Were Iran and Israel really friends before 1979? It’s complicated

Published in the National

Anarrative that has persisted throughout the decades-long cold conflict between Iran and Israel is that, before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the two countries had excellent relations that only soured after the Islamic Republic’s establishment.

Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s last crown prince, himself has repeatedly espoused a version of this narrative in his attempts to curry favour with Israel. It was front and centre when, on the invitation of its government, he visited Israel last year and met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But how much truth is there to this rather simplistic historical narrative? At best, this is only half of the story.

Iran and Israel did have extensive trade, cultural, commercial and military links before the revolution. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had envisioned an anti-Arab “Alliance of the Periphery” that also included Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia.

Boasting a large Jewish community and a desire to have good relations with all the region’s peoples, Tehran also hosted a Jewish Agency office from 1942, which later became the de facto Israel embassy. As Iraqi Jews began fleeing their country for Palestine/Israel, they often went through Iran. And rather than side with the Arab powers in their wars against Israel, the Shah of Iran preferred to stay neutral, offering himself as a mediator.

Yet it would be inaccurate to characterise the Shah’s regime as pro-Israel. Pre-1979 Iran, instead, maintained mutually beneficial ties with Israel while opposing its occupation of Palestinian territories and maintaining sound relations with the Arab states. In fact, the Shah never established full diplomatic relations with Israel and was adamant that he would do so only after it ended its occupation – a position similar to that of many Arab countries today.

As a Muslim-majority country, Iran long defended the Palestinian cause, including by providing financial assistance to the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the 1960s. As early as 1935, following skirmishes in Mandatory Palestine, the Iranian diplomat Baqer Kazemi spoke in favour of the Arab people at the League of Nations.

In 1947, Iran was among a minority of countries on a UN committee to have presented a one-state federal solution to resolve the Palestine-Israel conflict. They failed to win the votes in the nascent body, with a majority of members in the committee advocating for the partition of Palestine and formation of the state of Israel.

Two years later, when Israel sought admittance to the UN, Iran voted no. Yet despite this official rejection, the two countries enjoyed people-to-people ties.

The late 1940s and early 1950s were stormy days in Iranian politics. This meant that the various political actors could mobilise around hot-button issues such as Israel. The right-wing Ayatollah Kashani described Israel offensively as “a bunch of nationless smuggling Jews who have been turned away by all countries of the world and have settled over there with the force of the large states”.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the communist Tudeh Party opposed Zionism and Israel’s policies while defending its right to exist and asking the Iranian government to establish diplomatic relations with it.

Iran finally recognised Israel in 1950 and sent Reza Safinia as its representative there. And although then prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq would recall Mr Safinia, citing financial constraints in running too many embassies, the relations between the two countries continued. In June 1953, months before Mr Mossadeq was overthrown in a CIA-staged coup, Bank Melli Iran signed an agreement with Israel’s Bank Leumi.

Regime change in Iran did not alter its foreign policy, with the Shah espousing a “national independent policy”, according to which Tehran maintained good relations with countries on both sides of the Cold War. It also established ties throughout the Mena region, including with those Arab states that called the Shah a stooge of the West.

Tehran even re-established diplomatic ties with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in 1970, years after the latter had burnt bridges with it over its relations with Israel. His successor, Anwar Sadat, would go on to be the closest ally of the Shah, together with Jordan’s King Hussain.

Tehran’s relations with Arab countries were much more extensive than those with Israel. The Shah, for instance, intervened in key Arab civil wars such as those in Yemen (by sending arms to Saudi Arabia) and Oman (by sending boots on the ground to defend the Sultan against leftist rebels).

He opposed Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories in the 1967 war, declaring: “The age of occupying other people’s lands by the force of arms has long passed.” At the same time, however, Iran urged Arab states to accept Israel’s existence and drop the unrealistic goal of its destruction.

In December 1970, when Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister, visited Iran, he met his Iranian counterpart, Ardeshir Zahedi, in the latter’s private villa outside Tehran. The two countries’ relations, after all, weren’t official.

Mr Zahedi denounced the occupation at the meeting, before promising Mr Eban something familiar: if Israel were to leave the occupied territories, Iran “would see no problem in making its relations with you open”.

Like in recent years, Israel has remained a topic of intense political debate in Iran. In 1963, dissident intellectuals such as Jalal Ale Ahmad and Simin Daneshvar visited Israel, writing positive travelogues and praising the Kibbutzim as examples of religious modernity in practice. Four years later, however, Mr Ale Ahmad became a critic of Israel’s occupation.

When the socialist Dariush Ashoori wrote in praise of Israel in 1967, Ali Shariati, a pioneering Islamic socialist, wrote a bitter critique in Tehran’s Ferdowsi magazine, in which he condemned Israel as colonialist and fascist.

Going a step further, Ayatollah Khomeini and other Islamist leaders made opposition to Israel central to their politics. Iranian Islamists, together with radical Marxist opponents of the Shah, built durable links with the PLO and other Palestinian groups, with dozens of Iranians training, fighting and even dying alongside the Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Such alliances help explain Iran’s post-1979, anti-Israel position. The record shows, however, that its pre-1979 stance was not wholly pro-Israel either, even though this myth continues to be propagated by the late Shah’s proponents and detractors alike.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *