Israel and Iran: From Allies to Archenemies

What Happened?

The hottest new Israeli TV show Tehran is already being compared to Israeli Netflix hit show Fauda with Haaretz reporting that it’s “even better.” The espionage thriller, which has already been bought for international distribution by Apple TV, tells the story of a young Mossad operative who is sent into Tehran to disable an Iranian nuclear reactor, so that Israel can carry out an airstrike. Tehran isn’t only popular because of its great acting and riveting storytelling, but also because of the rising tension between Iran and Israel over the last few months and even days. In late April, six facilities were targeted in an Iranian cyberattack on Israel’s water system. In response, Israel took action against Iran’s Shahid Rajaee Port with a cyberattack of its own. Last month, six pro-Iranian fighters were killed in an alleged Israeli air strike on Syrian and Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria. There was also a mysterious blast at the Parchin military site, east of Tehran. Iran claims it was a gas explosion, while the international consensus appears to be a cyberstrike by Israel against Iran. This past week, another mysterious explosion caused damage to a building near Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. After initially downplaying the incident, an Iranian spokesperson admitted that the blast did in fact set back the country’s nuclear program, amidst reports from an unidentified Middle Eastern intelligence official who claimed Israel was responsible. Meanwhile, Israel successfully launched a new spy satellite into space to monitor security threats from Iran and other adversaries. Israeli Defense Ministry official Shlomi Sudari said “the timing was planned far in advance” and denied any explicit connection between the launch and the unexplained Iranian blasts.

Why Does This Matter?

Iran: Israel’s Most Dangerous Foe 

Israel considers Iran to be its most dangerous enemy. Why?

  1. Iran openly calls for Israel’s destruction. Recently, marking his country’s annual anti-Israel Quds Day, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Israel a “crime against humanity” and “a cancerous tumor,” and compared Zionism to “a virus that must be eliminated.” 
  2. According to a report by unnamed Israeli defense officials, Iran is edging closer to producing a nuclear weapon, and also has a stockpile of conventional weapons
  3. Iran is considered by many to be the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism, providing significant financial and military support to Hezbollah (Iran’s proxy in Lebanon), as well as to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which are all designated as terror organizations by the the United States, Israel, and Canada. 

For these reasons, Israeli Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister (winner for longest title ever) Benny Gantz recently confirmed that Iran is Israel’s number-one security threat, and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi warned that Iran is now the “most dangerous country” in the Middle East.

“We’re not antisemites. We’re just anti-Zionist.” 

In response to accusations that Iran’s calls to destroy the Jewish state are anti-Semitic, Iranian officials have claimed that they seek Israel’s destruction but not the annihilation of all Jews. Quite the fine line there. Recently, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei made this argument after publishing a poster that used the words “final solution” in calling for Israel’s destruction. When Israeli and American officials accused him of encouraging genocide through this behavior – with that not-so-subtle nod to Nazi Germany – Khamenei tweeted: “Eliminating the Zionist regime doesn’t mean eliminating Jews. We aren’t against Jews.” Yehuda Garami, Iran’s most senior rabbi backed up this claim, making a distinction between Zionism and Judaism in this speech. He charged that Israel’s government “doesn’t care about Judaism at all,” and praised Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, who oversaw countless attacks abroad before he was killed earlier this year by the United States, as a national hero. The Jerusalem Post notes that Jewish leaders in Iran “have long been stressing the difference between Judaism and Zionism in order to distance themselves from Israel and prevent Iranian Jews from being considered pariahs in Iranian society.”

A Fascinating History: How Israel and Iran Went From Allies to Archenemies

Hard as it may be to imagine now, there was a time when Israel and Iran’s relationship looked very different than it does today. In fact, for 30 years before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the countries enjoyed good relations, and Iran was home to a large and thriving Jewish community. After Iraq began persecuting Jews in the aftermath of the establishment of Israel, Iran provided refuge to Iraqi Jews, and, although it voted against the 1947 Partition Plan, Iran gave Israel de-facto recognition in 1950, becoming the second-Muslim majority country (after Turkey) to do so. Friendly relations continued during the reign of the U.S.-allied Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. From Israel’s perspective, Iran fit into Israel’s “periphery doctrine.” Originally envisioned by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, this was a foreign policy strategy in which Israel sought relations with non-Arab Muslim states that opposed Israel’s enemies (in other words, Israel sought relations with “the enemies of its enemies”). All of this changed with the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when the shah was overthrown and fundamentalist Shiites seized power under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The new Islamic Republic of Iran broke relations with Israel, turned over the Israeli embassy in Tehran to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and declared a policy dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Why? Perhaps this was because Israel brought secularism and other religions into the Middle East. Or perhaps Khomeini’s hatred of Israel reflected his own lingering resentment; Israel had been an ally of his predecessor and rival, the shah. Was Israel’s connection with the shah why Khomeini had reportedly been attacking “the Zionists who are in Iran” in 1962, according to Israeli representatives in Tehran at the time? Khomeini’s anti-Israel feelings continued in his time as supreme leader, leading to the formation of Iran’s proxies along Israel’s border, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. The rhetoric between the two countries grew increasingly hostile in the 1990s and 2000s, as did the security threat that Iran posed to Israel. Many hoped that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — would limit Iran’s nuclear program and prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. In May 2018, the U.S. left the deal, arguing that Iran continued to pose a threat to the U.S. and that the deal did not ensure against Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. Today, an Iran-Israel confrontation seems like a possibility, with Israeli officials continuing to insist that Israel will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Diversity of Perspectives

At a press conference in Jerusalem the day after the Iran nuclear deal was announced, Netanyahu called it “a stunning historic mistake” and asserted that “the world is a much more dangerous place today than it was yesterday.” Months before, Netanyahu traveled to the U.S. and gave a controversial speech before Congress in which he said he opposed the deal because “it doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” While Jewish organizations across the world from AIPAC to JStreet debated the Iran deal, Israeli politicians across the political spectrum reached a near-consensus, with lawmakers from across the spectrum criticizing the pact. Tzipi Hotovely from the Likud party, who was the Deputy Foreign Minister at the time, said the agreement was a “surrender by the West to the axis of evil led by Iran,” warning that it would allow Iran to advance toward acquiring a nuclear weapon. Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman, who was in the opposition to Netanyahu’s government at the time, compared the deal to the agreement that appeased Nazi Germany in 1938. “A black flag waves over this agreement, and it will be remembered as a black day for the free world,” he said. Shelly Yachimovich of the center-left Zionist Union party agreed with her right-wing colleagues, though she did criticize Netanyahu’s breaking of protocol in his speech to Congress. This “bitter confrontation with the Americans was an utter failure that will be taught in history books,” she said. Finally, Zehava Gal-On of the left-wing Meretz party, struck a different tone compared to many other Israeli lawmakers on the deal, and said: “True, the deal with Iran is not perfect, far from it, but it is not nearly as bad as the prime minister portrays.”

The Iran deal was equally unpopular with the Israeli public, with a survey finding that 70 percent of Israelis opposed the agreement when it was first signed. When President Donald Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Iran deal in 2018, Netanyahu applauded the decision, saying the removal of sanctions had “produced disastrous results” and actually “brought [war] closer.” According to a survey taken right after Trump’s announcement, 62 percent of Israelis were pleased by the U.S. withdrawal from the deal. However, not everyone in Israeli society joined Netanyahu in strongly condemning the deal and celebrating the U.S. announcement. Gadi Eisenkot, who was the IDF Chief of Staff at the time, was quoted in Haaretz saying, “the agreement, with all its faults, is working” by delaying the realization of Iran’s nuclear plans. In a similar vein, former Israeli General Amos Gilad told Haaretz that the Iran deal allowed Israel to “prioritize” and “focus on more urgent threats” by providing a window of time in which Iran’s nuclear program would be suspended.