It would surprise many to know that Iran was the second Muslim country, following Turkey, to recognise the state of Israel in 1948. It is an understatement to say Israeli-Iranian relations have gone a long way since the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran, from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s confrontation with Israeli troops in their 1982 invasion of Lebanon to the recent spat between the two countries regarding Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons. However, before 1979, Iran, under the leadership of the Pahlavi regime enjoyed fairly close relations with the state of Israel. This remains fairly understudied, perhaps indeed because of their current (non) relations, but nonetheless this period does warrant further investigation.
Early in its history, Israel was in need of allies in a predominantly hostile region. Iran itself was coming out of a rocky period in its history: it was occupied by Britain and the Soviet Union for most of the Second World War, it faced a communist threat, it was still very much under the influence of Britain, and was fast coming under the sway of the United States. Being a Muslim, but non-Arab country, Iran too had some difficulty in its relations with the Arab world. This was particularly true with Saudi Arabia: whenever there were any problems between the two countries, Saudi Arabia would reduce the quota for Hajj pilgrims from Iran. Furthermore, Israel’s friendship with Iran was essential to its defence policy: by establishing close relations with nations at the periphery of the Arab world, namely with Turkey and Iran, Israel was able to create a ring of defence around its hostile neighbours. Indeed, the writer Trita Parsi, who wrote about the three-way relationship between the United States, Israel and Iran, described the Israeli-Iranian alliance as “a not so secret marriage of convenience”.
They were not casual, or indeed, convenient allies. Over the years, Iran supplied both oil and even arms to the Israeli state. They were involved in joint military projects and strategic planning. After the 1953 coup, which saw CIA involvement in the overthrow of the popular Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadiq, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi established the notorious secret police, SAVAK. In addition to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), he also turned to the Israelis and Mossad for their expertise in the secret service industry. Both SAVAK and Mossad in the mid 1970s held joint training operations for the Iraqi Kurdish separatist movement in order to undermine Saddam Hussain. In 1973 King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and other Arab leaders invaded Israel, starting the October War. This was soon followed by an all-Arab oil embargo on the United States and other nations who assisted Israel. Tellingly, Iran stayed out of the war and even continued to supply oil westwards.
However, even allies run into some problems. Muhammad Reza Shah signed an agreement with Saddam Hussain in order to settle Iran and Iraq’s dispute over the Shatt al-Arab, a strip of land bordering the two nations. In honouring the treaty, Muhammad Reza Shah abruptly halted SAVAK’s involvement with the Iraqi Kurds. The head of Mossad’s operations there saw the treaty as a betrayal against the Israelis. In addition to this, Iran played the important role of negotiator following the Yom Kippur war. In an interesting turn of events, Iran supported Egypt’s claims in calling for a return to the pre-1967 borders. Iran went on to vote in favour of the “Zionism equals racism” resolution at the United Nations (this was revoked in 1991). As such, despite their closeness, Muhammad Reza Shah and Israel did not always enjoy harmonious relations. The final blow came with the ascent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Israel was now “Little Satan” (whereas the United States was “Great Satan”) and all diplomatic relations were severed.
Israel and Iran have indeed come a long way: from convenient allies to committed strategic partners to sworn enemies. It’s hard to say what their former relations could say about the present. Is it actually relevant to know that their mutual animosity is rooted in mutual respect? Or is it actually just reflective of the volatile world we live in and that your friend today may be your enemy tomorrow (but you do what you can in the meantime)? Regardless of this relevance, further study and consideration of Iran and Israel’s joint past may indeed shed some depth in our understanding of their current relations, and may even offer some insight into their future.