Viewing today’s headlines, one would think Iran and Shi’ite Islam are Israel’s indomitable foes and never the twain shall meet. Actually, except Turkey, Iran was Israel’s best regional pal for decades and Iran-Israeli mutual interests thrived long into the Ayatollah regime. At present, Iran and Israel stand off as two of the most powerful forces in the Middle East. Although Israel has only 8.5 million people compared to Iran’s 80 million and 8 million square miles compared to Iran’s 1.65 billion, Iran’s Gross Domestic Product of $400 billion is only a quarter larger than Israel’s and Israel spends over twice as much on military expenditures, $16.5 billion annually compared to Iran ‘s $7.5 billion.
FOUR HISTORICAL PERIODS
Iran’s relationship with Israel went through four major phases. There was initial hostility at the founding of the state, followed by open friendliness during the reign of Shah Pahlavi. After the 1979 Islamic revolution there was a period of cold peace. Today’s fiery hostility began at the end of the First Gulf War in 1991.
Iran’s attitude toward the Jewish state is ambiguous. Iran was among three states serving on the UN Special Committee for Palestine, which voted against the 1947 UN Partition Plan, arguing that setting up two enemy states alongside each other would lead to generations of bloodshed. Iran provided indirect support to Israel’s enemies in 1948 but sent no troops to participate in the struggle. It voted against Israel’s admission to the UN in 1949, but was the second nation after Turkey to recognize Israel’s sovereignty a year later.
Iran, like Turkey, was a Muslim but not Arab state, making it the odd man out in the Middle East. As a senior Iranian official put it: “It is in Persia’s interest to encourage the development of Israel as a counter-weight to the Arab states who have frequently acted in a manner hostile to Persia.”
Prime Minister David Ben Gurion took advantage of this fact to develop the Alliance of the periphery, or Periphery Doctrine concept. This called for Israel to develop ties with local non-Muslim states further from Israel, “the neighbors of the neighbors,” as a counterbalance to the united opposition of the nearby Arab states. Included in the doctrine were Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia and the Kurdish people shared by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Good times began in 1953 when, to preserve foreign control of Iranian oil, Britain and the United States overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in favor of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi’s ideology of westernization, secularization, nationalism and drawing close to the west made him the greatest Iranian friend Israel ever had. After the Six Day War, Iran not only supplied Israel with most of its oil, but even shipped oil to Europe via Israel by sending it up the Red Sea to Eilat through the Tiran Straits, which had been freed from Egyptian control in 1956. From Eilat, the oil was transported to the Mediterranean via the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline. This is nowadays used to transport oil in the opposite direction from Russia and Central Asia to south Asia and the Far East. Transporting oil overland through Israel is often cheaper than transporting it through the Suez Canal.
Peace boomed during the Shah’s rule. El Al operated a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Tehran and Prime Minister Ben-Gurion became the first Israeli prime minister to visit the capital in 1961. So many Israelis lived in Tehran that it became necessary to open a school there for their children. The two countries even worked on joint military projects, including the joint Iranian-Israeli Project Flower (1977–79) to develop a new billion dollar missile.
Of these halcyon days Israeli defense official Yaakov Shapiro recalled: “In Iran they treated us like kings. We did business with them on a stunning scale. Without the ties with Iran, we would not have had the money to develop weaponry that is today in the front line of the defense of the State of Israel.”
At the same time, Israeli companies incurred billions of dollars of debts, which the Israeli cabinet canceled in 1979 after the mullahs seized rule. Since then, Iran has been vainly suing for payment of the debt in European courts.
RISE OF FUNDAMENTALISM
After Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and the rise to power of Ayatollah Ruḥallah Khomeini, who had opposed Iran’s relationship with Israel all along, Iran cut off all official diplomatic and commercial ties. Khomeini declared that Israel and the United States were “the Small Satan” and “the Great Satan” respectively, the Israeli embassy in Tehran was handed to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Iran began to unite Lebanese groups into the Hezbollah terrorist organization.
Despite Iran’s overt enmity to Israel, thriving commerce continued behind the scenes. Iran needed help to protect itself from the Soviet Union, which sought to dominate the area, and from hostile Iraq. From 1981to1983, during the Iran-Iraq War, which raged from 1980 to 1988, Israel reportedly sold Iran an estimated $500 million in arms annually paid for mostly with Iranian oil. The United States went along with this more or less, to prevent Iraq from an easy victory and becoming over dominant in the Middle East. A group of Israeli military advisors spent the Iran-Iraq war in a camp just north of Tehran.
Israeli was also deeply involved in the Iran-Contra affair in which senior administration officials covertly sold thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Iran and used the profits to help Contras, the label given to U.S.-backed and funded terrorist rebel groups fighting a left-wing, socialist government in Nicaragua.
Israel hoped, all this time, that supporting Iran against Iraq might lead back to the footing of the good old days when Iran was a good friend. Mossad deputy director Moshe Kimche spoke more cynically, saying, “Our big hope was that the two sides would weaken each other to such an extent that neither of them would be a threat to us.”
FROM COLD PEACE TO FIERY HATE
In the early 1990s, two factors which had preserved the link between Israel and Iran disappeared. Israel and Iran’s common enemy, the Soviet Union, collapsed. Also, Iraq had lost most of its military power during the First Gulf War and Iran no longer needed Israel’s help to keep it under control.
Cold peace turned into hate between the two states. This reached a zenith under the rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who threatened Israel’s destruction and began a nuclear program assumed to exist for this purpose. Iran also became a sponsor of international terrorism, providing funding to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Islamic Jihad terrorist group. It is widely alleged that Iranian Revolutionary Guards helped Hezbollah during Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War and during the past few years Israel has destroyed many arms shipments sent by Iran to the terrorist organizations.
The Israeli peace process also increased Israeli-Iranian antagonism as it threatened to remove countries like Syria and Lebanon from Iranian influence and could lead to an Israeli-Arab alliance versus Iran. In the New Middle East, Ben Gurion’s Periphery Doctrine no longer seemed necessary.
Yitzchak Rabin’s advisor, Itamar Rabinovich, put it like this: “Imagine that there would have been a deal between Israel and Syria in 1993, which was quite close, and Iran found itself without the Syrian ally and without access to Lebanon and loses its Lebanon base, and Israel and the Palestinians reduce tensions, Iranian policy in the Middle East loses many of its assets and sources. It therefore begins to develop an interest in undermining the peace process and one of the main methods to undermine the peace process is the work of fundamentalist Palestinian groups.”
Ephraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies explained in 2004, “There was a feeling in Israel that, because of the end of the Cold War, relations with the U.S. were cooling and we needed some new glue for the alliance. And the new glue was radical Islam. And Iran was radical Islam. So Rabin played [the Iranian threat] more than it was deserved in order to sell the peace process.”
Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres accordingly indulged in Iran bashing, with Peres warning that Iran “is more dangerous than Hitler.”
The peace process also threatened to give more regional influence to the United States, which was maintaining an “active containment” policy. This comprised preventing Iran’s acquisition of ballistic missiles and access to international finance to convince Iran to eventually pursue rapprochement with West. All these factors encouraged Iran to oppose the peace process and demonize Israel.
When Binyamin Netanyahu defeated the left in the 1996 elections, he subscribed to the view that since peace with the Arabs was a mirage, it would be best to return to the old Periphery Doctrine and patch things up with Iran. Israeli diplomat Dore Gold said in 2004, “The Likud tended to be more open to the idea [that] maybe there are residual elements in the revolutionary regime that see things geo-politically the same way as it was during the shah’s time.” But the Likud’s attempt to rekindle the link with Iran failed.
Another point of friction between the two states was Israel’s alleged efforts to slow down Iran’s nuclear program by assassinating its scientists and sabotaging its computer programming with computer viruses like the Stuxnet discovered by Iran in 2010. Wikileaks indicated that Israeli and Kurdish commandos destroyed a number of underground Iranian nuclear and defense research facilities.
In response to Israeli defense measures, Iranian agents reportedly planned to hit Israeli and Jewish targets in bombings worldwide, most of them foiled. Iran is also accused of being behind the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires in 1994, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds. In 2012, a bombing in India wounded the wife of an Israeli Defense Ministry employee and the bombing of a bus in Bulgaria killed five Israeli tourists and wounded 32 people.
On the bright side, even now, Iran is still reportedly playing a double game. Dozens of Israeli companies allegedly conduct covert trade with Iran totaling tens-of-millions of dollars annually, much of it through third parties. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.
(Sources include Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, Yale University Press, 2007,Wikipedia, and the Iranian Encyclopedia)