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Iran and Israel: How the two countries went from allies to arch-enemies? History EXPLAINED

Iran's direct attack has sparked concerns of an all-out war breaking in the Middle East after decades of shadow war between the two adversaries. However, their relations were not so adversarial as Iran and Israel once shared close relations after the latter's formation in 1948.

Written By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee New Delhi Updated on: April 17, 2024 23:57 IST
Iran Israel conflict, Iran Israel history
Image Source : AP Iran's missile and drone attacks on Israel

Iran-Israel conflict: One of the most eminent arch-enemies in the Middle East, Iran and Israel's relationship has sent the world on edge recently as the two countries are now at the brink of an all-out war. April 13 (Saturday) marked another escalation in the decades of covert conflict between the two nations, when Iran launched some 300 missiles and drones at Israel - marking the first direct attack by Tehran on the Jewish country after decades of shadow war.

It is well-known that the two countries are bitter rivals, with Iran one of the strongest opposers of Israel's Palestinian policy and its military operations in Gaza, which has wreaked havoc on the enclave and killed over 33,000 Palestinians. After Israel's war with Hamas broke out, Iran's proxies have launched separate attacks targeting Israel or Israeli-linked interests, such as Hezbollah's almost daily skirmishes with Israeli troops at the border or Houthi attacks on global shipping.

However, it may still come as a surprise to many that the relations between the two rivals were not as icy as they are now. In fact, there was once a time when Iran and Israel were close allies and Tehran recognised the Jewish country after it was formed in 1948. Let's have a quick look at the history of Iran-Israel relations and how they have changed over the years.

Iran-Israel relations: When they were friends

In sharp contrast to today, Iran was the second Muslim-majority country after Turkey to recognise Israel after its formation in 1948, amid strong opposition from other Arab countries who even waged direct war against the country. Iran was not part of the first Arab-Israeli war and established diplomatic ties with Israel after the latter secured a victory.

At that time, Iran was home to one of the biggest Jewish communities in the Middle East region and friendly relations were forged under the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and first Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion, who tried to forge alliances with Turkey and Iran to counter the hostility of non-Arab states. Iran sold oil to Israel amid an economic boycott by Arab states.

In response, Israel's Mossad spy agency trained the Shah's feared Savak secret police. Notably, both the Shah and Israel enjoyed support by the United States. Israel established an embassy in Tehran and exchanged ambassadors in the 1970s. Trade ties flourished, as did military and security cooperation between the two.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution: When things changed

Things changed dramatically after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, where the Shah was overthrown and a religious state was established. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, brought a new view that championed Islam and saw Israel as an occupier of Palestinian land for their own interests. Khomeini termed Israel as "Little Satan" and the US as the "Great Satan". Israel also refused to recognise the new Islamic Republic.

As a result, Iran cut off all ties with Israel, blocking travel and flight routes to the Jewish country, while transforming the Israeli embassy into the Palestinian embassy. Iran also sought to broaden its influence in the Middle East, putting it at odds with Saudi Arabia and Israel - major powers who had the backing of the US. 

A shadow war begins

While informal commercial links between Iran and Israel continued, their ties deteriorated rapidly. Ultimately, a shadow war broke out between the two countries as Iran built up and deeply funded proxy militias and groups in countries like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The Islamic Jihad become one of the first Iran-backed Palestinian organisation to take up arms against Israel.

For years, Iran and Israel have been targeting each other’s interests across the Middle East through covert warfare. Israel is suspected of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotaging atomic sites in the Islamic Republic - such as when Israel bombed airports in Syria to interrupt Iranian arms shipments. On the other hand, Iran is suspected of carrying out a host of bombings and gun attacks targeting Jews and Israeli interests over the decades.

In 2010, the US and Israel are believed to have developed a malicious computer virus known as Stuxnet, which reportedly caused widespread damage to Iran's nuclear programme. It was known as the first publicly known cyberattack on industrial machinery that destroyed numerous centrifuges in Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility.

Since 1979, all Iranian leaders have called for bringing an end to Israel and have voiced their opposition to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. In return, Israel has also boosted its security measures to deter a possible attack from Iran. Tensions have since risen as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Iran nuclear programme, brokered by world powers, a “historic mistake”.

An escalation in Iran-Israel tensions

However, things took a dramatic turn when suspected Israeli warplanes bombed the Iranian embassy in Syria, killing at least 12 people. Among these were two Iranian generals and five officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force. Most importantly, the attack claimed the life of Mohammed Reza Zahedi, the Iranian commander who was directly responsible for managing relationships with foreign allies. His death is the most high-profile killing since a US drone strike killed Qassem Soleimani in 2020.

An action that can be seen as possibly rewriting the rules of engagement in Iran and Israel's long-running shadow war, Iran launched 170 bomb-carrying drones, more than 30 cruise missiles and more than 120 ballistic missiles toward Israel after years of cautious clashes. While Israel and the US claimed to shoot down 99 per cent of the projectiles, Iran called the attack a success and said it was to "deter, punish and warn the Zionist regime".

Now the Israeli retaliation has sparked alarm over a possible all-out war breaking out in the Middle East, and leaders across the world have urged both sides to exercise restraint. A full-blown war would have untold regional and geopolitical consequences. US President Joe Biden had promised 'ironclad support' to Israel, but said that Washington will not participate in an Israeli retaliation amid growing criticism. If a war indeed breaks out, it would further add a historic chapter in the book of Iran-Israel relations.

ALSO READ | What are Israeli PM Netanyahu's options after Iran's unprecedented direct attack? Explained

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