Iran and Israel’s Tumultuous Relationship

The Israel Journal at NYU
4 min readNov 13, 2023

By Aaron Baron

Israel and Iran have shared a long and complex history. Photo: (Stimson).

Iran’s relationship with Israel has undergone a dramatic transformation over the decades. Unbeknownst to many, Iran shifted from being a powerful ally of Israel in the mid-20th century to the most bitter enemy today. This transformation is a complex and multifaceted process influenced by historical, political, and ideological factors. In this article, I will delve into the evolution of Iran-Israel relations, exploring the key turning points that led to the current state of animosity.

The Beginnings of Cooperation

The history of Iran-Israel relations can be traced back to the mid-20th century, a time when the Middle East was a chessboard for major powers. Indeed, in 1950, Iran notably became the second Muslim nation to acknowledge Israel’s declaration of independence. Over the course of several decades, Iran and Israel nurtured a unique, albeit unofficial, partnership. In the 1950s and 1960s, both Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Israel shared certain geopolitical interests. Iran, a predominantly Shia Muslim country, and Israel, a Jewish state, formed an unlikely alliance, as both sought to counter the influence of Arab nationalism and the expansionist policies of Arab states in the region.

During this period, Iran and Israel established diplomatic relations, and both countries cooperated in various areas, including military, intelligence, and trade. Israel provided Iran with arms, and Iran was one of the few Muslim-majority countries that did not conform to the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. The two nations exchanged ambassadors in the late 1970s and cemented their relations.

The Islamic Revolution, Shifts between Israel and Iran, Escalating Tensions

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 marked a seismic shift in the dynamics of international relations, particularly within the Middle East. With the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world witnessed a transformation in Iran’s political ideology, foreign policy, and its relationship with the West. This pivotal event significantly contributed to an evolution — really a deterioration — of relations between Israel and Iran.

A brother and sister dress as Israel and Iran for the holiday of Purim in the 1970s prior to the Islamic Revolution. (Photo: Aish)

Khomeini’s ascent to power was characterized by a vehemently anti-Israel stance, stemming from his deeply rooted ideological convictions. The new regime’s pronouncements and actions marked a stark departure from the prior alignment between Iran under the Shah and Israel. The revolutionary leadership in Tehran regarded Israel not only as an ideological adversary but also as a symbol of Western imperialism in the region. This ideological divide culminated in the severance of diplomatic ties between the two nations in 1979, the repudiation of Israel’s right to exist, and a series of measures aimed at undermining Israeli interests in the Middle East. Iran’s support for anti-Israel militant groups, most notably Hamas and Hezbollah, exacerbated regional conflicts and contributes to Israel’s growing concerns into the present day.

The subsequent decades were marked by escalating tensions between the two nations, particularly regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The Israeli government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, emerged as a vocal critic of the America-Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which aimed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israel viewed the JCPOA, spearheaded by then-President Obama, as insufficient to address its apprehensions regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions, further deepening the schism.

The period since the Islamic Revolution has been characterized by an increasingly adversarial relationship between Israel and Iran, with both nations taking active measures to counter each other’s influence in the region. Israel’s allegations of Iranian-sponsored terrorism, cyberattacks, and covert operations further fueled the animosity.

Iranian minister Reza Saffinia arriving at the house of Israeli President Chaim Weizmann Yom Ha’atzmaut, 1950. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Israel-Hamas War and a Final Word

Today, relations between Israel and Iran are worse than they have ever been. Iran played an instrumental role in the horrific October 7th attacks on Israel, and continues to financially back terrorist groups with the sole purpose of destroying the Jewish state. Israel, and the Middle East at large, is in an unprecedented moment in history. As the Israel-Hamas war deepens and casualties skyrocket the cryptic message made by Iran to Israel’s allies seems like less of an empty threat every day.

The reality that, just 44 years ago, there were daily direct flights from Tel Aviv to Tehran seems like a myth. Whispers of “regime change” have echoed in the halls of Washington for years now. The Islamic regime is closing in on nearly half a century of existence. The regime will not stop its avalanche of proxy wars in its attempt to destroy the Jewish state and the West — this, however, cannot occur while there is civil upheaval in Iran. During the Masha Amini protests of 2022, the resilient Iranian people have shown that they are not afraid of the government andhe nation is still feeling the effects of these protests today. Change comes by the hands of those who challenge unjust authority. This may be wishful thinking, but I think revitalized relations between Israel and a new-era Iran are nearer in the future than many might think.

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The Israel Journal at NYU

The Israel Journal at NYU is an explanatory journal dedicated to clearing up the conversation around Israel.