May 26, 2019

The Cold War Exchange, Part 3: Learning from Israel’s Past Dealings with Iran

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.

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

(Part one of the exchange can be found here and here.)


Dear Dr. Patten,

Thank you again for your interesting answer. For our final round I'd like to ask you another topical Iran question-

The recent rebirth of US-Iranian dialogue has made some commentators reminisce about the normalization of US-China relations in the Nixon era, about Kennedy and Castro, and about the cold war in general. US Hawks, and Benjamin Netanyahu, have been portrayed by supporters of the deal as extremists which are still stuck in a kind of outdated pre-72 cold war mentality, as people who have still not understood some sort of valuable lesson from the cold war (namely, that we have to talk with our enemies and that they might be more rational and pragmatic than we think). Netanyahu's doomsday scenarios about Iranian hardliners deciding to blow up Israel once they feel they have nothing to lose might sound to liberals like inflated horror stories about the Soviets, taken straight out of the 1950s (Netanyahu, of course, would say that they simply sound like the threats made by Ahmedinejad not too long ago).

Now, in your book (we touched on this subject in round one) you describe how Israel was still able to reach a series of clandestine agreements with- and even sell weapons to- Khomeini's Iran, even after it declared Israel to be 'the Small Satan'. This might seem to some like further evidence of how even the worst regimes, even early 80s Iran- which was arguably more zealous and violent than the country that elected Rouhani- can sometimes be reasoned with about certain issues. Recent reports about limited security co-operations between Israel and the Hamas leadership might be cited as another example of this.

My final question- What do you think Israel's current leaders could learn from the history of Israel's dealings with the early Khomeini regime and from the cold war period? Is there anything they can learn from them, or have both countries, and the circumstances, changed so much that the early 80's are not pertinent in the current debate?

Thank you again for the book and for this exchange.



Dear Shmuel

The relationship between Iran and Israel in the early Khomeini period contains events that Israeli policy makers have, I am sure, considered and internalized for some decades now. For example, Saddam Hussein took advantage of the turmoil inside Iran in the aftermath of the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war by launching a large-scale military offensive against Iranian forces and, initially, the Iraqi army was successful, prompting Tehran to turn to Israel for help. For many in Jerusalem, this was manifest proof that the Policy of the Periphery was working, as not only had Iran looked for aid, but it had also forced Iraq to commit entire legions of its soldiers around the Shatt al-Arab, thereby neutralizing a potential front against Israel. In fact, the Iran-Iraq war was periodically successful in averting Iraqi anti-Israel rhetoric at the UN. On 3 February 1982, for example, Iranian UN Representative Said Rajaie-Khorassani announced that the Iraqi condemnation of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights was a ‘statement of self-condemnation, because Iraqis have already occupied a part of our land’. Mini-hiatuses such as this in the Arab anti-Israel rhetoric at the UN were, however, rare.  

For many, it appeared paradoxical that Israel would sell weapons to the regime in Tehran, whose armies had pledged to liberate Jerusalem after conquering Baghdad. However, a partial explanation may be found in the fact that Persian Jewry had been largely well treated under the Pahlavi dynasty, with many Jews reaching the upper echelons of Iranian society. However, Israel withdrew its diplomatic staff from Tehran soon after the revolution, and became concerned that harm would befall Persian Jewry. The concern was justified, as in the months after the revolution there were several executions of members of the Jewish community, including Habib Elghanian, its president. In Jerusalem, it appeared that the animosity now shown towards Israel by Iran at the UN was being transferred to the Jews of Iran. Moreover, many Iranians thought that Iranian Jews had been pro-Shah, pro-US and pro-Israel, and the animosity within Iranian society towards its Baha’i community, whose members were seen as both heretics and pro-Western, was swiftly applied to the Jews.

With Israel no longer having representation in Tehran, the Jewish state could do little to influence the situation. Moreover, there was concern in Israel that too much pressure from Jerusalem may enflame the situation, whilst too little may invite further attacks. A solution presented itself in the form of the arms embargo that the US placed on Iran after the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. In this scenario, Israel, in return for assurances from Tehran that Iranian Jews would be allowed to leave Iran, would supply Iran with the spare parts it needed for its US manufactured weapons.  For Israel, this was an ideal opportunity to both develop the Iranian pillar of the Policy of the Periphery and assuage the predicament of Iranian Jews.

I would also like to mention two events concerning Turkey that, although transpiring during the Cold War, serve as examples of possibly timeless pragmatism and a future basis for political opportunity. Firstly, Turkey, after initially recalling its ambassador to Israel in the wake of the Suez War, went on to reject Arab demands to sever its ties with Israel, even though the Arabs were offering diplomatic support at the UN over Turkey’s stance on Cyprus. Reinforcing this were the military and financial aspects of the Policy of the Periphery. Secondly, after closing its consulate in Jerusalem in 1980, Ankara gladly accepted Israeli intelligence garnered during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, detailing anti-Turkish organizations operating in the country.

I do not think that the events I have mentioned over these exchanges need necessarily be cast into the annals of the Cold War, and I do think that the current Israeli leadership is dealing with a particularly challenging set of circumstances. I would suggest that Jerusalem look back to its Cold War past, understand the power that its relationships with Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia once had, and that that same power was based on concepts that will and do outlast political regimes. However, I would also warn against dogmatic adherence to a certain concept, even one that was once successful. I do not believe Israel can afford to do that again.

Thank you for this exchange,