Iranian youths sit under a large picture of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (left), and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a park in Tehran, Iran, January 17, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Raheb Homavandi

US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal has once again brought to the surface the intense animosity between Iran and Israel. This time the rivalry has reached a very dangerous point, since it has been manifested with direct military clashes between Israel and Iran on Syrian territory.

On May 11, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) attacked Iranian positions in Syria in retaliation for an Iranian rocket attack on Israeli troops in the occupied Golan Heights. Many analysts warn that this series of events may lead to a direct confrontation between Iran and Israel.

Many people wonder why there is so much hatred between the two Middle Eastern states and what are the roots of the conflict.

The feud between Iran and Israel goes some decades back to 1979, when the so-called Islamic Revolution occurred. The revolution brought to power a hardcore theocratic regime, a change that profoundly transformed the Middle Eastern balance of power. Let’s take things from the beginning.

In 1953, a US-British coup overthrew the Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, whose actions were regarded as hostile to Anglo-American strategic and economic interests in the region. The Western powers installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who remained in power until 1979, when he was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution.

US-American relations during the Shah’s period

The Shah’s rise to power marked a tremendous improvement in the relations between the West and Iran. Iran joined the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and received extensive US economic and military aid.

US-Iranian relations blossomed during Richard Nixon’s presidency. More specifically, the so-called Nixon Doctrine (1969) provided that the US would rely on local powers for the stability of the Middle East, while the superpower would provide nuclear deterrence if requested.

Iran and Israel maintained close bilateral relations based on the assumption that they were two non-Arab states in hostile Arab surroundings. It is worth mentioning that Iran was the second Muslim country to recognize Israel, after Turkey

Iran and Israel were at the forefront of containing Soviet influence in the region. The two countries maintained close bilateral relations based on the assumption that they were two non-Arab states in hostile Arab surroundings. It is worth mentioning that Iran was the second Muslim country to recognize Israel, after Turkey.

The US meddled in the internal affairs of Iran and its Central Intelligence Agency trained SAVAK, the secret police under the Shah. However, the more the US interfered in the internal affairs of Iran, the more Iranian public opinion objected.

The legal right of extraterritoriality – granted to US troops from 1964 – was regarded by many Iranians as a violation of the Iranian sovereignty. Gradually, the Shah was identified by many of his compatriots as an American stooge and a client of American imperialism.

His human-rights record was very poor. He banned political parties and ordered many economic cuts to modernize Iran’s army, provoking public dissent among the poor. Iranians started to react against his totalitarianism, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini organized an opposition movement among the clergy that influenced many Iranian citizens.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution

In late 1978, general unrest sparked in Iran mainly because US president Jimmy Carter invited the Shah in Washington. Violent clashes that erupted between the police and anti-Shah demonstrators left six dead and many wounded.

In 1979 the Shah was forced to leave Iran, while Khomeini returned from the exile. This event culminated in the end of the Shah’s reign and ushered in a new period for the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Middle East.

The new regime was a hardcore theocratic system and deeply anti-Western. The balance of power in the Middle East was deeply transformed. The clergy and the political leadership in Tehran considered the US the “Great Satan” and Israel the “Little Satan.”

From now on Tehran became the champion defender of Palestinian rights and allied itself with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In fact, Tehran supported the creation of Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and the US. This triangle became the axis of resistance against Israel. That “Israel should be wiped off the map” was from now on the main rhetoric of the religious establishment and the politicians in Tehran.

The Iran hostage crisis

US-Iranian relations were deeply strained when Iranian militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran and seized dozens of American hostages in November 1979. Khomeini demanded that Carter turn over the Shah in exchange for the American hostages.

When diplomatic efforts failed, US decided to intervene with its air force in order to save the hostages. However, the rescue mission resulted in one of the worse fiascos since World War II. Two of the helicopters malfunctioned en route, while a third crashed into a transport aircraft, killing eight American soldiers.

The fiasco cost Carter’s re-election to the US presidency. In the end, after Ronald Reagan was elected president,  the hostages were freed in exchange for unfreezing of Iranian financial assets.

Alignments and realignments in the Middle East

The whole story reminds as about the famous maxim that “there are no friends and enemies in international relations, only interests.” Or putting it differently, ”the friend of yesterday is the enemy of today, and the enemy of today is the friend of tomorrow.”

In conclusion, what remains to be seen is whether the Europeans will manage to save the deal with Iran or if Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal will bring US-Iranian relations to the same turbulent point that existed during the hostage crisis, and afterward plunge the international community and the Middle East into a new phase of intense strategic instability, with unpredictable consequences for world peace.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Nicos Panayiotides

Dr Nicos Panayiotides is the head of the Geostrategic Observatory of the Middle East (GEOPAME), journalist and assistant professor of political studies at American College in Nicosia. He is also Research Associate at the Center for Oriental Studies (Panteion University). His academic interests focus on the Cyprus problem, Middle East politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is author of several scientific publications in academic journals and four books on the Cyprus and Palestinian problems.

10 replies on “Iran vs Israel: the allies who became enemies”

Comments are closed.