Nov 7, 2023
Iran and Israel: From allies to archenemies, how did they get here?
The 1979 revolution changed their relationship dramatically with Tehran becoming a vocal supporter of Palestinians.
Tehran, Iran – Iran has emerged as one of the most strident voices against the brutal Israeli bombardment of Gaza. And that’s in line with its staunch anti-Israel foreign policy. The two Middle Eastern nations are often described as archenemies.
The Palestinian issue has been at the centre of the hostilities for decades, and Tehran has been warning Israel and its closest ally, the United States, that the war with Hamas could spread as Tel Aviv has escalated attacks beyond Gaza. Israel has bombed positions in Lebanon and Syria, two countries where Tehran wields considerable influence.
Here’s a quick look at the history of relations between Iran and Israel, and where things stand now.
How did relations between modern-day Iran and Israel begin?
Under the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled from 1925 until it was overthrown in the 1979 revolution, ties between Iran and Israel were anything but hostile. Iran was, in fact, the second Muslim-majority country to recognise Israel after it was founded in 1948.
Iran was one of the 11 members of the special United Nations committee that was formed in 1947 to devise a solution for Palestine after the British control of the territory ended. It was one of three to vote against the UN’s partition plan for Palestine, centred on concerns that it would escalate violence in the region for generations to come.
“Iran, alongside India and Yugoslavia, came up with an alternative plan, a federative solution which was about keeping Palestine as one state with one parliament but divided into Arab and Jewish cantons,” University of Oxford historian Eirik Kvindesland told Al Jazeera.
“That was Iran’s compromise to try to maintain positive relations with a pro-Zionist West and the Zionist movement itself, and also with its Arab and Muslim neighbouring countries.”
But two years after Israel managed to capture more territory than the UN had approved following the start of the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948, Iran – then under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the second Pahlavi king or shah – became the second Muslim-majority nation after Turkey to officially recognise Israel.
Leading up to Israel’s establishment in 1948, more than 700,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homes by Zionist militias. Palestinians call their forced displacement and dispossession the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe.
Kvindesland said Tehran’s move was mainly to manage Iranian assets in Palestine as about 2,000 Iranians lived there and had their properties confiscated by the Israeli army during the war.
But it also happened in the context of Israel’s so-called “periphery doctrine”.
“To end its isolation in the Middle East, Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion pursued relations with non-Arab states at the ‘edges’ of the Middle East, in what would later become known as the periphery doctrine. This also included Ethiopia, but Iran and Turkey were by far the most successful approaches,” Kvindesland said.
Things changed after Mohammad Mosaddegh became Iran’s prime minister in 1951 when he spearheaded the nationalisation of the country’s oil industry, which was monopolised by Britain. Mosaddegh severed ties with Israel, which he saw as serving Western interests in the region.
According to Kvindesland, Mosaddegh and his National Front political organisation’s efforts to nationalise oil, kick out the British colonial power and weaken the monarchy were the main story for Iran at the time. Its ties with Israel were “collateral damage”, he says.
“There was some anti-Zionist mobilisation inside Iran. There was [influential Shia cleric] Navvab Safavi, one of the most famous characters who propagated strongly against Zionism and the establishment of Israel. But for Mosaddegh, the main aim was to gain support from surrounding Arab states to combat British control over the oil industry,” Kvindesland told Al Jazeera.
Zionism emerged as a political ideology in the late 19th century that called for the creation of a homeland for Jews who faced atrocities in Europe.
Things dramatically shifted when Mosaddegh’s government was overthrown in a coup organised by the intelligence services of the United Kingdom and the United States in 1953. The coup reinstated the shah who became a staunch ally of the West in the region.
Israel established a de facto embassy in Tehran, and eventually the two exchanged ambassadors in the 1970s. Trade ties grew, and soon Iran became a major oil provider for Israel, with the two establishing a pipeline aimed at sending Iranian oil to Israel and then Europe.
Tehran and Tel Aviv also had extensive military and security cooperation, but it was largely kept under wraps to avoid provoking the Arab nations in the region.
“Israel needed Iran more than Iran needed Israel. It was always Israel that was the proactive party, but the shah also wanted a way to improve its [Iran’s] relations with the US, and at the time Israel was seen as a good way to achieve that aim,” Kvindesland said.
“There was also the prospect of building up the security apparatus, and the [Iranian security and intelligence service] SAVAK was partly trained by Mossad. These were things Iran could get from elsewhere, but Israel was keen to provide them because it needed a partner in the Middle East that was otherwise fairly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel.”
The historian said the Shah was mainly driven by the need for alliances, security and trade, and “showed little concern for the Palestinians in his dealings with Israel.”
What happened after Iran’s revolution?
In 1979, the shah was overthrown in a revolution, and a new Islamic Republic of Iran was born.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, brought about a new worldview that predominantly championed Islam and argued for standing up to “arrogant” world powers and their regional allies, who would oppress others – including Palestinians – to serve their own interests.
This meant that Israel became known in Iran as the “Little Satan” to the “Great Satan” that is the US.
Tehran cut off all ties with Israel; citizens could no longer travel and flight routes were cancelled; and the Israeli embassy in Tehran was transformed into the Palestinian embassy.
Khomeini also declared every last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as Quds Day, and ever since large rallies have been held on that day in support of Palestinians across Iran. Jerusalem is known as al-Quds in Arabic.
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told Al Jazeera that Khomeini pushed against framing the Palestinian issue as an Arab nationalist cause and sought to transform it into an Islamic cause in order to provide Iran with not only the ability to champion the Palestinian cause but to lead it.
“To overcome both the Arab-Persian divide and the Sunni-Shia divide, Iran adopted a much more aggressive position on the Palestinian issue to brandish its leadership credentials in the Islamic world and to put Arab regimes allied with the United States on the defensive,” he said.
The enmity grew over the decades as both sides sought to cement and grow their power and influence across the region.
Now, Iran supports a “resistance axis” network of political and armed groups in several countries across the region, including in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, who also support the Palestinian cause and view Israel as a major enemy.
Over the years, Israel has backed a variety of groups who are violently opposed to the Iranian establishment. Tehran says these have included a number of groups it designates as “terrorist” organisations.
How have they clashed?
Tensions between Iran and Israel have not been limited to ideologies or proxy groups.
The two are alleged to be behind a long series of attacks on each other’s interests within and outside their soils, which they publicly deny. This has become known as a “shadow war” that has increasingly spilt out into the open as hostilities grew.
Iran’s nuclear programme has been at the centre of some of the largest attacks. Israel – itself thought to clandestinely possess dozens of nuclear weapons – has vowed to never let Iran develop a nuclear bomb. Tehran has reiterated that its nuclear programme is for civilian purposes.
Israel and the US are widely believed to be behind the Stuxnet malware that inflicted major damage on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the 2000s.
Over the years, there have been many sabotage attacks on Iran’s nuclear and military facilities that Tehran has blamed Israel for. Iran also regularly publicises news of foiling more sabotage attacks.
The attacks have also targeted personnel, including a series of high-profile nuclear scientists. The most brazen assassination came in 2020 when top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was gunned down using a satellite-monitored, AI-controlled machine gun mounted on the back of a pickup truck that later exploded to destroy evidence.
On the other hand, Israel and its Western allies accuse Iran of being behind a series of attacks on Israeli interests, including several drone strikes on Israeli-owned oil tankers and cyberattacks.
Could there ever be normalisation?
Several Arab states in the region have chosen to normalise their relations with Israel as they seek more Western support.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the other powerhouse in the region, this year restored diplomatic relations with Iran after a seven-year rift following an agreement brokered by China in March.
The US has been trying to mediate a similar deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Any prospect of normalisation between Tel Aviv and Riyadh has been put on hold, at least for now, as Israel continues to bomb Gaza, having already caused a humanitarian nightmare and killing nearly 10,000 people, one-third of them children.
But for the current establishment in Iran, any rapprochement with Israel is out of the question.
Parsi said common security imperatives that in earlier decades had led the two to become allies, including the threat from Arab nationalist states and the Soviet empire, vanished in the early 1990s.
Tehran opposes US hegemony in the Middle East while Israel has consistently pushed back against any efforts in Washington to bring American troops home from the region. Iran-linked groups have regularly attacked US bases in Iraq and Syria.
It’s a “rivalry for dominance and power in the region, the two states have been embroiled in a low-level war for more than a decade,” said Parsi.
There are no signs of that changing.