The nebulous history of Israeli-Iranian relations. By Rubin Rothler LLB, LLM
Pervasive hostility comes to mind when one considers the acrimonious state of relations between Iran and Israel. A straightforward battle of wills, manifested through grandiose schemes of proxy warfare. Clashing strategic posturing in an already troubled region. Removed from diplomacy, thIs bellicose trajectory seems set in stone. But more nuanced understandings emerge when appreciating the broader historical context. Peering back to times yore, Ezra records how Emperor Cyrus favored the exiled Jews thus, that he gave proclamation for them returning to Judea and rebuilding their Temple. Exceptionally esteemed amongst Gentiles, this Persian Ruler is referred to as God's anointed. In Esther, Jews are empowered by another Royal edict which thwarted the genocidal designs of their nemesis. In our modern age, Iran sheltered thousands of Jewish refugees during World War Two, despite Hitler's aspirations of a Germanic allie in The Near East based on the ancient anthropological Aryan, cum Iranian, Indo European origins of ethnic Persians. Such German overtures were rejected by Reza Shah.
Tehran was at first ambivalent towards the Jewish state. But cordial attitudes soon prevailed. Common objectives aligned into an effective pact of non-Arab Middle Eastern nations. A peripheral alliance formed, arching from Iran through to Turkey and Israel. Both military and economic cooperation ensued. Crucially, Iranian oil was exported to Israel. It was shipped to the southern port city of Eilat and then traversed by pipeline across the Negev desert to the Mediterranean coastal port Ashkelon for European markets. Iranian supplied oil proved indispensable after the Six-Day War. Although Israel became increasingly isolated in the region, relations with Iran flourished. The Shah wanted to transform Iran into a regional power with a formidable army that wasn't dependent upon the U.S. So it became imperative to work with Israel as a means towards diversifying Iran's military industrial base. Iran and Israel partnered to construct a large range of weapons systems. The secret military collaboration was cemented with six projects. Israel was to furnish pertinent technology and Iran the funding. Foremost was a plan to develop ballistic surface missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Other projects involved the manufacture of 120mm mortars, specialised artillery, anti-ship missiles and a warplane. In furtherance, the Iranians built a missile assembly facility and a missile test range that were frequented by Israeli military advisors. Yaakov Shapiro, the Defense Ministry official in charge of coordinating the negotiations with Iran from 1975 to 1978, recalls: "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."
Khomeini's stunning rise to power put an abrupt halt to joint efforts with Israel. Officially, the Islamic Republic articulated an abundance of open animosity towards Israel. This triggered a massive exodus of Iranian Jews into Israel as virtual refugees, and a large immigration of affluent Persisan Jews into the USA.
However the relationship was far from extinguished. During the Persian Gulf War Israel provided decisive military support. Israel sought to retain a semblance of connection with their former ally inorder to leave the door open for a potential future rapprochement. Moreover there was money to be made, and Israel only stood to gain from an escalation of the conflict with Iraq. As one Israeli official recalls: "I do not remember even one discussion about the ethics of the matter. All that interested us was to sell, sell, sell more and more Israeli weapons, and let them kill each other with them." To shroud this operation in secrecy, intermediaries acted as the agents and instrumentalities of exchange. Bountiful stockpiles of Israeli arms were deployed on the battlefields. They consisted of the full array of implements to wage war. From shells, anti-tank guns, rifles and spare parts to aviation equipment. It is estimated that 80% of Iranian weapons purchases in the war's early stages were sourced from Israel. Regardless of the harsh rhetoric espoused by the clerics condemning Israel, there were dozens of Israeli military advisers in Iran throughout the conflict, quartered in remote installations. Later in the war, Israel played a pivotal role during the clandestine U.S. efforts to arm Iran - known as the Iran-Contra affair, the scandal that rocked the Reagan Administration. The CIA, Mossad, and other Western Intelligence agenies were engaged in covert , wholesale arms dealing.
Already in the early 1980's Iran was attempting to radicalize and organize Shia communities abroad. A notable accomplishment was achieved in Lebanon with the creation of Hezbollah (the Party of God). It was composed of both a militant, political and social service wing. The organization's main goal was to drive the Israeli army out of Lebanon and it has been implicated in numerous terrorist attacks against the international Jewish community and western targets. However, up until the demise of the Soviet Union and destruction of Iraq's military in the Gulf War, Israel and Iran shared common enemies that resulted in a complex relationship beyond that of friend or foe. These seismic geo-political shifts marked the turn to the current acrimonious status quo.
Nonetheless, certain inconsistent facts cannot be ignored. Iran holds the distinction of having the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. By constitutional mandate the Jews are entitled to representation in the legislature. On a grim note, the Israelis wouldn't have been able to pull off the number of successful assassinations of nuclear scientists on the streets of Tehran without considerable insider assistance. It appears evident that key segments of Iran's population and diaspora aren't loyal to the regime. As the issue of Iranian nuclear proliferation dominates the headlines, Israel maintains it is an immediate existential threat to its survival. Furthermore, Tehran and Jerusalem are locked in an intractable proxy war from Gaza to Lebanon and Syria. Unfortunately, these concerns hamper the potential dialogue of what relations could entail should a more conciliatory approach be adopted by both sides in light of their amiable shared history. In absolute reality, what we are left with however is an Apocalyptic scenario that resembles the vision of the Hebrew prophet Daniel, where Persia, controlled by a demonic 'principality' is engaged in an angelic conflict, involving an angelic Prince of Greece (Western civilization), and is hell bent on Israel's apparent annihilation . For centuries , theological minds - both Jewish and Christian, have grappled with what the prophetic prognostications of the 10th Chapter of the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures could mean.
Perhaps today's news headlines are the biblical commentary that may best explain it.