carried out in a really heavy-handed fashion?

RASCOE: Mehrzad Boroujerdi is the vice provost and dean of College of Arts, Sciences and Education at Missouri University of Science and Technology. Thank you so much for joining us.

BOROUJERDI: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.