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Background: Iran and Israel

Published by Other on 2006-08-01

It's hard to believe now, after the bitter rhetorical exchanges between Iran and Israel in recent times, after the genocidal remarks of Iran's president against the Jews, after the promises of mutually assured destruction by two ancient societies - hard to believe that these two Middle East nations were the thickest of allies not so long ago.

That they certainly were. Indeed, Jews have lived in Iran - once known as Persia - for 2,700 years. Iran, in fact, has the world's second oldest Jewish community after Israel. There is a mausoleum for Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, and for Daniel in Susa.

Some 25,000 Jews still live in Iran, down from 100,000 in 1979, to be sure, but enough that Iran's 100 synagogues have little trouble mustering a minyan, the quorum of 10 Jewish men necessary to initiate a liturgy.

There's even a Jewish representative to the 290-member majlis, the Iranian unicameral parliament. He is Morris Motamed, often on the welcoming committee when Westerners visit the Iranian capital of Tehran. Journalists often turn to him for a dispassionate but trenchant assessment of the transformation of what was once a secular society into an Islamist one, albeit one where minorities such as Jews and Bahai are still tolerated.

Journalists who covered Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979 when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by the theocrats aligned with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were often surprised to encounter Iranian Jewry. I remember the Yousef-Abad synagogue, one of 11 in Tehran, which conducts robust services and also runs Hebrew school. Former President Khatami visited the synagogue in 2003, drawing a hearty welcome from Haroun Yashayaei, head of the Tehran Jewish Committee.

Mr. Khatami famously shook hands at the funeral in Rome of Pope John Paul II in April 2005 with Israel's President Katsav. The two men chatted briefly in Persian - not surprising, of course, for Mr. Katsav was born in the Iranian community of Yazd in 1945, and immigrated with his family to Israel in 1951.

This was the same Mr. Khatami who, summoning the historical ties of Persians and Jews, promised to soften Iran's hard line against Israel. Of course, he got nowhere. The entrenched theocracy, to whom the elected president of the country is subservient, would not allow a diplomatic opening.

And yet cooperation between Iran's fundamentalist ayatollahs and Israel isn't unknown. During the fierce eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the early 1980s, Iran reportedly bought nearly $3 billion worth of weapons from Israel. Israel was also said to have channeled some $300 million in aid to Iran; an Israeli businessman, Nahum Manbar, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in Israel for doing business with the ayatollahs; it was disclosed at his trial that dozens of Israeli companies had allegedly conducted illegal business dealings with Iran.

Such commerce between the two societies actually dates back to antiquity. When the modern Jewish state was born in 1948, Iran became one of the first countries to recognize it. Indeed, in a Middle East that was politically hostile to Israel and inhospitable to Jewish interests, Iran was widely perceived to be Israel closest - and, really, only - friend in the Arab world.

That friendship did not stop Iran from voting with 72 other countries for United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 in 1975 - the infamous resolution which equated Zionism with racism.

Nevertheless, trade and political relations truly blossomed during the reign of the Shah. So did military cooperation. The two countries developed joint military projects, such as a sea-to-sea missile system called "Flower Tzur."

Even after the ayatollahs ascended to power - and notwithstanding the corrosive but predictable anti-Israel rhetoric emanating from Tehran - there was quiet acknowledgement of Israel's military capabilities. Then there was the 1986 Iran Contra scandal in which American weapons were sold to Iran, some via Israel, the proceeds being used to support the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua, then under leftist rule.

The Jewish state was seen by some authorities in Tehran as a behind-the-scenes guarantor that Iran's neighbor and traditional enemy Iraq would be contained. When Israeli Prime Minister Begin ordered F-15 interceptors and F-16 fighter bombers to destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor some 18 miles south of Baghdad, there was quiet cheering in the streets of Teheran of the day of destruction, June 7, 1981.

The cheering of late seems to be far more sustained whenever there's news of adversity in Israel. Iran's President Ahmadinejad is not only avowedly anti-Israel, he's made speeches that more than suggest he's an anti-Semite. (In response to Mr. Ahmadinejad's threats to destroy Israel, Shimon Peres, Israel's vice premier, said last May that "the president of Iran should remember that Iran can also be wiped off the map." It was a measure of Israeli society that Mr. Peres came in for considerable criticism for his remarks, made in a Reuters interview.)

The rhetoric apart, Iran's financial support of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine is a clear and present danger. Its military training of the guerrillas has already created a force that's giving the Israelis far more spirited resistance than expected.

Israel's Vice Premier Peres told members of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York the other day that he saw Iran as committed to the destruction of Israel - and as a foe of Western societies.

Still, today's enemies can undergo a metamorphosis. Iran may support Hezbollah, but how much of a percentage would it see in sustaining bilateral hostility with Israel for the long run? It's far more likely that both societies will one day tap into their pasts to shape future relations than rely on the political exigencies of the present.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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