By Shireen Hunter
The Henry L. Stimson Center
Iran-Israel relations have been in a largely downward spiral since 1979, when Iran’s new Islamist regime embraced an ideology that combined radical Third-Worldism, anti-Imperialism, Arab leftist radicalism, and some Muslim antisemitism.
In this world view, Israel was seen as a Western colonial outpost and Zionism as a version of imperialism. At the time, many Arab governments also rejected Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and radicals opposed to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel formed a so-called Rejectionist Front. What Iran refers to today as the Resistance Front is a reworked and updated version of that construct.
Over the years, however, more and more Arab countries have normalized relations with Israel even as the country has failed to conclude an agreement with Palestinians for a two-state solution. This trend raises the question of what could mitigate Iran-Israel hostility—and with it, many of Iran’s difficulties with the United States and other Western countries.
Iran’s Islamists consider Israel an illegitimate state that has usurped Muslim/Arab lands and driven the Palestinians from their homeland. They believe Israel should be replaced by a non-denominational state in which Muslims and Jews live as equals. Some Iranian officials have expressed this view in terms that Israel has interpreted as threats to destroy it, like when former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke of wiping Israel off the pages of history, quoting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late leader of the 1979 revolution. However, this is not the only perspective within Iranian polity. Moderate and reformist elements accept Israel’s reality and its right to exist, alongside a Palestinian state.
Many of Iran’s activities in the Middle East since the 1979 revolution derive from its ideological proclivities and hostility toward Israel, such as Iran’s support for the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon after Israel’s 1982 invasion of that country. There have also been tit-for-tat assassinations and attacks by Iran and its proxies on Israeli and Jewish civilians. However, Israel-Iran relations are also affected by power dynamics and inter-state competition predating the revolution.
By the mid-1970s, Iran was no longer a passive proxy for US interests in the Middle East. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, buoyed by rising oil revenues, had adopted a more active and independent policy on regional affairs and relations with Arabs. In 1974, believing that the unresolved Palestinian problem was radicalizing Arabs and increasing Soviet influence in the Middle East, the Shah reached out to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and to Syria. In 1975, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad visited Tehran. The Shah hoped to persuade the PLO, then based in Lebanon, as well as Syria to cease supporting and training his domestic opponents.
Israel was not happy with these initiatives, and was particularly displeased by the Shah’s signing of an agreement in 1975 with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq which settled a territorial dispute over the Shatt al-Arab waterway in Iran’s favor in exchange for the Shah ending support for Iraqi Kurds fighting Baghdad. (The CIA also walked away from the Kurds at the time at the Shah’s insistence.) Israel, then as now a supporter of the Iraqi Kurds, felt betrayed by this act and lost faith in the Shah as an ally. Israel saw Iran’s more conciliatory approach to Arab radicals as potentially shifting the balance of power against Israel. Israel has always preferred some tension between Iran and the Arabs in order to use them against each other.
Additionally, by the mid-1970s, the Shah had decided to acquire a civilian nuclear capability that could lead to ending Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear weapons monopoly in the Middle East. With a vibrant economy and expanding military, Iran was emerging as an important commercial and security partner for the US in the Persian Gulf and a potential rival and competitor to Israel. US irritation at the Shah over his support for high oil prices in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab Israeli war was seen by some in Tehran as stoked by Israeli lobbying.
Iran’s value for Israel and America declined in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. Israel, nevertheless, convinced the Reagan administration to covertly sell arms to Iran during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, perceiving Iraq to be a greater danger.
Soviet Collapse & Israel’s Arab Option
By 1987, both Iraq and its patron, the Soviet Union, were no longer seen as major threats, while Iran was much weakened by its war with Iraq. Israel shifted its strategy from one of engaging so-called peripheral states to the so-called Arab option, seeking to build on its 1979 peace agreement with Egypt. Israel saw opposition to Iran as promoting nascent Arab-Israeli cooperation. Thus, it chose to perpetuate Iran’s isolation and seek to undermine its position in the regional power equation. Israel consistently opposed any positive Western response to signs of Iranian moderation during the presidencies of Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and later Hassan Rouhani, promoting a US strategy of “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq in the 1990s and lobbying for more and more US sanctions on Iran.
Israel focused on Iran’s nuclear program, which was discovered in 2002 to be more advanced than Iran had acknowledged to the International Atomic Energy Agency. As the US geared up to attack Iraq in 2003 over what turned out to be bogus claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, some Israeli leaders favored a US military attack on Iran. Israel also engaged in fierce competition with Iran in former Soviet republics, especially Azerbaijan, and forged an alliance with Baku against Tehran.
Iran, meanwhile, expanded its influence in areas close to Israel, notably Syria, seizing the opening provided by the 2011 civil war.
Several developments could change Iran’s calculus regarding Israel, notably more Arabs’ acceptance of the state of Israel and normalization of relations with it. Under the so-called Abraham Accords, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco have joined Egypt and Jordan in opening formal diplomatic relations with Israel, while Saudi opposition to formal ties has softened. Momentum has stalled in part because of the advent of Israel’s most right-wing government to date and a rise in unrest in the occupied West Bank. However, Iran is in no position to stop Arab-Israel reconciliation, and its response to these developments has been muted. To balance burgeoning Arab-Israel relations, Iran could feel compelled at some point to start its own dialogue with Israel.
An improvement in Iran’s relations with the West could also induce Iran to reconsider its hostility toward Israel, especially if accompanied by the reemergence of more moderate trends in Iran, perhaps following the death of current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Progress on the Palestine issue could also influence Iran to reconsider its position. Perhaps China, which has just facilitated a restoration of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, might broker some tacit understandings between Israel and Iran as well.
Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel all aspire to regional hegemony, but none are likely to achieve it.
A positive outcome to current Israeli-Iranian hostility is unlikely soon. But the centrality of power dynamics, in which both countries have limitations, might over time mitigate the conflictual aspects of their relations—if not openly, then at least in practice.
Shireen Hunter is an honorary fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, with which she has been associated since 2002 as Senior Fellow and then Visiting and Research Professor. She was an Iranian diplomat prior to the 1979 revolution.