Reviewing recent developments over the past decade, it is hard to conceive of a time when Israel and Iran engaged in meaningful diplomatic relations. Saber-rattling rhetoric, military exercises, and speeches at the United Nations (UN) would lead many to assume that the rivalry was an old and well-established one. However, in the increasingly chaotic Middle East it is valuable to pause a moment and reflect upon an often forgotten and overlooked period of cordial Israeli–Iranian relations.
Following the creation of Israel in 1948, both the Israeli and Iranian governments viewed each other as strategic partners through the prism of the Cold War. Founded on the “Periphery Doctrine”, Israel and Iran budding relationship was anchored upon the recognition of their mutual interests in curbing Soviet regional influence vis-à-vis Arab governments (e.g. Egypt, Syria, Iraq). Furthermore, in terms of identity and culture, both envisioned themselves as distinct from the broader Arab Middle East. As Navid Hassibi, founder of The Foreign Policy Project maintains, “The Saudis and Israelis have less in common than do Iranians and Israelis, who share much in the way of culture, society, and history, who are linked through Iranian-Israeli Jewry, and who both have vibrant indigenous scientific and technological industries.”
Iran extended de facto recognition of Israel in 1950, making it the second Muslim-Majority nation to do so after Turkey. The relationship was productive by all accounts. Driven by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the Iranian Shah Mohammed Pahlavi, Israeli-Iranian relations solidified in the late-1950s, developing a close military and intelligence relationship. Israel sent agricultural and military experts to Iran, and in return Iran supplied Israel with 80% of its oil requirements. According to Henner Furtig of the GIGA Institute, “It was an existential relationship which was developed between two states.” By the mid-1960s, Iran permitted a permanent Israeli delegation to establish a de facto embassy in Tehran. Likewise, Israel reciprocated by sending irrigation experts to Iran. According to Seth Siegel, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and water scholar, Israel agricultural exchange was a crucial component to bilateral relations:
A visitor to Iran looking at each of the country’s water problems and knowing that Israel has largely overcome all of them might conclude that the Islamic Republic would be wise to overcome its antagonism to Israel and invite Israelis to Iran to help manage its water sector. As fanciful—and nearly impossible—as that sounds, it is exactly what Iran’s ruler, the shah, did beginning slowly in 1960 and with a rush after 1962. Israeli hydrologists, water engineers, planners, and others became so numerous and so enmeshed in Iran’s water exploration and infrastructure that the majority of the water projects in Iran from 1962 until the 1979 Islamic Revolution were managed by Israelis. Geopolitically, for Israel the alliance with Iran served to counterbalance the hostility of the Arab states while lessening Israel’s regional isolation—at least for as long as the cooperative relationship continued.
A further testament to the extent Israeli-Iranian cooperation had improved is underscored by a 1977 joint military effort codenamed Project Flower. The project entailed the development of advanced missile systems, and was one of six “oil-for-arms contracts” signed during the 1970s, estimated to be worth $1.2 billion.
Despite the upheaval of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, military and trade ties endured. Israel provided material and military support to Iran throughout the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Amid the bloody conflict, which claimed more than half-a-million casualties, Israel served as an arms intermediary for the United States and Iran. At the time, Iran was under an arms embargo and following the dealings subsequent publicization, President Reagan’s administration was severely undermined, particularly because the exchange funneled support an anti-regime militia group (i.e. Contras) in Nicaragua. Nonetheless, this event emphasizes the strategic importance – despite significant ideological differences – of the Israeli-Iranian relationship.
Reflecting on the recent rapprochement between Israel and neighbouring Sunni states (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan), an Op-Ed in The Jerusalem Post acknowledged that Iran ostensibly should have been Israel’s crucial regional ally:
This isn’t the situation Israel would have historically preferred. Israel has far more in common with Iran than with Saudi Arabia. Iran builds on the legacy of an ancient Middle Eastern civilization, much as the Jewish people do in Israel. It is part of the fabric of diversity of the region. The Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia is a net destroyer of the region’s diversity and beauty…Despite the extremist nature of the Iranian regime, levels of anti-Semitism in Iran are among the lowest in the region. The extremist nature of Iran’s current regime is in contrast to its history. Returning to a historical perspective is crucial to re-evaluating our present vantage point of the Middle East. This is a story with a broader moral: one speaking to the fluidity and dynamics of strategic relationships in a region of vast uncertainty. Whereas it was initially the Arab Sunni states who were most militantly opposed to Israel during its formative years – and Iran as tacit ally – these historical relationships have largely reversed today.
It is from today’s vantage point, following the tendentious Iranian nuclear negotiations, that such bilateral cooperation appears alien. Nonetheless, observers should remember that geopolitics is not inert: historical dynamism is the undercurrent beneath the surface of Israeli-Iranian relations. As the American presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin highlighted in an interview on Charlie Rose, what is troubling about the problems of today should be seen as equally empowering, for obstacles which were conceived and perpetuated by people can similarly be undone by people. Human problems have human solutions. These are not insurmountable problems inherited from the distant path but the residue of humanities shortcomings and vices. The trajectory of the recent developments of the Israeli-Iranian relationship should not confine us to the belief of perpetual belligerency, but taken over decades, reinforce our understanding that relations can change both dramatically and rapidly. While the events of the immediate present may not engender such rosy thoughts, it is worth reminding that little constancy perseveres in a region lately defined by great upheaval. Though not a siren song divorced from reality, it is a requiem to the elasticity of titles as ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’.