Israel and Iran flags.
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
When the Iranian Revolution took the country by storm 40 years ago, it had nothing to do with Israel.
If that is true, then why do Israel and Iran view each other as such mortal enemies today? Going back in time, the question becomes even stronger. Prior to the 1979 revolution, modern Iran and modern Israel had diplomatic relations and were even close allies on a number of secret national security issues. This was part of David Ben-Gurion’s peripheral national security concept.
The concept was for Israel to develop alliances with Muslim countries like Iran and Turkey, which were not Arab and were in Israel’s periphery in the region, to counterbalance threats by the five Arab armies that surrounded the Jewish state on its immediate borders.
Rewinding deeper back into Persian (Iranian) and Jewish relations and history, relations were strong.
Cyrus the Great had streets named after him in modern Israel to positively recount that around 2,500 years ago, he had allowed the Jews to return to Judea from their Babylonian exile to rebuild the Jewish Holy Temple.
Unlike some other ancient civilizations, the Jews never competed against biblical Persian expansion or later Islamic Iranian expansion.
So while there were exceptions and Iranians who did not like Jews – like anywhere else where Jews have been minorities over the centuries – the bad blood between Iran and Israel/Jews at a national level really started only 40 years ago.
Where did it come from?
Some of the enmity came from Israel’s alliance with the Shah of Iran, the chief enemy whom the Islamic Revolution deposed. Both Israel and the US were hated by Iran’s new rulers precisely because of their close relations with its previous, hated ruler. Some of the enmity was likely a combination of fanatic religious ideology and opportunism. A primary goal of the revolution was not merely to rid Iran of “unclean” Western hedonistic influences, but also to rid the entire region of them.
Iran’s new mullah leadership regarded Israel as a Western intrusion, desecrating the Middle East with modern and licentious ideas. Combine that with the obvious strategy of helping Tehran gain followers throughout the region by lifting the banner of freeing its Muslim-Arab cousins from “imperialist” Israeli oppression, and suddenly Iran is a regional leader.
Its anti-Israel bent and willingness to prop-up proxies which adopted that bent have given Iran dominant influence in Lebanon via Hezbollah and significant influence with Hamas in Gaza. And becoming a regional powerhouse clearly is a major current goal of the Islamic republic, demonstrated by the blood and treasure it has spent on the Syrian civil war, in Iraq, in Yemen and elsewhere.
THE BIG QUESTION has always been how far Iran is really willing to go in a conflict with Israel, whether it be a larger war via Hezbollah/new Syrian proxies, or using nuclear weapons. Some experts believe Iran’s religious fanaticism comes first and that it would risk its own destruction since, according to foreign reports, Iran has 80 to 200 nuclear weapons with which to fight Israel. These experts focus on Iran’s 12th-Imam messianic streak as a basis for it to ignore the rational risks of it being largely destroyed by Israel in a general war.
Other experts believe that Iran wants to continually harass Israel to maintain its claims to be leader of the region’s Muslims but, at least partially, considers defense issues rationally and would not risk a larger conflict with Israel. Iran’s careful moves in Syria to continually probe and seek Israeli weaknesses, while just as carefully avoiding a big confrontation even after public humiliations by Israeli air strikes, is highlighted by these experts.
For example, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center recently noted that Iran did not confirm reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which claimed that 12 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps cadres were killed in a late January strike by Israel. It said that Iran’s failure to respond and its state media downplaying the incident reflected “Iran’s desire to maintain a ‘space of deniability,’ to allow it to test its response without risking further escalation vis-à-vis Israel.”
In deciphering the future threat from Iran against Israel, fully understanding what changes the country has undergone in recent decades is critical – but it is just as vital to return to and better understand the revolution’s origins 40 years ago.