Diplomacy is the management of International Relations (IR). The diplomatic relations between states, Iran and Israel in this case, mark prospects of their relations in terms of power, trade, and understanding ranging from their domestic policies to foreign posture. In defining diplomatic settings, the diplomatic environment becomes very important.
There are two important categories of the diplomatic environment. The first is aggressive diplomacy which is at a less confrontational level than hostile diplomacy. It is when the interests of the states clash, but there is or little no probability of war. The second is mediation diplomacy where a state acts as a third party between conflict-stricken states. The state is not directly involved in the conflict but tends to resolve issues between the other two states, especially when it faces repercussions of the arising or the already existing clash of interest or conflict.
Iran-Israel Diplomatic Relations
From Israel’s Independence to the Iranian Revolution
Iran was among the eleven states that formed a committee under the jurisdiction of the UN to sketch the map for the peaceful settlement of the Israel-Palestine issue. It was among the eight states to repudiate the UN partition of Israel in 1947. Two years later, in 1949, it voted against Israel’s admission to the United Nations (Hakimi, 2019). However, Iran had enjoyed friendly relations with Israel before the 1979 Revolution.
Iran had helped along with the United States in its first-ever operation against peaceful diplomacy to bring Raza Shah Pahlavi to power in a coup d’état. On 14 March 1950, Iran accepted Israel – the second Muslim country to do so after Turkey. Israel viewed Iran as a natural ally to comply with the Periphery Doctrine, established by the then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Before ambassadors were exchanged in the late 1970s, Tel Aviv had a permanent delegation in Tehran serving as de jure embassy.
A brisk trade was prominent between the countries whereby Israeli construction firms and engineers were active in Tehran until 1979. Both countries had together established the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline that fulfilled Israeli oil needs in the Six-Day War of 1967 (Bialer, 2007). The Israeli National Airline named El Ai operated direct flights between both countries. Israel owed billions of dollars in debt to Iran.
In 1979, Israel issued legal indemnity to its companies and denied paying the debt. One bank account owed as much as $250 million to Iran (Rodman, 2013). Since the 1980s, Iran has been pleading debt-related cases in the European court but there are impediments due to the hostilities that emerged after the revolution and by Israel considering Iran as its enemy. In 2015, the European court ordered Israel Eliot-Ashkelon Company to pay Iran as much as $1.1 billion that it owed to Iran but it denied doing so (Staff, 2015).
Although the military links and projects were kept secret, both countries conducted Project Flower in July 1977 aimed at developing American-designed missiles by utilizing Israeli-made parts, capable of having nuclear warheads. Now, the nuclear program is one of the factors of the aggressive diplomacy between the states. The Project Flower ended with the Revolution in 1979.
The Palestinian Cause
The post-revolution regime denounced the Israeli state as “the Little Satan” with the US being “the Great Satan”. On 15 August 2012, during a meeting with veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, Ayatollah Khomeini went to the extent that the “fake Zionist regime will disappear from the landscape of geography”. It cut off all its diplomatic ties with Iran and shut down Israel’s embassy in Tehran and gave it to Palestinian Liberation Organization on 18 February 1979.
Strategic Relations (1981-1988)
Trita Parsi claims that Israel had strategically supported Iran in its war against Iraq. In its attempt to maintain friendly relations with post-revolutionary Iran, the US, under Ronald Reagan, had maintained the Reagan Doctrine in November 1987. In the course of the war, in an attempt to resurrect its peripheral doctrine, Israel sold $75 million worth of arms from stocks of Israel military industries, Israel Aircraft Industries, and Israel Defense Forces Stockpile.
Ahmed Haidari, Khomeini’s arms dealer, maintained that about 80% of the arms used in the war by Iran were originated in Israel (Neff, 1991). The Jaffa Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University claims that between 1981 and 1983, arms sales to Iran totaled $500 million. This amount was paid in terms of oil supply to Israel.
In the era of globalization, the interaction between states is extended to international corporations and man-to-man interaction. Several Israeli companies and individuals are held responsible by the US for doing business with Iran despite US sanctions. Marc Rich, an Israeli-Swiss businessman, maintained International ties with his Glencore Company at the time when there were international sanctions on Iran’s oil export. He later claimed that oil was traded to Israel and that both states were aware of the trade.
For his activities, the US declared him guilty for more than 65 counts of criminal charges including money laundering and violation of Iran sanctions though he was pardoned by Bill Clinton on the last day of his office. The companies also traded through a third party. The Seattle Times reported in 1998 that only one-quarter of Israel’s pistachio was bought from the US.
About half of it was imported from Britain and Germany and since these countries did not produce this commodity, it was suspected of originally coming from Iran. In 2008, the US ambassador to Israel, Richard Jones, wrote to Israel’s Finance Minister to stop buying Iranian pistachios from Turkey.
In pursuance of its Begin Doctrine, Israel views Iran’s Nuclear Program as a threat to its security and has been attacking Iran’s nuclear capabilities ever since. Israel was a major critique of the JCPOA Nuclear Deal of 2015 (Peter, 2021). In June 2010, an advanced computer worm Stuxnet was discovered by Israel and the US. It damaged about 10% of the centrifuges installed in the Natanz enrichment plant.
Wikileaks published confidential emails from a US-based private intelligence company in late February 2012 that claimed that the US and Israel recruited Kurdish fighters to attack Iranian underground nuclear and defense research projects. In response to this, Iran began attacking Israeli embassies and personnel in various parts of the world including Thailand, Turkey, Germany, India, and other states.
Khamenei accused Israel of supporting Jundullah in Sistan and Balochistan. The New Yorker Report claimed that Mujahideen Khalq received training in the US and was funded by Israel against the Iranian government. Israel has been targeting Iran and Hezbollah fighters in the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Iran, in retaliation, developed its two-point agenda; asymmetric warfare and forward defense as we see in the case of Houthi rebels, Hezbollah, and other Shiite militant groups. Such a policy is significant on Iran’s part when it comes to its status in the MENA region and its comparison to its economy with Israel. Its defense spending was 3.75% of its GDP as compared to 5.33% of Israel in 2017 (Wezmen and Tian, 2017).
Russia’s Difficult Balancing Act Between Iran and Israel
Russia is pressurized to maintain a balance between Israel and Iran, most notably in the Syrian Civil War. It is important to note here that Russia and Iran do not share any significant trade relations and their partnership is important to counter the Sunni regime in Syria and to maintain the support of Bashar-al-Assad. Their relation is more prone to arms sales and geopolitical reasons.
It is deemed that Russia entered the scenario to deviate Western attention from its annexation of Syria or to counter the US from becoming the regional hegemon. By 2015, Russia made it clear that it would not choose between Iran and Israel though the policy is challenged repeatedly in the events surrounding the Syrian Civil War.
In the Spring of 2018, Moscow managed to negotiate an informal agreement between the two actors that drove Iran and its proxies away from the Syrian-Israel border in exchange for a halt of Israeli air raids “that did not hate the eaten Iranian position”. Russia had pressurized both states to de-escalate, threatened Iran of depriving it of Russia’s air support, and warned Israel that it would provide Iran with a modern air defense system such as S-300, TOR-M1, etcetera if it continues its attack on Iranians beyond Southern Syria.
However, Russia’s language seems more flexible when it comes to Israel. It has denied Damascus S-300 and did not supply modern air-craft batteries. Also, it did not counter any attack by Israel in Syria. In 2019, the trade between Russia and Israel reached $5 billion (Gupta, 2020). Also, Israel could serve as a key factor in facilitating countries like the US and Kremlin to better their diplomatic relationship.
This is something that Russia needs, to strengthen its position on Crimea and to further its interest in the MENA region. Also, the two states enjoy cultural ties, given the immigrants of the former USSR in Israel.
Shift of Alliances in the 21st Century
In the 21st century, the relations between Israel and Russia are gaining heights. In January 2020, Netanyahu visited Moscow to meet Putin and to consolidate his election campaign. (Teslova, 2020). This trip resulted in the release of Naama Issachar, an Israeli citizen suspected of the illegal drug trade. It was deemed as a political move to claim the release of Russian hacker Alexey Burkov.
Even though Burkov was handed over to the US, Issachar was released. Now one year before the elections in Syria, Russia has started media campaigns against Bashar al Assad. In an article published by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) on April 21 and Russian Federal News Agency owned by Putin’s closest aides, Yevgeny Prigozhin slams the Assad regime as corrupt and unfit to rule.
The move seems to be provoked by the imminent entry of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act by the US that imposed sanctions not only on Syria but also on Russia and Iran. Also, it seems as if Assad is somehow incapable of following the directives of Russia as amid the Covid-19, economic sanctions were also imposed on investments and corporations of Russia.
Moreover, Russia has claimed Syria of violating the latest agreement signed between Russia and Turkey regarding the establishment of a 6km buffer zone on either side. According to an Istanbul-based researcher, Iran was able to increase its influence in Daraa while Russia was unsuccessful to honor its pledges.
It is also seen before that Russia had no issues with Iran losing some strength in the Syrian civil war. Such a transition in trends reflects Russia’s eagerness to tactically deal with Iran and establish co-operations with the West (Kozhanov, 2020).
It is not surprising to witness in international politics the shift of alliances with emerging interests. Realists rightly claim that states are the primary actors that can only survive by self-help. With the Russian shift of interests, Iran must reconstruct strategies to participate in MENA politics by establishing regional and global alliances and by tactically dealing with Russia to counter Israel in Syria.
Iran has been wise to focus more on domestic development rather than nuclear programs to consolidate people’s support of the government and to form alliances with regional and international powers. Israel has enjoyed economic prosperity and support from allies since the very beginning.
It is again important to note here that Iran is seen as a regional power in terms of its successes via non-state actors; it is more successful than KSA or Israel when it comes to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Adel Abdel Mahdi in Iraq, and Hamas or Fatah in Palestine. However, a strong foreign policy without a viable domestic policy would lead to domestic backlash hence bowing seeds for a revolution.
- Hakimi, A. S. (2019). Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran. Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. https://doi.org/10.1080/23739770.2019.1609207
- Bialer, U. (2007). Fuel Bridge across the Middle East?Israel, Iran, and the Eilat-Ashkelon Oil Pipeline. Israel Studies, 12(3), 29–67. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30245672
- Rodman, D. (2013). Israel vs. Iran: the shadow war. Israel Affairs. https://doi.org/10.1080/13537121.2013.799883
- Staff, T. (2015, May 20). Treasury says it won’t pay $1.1 billion judgment to Iran. Times Of Israel. https://www.timesofisrael.com/finance-ministry-says-it-wont-pay-1-1-billion-judgement-to-iran/
- Neff, D. (1991). The U.S., Iraq, Israel, and Iran: Backdrop to War. Journal of Palestine Studies,. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2537433
- Beaumont, P. (2021, April 12). Natanz ‘sabotage’ highlights Iran’s vulnerability to cyber-attacks. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/12/natanz-nuclear-facility-sabotage-iran-vulnerability-to-cyber-attacks
- Gupta, P. (2020, March 5). Russia and Israel: Towards a pragmatic partnership. Observer Research Foundation. https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/russia-and-israel-towards-a-pragmatic-partnership-61949/
- Teslova, E. (2020, January 29). Netanyahu to visit Moscow on Thursday. Anadolu Agency. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/netanyahu-to-visit-moscow-on-thursday/1717584
- Kozhanov, N. (2020, February 1). Russia’s difficult balancing act between Iran and Israel. Al-Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/2/1/russias-difficult-balancing-act-between-iran-and-israel
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