Tehran – Jerusalem Axis

“Tehran – Jerusalem Axis”, hereby published for the first time, was presented at the Library of Congress on April 8th, 2014.

“The Jewish people and the Iranian people have a very long history and are going to have a long future. Our history is a happy history. The relations between your people and our people were more than good. Actually your Great King, Cyrus, was really the man, the leader, that called the Jewish people to go back to their land, to Israel, and this was the first return of the Jewish people to their old home. We shall never forget it. I am speaking to you as a human being to a human being and I am telling you – as we had a great history we can and should have a great future. Don’t postpone it”.

These are the words of President Shimon Peres, addressing the Iranian people on March 20th 2014 for the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Quite unfortunately and quite symptomatically, symptomatic of the complexities of the relations between Iran and Israel, the words of President Peres came just hours before another piece of news: that, issued by Israel’s Prime Minister Office, clarifying the saddening fate of 8 Iranian Jews, reported missing since 1994. According to the Prime Minister’s Office and Israeli Intelligence sources, these Iranian Jews had been murdered while trying to escape Iran in that year. Four others, who had tried to escape Iran in 1997, are still reported missing.

Despite the major difficulties that our relations have experienced since 1979, in his Persian New Year address, President Peres calls for a “great future” that should not be postponed any longer. In doing so, he underlines an undeniable fact: the belligerent status that has prevailed over the relations of Iran and Israel since 1979 is totally irrational, for there is no rational basis, whatsoever, for these two nations to be bellicose toward each other. There are basic geopolitical and historic reasons for this, namely:

  • Iran and Israel have no common border, therefore no border dispute.
  • Iran and Israel share no conflicting strategic interests: Iran’s zones of strategic interests are in the Persian Gulf in the south, and in the Caspian Sea in the north, while the Levant constitutes Israel’s zone of strategic interest.
  • Turkey apart, for the sake of our discussion today, Iran and Israel are the two most significant non-Arab nations in an otherwise Arab region.
  • Last but not least, Jews and Persians share a common and long history, deeply rooted in that of our nations.

Of the History of Iranian Jewry

According to Houman Sarshar, editor of the Jewish Communities of Iran, published by Encyclopædia Iranica at Columbia University, “Jewish communities have been living upon the Iranian plateau since ca. 722 BCE, when the Assyrian King Saragon II relocated large communities of conquered Israelites in western and northern regions of what is now Iran. The most significant mass immigration of Jews to Iran, however, occurred when Cyrus II the Great conquered Babylon on 29 October 539 BCE, freed all Jewish slaves and granted them permission to return to Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple and freely worship their God. Some returned to Jerusalem, but a sizeable portion of these Jews, says Sarshar, migrated eastward and settled in Persia. There, Ezra the high priest is appointed by the Persian King Artaxerxes I “to regulate Judah and Jerusalem according to the law”. The Torah is then promulgated by Ezra. Thus, the Old Testament book of Ezra tells the story of Jewish return from Babylonian exile.  Viewed as two separate narratives, the first tells the story of the return from exile and rebuilding of the temple, while the second concentrates on events during which the high priest institutes extensive reforms in Jewish life under a Pax Persica. There again, in Persia, Nehemiahof rises to the high position of “the cupbearer” to the Achæmenid King Artaxerxes and governor of Judah. While the Book of Ezra telles the story of the return and that of the promulgation of the Torah, the Book of Nehemiah recalls the story of the post-exilic rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem which ignites the opposition of non-Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem. Hearing of troubles in Jerusalem, Judah governor Nehemiah obtains from the Persian King the additional title of Tirshatha, derived probably from Old Persian and meaning « the one to be feared ». Yet there again, in Persia, you have Esther, the beautiful Jewish Queen of the court of Xerxes I. Raised by her uncle Mordecai, her story is told in the Book that bears her name, Esther, a recount of how the Jews were saved from the first Holocaust planned by Haman, the southern Levantine archetype of anti-Semitism. Saved again from imminent extermination, the Jewish resurrection embodied by Esther and Mordecai gave rise to Purim, the most celebrated and joyous date of the Jewish calendar.

Despite some persecutions during certain periods, the coexistence of Judaism and Zoroastrianism went well in ancient Persia. For Sarshar, Jews “were allowed to participate in the army, they were allowed to participate in the government. They were pretty much able to participate in many walks of life while Zoroastrianism was the prominent religion in Iran.” After the arrival of Islam, however, in the second half of the seventh century AD, the Arab caliph Omar first issued a decree by which “the Jews were forced to wear a yellow patch on their clothes to distinguish them from the Muslims”. And this, says Sarshar, was the first time ever in the long history of Iran.

There is much to be said about the very long History shared by Jews and Persians but that I shall leave to learned scholars of the subject and concentrate on the modern relations between Iran and Israel.

As Prof. David Menashri, a renowned Israeli scholar and expert on Iran, points it out, “in the Jewish collective memory, Persia is cherished as a friendly nation ». Having said that, modern relations between these two nation-states have also and primarily been driven by converging geopolitical factors. These are:

  • Iraqi Jewish immigration through the Persian corridor
  • Ben Gurion’s Periphery Doctrine and breaking Israel’s regional isolation
  • Energy issues and the Eilat-Ashkelon Oil Pipeline

I shall now review each of these factors one by one.

First, the Jewish Aliyah. Following the formation of the modern State of Israel in May 1948, the persecution of Iraqi Jews, who outnumbered at that time the Iranian Jews two to one, and their immigration restrictions added to the urgency of forming Persian contacts, as Persia had become a transit point for Iraqi Jews. Back in those days, and according to the Israeli scholar Uri Bialer, Persian Jewry which numbered nearly 100 000 « remained relatively anaware of any great need to emigrate to Israel. » That was not however the case for Iraqi Jewry. As stated by Yitzhak Raphael, then the head of the Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency, Israel « could not wait » and be late in rescuing Iraqi Jews. Back then and so long as the Jewry of Irak was concerned, their rescue for Israel had become a question of « now or never ». As Bialer says, « as of early 1948, Iraqi Jews were subject to persecution, arrests and trials that at times resulted in death sentences, after Zionism was legally declared a serious criminal felony. The Iraqi motive, adds Bialer, was clear: “preventing the demographic strengthening of the State of Israel through Jewish immigration”. Thus, apart from the strategic importance of Iran for Israel as we shall see in the following points, Persia became a central piece in the logistic chain that was to be established in order to evacuate the Jews of Iraq. First, through a laborious network of contacts with Iranian authorities, merchants and middlemen, in what Israeli officials called the Persian Bazaar when describing the Iranian policy-making apparatus, Israel succeeded in ensuring the Iranian de facto recognition of the Jewish State. Quite significantly, and symptomatic of trilateral relations between Iran, Israel and the USA, it was an American citizen, code named Adam, who played a major role in obtaining the de facto recognition of Israel by Iranian authorities. Born in Chicago in 1919 to a Russian Jewish family named Masarsky, Adam’s real name was Gideon Hadary. He died in Florida in 2011. The idea of using commercials incentives and interested parties in order to foster the establishment of ties with Iran had come from the Israeli Embassy in Washington. And this was precisely where Adam came into the scene to play a central role in covert contacts with Iranian authorities and middlemen. Then, in a second phase, the Mossad managed to establish a Persian escape channel for Iraqi Jews from what one Israeli Intelligence chief had named “the Iraqi hell”. This channel resulted in the immigration of the vast majority of Iraqi Jews from “hell”, an accomplishment Uri Bialer calls “one of the most remarkable of Israel’s achievements in its early history”.

The second phase of Iran-Israel relations shall be dated back to the late 50s and early 60s. As David Menashri points out, “the strengthening of ties since the early 1960s corresponded with Ben-Gurion’s periphery concept or an alliance between Israel and each of Persia, Turkey, and Ethiopia”. Persia, a non-Arab state with “no ostensible reason for conflict with Israel” was thus perceived as an especially important country “due to its strategic location, size, and economic potential”. The Periphery Doctrine was to address several challenges: breaking the regional isolation of Israel on one hand, and countering Soviet and Arab threats on the other. As the Cairo-born Gawdat Bahgat of the National Defense University explains, radical Arab States surrounding Israel and led by the Egyptian Raïs Gamal Abdal Nasser “had facilitated Soviet penetration of the Middle-East and sought the total destruction of Israel”. From 58 to 61, this radical Arab alliance will come to be known as the United Arab Republic from 58 to 61. To depict the threat, let us take a retrospective quick look at the Arab state of affairs in those years: in Egypt, a military coup brings the so-called Free Officers to power in 1952, then, on 18 June 1953, the monarchy of King Farouk is abolished and the Republic of Egypt declared;  Syria, in 1957, is close to a communist takeover by its highly organized Communist Party and its army chief of staff, himself a communist sympathizer; in Iraq, the Hashemite monarchy is overthrown by a similar pro-communist military coup in 1958; the new revolutionary Iraqi regime led by General Abd el-Karim Qasim immediately establishes ties with Nasser’s Egypt and the Soviet Union while vowing to fight imperialism and its regional allies; in May of the same year, that is in 1958, in Lebanon, civil war erupts between one the one hand the Christians who enjoy strong ties with Iran and the Shah and, on the other, nationalists supported by Nasser; Jordan faces similar challenges to its stability and Nasser’s subversive activities target Iran with the Egyptian Raïs calling the Persian Gulf the “Arabian Gulf”.

 

In response to this double Arab and Soviet threat, Ben-Gurion’s doctrine was articulated on a triangular alliance located on the region’s “periphery”, mainly between the Jewish State and Iran and Turkey. In a later phase and under the security angle, the triangle will become to be known as the Trident: a close, regular collaboration between the security and Intelligence apparatuses of these three countries. The “unwritten pact” as Bahgat calls it, had a clear and deep-reaching connection and implication with and for the West in one of the most crucial periods of the Cold War. Indeed, the so-called Eisenhower Doctrine of the late 50s had failed in stopping Soviet penetration of the Middle East. It the mind of Israeli strategic decision-makers, it thus becomes clear that the formation of “a bloc of states whose population exceeded the number of Arabs in the Middle East, and which was willing to participate in far-reaching cooperation with the US in opposing Soviet ambition in the region” was the path to follow. Known as the Periphery Doctrine, this path was “to evolve into one of the pillars of Israeli foreign and defense policy over the next three Decades”.

 

Facing the same Soviet and Arab challenges, a threat that had significantly increased with the collapse of the Iraqi monarchy on one hand and the Arab call for Unity championed by Nasser, Iran’s sense of isolation also began to increase. Thus, according to the Egyptian-born US scholar Bahgat, “the Shah saw that one way to counter these challenges was to consolidate his ties with Israel”.

« We should combat and arrest the danger of Arab activism on the beaches of the Mediterranean so we do not have to shed blood on Iranian soil. »

The words are NOT those of General Ghassem Soleymani, head of the Qods Division, operating in the Levant today, but those of Major Mujtaba Pashaï, head of the SAVAK Middle-East branch. The year is NOT 2014 but late 50s early 60s, that is 55 years ago. The plan is called Green Plan. Its objective is to fill the security vacuum the US is reluctant to fill.

It follows a meeting in December 57 here in Paris between Yaacov Caroz, one of the best Israeli experts on Mokhaberats, Arab secret services, and Teymour Bakhtiar, head of the Iranian Intel & security organization called SAVAK, founded that same year.

I now come to what Prof. Uri Bialer has called the “Fuel Bridge Across the Middle East” or the joint Iran-Israel oil project known as the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline.

According to Prof. Menashri, founding director of the Center for Iranian Studies and Chair for Modern Iranian History at Tel Aviv University and currently the president of the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan, “in the years 1958-67, while Israel helped develop Persia’s armed forces, Persia accelerated its sale of crude oil to Israel. After the closure of the Suez Canal in 1967, Persia and Israel embarked on a joint venture to construct the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline. This pipeline initially transferred annually more than ten million tons of oil, which was more than Israel’s annual consumption. Israeli imports from Persia, as shown in the official Israeli statistics, grew from $1.3m in 1967 to $2.7m in 1969, $4.5m in 1975, reaching $5.8m in 1977. Israeli exports to Persia grew from $22.3m in 1970 to $92.4m in 1975, reaching $103.2m by 1977, higher than its rate of export to Japan and Turkey. Between 1973 and 1974 alone, Israeli exports to Persia almost doubled”. The Eilat-Ashkelon had an obvious vital importance for Israel which, since its birth in 48, had consistently sought to establish a durable and viable energy procurement route. For Iran, the advantages were no less strategic: on the one hand, Iran would acquire an independent experience on the international oil market without being dependent on the so-called Consortium, a group of major western oil companies operating in Iranian petroleum fields; while, on the other hand, the country would sell oil in excess to its OPEC quotas. Such additional revenues would then help Iran’s massive, and nevertheless very controversial, modernization programs under the Shah.

This was the golden age of modern Iran-Israel relations. Recently declassified documents by the Israel State Archives unveil only parts of these extensive, albeit de facto and de jure, relations. The Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs thus awarded the title of ambassador to the heads of the Israeli missions in Tehran, although these were not recognized as such. These de facto Israeli ambassadors were: Zvi Doriel (from 1956 to 1968), Meir Ezri (from 68 to 73), Uri Lubrani (from 73 to 78), and Yosef Harmelin (from 78 to 79). Relations extended from oil to agricultural, construction, military and security collaborations. A prime theatre for joint security cooperation was the Kurdish northern province of Iraq where, through Iranian security services, Israeli intelligence could establish its first contacts with Kurdish rebels fighting Iraq’s revolutionary regime. Another such theatre was the Levant where Lebanese Christians were militarily supported against their Nasserite rivals by weapons provided by Israel and shipped by Iran to Lebanon. Joint military industrial projects were not forgotten. On April 7th 1977 in Tehran, military contracts worth 1.2 billion dollars are signed by the Iranian general Toufanian and by the Israeli minister of defense Shimon Peres. These industrial projects aim at the joint development of missile programs; the further development of the US anti-ship missile system known as Harpoon; and joint development and production of artillery systems within a commercial entity named Soltam.

Last but not least, regarding the geography and hydrology of the region, water was another field of major cooperation. Founder of Sixpoint Partners, an investment bank, and a known expert in the geopolitics of water, Seth Siegel recently described the history and prospect of such cooperation in the New York Times. “Nuclear proliferation, religious militancy and income inequality are all major threats to Middle East stability”, says Siegel. But there is one more and potentially as fearsome that is looming: water scarcity. The aggravating factors are known: “rapid population growth, antiquated infrastructure, the over-pumping of aquifers, inefficient crop practices and pollution from fertilizer and pesticides”. Add to this climatic change and its effects of water evaporation and diminished rainfall, the overall picture becomes dark enough for strategic decision-makers to have a different look at the future. But first, let me borrow the words of Siegel and outline the history of water cooperation between Iran and Israel.

Cooperation began in 1962 after a severe earthquake in the Qazvin region of Iran, killing more than 12,000 people, collapsed a chain of traditional wells and underground canals known as qanats. “Hundreds of thousands were at risk from lack of drinking water. Israel flew in teams of drillers. New water supplies were identified, and a series of artesian wells were drilled. The drilling was such a success that Israel’s water engineering company, today a private enterprise, was hired to identify and gain access to underground resources elsewhere in Iran. Beginning in 1968, a desalination company owned by the Israeli government built dozens of plants in Iran. These are now aging, while Israel continues to innovate: On its Mediterranean coast, it recently opened an immense, energy-efficient desalination plant. More than half of Israel’s drinking water — purer, cleaner and less salty than natural sources — now comes from seawater”.

According to the experts of the Iranian National Commission on Sustainable Development, Iran is fast approaching “total drought”. Iran has the need. Israel has the technological solutions and know-how.

Now, having this background in our mind, let us return to the future if I may say. In this regard, it is my thesis today that the re-emergence of Tehran Jerusalem Axis is a necessity.

This time around, such an Axis should be de jure and not just de facto.

The questions are:

WHY should such an axis emerge?

WHEN can it emerge?

My answer to the first question is the following: US withdrawal of the region.

Call it the “Pivot” or US disengagement from the Middle-East, the fact is that half a century after the Quincy Pact, America is refocusing on its next strategic focal point, that is the Pacific and South-East Asia. Thus the vacuum once again. Vacuum which must be filled. According to Edward Luttwak, the renowned US strategist, “so far Israel has been the sole reliable US ally in the region”. Tomorrow, that alliance must be reinforced. And that is where Iran comes into play once again and this time, let us hope, on a durable basis.

After a century long hesitation between East and West, from Reza Shah to Khomeyni, Iran has got to the point where it must make a strategic choice between East and West. According to many observers, including Prof. David Menashri, Iranianism will emerge on the ashes of Iranian style Islamism. That is, strategic national interests of Iran will once again become the founding principle of an Iranian State which could well, at least this is my personal hope and choice, take on the form and content of an Iranian Republic, the most significant slogan of the demonstrators during the 2009 uprising in Iran.

Arab city-States south of the Persian Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, have been organizing themselves within the GCC since the early 80s.

Sunni Arab Islamism, the fight for political legitimacy in Arab countries, social inequalities, demographic pressures, and water scarcity are the indisputable threats looming on the region.

From the security cooperation between the two countries since the 50s, from their Intel cooperation in northern Iraq and that country’s Kurdish province in the 60s, from water management cooperation since 62, from the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline and oil cooperation in the 70s, from their military cooperation in those same years which extended well into the Iran – Iraq war in the 80s, Iran is an island with strategic complementary interests with Israel.

As to the second question, WHEN such an Axis can emerge, my answer is this: a deep-reaching strategic change inside Iran is the sine qua none condition for the emergence of this Axis.

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