What Israel and Iran share: mistrust of international law

Israel's and Iran's go-it-alone ways are rooted in similar histories of being bullied.

Enemies, as the old adage claims, often come to resemble one another. And such is the case with Israel and Iran.

The differences between the two are stark: Jewish state versus Islamic Republic; American ally versus American rival; small state versus large country. But beneath these contrasts lies a core commonality: Both Jerusalem and Tehran have a long track record of discounting and even disregarding international law and the consensus of the world community.

In the most recent examples, Israel shocked even her allies with an aggressive and legally disputed boarding of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May. And Iran ignored the latest round of UN sanctions in June, pledging to continue enriching nuclear fuel.

Repeated victims

There is a reason, though, for their shared defiance: Both Israel and Iran see themselves as repeated victims of international law and global opinion. Until the international community can disabuse them of these notions, both nations will continue to act defensively and with high degrees of mistrust.

Most nations see international law not just as a set of limits on their behavior or a commonly accepted list of dos and don'ts that they must obey. In a globalized, interdependent world, they also see international law as a bargain, one that obliges them to maintain certain responsibilities yet also offers them certain rights they are entitled to enjoy.

While Israel and Iran are constantly reminded of their international responsibilities, they have seldom seen the practical application of their purported rights.

Consider Israel's perspective. For a modern state that has existed a mere 62 years, it has known seven wars, countless terrorist attacks against its civilian population, and two arduous Palestinian insurrections, all with scant global sympathy and virtually no legal protection.

Israel's perspective

Since its creation in 1948, Israel has yet to achieve any sense of normalcy or acceptance in the Middle East as an authentic member state. Having virtually no meaningful diplomatic relations with its immediate neighbors, save for two tenuous peace treaties that are linked to the survival of the Egyptian and Jordanian autocracies, it is now witnessing the disintegration of once-amicable ties with the Turkish Republic.

The heightened sense of insecurity due to strained relations with the Obama White House, the increasing rocket attacks from Gaza after Israel's unilateral disengagement in 2005, and failed peace efforts with the Palestinians (even as a new round of talks are set to start Sept. 2) have shifted an already beleaguered and paranoid Israeli body politic further to the right.

Iran's recent history

As for Iran, one need not examine the past 250 years of external intervention in the state's internal affairs to understand its sense of victimhood and mistrust. Since 1940, Iran has experienced three large military invasions, the British and Russian occupations during World War II, and the horrific consequences of the Iran-Iraq war initiated by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.

During the latter, Iranians witnessed the horrors of chemical weapons on soldiers and civilians alike, with no meaningful international condemnation. The human costs alone were roughly 1 million killed or injured.

And since the reformulation of Iran's political system into an Islamic Republic in 1979, it has come under trenchant economic sanctions that have led to the deaths and suffering of ordinary civilians.

In recent years, due to US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has become literally surrounded by the American military apparatus, with increasing instability on its borders. At times, this instability, mingled with Iran's challenged domestic model of governance, has allowed terrorist elements to attack its civilian population, as seen in the Zahedan terrorist attacks on July 15.

American and European contention over its nuclear program, its disagreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, US duplicity in nuclear deals with regional states such as India, and sanctions by the UN Security Council have only re-inforced Iran's sense of mistrust.

This contemporary history does not validate the internal policies of either government, nor does it justify their external behavior. Yet it does provide crucial context to explain many of their actions.

Experience matters

The worldviews of these nations have been forged by their experiences with the perceived incapacity of international law and global norms to protect their basic security interests. Their behaviors today merely reflect that perception.

Neoconservatives who defend Israel and make the case that international pressure upon it will decrease the likelihood of their political leaders making painful concessions for peace are essentially correct. Yet they fail to see that this same principle applies to Iran and its security concerns.

As long as international law fails to allocate to Iran and Israel the normative aspects of security that most nations derive from it, neither nation will fully abide by its rules. In so doing, they will stand together – apart from the rest of the world.

Reza Sanati is a research fellow at Florida International University's Middle East Studies Center.

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