Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Israel and Iran − a tangled tale

Relations between the Jewish people and the Persians (or Iranians, as they have become) have certainly had their ups and downs.

It may seem irrelevant to go back nearly three thousand years, but it is worth noting that on the one hand, in the Persian monarch Cyrus the Great, the Jewish people found one of their greatest friends. Some fifty years after the Babylonians had overthrown the ancient Kingdom of Judah, destroyed the first Temple and carried off the Jewish inhabitants, Cyrus conquered Babylonia. He not only allowed Jews to return to their native land, but he ordered the rebuilding of the Second Temple.

On the other hand, only half a century later, in Haman, vizier to the Persian King Ahasuerus, Jews encountered one of their greatest enemies – on a par, perhaps, with Hitler in the modern era. For like Hitler, Haman’s hatred of Jews was visceral, and he attempted to have the whole Jewish population of the far-flung Persian empire, which included Jerusalem, slaughtered – a fiendish plot thwarted by the courage of the Jewish Queen Esther and her uncle, Mordechai.

Jumping to more modern times, the ambivalence persists. From the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 until the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979, Israel and Iran maintained close ties. After Turkey, Iran was the second Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel as a sovereign nation. In those early years Israel viewed Iran − a non-Arab power on the edge of the Arab world − as a natural ally, and fostered the relationship as part of the strategy favored by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, of an alliance of the periphery.

After the Six Day War in 1967, Iran supplied Israel with a significant portion of its oil needs and Iranian oil was shipped to European markets via the joint Israeli-Iranian Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline. Israeli construction firms and engineers were active in Iran, and military projects − though kept secret − are believed to have been wide-ranging, including an Iranian-Israeli attempt to develop a new missile.

A sea-change in Israeli-Iranian relations appeared to follow the ousting of the Shah in 1979 and the coming to power of the Islamist Ayatollah Khomenei, but − as in most political scenarios − all was not exactly as it seemed.

Khomenei became Supreme Leader of Iran in December 1979. Less than a year later, on 22 September 1980, Iraq launched a simultaneous invasion by air and land into Iranian territory, hoping to take advantage of the continuing chaos in the country following the revolution. One of the factors influencing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, was his fear that Iraq's long-suppressed Shia majority would be influenced by the Iranian revolution to rise against him. Saddam also had ambitions to replace Iran as the dominant state in the Persian Gulf.

If there was a consistent theme running through Gulf politics, it was the rabid hatred that the Khomeini régime professed for all things Israeli, which it lumped together with all things Western in general and all things American in particular. Linked to his all-encompassing enmity for the Zionist state was the Ayatollah's oft proclaimed objective to “liberate” Jerusalem. Yet it was to Iran that American and Israeli made weapons consistently found their way throughout the conflict, and the various arms for-hostages deals saw Israel acting as honest broker. Israel seemed to have adopted a clear pro Iranian stance. What could explain a country persistently supporting its declared enemy?

When the Iran Iraq conflict broke out in September 1980, most of the Arab world lined up in support of Iraq – the solid, centralist, Moslem state that had sent a fighting contingent to support the Arab cause in all the major conflicts with Israel. Syria, however, did not fall into line. Influenced, perhaps, by his long standing personal hostility to Saddam Hussein, perhaps by the ancient split between the Ba'athist parties in the two countries, Syria's President Hafez el-Assad, supported by Libya's Gaddafi, threw his weight behind Iran.

But this pro-Persian axis represented little threat to Israel. From Israel's point of view it was the pro-Iraqi line up that was the key to the situation. Iraq represented the Arab enemy – six divisions of it – and was supported by the bulk of the Arab world including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Iran's military machine was rudimentary compared to Iraq's, and was heavily dependent on US weaponry, originally purchased by the Shah. In fact, according to the then speaker of Iran's Parliament, Ali Akbar Hashem Rafsanjani – probably the most powerful man in Iran after Khomeini – Iran had been obliged throughout the conflict to continue to buy American weapons on the open market. Israel represented an additional source of supply.

What was the thinking behind this Israeli strategy? Israeli military intelligence perceived a long term interest in keeping open channels with Iran, especially those which fostered the flow of military materials. The change of régime from Shah to Ayatollah could not, it was argued, alter the geopolitical realities. Iran did not, like Iraq, have a long history of open conflict with Israel, and in 1980, of course, the full scale nature of the Islamic fundamentalist philosophy and its translation into unrestrained revolutionary action was not yet fully appreciated. More to the point, Khomeini would not live forever and, the argument ran, his régime was unlikely to persist unaltered after his death.

So the strategy was to hold off an Iraqi victory and keep the channels with Iran open, in the hope of re establishing effective working relationships with more moderate elements, if or when they emerged − precisely the arguments now being used to justify the delaying tactic of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Back in 1980, however, redressing the military balance in Iran's favour seemed a useful step.

However, Israel's policy, which made some sort of sense at the start of the conflict, became progressively less relevant as Iran gained the upper hand. The old argument about keeping Israel's enemies occupied in fighting each other lost its point once an Iranian victory began to seem possible.

Meanwhile Israel's reported arms sales to Iran did not go unchallenged inside Israel itself. There was a degree of public unease at the thought that the interests of Israel's arms dealers might be dictating the country's foreign policy, though cash from arms deals with Iran certainly provided a useful addition to Israel's balance of payments.

Despite continual calls for an end to the conflict by the UN Security Council, hostilities continued until August 20, 1988, when Iran announced its unconditional acceptance of a ceasefire.

By an unhappy coincidence, at the very moment the Iranians were making their announcement, an Israeli Defence Force intelligence officer was briefing the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee on the unlikelihood of an early end to the conflict. Members emerged from the committee room to a patent demonstration that the country's intelligence community had been caught napping. The committee re convened to grill senior officers about the failure. Harsh words spilled over into the media. The ashes of past intelligence errors, both of omission and of commission, were raked over. Some political analysts tried to point out the impossibility of predicting the unpredictable, but the military intelligence services had been undeniably humiliated.

Their humiliation was, if anything, deepened by the failure of events to turn out as they had predicted, for the death of Ayatollah Khomenei in June 1989 in fact made no difference. His successor, Ayatollah Khameini, was if anything even more hardline in his Islamist fervour and his anti-Israel rhetoric.

And yet, a recent article by David Blair in the London Daily Telegraph suggests that, just as Iran and Israel had a covert relationship for much of the Eighties, so one should be in existence today.

Writing of the 1980s, Blair says: “The back channel between Israel and Iran was handled by David Kimche, a former deputy head of the Mossad, who was then director general of the Israeli foreign ministry. For years," claims Blair, "Kimche held secret meetings with the Islamic republic’s leaders, sometimes in European cities, sometimes in Tehran. Even after his official retirement from government service in 1989, Kimche remained a regular visitor to Tehran."

To cope with the threat of an Israeli, and possibly an American, strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Blair writes: "we must hope that two carefully chosen interlocutors, one American 'mountain climber' and one Iranian (and, who knows, perhaps even an Israeli) are meeting regularly in a neutral setting.

"Their talks," he adds, "would be entirely secret. And quite right too."

If such a back channel is indeed open and functioning, it would certainly represent yet another unexpected twist in the tangled tale of Israeli-Iranian relations.

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