- War between Iran and Israel appears inevitably
- But Iran and Israel were strategic partners for decades
- Trading oil and guns, Iran and Israel propped each other up
- Geopolitically, there is always room for Iran and Israel to renegotiate the terms of their relationship
By Ty Joplin
To say that Iran and Israel are enemies is a criminal understatement.
Both countries trade threats of annihilation as a matter of routine. Each side’s military developments are closely watched and mirrored by the other as both try to maintain dominance.
Iran’s ruler, Ayatollah Khamenei, likes to call Israel things like the “Little Satan,” and a ‘cancerous tumor.’ Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to say things like “Iran is devouring one nation after the other and compares Iran to Nazi Germany.
Iran and Israel appear to be trudging ever-closer to war; a conflict between two arch nemeses etched in the tombs of historical inevitability.
But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, they were friends longer than they’ve been enemies.
As recently as 30 years ago, Iran and Israel considered each other strategic partners in a hostile region. The Israeli-Iranian alliance stood from the mid-20th century until the late 1980s, and gave both countries vital political and economic lifelines. At one point, they appeared to need each other, trading guns and oil in deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Al Bawaba spoke with Israeli and Iranian historians to understand the little-discussed history.
A Strategic Partnership Evolves
Israel’s Founder, David Ben Gurion, at the Declaration of State of Israel in 1948 (Wikimedia Commons)
The establishment of Israel in 1948, which involved a war and exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, enraged its Arab neighbors and immediately isolated the country regionally. Surrounded by sworn enemies, Israel needed to find friends near them.
“In the mid-1950s, Israel found itself broke, and surrounded by hostile Arab countries,” explained Yossi Alpher, a former official in Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad and author of “Periphery, Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies.”
“More hostilities were a certainty.”
Israel’s founder and first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, developed a strategy to counter-act this reality: develop ties with non-Arab nations in and around the Middle East.
Even though Israel preferred strategic partnerships with its Arab neighbors, a wave of populist pan-Arab nationalism developed against Israel, making public alliances with the isolated country impossible.
Israel reached out to Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Maronite Christians of Lebanon.
“In 1958 Iran, Turkey and Israel established Trident, a trilateral intelligence and operational alliance,” according to Alpher. Iran was also consistently threatened by its Arab neighbors, pushing it to accept an alliance with Israel.
For their part, Iran was seeking closer ties with the West generally, and found a partnership with Israel to be instrumental in cementing Western partnerships. Alpher noted that much of the leadership of Iran held anti-semitic views and some even believed anti-semitic conspiracy theories that Jews were trying to take over the world.
“Paradoxically, these views convinced them that Israel and the Jews in general were so influential worldwide, particularly in the U.S., that it was worth cultivating ties with them.”
Israel leveraged this anti-semitic worldview to its advantage, added Alpher.
“For Jews, there is a powerful collective memory and affinity to the pre-modern Persian King Cyrus the Great's role in returning exiled Jews of Babylonia to the land of Israel in 539 BCE.” noted Brandon Friedman, a historian at Tel Aviv University and the Director of Research at the Moshe Dayan Center.
“The long history of Jews living throughout Iran has also created a strong sense of shared culture between Persians and Israeli Jews of Persian origin.”
The shared cultural history between the Jewish people and the historical region of Persia indeed dates back thousands of years and can be traced to the present time. Iran is home to tens of thousands of Persian Jews, who make up the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel. Inside Israel too, hundreds of thousands can track their familial and ethnic heritage back to Persia.
Iran supplied Israel with oil, and Israel gave Iran an economic gateway to Europe through the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline. Both countries had direct diplomatic ties and an burgeoning economic relationship that kept them afloat.
Iran’s Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (Right), meeting with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (Left) (Wikimedia Commons)
Israel, a country that valued and relied on its military and hard power, also helped to modernize Iran’s army, which in turn guaranteed them greater access to Iran’s oil.
By 1977, Israel was exporting over $100 million worth of goods to Iran, while Iran exporting over $6 million.
One Iranian official noted that the ties between Iran and Israel were “relations of love without a marriage contract.”
In other words, they were convenient but non-committal.
“From the Shah's [the former monarch of Iran’s] perspective, it was much more a marriage of convenience,” said Trita Parsi in an interview with Al Bawaba. Parsi is the founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council and author of several books regarding Iranian and Western relations.
Though many Israelis seemed to believe their partnership with Iran was sustainable, anti-Western and anti-Israeli sentiment brewed inside Iran.
The most outspoken critic of the West and Israel, Ruhollah Khomeini, gave public speeches decrying Iran’s dealings with Israel and encouraged Iranians to engage in resistance efforts against the Shah, who was initially put in power thanks to a joint U.K-U.S. coup d’etat in 1953 meant to ensure Iranian oil continued flowing to the West.
In speeches meant to rally Iranians to his cause, Khomeini said that Israel sought to “to seize your economy, to destroy your trade and agriculture, to appropriate your wealth.” In a speech to hajj pilgrims in 1971, Khomeini called Israel “the universally recognized enemy of Islam and the Muslims.”
Revolution boiled over into the streets of Iran, and a wave of populist discontent propelled Khomeini, a religious figure, into the seat of power, replacing the pro-Western Shah with the Ayatollah in 1979.
After 1979: Enemies with Benefits
Demonstrators in Tehran during the 1979 Revolution (Wikipedia)
Despite Khomeini’s public disavowal and enmity toward Israel, Iran was still in desperate need for Israel’s arms and money. Israel, more isolated than ever from its Arab neighbors following the 1967 war, still needed Iran.
Both countries informalized their ties further, but continued supporting each other with arms and oil.
“A number of Israelis in positions of power and influence continued to believe – erroneously - that at the end of the day Iranians and Israelis would be allies because both were conflicted with the Arabs,” Alpher said.
“During the Iran-Iraq War, some Iranians exploited this naïve view to solicit desperately needed ordnance shipments from the US and Israel and some naïve Israelis and Americans bought into this bluff.”
From 1980 to 1988, Iraq and Iran were locked in a ceaseless, costly war that killed hundreds of thousands on each side. Iraq hoped to capitalize on a volatile Iran, still reeling from the 1979 revolution, and invaded it.
In response, Israel launched Operation Seashell—a clandestine operation to provide Iran a lifeline in the form of arms in exchange for continued access to Iranian oil.
Israel became one of Iran’s biggest arms suppliers during the war, accounting for over $100 million in shipments. Consequently, Israel imported mass amounts of Iranian pistachios as well.
Brandon Friedman claimed in an interview that Israel intended “to extend the fighting and prolong the war” between Iraq and Iran, as Israeli leaders recognized that their strategic partnership with Iran had turned sour. “Weakening both sides was in Israel's interest.”
Some of the arms trade was also facilitated by the U.S. under the Reagan administration, who sought the release of U.S. nationals held hostage in Lebanon by the Iranian-linked militant group, Hezbollah. The U.S. hoped that if enough weapons arrived in Iran via Israel, they could gain sufficient leverage to ensure the release of the hostages. This scheme constituted a part of the famed Iran-Contra Affair.
“Israel's involvement in the Iran-Contra affair should be seen in the context of Israel's attitude towards the Iran-Iraq War,” said Friedman.
Ali Khamenei during the Iran-Iraq War (Wikipedia)
One businessman in particular helped to ensure the Iranian-Israeli trade remained open, even if in secret: Marc Rich. The billionaire founder of Glencore, Rich arranged for the flow of Iranian oil to continue quietly to Israel and even go as far as South Africa. The journalist who documented this, Daniel Ammann, claims that Rich made about $2 billion off of his secretive oil trade.
Rich became a key facilitator between the Israeli Mossad and the Khomeini regime. Even though both Israel and Iran began to position themselves against one another, they were, throughout most of the 1980s, informal trading partners that exchanged oil and arms.
Their hostility became entrenched after the Soviet Union collapsed along with the formerly powerful Iraq thanks to a heavy loss in the Persian Gulf War.
According to Parsi, “suddenly, Iran and Israel emerged as two of the more powerful states in the region and instead of viewing each other as potential security partners, they increasingly viewed each other as rivals.”
A More Peaceful Future?
When asked whether they could see Iran and Israel becoming partners again, experts were doubtful.
“The Islamic regime in Iran is dedicated to Israel’s destruction,” said Alpher. “To this end… it cultivates a nuclear program, sponsors terrorism and is building bases in Syria.”
“I don't see Israel and Iran returning to any kind of partnership during Supreme Leader Khamenei’s lifetime,” added Friedman.
“Their enmity and their partnerships were functions of the geopolitical situation they found themselves in,” Parsi stated. “If the geopolitical situation changes, their current enmity may very well give way for a more pragmatic relationship.”
Although the current conflict between Israel and Iran appears intractable as most assume a war of some kind to be inevitable, it is important to note that geopolitics is fluid: alliances and rivalries form and dissolve constantly.
As the former Mossad official Yossi Alpher said in an interview, “nothing is permanent in the Middle East.”
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