The Coming Cyrus Accords?
Zionism is the legacy of Cyrus the Great and the national inheritance of the Iranians. The Islamic Republic’s anti-Zionism is not a historical norm, but a radical break from history by a radical regime. The Iranian revolution seeks to return to its historical origins, and Zionists must rejoice if it succeeds.
The former crown prince of Iran and the most prominent opposition figure, Reza Pahlavi, became the most prominent Iranian to have ever visited Israel in April. He made history by taking the first step to restore it. Pahlavi’s cautious approach to leadership, out of the fear of alienating Iranians from different camps, has been a point of criticism over the decades. His trip doesn’t suggest that he has overnight become more risk-taking, but that he understands that anti-Zionism is no longer a political force among his audience inside his country. This is an early sign that a free Iran will cease hostilities with Israel and end the region’s most destabilizing conflict, caused by one of the most destabilizing regimes in the world. Only a few years after Abraham Accords, we can now envision the potential for the future Cyrus Accords.
Pahlavi’s trip was as much about symbolic gestures as it was political business, evident by his decision to visit during Holocaust Remembrance Day and participate in the ceremonies. He posted a picture of himself wearing a kippah and his wife praying at the Western Wall. His post’s caption cited the Book of Ezra and Cyrus the Great’s edict to rebuild the Second Temple. On Farsi social media, Cyrus Accords immediately began to trend, with more than 100,000 tweets in 24 hours.
The Iranian opposition leader also met with Israeli government officials, likely to seek their assistance for the protest movement that has been roiling Iran for the last seven months. Minister of Intelligence Gila Gamliel hosted the crown prince, and the itinerary included meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog. Given Israel’s covert assets in Iran, Pahlavi’s following there, and the two parties’ mutual interest in regime change, it is a reasonable guess that they discussed avenues of cooperation to effect change. He had also mentioned that, given Iran’s water crisis and Israel’s expertise in desalination, he intended to meet with Israeli water experts, so Gamliel gave him a tour of the water desalination facility in Shurk.
As seen by their reactions to Pahlavi’s visit, for many Iranians, Israel has transformed from an enemy to an ally against the Islamic Republic. Masih Alinejad, another opposition leader, tweeted that “the nation of Iran has no enmity with Israel. It is the Islamic Republic that has conquered the borders of hostility against Jews, not just in Iran, but also in the region and the world.” Hichkas, the first professional Iranian rapper, humorously tweeted his wish that the trip would result in countless Qassem Soleimani-like assassinations. Former national soccer team captain Ali Karimi, the opposition leader most in tune with the Iranian street, posted a picture of the Pahlavis and Gamliel with Iranian-flag-colored hearts.
The regime’s response, on the other hand, has been official silence. The spokesperson for the ministry of foreign affairs dismissed a question on the topic for it concerned “an irrelevant individual to an irrelevant destination country.” Unofficial and semi-official media tried to downplay it by mentioning Israel’s domestic political turmoil and the Pahlavi dynasty’s historically warm views of Israel. The combination of the regime’s dismissiveness and the opposition’s embrace is a hint that both sides are aware that Israel has ceased being a bogeyman in Iran.
There was recently another episode within the Iranian opposition that highlighted this change in Iranian attitudes. In February, several Israeli reporters mentioned that opposition leader Hamed Esmaeilion refuses to talk to them. On Farsi social media, Esmaeilion’s past quoting of Yasser Arafat resurfaced.
Iranians’ reaction to Esmaeilion’s anti-Israeli sentiments vary from verbal attacks and harsh rebuttals to mild criticisms and silence, but nobody rushed to his defense. Kaveh Shahrooz, a prominent Iranian–Canadian human rights lawyer and occasional collaborator with Esmaeilion, tweeted, “The Islamic Republic is our enemy, not Israel.” The less prominent the figures and platforms got, the harsher the language became. Some went so far as to compare Esmaeilion with Ruhollah Khomeini for their shared anti-Zionism.
It was only a short time ago that Zionism was a political liability among Iranians. Now, anti-Zionism is becoming one.
Sensing this change, Pahlavi subtly rebuked Esmaeilion during a talk in London a day later. He cited Iran’s sole founding father Cyrus the Great’s pioneer Zionism, talked of “the Biblical relationship we have with Israel long before it became a state,” and confidently predicted that a free Iran will have good relations with Israel. He also cited material interests, including that his country’s water crisis necessitates Israel’s water desalination technology.
The signs of Iranians’ growing friendliness toward Israel have been increasingly evident since the late 2010s. In the early weeks of recent protests sparked by the murder of Mahsa Amini, pictures of “Palestine Street” street signs taken down and vandalized began circulating. Videos of young Iranians refusing to step on Israel’s flag frequently are distributed on social media—as well as the one video of a member of the basij catching fire from the Israeli flag he torched, which Iranians jubilantly shared. Outside regime-orchestrated protests, which are shrinking at a rapid and accelerating pace, nobody can find any protests wherein people denounce Zionism and Israel. Previous visits to Israel by less prominent opposition figures did not face public backlash, likely an encouraging factor in Pahlavi’s decision to travel there.
The death of Iranians’ anti-Zionism also has to do with convenience, reflexive anti-regime sentiments, rampant secularism, a young population that doesn’t have living memories of an Israel whose future existence was a question mark, and accepting the status quo. In this case, Iran is not that different from the Arabs who have made peace with Israel.
Most importantly, a driving factor of the Abraham Accords has been the parties’ shared opposition to the Islamic Republic, but that opposition is nowhere as strong as inside Iran, as the terror the Islamic Republic inflicts on its neighbors pales in comparison to what an average Iranian endures on a daily basis. The Israel that assassinates regime officials is not the enemy; it’s an ally. Moreover, while anti-Zionism as a political force was partly out of Jew-hatred, partly out of resenting the ruling Pahlavi regime with close ties with Israel, and partly out of religiosity, those factors have all turned upside down. Young revolutionaries associate anti-Zionism with political Islam and the ruling theocracy, hence a malignant force, with nostalgia for the Pahlavi era. The regime’s decades of starving its own people to fund anti-Israeli terrorist groups have only led to the popular chant, “Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, my life [only] for Iran.”
During his talk, Pahlavi cited Iran’s water crisis of the last decade, adding that Israel’s abundance of water engineers means the key to solving a hot-button grievance in Iran rests in Israel. This has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fingerprints all over it. In 2018, he released a series of videos directly speaking to the Iranian people, making similar points as Pahlavi about the millennia of friendship between Iranians and Jews, as well as the sizable Persian Jewish population, and shrewdly feeding into the national pride of Iranians for their past. In one video, Netanyahu talked about the water crisis in Iran, expressing his regret for not being able to share his nation’s technology with his Iranian audience, but offering Farsi resources provided by his government so Iranians could on their own do the possible minimum. The videos were well-received, and they drew a sharp contrast between a regime that tries to conceal the pre-Islamic heritage Iranians take so much pride in and an alleged enemy who celebrates it.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu was busy attacking the Islamic Republic’s military and nuclear sites—and, on social media, many Iranians were celebrating those attacks. In the midst of the recent wave of protests, Israel reportedly attacked an Iranian UAV factory in Esfehan. There was no rallying ‘round the flag for the Islamic Republic, but a lot of Iranians took to the internet to humorously debate where Israel should strike next. Leader Ali Khamenei’s residence won by a nearly unanimous vote. Those who were not celebrating were only condemning that the attacks should be targeted in a way that would help the revolution. Again, this was not a surprise. Israel’s suspected attacks against Iran always incite the exact same reaction.
I have witnessed this change of attitudes among my friends too. Those who used to berate my [imprudently] vocal Zionism while living in Iran ten years ago are now supporters of not merely Israel but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being the Islamic Republic’s chief antagonist.
This is not to say that support for Israel in Iran reaches an overwhelming majority. It is more correct to say that, for most Iranians unfriendly to Israel, the issue is not among the top 20 issues they care about—and they certainly are not willing to make sacrifices for the Palestinian cause even if they dislike Israel—and they are often older Iranians who are not among the revolutionaries and will not determine the future of Iran. For the young revolutionaries, feelings are much warmer, and pro-Israel sentiments are far higher on the agenda.
Iranian–Israeli peace will be the contemporary Middle East’s most monumental development, and it is in sight. This won’t be an alteration of history, but a return to it—not merely to the pre-Islamic Revolution history, but to Cyrus the Great.
Speaking to the regime-hostile Iran International last month, Netanyahu hit all the right notes to his Iranian audience, saying, “we have a man that we never forget, and that is Cyrus the Great, who entered our Bible. When we speak of Cyrus, we speak of a great leader of a great civilization, and we remember him for enabling the rebuilding of our holy temple in Jerusalem, for the return of our exiles in Babylon.” Talking about “a common history and shared values,” he savvily cited the Islamic Republic as the common enemy of Iranians and Israelis and an obstacle to peace between them, “if this regime longer will rule Iran, if the freedom movement will succeed, the friendship between Israel and Iran will surpass anything that we can imagine.”
The Islamic Republic has never been closer to collapse, and, thanks to Israel’s antagonization of the Islamic Republic and Netanyahu’s public diplomacy with the Iranian people, Iranians have never been readier to restore their historical friendship under the aegis of the “Cyrus Accords,” named after the man both sides look to in search of their common heritage.
Shay Khatiri is a Senior Policy Analyst at JINSA.
Originally published in Providence Magazine.