More than 40 years of hostility between Iran and Israel

There was a time when Iran and Israel had a close diplomatic relationship. Then came the Iranian Islamic Revolution when it started supporting Arab Countries. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian on October 14 accused Israel of “committing war crimes” by airstrikes, killing hundreds of Palestinians every day and blockading the Gaza Strip, cutting off water, food, and medicine for more than two million people here.

“If actions against the Palestinian people continue, no one can guarantee that the situation in the region will remain the same,” Mr. Abdollahian warned. Iran’s Foreign Minister also announced on October 12 that a “new front” targeting Israel in the conflict with Hamas could be opened, depending on the country’s actions with the Gaza Strip.

Observers say these statements show that the rivalry between Iran and Israel could increase tensions to a new level, making the current war in the Gaza Strip likely to escalate into a regional conflict in the Middle East.

Just a few hours after Hamas launched an unprecedented large-scale attack campaign on Israeli territory on October 7, Rahim Safavi, advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, congratulated Hamas. He emphasized that Tehran will continue to support Palestinian militants “until Palestine and Jerusalem are liberated.”

Senior Hamas leaders also affirmed that their Iranian allies and Lebanese Hezbollah “will join the fight if Gaza faces a war of destruction.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Photo: AFP

Iran and Israel used to have relatively close relations. Iran was the second Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel in 1950, after Türkiye. During this period, Tehran and Tel Aviv became close based on close cooperation on military, technological, agricultural and oil and gas issues. Iran then saw Israel as a door to receiving considerable US support and funding.

Relations between the two countries began to become hostile after the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, which saw the overthrow of King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the formation of a Shiite Islamic republic under the leadership of the president. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In his first speeches, President Khomeini pointed out Iran’s two main enemies, the United States and Israel, and outlined a foreign policy closer to Arab countries. Over the next 40 years, the relationship between the two regional powers became increasingly tense.

According to historians, Shiite Muslims in Iran have long considered Israel an illegal country that has usurped Muslim and Arab lands and driven Palestinians out of their ancient homeland. They believe Israel should be replaced by a non-religious state where Muslims and Jews live equally.

President Khomeini, who wrote many anti-Zionist works, identified Iran as “the defend the cause” of the Palestinian people and fight against their main enemy, Israel, to expand Iran’s influence in the Muslim world and to legitimize the clergy’s power.

Khomeini emphasized that Israel was the country he wanted to “disappear” in order to “liberate Jerusalem.”

In 1982, Khomeini ordered the establishment of the Islamic militia Hezbollah in Lebanon, an Arab country with a large Shiite community. Hezbollah’s goal is to fight Israel, which sent troops into southern Lebanon in 1982 and occupied the area until 2000.

In the mid-1990s, Israel became increasingly concerned about the possibility of Iran resuming its nuclear program, which was interrupted after the 1979 revolution. Although Iran repeatedly denied it, Israel still believed that the country was seeking to suppress its nuclear program. 

 Iran’s nuclear issue has since been considered by Israeli prime ministers to be the top threat in the region.

In the early 2000s, tensions increased as Iran made progress in developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The extremely conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in Iran in 2005, pushing relations between the two countries to an unprecedented low.

Ahmadinejad repeatedly threatened to “wipe out” Israel while at the same time pushing Iran to achieve new advances in its nuclear program, ready to pursue efforts to enrich uranium.

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In 2006, when conflict broke out between Israel and Hezbollah, Tel Aviv accused Tehran of providing weapons to the armed group in Lebanon, allowing them to attack deep into Israeli territory.

In 2009, Iran harshly criticized the Israeli and US secret services, accusing the two countries of sabotaging their nuclear programs with malicious software called Stuxnet. Iran also claims that Israel assassinated several physicists and specialized engineers in Tehran.

As for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frequently implied that it could attack Iran if the international community does not prevent the country from developing a nuclear bomb. In response, Iran affirmed that it would not hesitate to respond to any attack from Israel.

When the United States and other major powers signed with Iran the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, also known as the Iran nuclear agreement, Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted harshly, saying that this could not prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons. “Fix it or leave it” is a familiar saying that Mr. Netanyahu constantly repeats in his speeches.

When Donald Trump was elected US president, he did not hide his support for Israel, promising to get America out of the “worst deal ever.” Mr. Trump then decided to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018, causing him to attract a lot of criticism from the international community.

With the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran is no longer restricted from enriching uranium. It has also moved to rebuild its nuclear facility at Natanz, further increasing tensions with Israel.

More than 40 years of hostility between Iran and Israel
Israeli soldiers stand in front of a destroyed police station in Sderot, the south of the country, on October 8, after a Hamas raid. Photo: Reuters

According to observers, the unprecedented attack by Hamas gunmen on Israel has made the world pay attention again to the rival relationships that have shaped the Middle East for decades, and the Israeli-Iranian tensions have long been the hottest issue.

According to military analyst Michael Clarke, Hezbollah is the side that can drag Iran and Israel into a direct confrontation in the current troubled situation.

He said Iran backs Hezbollah, and “if they enter the current conflict from across the border in Lebanon, Israel can say ‘Iran is behind the whole thing so that we will attack them. ‘”

On the other hand, Clarke assessed Hezbollah as a much more disciplined armed force than Hamas, which makes them “a greater challenge to Israel in the long term.”

Clarke said that in recent years, Israel has promoted normalizing relations with a series of Middle Eastern and African countries such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Morocco, Sudan and soon, possibly Saudi Arabia. Has made Iran feel that “the diplomatic balance in the Middle East is not tilting in their favor.”

“Iran influences the region thanks to its anti-Israel stance,” he said, but with many Arab countries moving closer to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, Tehran’s influence is wavering.

Dr. Ali Bilgic, an expert on international relations and security at Loughborough University, UK, said Iran could take advantage of Hamas’s attack on Israel to regain its “aura,” thereby asserting itself as a leader. “leadership in the Muslim world.”

But suppose tensions escalate into a large-scale conflict in the Gaza Strip, pushing Hezbollah and Israel into a direct confrontation. In that case, Tel Aviv’s Western allies will also be obliged to intervene, making the fire of hostilities possible. 

The US has dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the eastern Mediterranean to “deter hostile forces against Israel.” This is considered a move to send a strong message to Hezbollah and prevent conflict from spreading in the region.

“If the Middle East falls into chaos, it will turn it into a war between Iran and the West, with the leading side being the US,” Professor Clarke warned. “This could have serious consequences for the global geopolitical situation when the US and its allies will have to transfer military and financial resources out of Ukraine.”