Iran and Israel: A history of the world’s best enmity

AFP archives | An anti-Israel demonstration in Tehran in 2012.

Tensions between Israel and Iran are at a peak following Israel’s retaliatory strikes against Iranian military targets in Syria this week. FRANCE 24 traces the tumultuous relations between the two regional powers.


The long-dreaded prospect of a widespread conflagration in the Middle East resurfaced late Wednesday into early Thursday after the first direct confrontation in Syria, according to Israel, between the Israeli army and Iranian forces in several years.

Israel claims its strikes were in response to a missile volley fired from southern Syria by Iran's al-Quds force, which struck the occupied Golan Heights without causing casualties.

Iran, however, vehemently denies the Israeli version of events, saying Israel's attacks were carried out under false "pretexts".

The escalation of what had been a low-level conflict between the two countries in Syria is just the latest confrontation in a long history of hostility between Iranians and Israelis, both isolated in a predominantly Sunni Arab region.

‘Little Satan’

The animosity between the two countries dates back to the 1979 overthrow of Iran’s Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and the establishment of a Shiite theocratic republic by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Before the Shiite clergy came to power, the two countries enjoyed cordial relations. Iran was the second Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1950, a year after Turkey. Tehran and Tel Aviv were linked by an informal partnership, based on close cooperation on military, technological, agricultural and petroleum issues.

When the Shah was ousted, the tone of bilateral Iranian-Israeli relations dramatically changed. In his very first speeches, Khomeini, the supreme leader of the Islamic revolution, singled out the two main enemies of Iran: the US -- the "great Satan" -- and its main ally in the region, Israel, "the little Satan".

Anxious to extend the influence of the Islamic revolution in the Muslim world and to legitimise the power of the clerics, the Iranian leader, an author of many anti-Zionist works, positioned his nation as a defender of the Palestinian cause and Israel's primary enemy. Israel, Khomeini stressed, was a country he wanted to see "disappeared" in order to "liberate Jerusalem".

Yasser Arafat, then head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), was the first foreign leader to visit Tehran. He was greeted by crowds shouting "death to Israel".

In 1982, Khomeini ordered the creation of an Islamist militia, Hezbollah, in Lebanon, an Arab country with a large Shiite community. Hezbollah’s goal was to fight the Israeli army, which invaded Shiite-dominated southern Lebanon in 1982 and occupied the region until 2000.

Iran-Contra affair

In the mid-1980s, as the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) was raging, a scandal erupted in the US. Despite Iran's anti-US, anti-Israeli rhetoric, the Ronald Reagan administration secretly authorised arms sales to Iran, via Israel, to help fund the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua while simultaneously negotiating the release of several US hostages being held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian militias.

At that time, Israel viewed the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq as a more immediate threat. In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, which was under construction at a site around 17 kilometres southeast of Baghdad.

In 1989, US media revealed that Israel had purchased $36 million worth of Iranian oil in a deal to obtain the release of three Israeli soldiers detained in Lebanon.

Israeli focus on Iran’s nuclear programme starts

In the mid-1990s, Israel was concerned about the resumption, with Russian help, of the Iranian civilian nuclear programme, which was interrupted after the 1979 revolution. Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons but since the Jewish state -- along with India and Pakistan – is not a signatory to the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Israel is not subject to inspections. Iran, on the other hand, is a signatory to the NPT as well as its safeguards agreement and is subject to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Despite Iran’s denials, Israel continued to suspect Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons. The Iran nuclear threat has since been taken up by every successive Israeli administration to date.

In 1994, tensions mounted when Israel accused Hezbollah, backed by Iran, of being responsible for the bombing of a Jewish centre in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.

Ahmadinejad’s diatribes

In the early 2000s, tension mounted another notch with advances in Iran’s development of long-range ballistic missiles, capable of being loaded with nuclear warheads. The election of the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 to the Iranian presidency plunged relations between the two countries to a new low. Ahmadinejad’s repeated diatribes against Israel as "an artificial creature doomed to disappear," coincided with advances in the Iranian nuclear programme, including Tehran's willingness to pursue uranium enrichment.

In 2006, after the war that pitted the Israeli army against Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Jewish state accused the Islamic republic of supplying Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah, with an arsenal that enabled the Lebanese Shiite movement to strike deep inside Israeli territory.

In 2009, Tehran criticised Israeli and US secret services for disrupting its nuclear programme with the help of malicious software called Stuxnet. The Iranians, who claim their right to nuclear energy for civilian purposes, also accused Israel of assassinating several physicists and specialised engineers in the Iranian capital.

On several occasions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that Israel could strike Iran if the international community did not take responsibility. For its part, Iran, now targeted by international economic sanctions, replied that it would not hesitate to respond to any Israeli strike.

In 2012, Netanyahu was widely criticised for a UN General Assembly presentation that featured an amateur line-drawing of a bomb with a red line marking what he said was the last stage of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity. A year earlier, an IAEA report referred to a "possible military dimension" of the Iranian nuclear programme.

‘Fix it or nix it’

The 2013 election of "moderate conservative" Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opened the door to negotiations with Western nations. Iran meanwhile proceeded to intervene directly and indirectly in neighbouring Iraq against the Sunni jihadist Islamic State (IS) group, as well as in the Syrian conflict, supporting Alawite President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel meanwhile conducted several raids in Syria against the Assad regime, Hezbollah and Iranian forces while Tel Aviv repeatedly stressed its refusal to allow Iranian bases near the Israeli-Syrian border.

The 2015 signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as “the Iran nuclear deal,” was widely welcomed by the international community – except Israel and Gulf Sunni monarchies. Amid frosty personal relations between Netanyahu and then-US President Barack Obama, the Israeli leader slammed the agreement which, he insisted, would not prevent Iran from acquiring the nuclear weapon. "Fix it or nix it," was Netanyahu’s mantra, which he repeated at every opportune moment.

Netanyahu’s message was finally heard across the Atlantic by the Republican candidate in the 2016 US presidential race. Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump made no attempt to hide his pro-Israel position, promising to get the US out of the “worst deal ever”. The rhetoric continued after Trump’s election even as America’s European allies made last-minute efforts to convince the billionaire US president to stick with the deal ahead of Trump’s self-imposed May 12 deadline.

Days before that deadline -- and just days after a Netanyahu presentation from the Israeli Defense Ministry accusing Iran of lying – Trump officially announced the USA’s withdrawal from the Iran deal on May 8. That very night, Israel conducted an airstrike targeting Iranian military interests south of the Syrian capital of Damascus, in an area believed to hold an “arms depot belonging to Hezbollah and Iran,” according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Nine people were killed in the Israeli strike, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and the stage was set for the start of the post-Iran nuclear deal season of feverish tensions between Israel and Iran.