From friends to foes: How Iranian-Israeli relations transformed over 70 years

From friends to foes: How Iranian-Israeli relations transformed over 70 years
Iran and Israel's relationship has shifted from close cooperation, including military and economic ties, before the 1979 Iranian revolution to hostile enmity, with Iran supporting the Palestinian groups Hamas and the Islamic Jihad for Palestine again
6 min read
23 October, 2023
Iranians gather in Palestine Square and recite anthems in solidarity with the Palestinians as they stage a demonstration in support of Palestinians in Tehran, Iran on 20 October 2023. [Getty]

Iran has raised the stakes in the global showdown with Israel following Tuesday's strike on the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City, which claimed at least 471 lives, suggesting that if Israel's indiscriminate attacks on Gaza continue, new fronts will open against it.

On 17 October, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, during a visit to Saudi Arabia, told reports in Jeddah: "This crime is intolerable for the Muslims of the world," the ISNA news agency reported.

The Iranian embassy in Damascus reacted to that attack with a post in Hebrew on the social media platform X, saying: "The time is over".

A day before that, Amir Abdollahian had taken to social media, expressing in FarsiEnglish, and Arabic, "I stressed that time is running out for political solutions; probable spread of war in other fronts is approaching [the] unavoidable stage."

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Simultaneously, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Iran's parliament speaker and a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), echoed these sentiments during a video conference with Speakers of the Parliamentary Union of the Organization of Islamic Countries (PUIC).

"We warn that the situation could quickly spiral out of control if this massacre in Gaza doesn't cease. If the Zionist regime crosses into Gaza by land, it could unleash a regional, and possibly global, conflict," Iran's Fars news agency quoted Qalibaf as saying.

Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has supported Palestinian groups in their struggle against Israeli forces. Tehran's influence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has grown significantly, especially with the emergence of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Gaza Strip.

Yet, over the past 75 years, the relationships between Iran, Israel and Palestine experienced dramatic fluctuations.

The Shah's pro-Israel stand

Before the 1979 revolution, when most Arab countries in the Middle East were at odds with Israel and refused to acknowledge its sovereignty, the Shah's dictatorial regime supported settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Under the Shah's leadership, Iran recognised Israel as a sovereign state in 1950. However, bilateral relations between the two nations slowed in the early 1950s. After the 1953 coup orchestrated by the CIA and MI6, the Shah regained power and became the United States's closest ally, as well as Israel's primary friend in the region.

Economic, political, and military cooperation between the two countries flourished as tensions between Israel and Arab nations escalated during the 1960s and 1970s.

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In 1957, the Shah, concerned about nationalist and leftist dissidents, established one of the Middle East's most infamous and brutal intelligence agencies, SAVAK, with assistance from the Israeli intelligence service Mossad.

Although the extent of military collaboration between the two nations before the 1979 revolution was kept secret, leaked documents revealed that they agreed to develop advanced missile systems under the code of Project Flower.

Economic and energy collaboration between Tehran and Tel Aviv was crucial in supporting Israel during its conflicts with Arab nations in 1967 and 1973. This was achieved through an international firm jointly established by both countries in Panama and Switzerland, known as Trans-Asiatic Oil, and through covert projects like the Eilat-Ashkelon Oil Pipeline at a time when Arab oil producers had imposed an embargo on Israel.

While Iran and Israel significantly strengthened their ties, Iranian leftist guerrillas, opposed to the Shah, joined the Fatah movement's camps in Jordan and Lebanon, where they fought against the Israeli army and gained experience in guerrilla warfare for their eventual return to Iran.

One of these fighters, Ali Akbar Safaei Farahani, had close ties with Yasser Arafat, former chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Safaei Farahani later returned to Iran and played a key role in organising the first armed resistance against the Shah, although he was eventually arrested and executed by a firing squad in 1971.

Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, another Iranian political figure, also criticised Israel. Following the Six-Day War, the hardline Iranian ayatollah issued a Fatwa, declaring to his followers that establishing political and economic relations with Israel and consuming Israeli products were considered "haram."

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End of the Friendship

The 1979 revolution marked the end of Iran and Israel's close ties, transforming them into bitter arch-enemies, with the threat of all-out war looming.

Just six days after the revolution's triumph was announced, Yasser Arafat became the first official foreign politician to visit Iran. He was warmly received by thousands of Iranians chanting in support of Palestine, and all political factions involved in the revolution welcomed him with open arms.

"When someone goes to their home, they do not need permission," Arafat told the public during his visit to Tehran. He declared, "Iran's revolution is a great victory for Palestine. When I entered Iran's airspace, I felt like I entered the airspace of Beit al-Moghaddas."

However, this warm relationship changed over time. It began with Arafat's alignment with Iraq's Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and later, due to the widespread execution and sentencing of leftist and secular activists in Iran following the Islamist total takeover of political power.

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At the same time, and despite its longstanding anti-Israel rhetoric, the Islamic regime, under US sanctions, turned to the Jewish state for a critical supply of arms in its war with the powerful Iraqi army. Various sources have estimated that in the 1980s, with the tacit approval of the United States, Israel provided Iran with arms totalling approximately US$2 billion.

The clandestine cooperation between the two enemies did not stop there; in a convoluted twist known as the Iran-Contra Affair, Israel played a crucial role in facilitating arms shipments from the United States to Iran between 1985 and 1986.

And then came the final blow to the Tehran-Al-Fatah relationship when Arafat recognised Israel as a country and signed the Oslo Accords, starkly contrasting to the ayatollahs' political slogan, "Israel should be demolished."

This marked the beginning of Iran's campaign to create new Islamist movements in Palestine and Lebanon while providing more significant support to existing ones.

With Iran's backing, Hezbollah emerged in Lebanon, Tehran became Hamas's primary military and economic supporter, and the Islamic Jihad for Palestine initiated its armed struggle with Iran's funding and support.

The exact nature and extent of Iran's support for these groups remain undisclosed, but Iranian officials have consistently affirmed their backing.

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In recent years, various speculations have arisen regarding the monthly financial assistance Iran provides to Hamas, with estimates ranging from US$100 million to as high as US$350 million annually. Moreover, IRGC commanders have openly acknowledged being the primary suppliers of the rockets used by Hamas to target Israel.

In 2012, Jawad Karimi Ghoddusi, an IRGC commander, disclosed that Iran had "sent 50,000 rockets and thousands of anti-tank missiles to Gaza." The former IRGC commander-in-chief, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, further claimed that Iran had supplied the technology to manufacture the Fajr 5 Missile in Gaza.

The most explicit confirmation of this support came from Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds the final authority in the country. During a visit by Hamas leaders to Iran in 2019, Khamenei stated, "Not many years ago, Palestinians fought [against Israel] with stones, but today, instead of stones, they are equipped with precision missiles; this signifies development."