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Iran vs. Israel
A recent piece by David Keys in BBC History Magazine talks of the cold war between Israel and Iran that we all know could go hot at any moment. Keys provides some context.
“Inexorably, a dozen different historical threads are slowly coming together to produce greater tension – or worse – in the Middle East region.
“At the core of the problem is the mutual distrust, dislike and fear between Israel and Iran.
“The pre-Islamist regime in Iran, that of the Shah, was favorably disposed towards Israel – but the Islamic revolutionaries who displaced it in 1979 were not. Partly, their hostility was a reaction to the Shah’s pro-Israeli position. Partly it was also because the new Islamist government wanted to develop a leadership role within radical Islam across the region, and realized that supporting radical Palestinians against Israel might help in that process. Ideologically, it also sees Israel as part of a wider U.S.-aligned ‘neo-imperialist’ threat to the geopolitical independence of some nations in the developing world.
“But there was an additional historical factor that conceivably played a role in shaping Iranian clerical anti-Israeli views. Back in the 1930s and during the Second World War, Nazi Germany sought to promote anti-Semitism in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East.
“The vehicle for the propaganda was a German Farsi (Iranian)-language station (Radio Zeesen) broadcasting from Berlin. The transmitter had been upgraded for Berlin’s 1936 Olympics and, by 1940, the station, which became extremely anti-Semitic, had become one of the most popular in Iran (then called Persia).”
So Radio Zeesen was to quote the Quran and “highlight Mohammed’s struggle against the Jews in ancient times, and that of the Fuhrer in modern times,” so spoke the German ambassador to Tehran at the time.
This was part of a broader German-Persia relationship. By 1940, 47% of Persian exports went to Germany. 80% of all industrial machinery in Iran came from Germany. Such relationships have existed to this day. Especially on the machinery side, German companies have indeed been involved in Iran’s nuclear program and thus the source of various sanctions over the years.
Anyway, back to Radio Zeesen, one avid listener was Ayatollah Khomeini.
“By 1941, Persian rural clerics were, according to the German ambassador, suggesting that Hitler had been sent to Earth by God as an Islamic savior,” notes David Keys.
“In 1963, Khomeini was telling his supporters that ‘Jews and foreigners wish to destroy Islam’ and in his book The Islamic State, published in 1971, he accused the Jews of being ‘the first to begin anti-Islamic propaganda and ideological conspiracies.’ These anti-Jewish sentiments gradually merged with a more political sounding anti-Zionism. In 1967, Khomeini told his followers ‘to annihilate unbelieving and inhuman Zionism.’”
One of Israel’s fears is Iran’s willingness to sacrifice vast numbers of its citizens in conflict. Like 700,000 of them in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.
“Iran, meanwhile, also has a history unlike any other country in the Middle East. Firstly, it has existed as an independent state for thousands of years (since the ninth century BC) and therefore has a very strong national identity. Secondly it has no major internal religious divisions (most of the population converted from Sunni to Shia Islam in the 16th century). And Iran is now the standard bearer for Shia communities throughout the Middle East.
“Thirdly it is intensely nationalistic – partly a product of at least half a dozen foreign interventions over the past century. In 1907, Russia and Britain de facto partitioned Persia (Iran) into economic interest zones. In 1908 the Russians intervened in the country. In the First World War, neutral Iran was invaded by the Ottomans, the Russians and the British. After the conflict, British and Soviet troops were active there. In the Second World War, neutral Iran was again invaded and occupied by the British and the Russians. In 1953, the CIA and Britain’s secret service helped organize a coup d’etat to secure control of the country’s oil by removing the nationalist prime minister.
“In 1957, the U.S. and Israel were training the Shah’s widely detested secret police; and in the decade prior to the 1979 Islamist revolution, the U.S. had 15,000 troops stationed in Iran who were controversially not subject to Iranian law and whose presence often caused much resentment.”
So when does the cold war turn hot? I’ll continue to attempt to answer that question in my “Week in Review” column.