May 20, 2019

The Cold War Exchange, Part 1: Israel and Iran, Then and Now

Dr. Howard Patten is a teaching fellow in Middle East & Mediterranean Studies at King's College in London. Howard is a graduate of UCL, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he was awarded the Golda Meir Fellowship, Cambridge University and King's College London. His fields of interest are Israeli history, politics and society and US and British Policy in the Middle East. His PhD examined Israel's peripheral policy at the UN.

 The following exchange will focus on his book Israel and the Cold War: Diplomacy, Strategy and the Policy of the Periphery at the United Nations (Tauris, 2013).


Dear Dr. Patten,

Starting with a specific question about a book like yours – that deals with so many topics – can be tricky. And I want to leave the larger questions for the last round. So I will begin with what seems to be the most topical discussion in your book: the relations between Israel and Iran.

Two chapters are dedicated to these relations, one looks at the years 56-72 and the other covers the years 73-82, beginning with the Yom Kippur War and ending shortly after the Iranian revolution. “On 18 February 1979”, you write, “the new regime severed ties with Israel. The only other country to receive such treatment was Egypt, whose ties with Iran were broken as punishment for its peace treaty with Israel. Indeed, the Iranian revolutionary leaders concluded that Israel could never be compromised with, and neither could any third party doing so with the Jewish State”.

Your chapter chronicles an Iran that is ideologically persistent in its non-acceptance of Israel as a legitimate state, but also ready to temporarily suspend ideology for pragmatic reasons – as it did when it needed Israel during the Iran-Iraq war. As we consider these past realities today, can we conclude that this is the best Israel can hope for from the Iranian Islamic regime – to be tolerated only because it is still tactically unwise for the regime to try more actively to annihilate Israel?

Thank you,



Dear Shmuel

Your final paragraph neatly encapsulates one of the main reasons I wrote Israel and the Cold War: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the Policy of the Periphery at the United Nations. Over the years, it has become a mantra of sorts that Israel has no foreign policy, but rather reacts to world and regional affairs as they happen. In my book, one of the things I set out to achieve was that the Policy of the Periphery was a defined, specific strategy and that for the countries involved, (Israel, Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia) Realpolitik, pragmatism, regional concerns, and national interests frequently served to overcome ideology. In particular, I wanted to focus on the often glaring disparity between the multi and bi-lateral relations between the countries and the disconnection between harsh statements and voting patterns at the UN, for example, whilst implicit deals and alliances were forming behind the scenes.

Your question as to what Israel can best hope for regarding Iran, I suppose, depends on two factors:

1.      That Iran seeks a direct and overt military confrontation with Israel and believes that it is in its interest to do so

2.      Somewhat topically, whether the West ought to believe that Iran will honor its side of the Geneva Nuclear Deal

You highlight the fact that Iran sought out Israel during the Iran-Iraq war and are right to do so. Given that, in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution one would have been forgiven for thinking that the Iran/Israel pillar of the Policy of the Periphery would cease to exist, it is worth noting that it did not, even with Israel’s incursion into Lebanon in 1982. In fact, because of the Lebanon war, Iran had the opportunity to both confront the IDF and export the tenets of the Islamic Republic. Prior to that, in 1981, Israel and Iran signed a significant arms deal, and Ariel Sharon discussed a further deal of even greater scope the following year. 

The current Democrat administration in the White House will want to avoid replaying the conclusion of the Agreed Framework with North Korea under the Clinton administration, but will also be aware that, should the Geneva Deal succeed, an already toxic issue would be defused, with significant regional and global benefits. In Jerusalem, there is concern that Tehran is duping the West and anguish at the possible consequences. Moreover, for Israel there is also fear that Iran will continue to confront Israel through its regional proxies and promote regional instability, whilst, concomitantly, and at least ostensibly, adhering to the requirements of the Geneva Deal, thus reaping the rewards from a West eager for a breakthrough on the Iranian nuclear question

In short, with the current political orientation of the West and its approach to Middle Eastern matters in particular, and given the pressure on Israel to work with the Geneva Deal and not to carry out unilateral military action, it appears that that the Geneva Deal is the only game in town. We must also bear in mind that the previously formidable alliance between Israel and Turkey is now tenuous, to say the least, with Turkey reportedly looking to revive trade with Iran. Certainly, the hope in the West is that Iran will see the inherent value of sanctions relief and the transfer of billions of dollars and act accordingly. However, as my book shows, pragmatic alliances, and the desire for regional stability can transcend the temporal nature of political regimes. Moreover, given the reported fledgling changes in the dynamics of long-established relations in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Geneva Deal, we may see impromptu regional alliances with Jerusalem formed, expected or otherwise.

Thank you,