In the wake of the past two decades of acrimony between Iran and Israel, it may be hard to imagine that the countries ever had friendly relations and cooperation on multiple levels. Yet they were once friends and allies. And even after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when Iran abruptly severed diplomatic ties with Israel, military cooperation continued for several years as Iran turned to Israel to arm it during its devastating war with neighboring Iraq.
Even today, as the tension between the two countries continues to mount and the danger of a direct confrontation appears genuine, one can reasonably say the two countries were never meant to be enemies. They share no common borders and have no territorial disputes. Moreover, Jews have lived in Persia (as Iran has been known through history) for some 2,700 years, and their tradition remembers it as a place of refuge – in particular under the reign of the emperor Cyrus the Great in the sixth century B.C.E.
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Following Israel’s independence in 1948, when Iraq cracked down on its Jewish citizens and many fled the country to resettle in Israel, Iran served as a way station for large numbers of them after their escape. Iranian officials were paid generously for that service, of course.
Officially, Iran voted against the UN Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947, and, after the establishment of Israel, opposed its acceptance as a member state into the organization. Nonetheless, in 1950 Iran became the second Muslim-majority country (after Turkey) to give Israel de facto recognition, which became open and official a decade later.
Each country had its own reasons to want relations with the other. For Iran, Israel was perceived as a vehicle (via the American-Jewish community) for gaining the sponsorship of the United States, which was seeking allies in its struggle for both regional and global dominance with the Soviet Union.
Today, Iran’s rivalry with the Arab world is in large part framed in religious terms – the Shi’ite minority (led by Iran) versus the Sunni majority (dominated by Saudi Arabia). But in the 1950s and ’60s, Iran saw itself threatened by the spread of Soviet-sponsored pan-Arab nationalism, whose mascot was Gamal Abdel Nasser, leader of Egypt’s revolution in 1952.