Israel and Iran Before the Revolution: A Not-So-Secret Marriage of Convenience
“Many Iranians think of the Arabs to their west and south as culturally inferior; as brutes who had the good fortune to have Persians as neighbors who could civilize and refine them. Similarly, having defeated the Arabs in numerous wars, most Israelis have little respect for their capabilities.”
These views have translated into the geopolitical disconnection of both Iran and Israel from the rest of the region, and opposition of both countries to the Arab world. Israel viewed Iran as a natural ally due to its non-Arab status on the edge of the Arab world, in accordance with David Ben-Gurion’s concept of an alliance of the periphery, a foreign policy concept that dominated Israeli strategic thinking until the end of the Cold War. Turkey and Ethiopia, as well as non-Arab minorities, such as the Kurds and the Lebanese Christians, were also considered Israel’s natural allies under this doctrine. From the Iranian perspective, Israel was “a sort of lightning rod toward which the militant Arabs may turn instead of against Iran” (Robert B. Reppa, Sr. Israel and Iran. Bilateral Relationships and Effect on the Indian Ocean Basin, 1975, New York: Praeger Publishers, p. 73). Especially after the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was also viewed by Iran as a regional power better befriended than alienated. Yet at the same time, Iran’s relationship with the Jewish state proved to be a difficult balancing act for the Shah because if he were to officially recognize Israel or publicly exhibit too much support for it, “part of that Arab wrath would fall on Iran” (Parsi, p. 20).
Because Iran was thus forced to tread a fine line between overt hostility and overt alliance, much of the dealings between the two countries were kept secret, sometimes even from the United States. “Israel built a lot of things for the Iranians that we did not know about,” former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Harold Saunders once said (Parsi, p. 76). Since Iran never officially recognized the State of Israel—although Israel was accorded a de facto recognition—diplomatic relations were conducted through unofficial missions. Iranian records listed six diplomats manning Iran’s secret mission in Israel as serving in Bern, Switzerland. The Iranian embassy in Israel was thus referred to as “Bern 2” in Iranian Foreign Ministry documents (Parsi, p. 26). The visits of Iranian officials to Israel were likewise concealed by travel via Turkey and by not having their passports stamped upon arrival in Tel Aviv, thus ensuring that their “travel logs listed only a visit to Turkey and no trace of the Israel leg of the trip” (Parsi, p. 26). Iran’s dreaded secret police, SAVAK, was given responsibility for Israeli relations to maintain the smokescreen. Beginning in 1957, the Iranian intelligence service established relations with its Israeli counterpart, the Mossad, often keeping the Iranian Foreign Ministry in the dark. The two secret services shared their knowledge and expertise; according to more controversial reports, the interactions between them went as far as “the Mossad also train[ing] the Savak in torture and investigative techniques” (see Parsi, p. 26).
The Israelis, in contrast, would have been happy to make their dealings with Iran public, as they figured that such a policy would leave Iran no choice but to officially recognize Israel. But they were wary of pushing the Shah too far and risk breaking the alliance altogether. As a result, even Ben-Gurion’s groundbreaking visit to Iran in 1961 was kept secret, as were successive trips of Israeli prime ministers and other officials. “The Israeli flag was not flown at the country’s unofficial mission in Tehran, and Israeli diplomats did not participate in ceremonies that protocol required other diplomats to attend,” says Parsi (p. 27), “But in all matters except ceremony, the Israeli mission functioned like any other embassy”. Curiously, this strange relationship satisfied both sides because of their cultural peculiarities. For the Iranians, ceremonial trappings—or the lack thereof—mattered deeply due to their cultural propensity for taarof, a concept explained by Parsi as follows:
“Taarof is an Iranian social principle, a concept of insincere politeness. For instance, Iranians invite each other to dinner not necessarily because they mean it, but to show politeness. The expectation is that the invited party will respond with equal politeness—by turning the invitation down. The impolite thing to do would be to accept the invitation on its first offering. An invitation should be considered sincere only if it has been offered roughly three times, after which, of course, it would be immensely rude to decline it. Vagueness, symbolism, and endless nuance are inherent in the Iranian culture…” (p. 11)
The Israelis, on the other hand, are interested more in what they call tachles, a Yiddish word meaning ‘the real substance’. The two main strategic issues that constituted the substance of Iran-Israel relationship were oil and military capabilities.
As Israel’s economy and fuel demand grew, Iran became its chief supplier of oil, as Arab producers refused to sell. Initially, the Iranian oil was shipped to the port of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba and then transported by road tankers to refineries in Haifa for subsequent distribution. Later, Israel constructed the Eilat-Ashkelon, or Trans-Israel, pipeline for this purpose (see Daniel Ammann, The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich, 2009, New York: St. Martin’s Press and Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance. The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S., pp. 23-24). Initially an eight-inch pipeline, but later upgraded to a sixteen-inches, this 160-mile long conduit between Eilat and Ashkelon on the Mediterranean Sea was used not only to move oil for Israeli consumption but also to ship Iranian oil to European markets, bypassing the strategically vulnerable Suez Canal. “Though neither Iran nor Israel acknowledged the oil trade or the pipeline cooperation, their relationship was an open secret and the subject of intense Arab criticism”, Parsi writes (p. 23). Although Iran continued to supply oil to Israel during the Yom-Kippur War 40 years ago, the pipeline’s usefulness in circumventing territory controlled by Egypt’s anti-Iranian government subsequently diminished. Still, Iranian oil continued to flow through the pipeline until Shah Pahlavi was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution. Some analysts feared that once the Iranians stopped selling oil to Israel, the expensive facilities would become useless (see Reppa, p. 84 and Parsi, p. 51), but the Trans-Israel pipeline has been successfully repurposed: in 2003, Israel and Russia agreed to supply Asian markets with Russian oil delivered by tankers from Novorossiysk on the Black Sea to Ashkelon and then reloaded onto tankers in Eilat for shipment to Asia. This route is shorter than the traditional one around Africa, and cheaper than shipping via the Suez Canal.
From 1967 to 1979, Israel and Iran traded other goods besides oil, including Israeli fruit. In the years leading up to the Islamic revolution, the Iranians enjoyed more than 40 tons a year of “Zionist” oranges. Israeli agricultural specialists, construction firms, and engineers working in Iran made a significant contribution to its fast-paced modernization and infrastructure development. The arid and uninviting climate and terrain in both countries opened opportunities for extensive cooperation in agriculture, particularly irrigation. According to Terence Prittie (Israel: Miracle in the Desert, New York: Praeger, 1967, p. 212), “Israel experts [were] playing a major part in land reclamation and irrigation [in Iran].” In 1963, Israeli firms were able to tender the successful bid for Iran’s proposal to develop its Qazvin area (Reppa, p. 98), not far from the capital Tehran. Qazvin at the time was mostly inhabited by impoverished farmers whose situation further deteriorated after an earthquake in 1962. An Israeli company won the development contract for 123,500 acres (or 500 square kilometers) of land. As a result of Israeli-built irrigation infrastructure, the farmers in Qazvin were induced to grow various cash crops, such as grapes, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, olives, apples, wheat, barley, sugar beets, pomegranates, and figs, in high demand in populous Tehran. This switch to cash crops increased average annual income of Qazvin farmers more than ten-fold. According to Arieh Eliav, former Israeli labor minister, cited by Parsi (p. 24), Israel also trained some 10,000 Iranian agricultural experts. Israel was also instrumental in developing Iran’s tourist industry.
Iranian-Israeli military links were also wide-ranging yet highly controversial even at the time. One such project, known as Project Flower and described in detail in Parsi’s book (pp. 74-77), was a collaborative Israeli-Iranian effort to reproduce American-designed missiles with Israeli-made parts that could be assembled in Iran. After Iraq purchased Scud missiles from the Soviet Union and the Carter administration denied Iran’s request to buy Pershing missiles from the US, the Shah instructed General Hassan Toufanian to turn to the Israelis for missile technology. Israel responded by offering a collaborative project that would use Iranian funds and Israeli know-how to develop a ballistic missile that could ultimately protect Iran from the threat of both Saddam Hussein and Moscow. The Shah and the then-Defense Minister (and now President of Israel) Shimon Peres signed an agreement in April 1977 in Tehran, together with other oil-for-arms contracts totalling $1 billion. The ultimate goal was to build a missile that could be fitted with a nuclear warhead and that could be launched from a submarine with further modifications. Besides getting Iranian funds to advance its military research and development, Israel also hoped that this project would serve as an example for other countries in the region of the benefits that could be realized from cooperation with, and acceptance of, Israel. In 1978, Iran supplied Israel with $280 million worth of oil as a down payment. Israel began the construction of a missile assembly facility near Sirjan in south-central Iran and a missile test range near Rafsanjan.
When Shah Pahlavi was overthrown in February 1979, Project Flower came to a screeching halt, as did other collaborative projects between the two countries. The Israeli engineers and defense officials returned to Israel and all the blueprints and diagrams of the weapons systems were sent back via diplomatic couriers. It is still uncertain whether Israel provided Iran with the actual designs for cutting-edge missile systems or instead merely delivered outdated technologies. Either way, the money from the deal helped Israel develop its state-of-the-art weaponry systems. Yaakov Shapiro, the Defense Ministry official in charge of coordinating the negotiations with Iran from 1975 to 1978, later recalled: “In Iran they treated us like kings. We did business with them on a stunning scale.”
For many young Israelis, working in Iran at the time meant living in paradise. Protected by the Israeli secret service and earning three times the money they could have made at home, these Israelis formed a tight expat community living in the richer neighborhoods of Tehran, north of the Lashkari highway. Living in their Hebrew-speaking bubble, those Israelis remained naively unaware of the poverty elsewhere in Iran, of the Shah’s secret police arresting and torturing numerous citizens, and of the hostility towards the Shah’s regime that was fast brewing in the streets outside their protected neighborhood. In one memorable episode described by Parsi (p. 62), a soccer match in Tehran in 1967 between the national teams of Israel and Iran turned into an anti-Israeli demonstration in which balloons with swastikas were distributed to spectators and an effigy of Moshe Dayan, an Israeli military leader and politician, was hoisted and spat on. In another incident, the car of Yaacov Nimrodi, Israel’s military attaché to Iran, was spray-painted with Nazi and anti-Israeli slogans.
Finally, the bubble burst and the little Israeli “paradise” in Tehran crumbled. In late 1978, it became clear that Israel was increasingly viewed as “the little Satan” by much of the Iranian public (with the United States being viewed as “the big Satan”), and that the situation for the Israelis in Iran was becoming increasingly precarious. Nonetheless, the Israeli government thought that the storm might pass and that it would therefore be best to retain a presence in Iran. Although most Israeli citizens, particularly women and children, were evacuated in late 1978 and early 1979, a few dozen were deliberately kept in Tehran and got caught up in the violent upheaval. The last scheduled El Al flight on February 10, 1979, a day before Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar’s resignation, was forced by an early curfew to take off hastily, leaving a few Israelis stranded at the airport till the next morning. The following day, a mob broke through the gates of the Israeli mission, making its last four employees flee through a side exit and hide in safe houses set up in Tehran by the Mossad, in an eerie preview of the events that would take place in November of the same year at the American embassy (depicted in Ben Affleck’s gripping recent film Argo).
This little-known story of Israelis in Iran is told in a recent documentary Before the Revolution, which I saw at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in August 2013. It was produced and directed by an Israeli filmmaker and former journalist Dan Shadur, who was himself born to an Israeli couple living in Tehran in the year preceding the Islamic revolution. The image from the film reproduced on the left depicts Shadur’s mother interviewed by TV journalists just after her flight from Tehran landed in Israel in 1979. Shadur used home movies and family photos, as well as newsreel footage and recent interviews with Mossad agents, business leaders, and high-level Israeli diplomats. He further personalized this poignant story by reading extensively from his parents’ letters, both early ones written to relatives back home in Israel, and then—after his mother and her two children were evacuated along with the other women and children—between his mother and his father, who stayed behind in Iran to wrap up his affairs. Compressed into a tight 60-minute film, the story is sure to keep the viewers at the edge of their seats.
What came afterwards is a much better-known story: after the revolution, Iran severed all diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel. Ayatollah Khomeini declared Israel an “enemy of Islam”; official statements, state institutes, events, and sanctioned initiatives adopted a sharp anti-Zionist stance. It remains to be seen whether Israel and Iran will ever again establish informal relations or perhaps even make the strange bedfellows that they did before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 changed everything.
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