Iran And Israel: The Dynamics Of The Conflict Between Sworn Enemies – Analysis

The history of relations between two key countries of the Middle East, Iran and Israel, is longer than seven decades. The dynamics of the relationship is intriguing and shows how in a very short period of time bilateral relations can transform from reserved, cordial to extremely hostile.

Iranian-Israeli relations are interesting because they show the full depth of the conflict in the Middle East, which has not only a political dimension (conflicts between Jews, Arabs and Persians) but also a theological one (conflicts in the relationship between Islam and Judaism). And geopolitical dynamics are largely involved in the creation of Iran-Israel relations, since the superpowers want to have influence and dominance over the inflammable region due to their political and economic interests.

Under Iran’s Pahlavi royal dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1925 to 1979, relations with the State of Israel were generally good. The dynasty was founded by Reza Shah Pahlavi. Iran was one of 11 member states of a special United Nations committee established in 1947 to devise a solution for Palestine after the departure of British colonial administration. Iran under the rule of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (son of Reza Shah) was one of 13 countries that voted against the UN plan to partition Palestine due to concerns that declaring a Jewish state in Palestine would lead to an escalation of violence in the region. Iran was against a two-state solution and, together with India and Yugoslavia, advocated the option of one federal state with one parliament, but with Muslim and Jewish cantons. It was a Solomonic move by Iran to maintain good relations with both Western powers and neighboring Arab neighbors.

Israel and Iran are establishing relations

However, after the Declaration of the State of Israel in 1948 and the end of the First Arab-Israeli war in 1949, Iran was the second majority Muslim country to recognize Israel after the Republic of Turkey. In that war, about 700.000 Palestinians had to leave their homes and became refugees within Palestine and in the surrounding countries. Displacement of the population and defeat in the war among the Arabs is marked by the term “Nakba” – catastrophe.

The Shah accepted the reality of the existence of a Jewish state due to Western pressure and the fact that there were about two thousand Iranians living in Israel whose property was confiscated by the Israeli army during the war. In those years, Israel carried out the so-called Peripheral doctrine – a foreign policy that sought to establish good relations with peripheral non-Arab states of the Middle East in order to alleviate the Arab blockade to some extent. These were Iran and Turkey and, in a broader sense, Ethiopia.
Mosaddegh breaks off relations

However, the situation changed after Mohammad Mosaddegh became Iran’s prime minister in July 1952 when he initiated the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, which had been monopolized by UK. Mosaddegh severed ties with Israel, which he saw as serving Western interests in the region. The main goals of Mosaddegh’s government were: nationalization of the oil industry, the expulsion of the British from the country and the weakening of the monarchy.

This is where the severance of relations with Israel fit well into the wider mosaic. Anti-Zionist sentiment was strong in the country and was preached by the Shia cleric Navvab Safavi. However, already in August 1953, Mosaddegh was overthrown in a coup d’état, which was carried out by the Iranian army under the auspices of UK and the USA. Subsequently, the Iranian government centralized power under Reza Pahlavi and brought foreign oil companies back into the country in 1954.

The pinnacle of good times

Israel established its de facto embassy in Tehran, and eventually the two countries exchanged ambassadors during the 1970s. Trade ties grew and soon Iran became Israel’s main oil supplier, with a pipeline established to send Iranian oil to Israel and then to Europe.

Tehran and Tel Aviv also had extensive military and security cooperation, but this was largely kept secret to avoid provoking surrounding Arab states. In those years, Iranians did not care much about the Palestinian issue. Israel needed Iran more than Iran needed Israel for economic reasons. However, good relations with Tel Aviv allowed Reza Pahlavi to improve relations with America. Mossad helped build Iran’s secret service SAVAK, which Pahlavi used against dissidents.

Creating cracks in relationships

By the mid-1970s, the Shah’s Iran was no longer an uncritical enforcer of American interests in the Middle East. Reza Pahlavi, encouraged by growing oil revenues, adopted a more independent foreign policy in the region, especially in relation to the Arabs. So, for example, in 1974, believing that the unresolved Palestinian problem was radicalizing the Arabs and increasing the influence of the USSR in the Middle East, he started to create relations between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Syria.

The following 1975, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad visited Tehran. The Shah hoped to persuade the PLO, then based in Lebanon and Syria, to stop supporting and training Iranian dissidents. The Israelis were not happy with these developments, and were especially angry about Iran’s agreement with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1975. The agreement resolved the territorial dispute over the Shatt al-Arab River in Iran’s favor in exchange for Iran’s withdrawal of support for the Iraqi Kurds who fought against Hussein. The CIA also distanced itself from the Kurds at the Shah’s insistence. Israel, which supported the Iraqi Kurds, felt betrayed by this act and lost faith in the Shah as an ally. Israel saw Iran’s more conciliatory approach to Arab radicals as a potential shift in the balance of power in the region to its detriment. The Israelites always liked the tension between the Persians and the Arabs to turn them against each other.

By the mid-1970s, the Shah decided to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes that could lead to an end to Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East, which the Israelis did not like. Nevertheless, in 1977 the two countries agreed to develop advanced missile systems under the code name Project Flower. Thanks to a vital economy and a large and powerful military, Iran was becoming an important trade and security partner of the US in the Persian Gulf and a potential competitor to Israel, which liked to present itself as the main US regional partner. Some Iranians felt that American pressure on the Shah for his support of high oil prices after the 4th Arab-Israeli War in 1973 was fueled by Israeli lobbying in the US.

The victory of the Iranian Revolution and the definitive schism

Relations between Israel and Iran deteriorated drastically in 1979 after the victory of Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Iranian revolution marked a turning point – Iran became the sworn enemy of the US and Israel. All ties with Israel including trade and air traffic were severed. Just six days after the triumph of the revolution, Yasser Arafat became the first official foreign politician to visit Iran. He was warmly received by thousands of Iranians who chanted in support of Palestine.

The leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, imposed a new worldview that championed Islam and opposed the arrogant imperialist powers and their regional allies who oppress Muslims, including the Jewish state. According to the Iranian Islamic authorities, Israel was perceived as an outpost of Western colonialism, and Zionism as a version of local imperialism. The Iranian authorities vividly described the USA as “great”, and Israel as “little Satan”, which they denied the right to exist. At the time, all Arab governments also rejected Israel’s right to exist as a country.

Khomeini declared every last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as Quds Day or Jerusalem Day (Jerusalem is al-Quds in Arabic). Since then, on that day, large gatherings of support for the Palestinians are held all over Iran, and Israel is cursed. The cries are often: “Death to Israel”, “Death to America” and Israeli and American flags are lit. The Iranian Ayatollah and his successors advocated removing the Palestinian issue from the Arab framework and sought to transform it into a general Muslim issue, which would allow Iranians as Persians and Shiites to lead the struggle for the Holy Land and Jerusalem even though the Palestinians are Sunni Arabs. In this way, Khomeini transcended the Persian-Arab and Sunni-Shia divisions with the aim of establishing Iran as a major regional power.

Public hatred and secret cooperation

Israel changed its strategy and reoriented itself from the Periphery to the Arab doctrine, trying to develop relations with the Arab states after the peace agreement with Egypt in 1980, in which Cairo recognized the Jewish state’s right to exist. Muslims who opposed Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel formed the so-called The “Rejection Front” or “Axis of Resistance” led by Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

Iran supported the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of that country in 1982. Iran and its partners also carried out assassinations and attacks on Israeli civilians. Israel tried to neutralize the resistance through cooperation with the Arabs.

The Israelis decided to isolate the Iranians in order to weaken Iranian influence in the Middle East. Israel, despite its enmity with Iran, convinced the Reagan administration to secretly sell weapons to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, considering Iraq the lesser evil (Iran-Contra affair). Israel secretly sold $2 billion worth of weapons to Iran. At the end of the 1980s, the Israelis felt that due to their long-term war, Iraq and Iran were not a threat to them, and neither was the USSR, which was exhausted by the war in Afghanistan.

​Israeli efforts to destabilize Iran

From the 1990s to the present day, Israel has consistently opposed any reconciliation of Western countries with Iran, which was evident during the moderate presidencies of Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-1997), Mohammad Hatami (1997-2005) and Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021). During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Israelis promoted the American strategy of “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq, and later they were always in favor of strong sanctions by the USA, the EU and their partners.

As the United States prepared to attack Iraq in 2003 over what turned out to be false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, some Israeli leaders favored a US military attack on Iran. Israel focused on Iran’s nuclear program, which was revealed in 2002 to be more advanced than Tehran had officially admitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Over the years, there have been many acts of sabotage at Iran’s nuclear and military facilities that Tehran has blamed on Tel Aviv. Iran regularly publishes news about preventing new sabotage. Israeli strikes have also targeted personnel, including a number of high-profile nuclear scientists. The most vicious assassination took place in 2020 when top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed using a machine gun monitored by satellite and controlled by artificial intelligence.

The Cold War between Israel and Iran

Israel became involved in a fierce struggle with Iran to gain influence in the former Soviet republics, especially Azerbaijan, and formed an alliance with Baku against Tehran. Meanwhile, Iran has expanded its influence in areas near Israel, particularly in Syria, taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the Syrian civil war that broke out in 2011. In Yemen, Iran has supported the Houthi rebels, while Israel has supported the Saudi-led coalition that fighting the Houthis.

Over the years, Israel has supported various groups that violently oppose the Iranian government. Some of these groups are considered terrorist by Tehran. The Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) organization based in Europe, Sunni organizations in Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province, and Kurdish armed groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan. On the other hand, Israel and its Western allies accuse Iranians of being behind a series of attacks on Israeli targets, including several drone attacks on Israeli oil tankers and cyber attacks. Tehran opposes US hegemony in the Middle East, while Israel has consistently opposed US withdrawal from the region. Groups linked to Iran have regularly attacked US bases in Iraq and Syria.

Over the years, more and more Arab countries have normalized relations with Israel even though the country has failed to reach an agreement with the Palestinians for a final solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the Israeli normalization of relations with Egypt in 1980 and Jordan in 1994 thanks to the so-called Abraham Accords in late 2020, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco established formal diplomatic relations with Israel and recognized its right to exist. Iran is fiercely opposed to such a reconciliation because it considers it a betrayal of Palestine.

At the same time, Saudi opposition to Israel was reduced and secret diplomatic negotiations began to normalize relations. The normalization of relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv would have happened had it not been interrupted by Hamas’ attack on Israel, Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, on October 7.

The fateful October 7, 2023

The question is to what extent Iran helped Hamas plan the attack and decide to launch it? The very next day, on October 8, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iranian officials helped plan Hamas’ surprise attack and “gave the go-ahead for the attack.” But officials in Israel, the US and Iran, as well as the Hamas leadership itself, have united in denying the allegations. Other experts have suggested that the evidence for such claims is “small and contradictory”.

In any case, the Iranians publicly praised the Hamas attack. Rahim Safavi, adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, congratulated the Palestinian fighters and confirmed Tehran’s support “until the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem”. According to Ali Bahadori-Jahromi, a spokesman for the Iranian government, the incursion “proved that the Zionist regime is more vulnerable than ever and that the initiative is in the hands of the Palestinian youth.”

Hamas’ surprise attack is a strategic victory for Tehran and the Iranian-led Axis of Resistance because it eliminated the sense of security in Israel, removed the possibility of Saudi-Israeli normalization for the foreseeable future, and demonstrated the cohesion of non-state actors supported by Iran (Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, the Afghan shia militia Fatemiyoun Brigade) which challenge the regional status quo.

Four days after the Hamas attack, Ebrahim Raisi spoke for the first time on the phone with Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, where they confirmed their common goal – “to stop war crimes against Palestine”. On November 11, the two leaders met live in Riyadh. While the Biden administration sought to bring Riyadh and Tel Aviv closer together and unite Middle Eastern states against Iran, the rapprochement between the two leaders showed opposite trends.

Possible reconciliation

Given the unfavorable circumstances, reconciliation between Israel and Iran is not realistically possible in the foreseeable future. The question arises, what could ease the hostility of Iran and Israel? Iranian Islamists consider Israel an illegal and illegitimate state that usurped a Muslim land and expelled the Palestinians from their homeland. Moderate Iranians believe that instead of Israel, there should be a non-confessional state where Muslims and Jews would live as equal citizens.

Radical Iranian officials are far harsher. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke of erasing Israel from the pages of history, quoting the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. However, this is not the only perspective within the Iranian state system. More liberal and reformist Iranians accept the reality of Israel and its right to exist, alongside the Palestinian state.

In order to respond to the trend of normalization between the Arab states and Israel, Tehran may at some point feel compelled to start its own dialogue with Israel. An eventual improvement in Iran’s relations with the West could also prompt Iran to reconsider its hostility toward Israel, especially if accompanied by a resurgence of more moderate trends in Iran. Progress in resolving the Palestinian issue could also influence Iran to reconsider its hostile stance. Perhaps China, which in March of this year agreed to normalize relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, could also mediate some agreements between Israel and Iran. The role of Russia, which has good relations with both Israelis and Palestinians, should not be ignored either.

Conclusion

After the victory of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the last 44 years marked the period of the Cold War between Iran and Israel without showing any positive trends that would lead to the reconciliation of the sworn enemies. Iran leads the Axis of Resistance that includes Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, which unconditionally supports the Palestinian cause and considers Israel a mortal enemy. Iran maintains excellent relations with Russia and China and wants to reform the global order. On the other hand, Israel is the main American partner in the region that wants to isolate Iran and its allies. Current events, such as the recent Hamas attack on Israel with alleged Iranian support, further complicate the situation. Despite historical tensions, an eventual change in regional dynamics or the geopolitical framework may lead to a re-examination of hostilities between Iran and Israel, but it is currently difficult to predict concrete moves towards reconciliation.

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