Saturday, January 21, 2012

Israel and Iran Part 1: An Alliance of Convenience

Author's Note: Due to the amount of information concerning the relationship between Israel and Iran, I have decided to turn what was going to be one article into a two-part series examining the past friendship between Iran and Israel and to give a better view of how modern-day relations between the two countries have been affected.

In the past several years Israel and Iran have been portrayed as bitter enemies who are at each other’s throats. One may be led to believe that the two countries have always been enemies; however, there is a history of friendship between them. During Iran’s rule under the Shah, both countries had extensive economic, political, and military ties that were used to ensure US and Israeli interests in the region, yet the Iranian Revolution changed Iran’s relationship with Israel. Due to the current confrontation between the two nations, an examination needs to take place of how the Iranian-Israeli alliance was formed and fell apart to better show how currently relations have been affected.

After the creation of the state of Israel, Iran was forced to play a balancing act between supporting Israel on one hand and making sure not to upset the Arab states on the other. The Jewish state was of great strategic interest to Iran as the Shah knew that Israel could “improve Iran’s security by absorbing the attention and resources of the Arab states.” However, if Iran was to formally recognize Israel, Arab would also fall on Iran thus the Shah treaded “a path between overt hostility and overt alliance.” [1] In addition to this, the Shah wanted to back Israel and with it the West, due to the fact that Communist ideology threatened the Shah’s rule as the levels of wealth inequality in Iran gave rise to pro-Soviet groups such as the Tudeh (“People’s”) Party. However, the shah was quite suspect of Israel’s loyalties due to the fact that during the outset of Israel’s inception many Israelis “felt an emotional and ideological affinity for the Soviet Union” due to the fact that “not only did strong socialist sentiment exist in Israel, but many Israelis identified the Soviet Union as the country primarily responsible for defeating Nazism.” [2] This, coupled with Israel’s efforts to befriend both the US and the Soviet Union, made the Shah somewhat suspicious that the Jewish state may have been trying to play both sides. Thus, the Shah adopted a wait-and-see policy where they would maintain a distance from Israel, waiting for her to fully clarify her allegiances.

Israel’s dilemma was quite complex as they had to depend on the West for capital investment, but needed Jews from both the East and the West to immigrate to Israel in order to grow its population and survive. The ethnic makeup of Palestine was against Israelis as by 1948 Palestinians outnumbered Israelis two to one (1.35 million compared to 650,000). While Israel did end up siding with the West, it did not change the fact that they were surrounded by hostile Arab nations. Thus, then-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion came up with the doctrine of the periphery which held that due to the improbability of making allies out of the Arab states, Israel should focus cultivating alliances and friendships with non-Arab states such as Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia (the periphery states) and non-Arab minorities such as Kurds and Lebanese Christians. It was hoped that this strategy would “drive a wedge between Israel’s enemies, weaken the Arab bloc, and halt the spread of pan-Arabism in the region.” [3]

Iran and Israel would soon find themselves facing a common enemy: Egypt. In 1952 a military coup overthrew King Farouk and dissolved Egypt’s ties from Britain, gaining full independence. The new government drifted into the Soviet sphere. This greatly worried both Iran and Israel as both countries feared Soviet interests in the region, “the threat of radical pro-Soviet Arab states, andboth saw the pan-Arab, anti-Western regime in Cairo, led by Gamal AbdelNasser, as the main villain of the Middle East.” [4] Iran was especially worried about the Egyptian-Soviet alliance as they were quite concerned “about the territorial expansionism of pan-Arabism” and “Arab claims over Iran’s southern oil-rich province of Khuzestan because this pushed Arab nations to ally against Iran even though their respective national interests may have dictated a different course.” [5] Thus an alliance of convenience was formed to combat the mutual Egyptian threat.

This friendship between Israel and Iran went beyond mutual threats and into economics. Due to the Arab refusal to sell oil to Israel, the Jewish state was in desperate need of oil to continue its economic growth. Iran was readily able to supply it as after the 1956 Suez crisis they helped to finance the construction of the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline which connected the gulf of Aqba and the Mediterranean which allowed Iranian exports to bypass the Suez Canal. This ability to bypass the Suez was quite important as “73 percent of Iran’s imports and 76 percent of its oil exports passed through the canal.” The deal eventually deepened Israeli-Iranian ties on the highest administrative levels as “The pipeline was later upgraded to a sixteen-inch pipe after direct negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and the Shah in 1958” [6] which was the first direct meeting between an Israeli Cabinet member and the Shah.

This pipeline was not without consequences, however. While Israel and Iran didn’t reveal their economic cooperation, the close relationship between the two nations was well known to Arab states and was subject to intense criticism. Due to Arab sensitivities, the US backed the pipeline only after it was assured that the pipeline mattered more to the Shah than Arab sentiments as they sensed the Shah wanting to keep Israel at a friendly distance.

In addition to economic ties, the fact that Iran had a large Jewish community and Israel was a state meant for Jews was an area of cooperation. Israel wanted to bring Iranian Jews to the Jewish state and Iran wanted Israel’s level of influence in Washington and needed Israeli technological know-how to aid Iranian agriculture, with Israel training some 10,000 Iranian agricultural experts. Finally, the two nations connected due to being the “odd-men out” due to their non-Arab status in a region dominated by Arabs.

Yet, for all this friendship, there will still other motives at play. While Iran was quite important to Israel’s overall regional political strategy, Israel was not viewed in the same matter in Iran. Iran saw Israel as a vehicle to block Soviet- not Arab- regional advances. Iran saw the Soviets as a greater threat than the Arabs as the Soviets eyed “the oil reserves of the region” and was “using Nasser’s Egypt as its surrogate to penetrate the Persian Gulf.” [7] In addition to this, the Soviets were supporting leftist Iranian opposition movements, thus pushing the Shah into the arms of the United States. However, there was a dark side to the Iranian-Israeli alliance in the form of the Organization of Information and State Security, also known as the dreaded Savak.

In 1957 the Shah ordered the Savak to form intelligence relations with Mossad and manage Iran’s dealings with the Jewish state, at the expense of keeping the Iranian Foreign Ministry in the dark. Mossad secretly trained the Savak in military areas such as pilots, paratroopers, and artillery men, but also in torture and investigative techniques as well. Those latter techniques were used to repress political dissent against the Shah and keep his political opponents under surveillance.

During all this, the diplomatic relationship between the two nations was kept secret. Over the years Israel had become used to the nature of this relationship, however, they never fully grew accustomed to Iran’s contradictory stance on Israel. In Israeli minds, if Iran were to fully recognize Israel it would help advance Israel’s goal in to convincing the Arabs that the Jewish state was here to stay. While Ben-Gurion’s 1961 visit to Iran was kept secret and thus set the precedent for keeping such meetings secret, several years later Israeli diplomats urged Prime Minister Golda Meir to try and convince the Shah to bring Israeli-Iranian dealings out into the open. She attempted to convince the major Western powers to pressure the Shah to publicly recognize Israel; however these efforts were rebuffed by the Shah who refused to meet with the Israeli representative to Iran for more than three years. This may have very well been due to the fact that the year before Ben-Gurion’s visit, in 1960, Iran learned the hard way the repercussions of publicly recognizing its relationship with Israel.

In July 1960, when asked by a foreign journalist if Iran was going to recognize Israel, the Shah referenced Iran’s de facto recognition of Israel in 1950, saying that “Iran has recognized Israel long ago.” [8] This provoked a fiery response from Egyptian leader Abd al-Nasser who used the quote to expand Egypt’s regional influence and counter Iran’s growing relations with the Persian Gulf states in the form of anti-Iranian propaganda. This move marked a shift in Iran’s relationship with Egypt. Nasser’s propaganda campaign signaled that the traditional base for anti-Iranian propaganda, Iraq, was now shifting to Egypt. This campaign, coupled with the fact that Egypt was attempting to build up naval forces that could be sent to the Persian Gulf to play a supporting role to Iraq in a military confrontation between Iraq and Iran, deeply worried the Shah. Yet Israel aided Iran due to the fact that
If Iran was weakened by Egypt and Iraq, the Arab side would be bolstered and the Iraqi army would be freed up to participate in a potential Arab attack on Israel. But as long as Iran balanced Iraq and diverted the Iraqi armed forces eastward and away from the Jewish State, Israel was provided with a small but important window of safety. So Israeli intelligence provided Iran—whose military was constantly preparing for potential Iraqi or Egyptian attacks—with extensive intelligence on Egyptian military movements and planning. [9]
However, as the 1960s came to a close, the strategic context that enabled an Iranian-Israeli alliance was beginning to fade.

Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Israel and Iran allied due to the fact that they both faced common enemies; however, the fact of the matter was that at the end of the day, if the situation changed where one didn’t need the other, the alliance was finished. Due to the overall political landscape where Arabs disliked the Israelis more than the Persians, it was more likely that Iran would bail before Israel did. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s the geo-political landscape drastically changed as Israel won the 1967 war, the strategy of both the United States and the Soviet Union switched from containment to détente,  and Egypt moved from the Soviet to the US camp. These events greatly changed the relationship between Israel and Iran. 

After the 1967 war, Iran became deeply wary of the Jewish state as while the Shah supported a strong Israel, he did not favor an Israel that was stronger than Iran. This was not due to any worries that Israel would attack Iran as Iran was hundreds of miles away and could always readjust its position to align itself with moderate Arab states. Rather, this worry was due to the fact that the Shah believed that the ’67 war had changed Israel from a defensive state to an aggressive one and thus he was concerned about possible Israeli expansion. In addition to this, a too powerful Israel would create a situation where Israel could potentially “challenge Iran’s quest for preeminence or its strategic significance in Washington” and “would complicate the Shah’s balancing act of maintaining strong relations with Israel without angering Iran’s Arab neighbors.” [10] Unfortunately for the Shah, his fears came to fruition as Israel refused to return Arab territories that had been captured in the ’67 war. 

This caused Iran to freeze all joint Iranian-Israeli projects and adopt a tougher public stance against Israel, with the Shah arguing in late 1967 for a solution between Israel and the Arab states to be worked out within the UN. This sudden change in tone caused Washington to seek clarification regarding Iran’s stance to Israel to ensure that Iran had not fully turned against Tel Aviv. Iran, with the support of the US and Britain, supported UN Resolution 242 which argued for an Israeli withdrawal of all captured territory. Tehran also consulted the US to pressure Israel into taking a more flexible tone with the Arab states as they believed that Israel’s refusal to withdraw would only exacerbate and prolong the conflict. Yet the Shah was also knew that by pushing for an Israeli withdrawal, it would allow Iran to warm up to the Arab states and its support for Resolution 242, which upheld that a state could not acquire territory by war, was also viewed as a way to protect Iran from possible Arab or Soviet expansionism. Tel Aviv was disquieted by this sudden change in treatment and became suspicious of the Shah’s intentions. These suspicions were soon confirmed when Egypt’s change in camps, from the Soviets to the Americans, drew Iran closer to the Arabs.

Due to Egypt’s defeat at the hands of Israel in the ’67 war, Nasser was forced to reduce his regional aspirations and while Egypt began to explore the option of leaving the Soviet camp under Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, an opening occurred which allowed for a friendly relationship between Iran and Egypt to begin. When Egypt moderated its foreign policy and recognized Iran’s public support for the Arab position in Resolution 242, it greatly helped to lower tensions between Tehran and the Arab world by allowing for dialogue to take place between Tehran and Cairo. Via Kuwaiti mediation, Iran and Egypt began backroom dialogue in 1969 where the Shah forced on Nasser the humiliating conditions that Cairo publicly apologize to Iran for its previous provocations and the first step toward a normalization of relations had to be taken by Egypt. While Nasser was not fond of these terms, he begrudgingly accepted them and also agreed to a joint communiqué which announced the resumption of full diplomatic relations between Tehran and Cairo in August 1970. Tehran’s influence on Egyptian affairs didn’t end there as when Sadat came to power, he publicly made a major shift to the Western camp by expelling over 10,000 Soviet military advisors, but only after he had consulted with the Shah.

Furthermore, the Shah began to take visible steps toward the Arab camp in the form of forbidding Iranian officials from “attending the 22nd anniversary of the inception of the Jewish state at the Israeli mission in Tehran,” “refusing to invite the Israeli head of state to the celebrations marking 2,500 years of the Persian Empire in October 1971,” [12] and being extremely critical of Israeli policies. Thus, the thaw between Iran and the Arab world revealed the weakness of the Iranian-Israeli alliance. As Iran’s power and influence increased, they were less and less likely to side with Israel in order to resolve their disputes with the Arab world.

For Tel Aviv, Egypt’s switch from the Soviets to the US left Israel’s strategic environment less clear-cut more and less clear-cut due to the fact that Israel didn’t view the rise of Sadat in a positive manner. For Israel, Sadat’s rise signaled the formation of a force that would unite under the banner of pan-Arabism to destroy the Jewish state. While Cairo may have made friends with Tehran, it did nothing to end Egypt’s animosity towards Israel, as the Yom Kippur later revealed.

Yet, even though it seemed Tel Aviv and Tehran would break up, they still would have to deal with a common threat: Iraq.

If Iran’s relationship with Egypt had the Shah lowering his guard, it was quickly bought back up when Iraq began to replace Egypt as Tehran’s main enemy. Acts done by Iraq’s new leader, Saddam Hussein, such as hosting Iranian opposition elements and signing a Treaty of Cooperation with the Soviet Union which ensured a 15 year Soviet military and economic commitment to Iraq caused Tehran to be apprehensive concerning Iraq’s hostile intentions. This apprehensiveness only increased when the US refused to sell arms to Iran, thus making the country susceptible to Iraq’s growing military. Yet, while in the Shah’s mind the Soviets were becoming a threat due to their advances, in reality the situation was such where
the Soviet threat to Iran was growing, not because of direct Soviet advances against Iran but because of America’s weakening determination to protect Iran. As the U.S.-Soviet strategic relationship shifted from containment to détente, creating a competitive yet peaceful coexistence between the United States and the Soviet Union, Israel and Iran’s differing attitudes vis-à-vis superpower politics became a lesser factor in their bilateral relations. [13]

Israel also saw Iraq as a threat as Israeli strategists “feared that if Iraq emerged as a contender for the leadership of the Arab world and was willing to take on Israel in a future Israeli-Arab war, the balance might tip in favor of the Arabs” and they knew that “An Arab alliance with Iraq’s full participation could overrun Jordan and quickly place the Iraqi army on Israel’s eastern front.” [14] Thus, with détente changing the dynamics of the region as it created a situation where the superpowers were less willing to intervene on behalf of their allies and client states and the rise of an Iraqi threat to both Iranian and Israeli security, cooperation between Tehran and Tel Aviv became all the more important.

Yet, just when it seemed that the geo-political landscape would force Israel and Iran to cooperate once again, two events put the alliance on rocky territory: Iran’s quest for regional supremacy was fully revealed and the 1973 Yom Kippur war.


1: Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007), pg 20

2: Ibid, pg 21

3: Ibid, pg 22

4: Ibid

5: Ibid

6: Ibid, pg 23

7: Ibid, pg 24

8: Ibid, pg 27

9: Ibid, pg 28

10: Ibid, pg 30

11: Ibid, pg 32

12: Ibid

13: Ibid, pg 35

14: Ibid, pgs 34-35

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