Why did the Islamic Republic continue clandestine cooperation with Israel?

map of Iran and Israel


It is often believed that Iran’s Islamic Republic and the State of Israel became estranged after Ayatollah Khomeini arose to power during the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but records show key figures in each government felt maintaining a secret relationship would be in the interest of both parties. As a result, millions of dollars’ worth of trade between Iran and Israel continued after the fall of the Shah and during Khomeini’s regime–– even though  Iran publicly denied Israel’s very existence. I argue the Islamic Republic’s decision to preserve secret ties with Israel after the revolution was a move to bolster regime security and counter international security threats coming from Iraq in the lead up to, and during, the Iran-Iraq war.

 I. Introduction

Why did the Islamic Republic continue clandestine cooperation with Israel? The question is puzzling because the revolution that put the Islamic Republic in power diametrically opposed all the Shah’s policies–including the monarchy’s covert relationship with Israel. The animosity between the two countries following the revolution in 1979 has been both fervent and public, with hostilities enduring to this day. The most prominent face of the Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stated in an interview at the beginning of his tenure that his Islamic Republic would “break off relations with Israel because [it did not] believe there is any legal justification for its existence. Palestine belongs to the Islamic space and must be returned to the Muslims.”[1] Furthermore, the Ayatollah’s condemnation of Israel as the “Little Satan” (only second to the United States which was dubbed the “Great Satan”) followed a larger narrative which Khomeini capitalized upon during the Iran-Iraq War after assuming power. 

In early 1980, Saddam Hussein and his army invaded Iran and a bloody eight-year war ensued. The devastating war ended in a stalemate and an estimated one to two million casualties. It is important to understand that in the 1970s, prior to the Revolution, Iran had a remarkably strong military backed by the West and funded by oil wealth. Simultaneously, Iraq in the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party was also rising in the ranks. This balance of power shifted once the Ayatollah came to power in 1979 and Khomeinists purged the Shah’s army out of fear and distrust. Iraq recognized this and decided to attack its historical foe less than a year after the revolution took place. In an attempt to galvanize troops, Iranian leadership during the war period promised soldiers and soon-to-be martyrs the next stop after “conquering Baghdad” would be the “liberation of Jerusalem.”[2] Ironically, however, the peak of clandestine Iran-Israel relations was during this time period. 

Taking a closer look at the events of this period, though, it’s not as hard to believe why Khomeini decided to maintain covert ties with Israel. As Sohrab Sobhani puts it, the Shah’s departure left Khomeini to inherit the world’s sixth largest army, $26 billion in foreign reserves, an oil industry producing $105 million a day, and the Shah’s legacy of close relations with Israel.[3]  All were gladly accepted by the new regime except for friendly relations with Israel—at least publicly. As far as the world was aware, the new Islamic Republic’s feelings about Israel were evident in its decision to redirect the Shah’s Israeli mission to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was actively fighting the existence of Israel. 

II. Roadmap

I begin by providing a capsulized background of Iran-Israel relations since 1948. After laying down this historical foundation, I briefly compare Iran’s foreign policy pre-revolution (1948-1978) and post-revolution (1979-present). 

Once I outline the history, I move on to reviewing the literature surrounding Iran-Israel clandestine cooperation since 1948, with a particular focus on why it continued into the years 1979-1989. I divide the literature into three separate groups: 1. International Security, 2. Domestic Pressure, and 3. Individual and Ideological Aspirations. After providing an overview of the literature at hand, I ultimately argue international security threats were the main motivator for the Islamic Republic’s policy towards Israel. The second group of literature emphasizes the importance of Iranian domestic politics and its influence on foreign ties but falls short due to its underestimation of Khomeini’s desire to uphold the Islamic regime at all costs. The final group looks at the Shah and Khomeini as individuals, assessing their leadership and analyzing their personal vision for Iran. Looking at the puzzle through an individual lens helps gain insight into how these two leaders differed from one another, but ultimately, the logic of this argument fails to explain why exactly Khomeini would sustain the policies of a man he so detested.

After reviewing the literature, I present my argument, which states the decision to continue clandestine cooperation with Israel after the revolution was a choice of pragmatism over revolutionary ideology and was induced by the Iran-Iraq War. To expand on my argument, I split up this section into two subsections. The first, Collaborating with the ‘Little Satan’,” examines Khomeini’s tacit continuation of the Shah’s pragmatic foreign policy. The second subsection, “The Lesser of Three Evils,” focuses on how the Iran-Iraq War proliferated Iran-Israel clandestine cooperation, and why the relationship dwindled almost immediately afterward. This section also illustrates how Cold War politics played into Tehran’s decision to continue cooperation with Israel.

I then use two separate case studies of international clandestine cooperation: Israel-Saudi Arabia and Israel-Azerbaijan to help contextualize and explain why enemies collaborate in international relations. Next, I compare the two cases and illustrate their relation to Iran-Israel relations from 1948-1989. I finish this section by presenting and critiquing common arguments that muddle the puzzle at hand. The first is that the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy is guided primarily by ideology, and the second is the idea that Khomeini was merely a hypocrite. Both arguments are unsatisfying, and my goal is to unveil the complexity of the matter instead of generalizing a country’s policy based on its outward demeanor.   

I conclude the paper with a summary of key points discussed in each section and additional takeaways. I address counter-arguments, including the minimal focus placed here on the influence of the United States, the Soviet Union, and other external powers. Finally, I suggest potential areas for future research to hopefully connect the lessons learned during the initial years of the Islamic Republic and Israel’s relationship to the current one—providing a new perspective to what seems like a doomed relationship. Can Iran and Israel return to a pragmatic alliance in the future? What needs to happen for this to occur? 

II. Literature Review

Iran—up until the Islamic revolution in 1979—was a major rising power in the region. With this growth came an amassing influence that the Shah and other prominent figures in Iran had to manage effectively to avoid collapse. Interestingly, even with the Shah’s outward affinity for Western powers like the United States, the country favored secrecy when it came to Israel. Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shah’s arch nemesis, continued the late monarch’s covert cooperation with Israel even when all other policies were shunned—but why?

Intelligence expert Len Scott describes the advantage of secret alliances as the increased deniability of clandestine diplomacy, which adds to its value as a tool used by adversaries that would face criticism for engaging in a traditional alliance.[4] Moreover, clandestine diplomacy assumes a willingness to talk with an adversary, even if these talks never amount to formal negotiations.[5] With virtually the entire Arab world opposed to Israel’s existence, Iran seemed like one of the only plausible options Israel had for a regional companion. Iran, on the other hand, knew an overt alliance with a country they denied the existence of would tarnish its reputation among its Arab neighbors and compromise regime security. 

The existing literature can be categorized into roughly three groups of explanations for the secret relationship that emerged out of this situation. The first group focuses on the international implications of the Islamic regime publicizing their cooperation with Israel. Within this group, some view Khomeini’s vocal championing of Palestinian self-determination as a natural hindrance to any public cooperation with Israel, while others claim that the backdrop of Cold War politics was more significant. A major drawback of this group’s argument is it does not take into account the considerable differences amongst the many faces of leadership in Iran.

The second group consists of those that consider Iran’s domestic politics as the motive behind its vacillation towards Israel. This group cites prioritization of regime security as the main push factor towards covert cooperation with Israel. Domestic opposition to an exposed relationship would have been worse after 1979 than it would during the Shah’s reign since the legitimacy of the Islamic Regime rested on severing all previous ties with the West. The grounds for this argument are compelling, though its main pitfall is its lack of attention towards Khomeini’s campaign to export the Islamic revolution. 

The last group is unique in that emphasis is largely placed on individual leaders and their aspirations. In essence, this group places the Shah’s and Khomeini’s shared hegemonic ambitions at the core of Iran’s foreign policy during both of their tenures. This argument, however, fails to consider that both regimes maintained diverse leadership, making it hard to explain two phenomena with this lone wolf theory: (a) the substantial wavering of foreign policy throughout each leader’s reign and (b) the lack of amicable relations between Iran and Israel after the death of Khomeini. In post-revolutionary Iran, much of the literature emphasizes Khomeini’s ideological zeal as the main driver of his foreign policy. The logic of this assertion assumes clandestine cooperation between Iran and Israel would cease to exist without the Shah calling the shots, but this has not been the case. The reality is that Khomeini, who actively worked to reverse all that the Shah stood for, continued these covert negotiations decades after the fall of the Shah.

Group I: International Security

Scholars that emphasize the international dimension of an overt relationship between Iran and Israel make up this first group. Developments in the Middle East and broader international sphere during this time, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and Cold War, inevitably played a role in Iranian foreign policy—but to what extent did these events affect Iran’s relations with Israel? Likewise, did these international events have any effect on the Islamic Republic’s decision to continue clandestine relations with Israel?

Iran’s Arab neighbors, especially the Gulf monarchies, were not pleased with the idea of a Shi’a-led movement preaching the trading of monarchies for Islamist governments near their borders. The influence of Khomeini’s fierce propaganda and revolutionary success was heard by Shi’a minority groups across the Middle East, which many Gulf monarchies in particular considered a looming threat to their power. Ultimately, Khomeini’s expectation that his Muslim neighbors would support him against Iraq failed to become a reality. Instead, a multilateral effort to help Saddam defeat Iran was formed; mostly because many regional powers feared the spread of an Islamic revolution in their own borders if Iran were to win the war. In fact, John Calabrese argues Khomeini’s effort to discourage collaboration with Saddam’s regime through anti-Zionist rhetoric and appeals to the Palestinian cause ended up reinforcing the Gulf states’ tilt towards Iraq.[6] 

For the Shah, playing both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict worked in his favor, so there was no need to publicly declare his commitment to one side over the other as long as the regional status quo remained intact. This wavering public attitude abruptly shifted under Khomeini. Instead of maintaining the Shah’s ambiguous attitude towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Islamic Republic firmly stood behind the Palestinians, deeming those that did not as traitors to Islam. Shahram Chubin explains this position by arguing the clergy’s pro-Palestinian posture became a source of legitimacy for the regime, as well as an area where it could stand out from its Arab counterparts.[7] R.K. Ramazani puts forth that Khomeini’s insistence on exporting the Islamic Revolution and creating an Islamic international order led to his foreign policy doctrine of “Neither East, nor West, but the Islamic Republic.”[8] Although through different means, the new regime shared with the monarchy before it a desire for Iran to transcend the quandaries of its neighbors and come out on top as a new model for regional hegemony. 

In his piece “Iran and the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” Ramazani argues Cold War politics are essential in understanding Iran’s secretive approach to Israel. He describes Iran’s policy under the Shah as ‘calculative ambivalence,’[9] with most of Tehran’s behavior driven by the regime’s fundamental goal of hindering Soviet influence in the region.[10] In his eyes, the Shah’s regime did not merely view ties with Israel as a ‘discreet entente’ against Arab hostility, but primarily as a deterrent against increasing Soviet expansion into the Middle East.[11] In contrast, under the Islamist Regime, Israel’s ties to the United States and Western world became its main pitfall. Tehran after the Revolution had now positioned itself as both an enemy of the West and Soviet Union. Nonalignment, however, became nearly impossible for the regime to sustain after the outset of the Iran-Iraq War. John Bulloch and Harvey Morris explain that up until the revolution, America armed Iran, meaning the new regime had to find American spares for its guns, planes, armored vehicles and tanks.[12] Bulloch and Morris point out that Israel was both the nearest supplier and the most willing.[13] Behrouz Souresrafil expands on this by highlighting the arms embargo placed on Iran by the U.S. during the war, ultimately forcing it to choose between buying needed arms on the black market for high prices or accepting Israel’s offer at a much lower price.[14] In the end, Iran took up Israel’s offer despite its public opposition to the state’s existence.

A considerable drawback of this group of literature is its belief that Iran’s policy towards Israel depended on Khomeini as a sole actor. Although Khomeini played a major role in crafting Iranian foreign policy during his time in charge, the lack of a functioning foreign ministry in conjunction with the loud voices of the regime’s domestic opponents were just as important when it came to ties with Israel. Additionally, this argument assumes  the regime was more outwardly than inwardly focused when it came to politics. Again,  this could have just been Khomeini’s approach at the time, and not representative of the multifaceted Iranian regime as a whole.

Group II: Domestic Pressure

The second group of literature indicates the revolutionary government decided to continue covert cooperation with Israel was because the regime needed to do so to survive. Such two-timing is consistent with revolutionary movements throughout history, and thus, the regime’s decision to maintain ties with a state that can help keep it alive is not the historical exception it is often considered to be.

Souresrafil explains the Khomeini regime faced massive problems in running the country from the start and  turned to Israel in a bid to survive.[15] These problems only got worse after a decrease in oil prices plunged the economy into a crisis and the costs of war began suffocating the regime.[16] By and large, Souresrafil considers Khomeini’s foreign policy to be pragmatic and, at times, opportunistic.[17] 

After eight brutal years and millions of dollars’ worth of Israeli weapons used by the Iranian regime against Iraq, the Iran-Iraq War came to an end and Khomeini’s newfound grip on power became the regime’s largest success. Trita Parsi explains the Iran-Israel relationship has always been based on common vulnerabilities during both the time of the Shah and Khomeini. Such a relationship, however, meant if one state gained enough power to deal with threats on its own, the need for the other would cease to exist.[18] This is precisely what happened after the new revolutionary regime emerged from the Iran-Iraq War alive.       

With most of the mayhem now behind it, the new Iranian regime could now reinforce its position as a staunchly pro-Islamic and anti-Western entity. In addition, Israel and many Iranian Jews living in the country felt the relatively fair treatment Iranian Jews experienced under the Shah was now threatened by the Islamic Republic. This drove hundreds of thousands of Iranian-Jews out of Iran after 1979 and strengthened the pro-Khomeini domestic population. Sobhani argues the new Iranian regime realized this and began using it to their advantage once Iraq invaded Iran. In support of his argument, Sobhani describes a “arms-for-Iranian Jews” agreement, which was a tacit settlement between Israel and the Islamic Republic that essentially granted Iranian Jews freedom to leave Iran in exchange for much-needed arms. During these years of Iran-Israel clandestine cooperation, it is estimated that 55,000 Iranian Jews were permitted to leave Iran.

The main weakness of this group’s argument is its lack of consideration for Khomeini’s ambitious vision to export the revolution and become the ‘voice of the oppressed’. Domestic pressure — although an essential part of the puzzle — should be considered alongside the international security concerns of the state at the time.

Group III: Individual and Ideological Aspirations

The third group places the Shah and Khomeini’s individual aspirations at the forefront of Iran’s clandestine cooperation with Israel. This is a common direction that many scholars who study Iranian foreign policy take due to the Shah’s potent nostalgia for Iran’s glorious years as a powerful empire and Khomeini’s fierce Islamist ideology. Parsi explains how the Shah’s belief in Iran’s historical predisposition to regional prominence led him to adopt a relentless approach to Iranian regional primacy, certain that Iran was the only nation capable of maintaining peace in the Middle East.[19] This group of literature asserts it was the Shah’s quixotic desire for Iranian primacy that drove his strategic relations with Arab and Israeli neighbors. Thus, Iran’s ultimate decision to ‘play both sides’ in the Arab-Israeli conflicts by cultivating relations with both Israel and Arab neighbors was an attempt to please as many parties as possible and build legitimacy for a Shah who sought to fill what he considered a power vacuum in the region. 

Helmut Richards describes the political scene in Iran preceding and following the U.S. and British-led coup on Mohammad Mosaddeq by illustrating how the Shah altered his image after returning from exile in 1953. One of the first things the Shah said after returning to Iran was that he had “known since early childhood…that it was [his] destiny to become King.”[20] Following this notorious claim, he reinforced this conviction by “insisting that he [had] seen Ali, Saint Abbas, and the last Imam” during his time away from his country.[21] When analyzing Iran’s decision to pursue clandestine relations with Israel before the Islamic Revolution despite domestic and international opposition, it is helpful to view  the decision through an individual lens. In this case, through the Shah’s eyes. 

The desire for regional hegemony was another characteristic inherited by Khomeini. Though seemingly different, Khomeini’s longing to export the Revolution beyond Iran’s borders resembles the Shah’s prominent belief that Iran’s destiny was to be a regional leader. Sobhani places great emphasis on Khomeini being the main obstacle blocking the path towards an Iran-Israel alliance, arguing Iran and Israel are “natural allies” and that the removal of Khomeini would cause the two powers to revert back to a strategic anti-Arab alliance.[22] Whether Sobhani’s assumption held up after Khomeini’s death is debatable, but what is clear is that relations between Tehran and Tel Aviv are far from as strong as they were during the Shah’s reign. Taking an individual approach can be useful in gaining a better understanding of the Shah and Khomeini’s personal perspectives on the matter, as well as understanding why they took the steps they did towards Israel during their reigns. Many consider the Shah a pragmatic and cunning political figure but view Khomeini as a zealot unable to approach politics rationally, yet Khomeini continued the Shah’s pragmatic relationship with Israel. A major drawback of this group is its reliance on the assumption that the Shah acted as a lone wolf when approaching relations with Israel. If this was the case, then one would have expected covert ties to sever with the fall of the Shah in 1979, but in fact, clandestine cooperation between Iran and Israel continued under the Shah’s archenemy: Ayatollah Khomeini. Moreover, the world’s expectation that Iran and Israel would resume good relations after the death of Khomeini in 1989 did not manifest either. The reality is that Iranian society is highly complex and will always be home to regime hardliners as well as progressive reformists, irrespective of any individual leader.


Scholars who prioritize the international political climate as the main driver of Tehran’s policy during this time provide an argument maintaining a great deal of merit, yet their lack of regard towards Iran’s domestic population inevitably weakens their position. The same goes for the scholars that solely focus on the Shah’s ‘megalomania’ and Khomeini’s religious zeal. In order to fill these gaps, more research needs to be done on why exactly Khomeini’s regime continued clandestine cooperation with Israel despite notorious public condemnation; as well as why cooperation dwindled after the Iran-Iraq War.

The Road Ahead

I. Argument

In this section, I argue the Islamic Republic’s strategic preservation of ties with Israel symbolizes the subduing of ideology in favor of a pragmatic foreign policy prompted by international security threats. The first part looks at the preservation of ties as a means of regime survival during an era of regional instability. A newly-formed revolutionary government that is immediately sprung into a war will naturally need to compromise to survive — even one that prides itself on non-alignment. The second part proposes that, in comparison to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, covert cooperation with Israel was a more attractive alternative for the Iranian regime.

A. Collaborating with the ‘Little Satan’

Khomeini is not a man of religion. Whoever describes him as such is fanatical, stupid and understands nothing of politics. Khomeini is a politician. When he realizes he is losing more than he is gaining, he will establish peace.

Saddam Hussein, Baghdad, 10 November 1982

In an anarchic international system riddled with uncertainty, states inevitably must compromise to stay afloat. The Islamic Republic was not immune to this reality. What became evident soon after Iraq invaded Iran was that Khomeini’s zealous rhetoric would have to be mutually exclusive from foreign policy for the regime to survive. Stephen Walt explains that ideological differences become less of an impediment to alliance formation when more immediate issues of security arise.[23] When the Shah was in power, common security threats from Nasser’s Egypt and the Soviet Union brought Iran and Israel closer. Under Khomeini, Iraq’s aggression combined with Iran’s isolation from the international community made room for a renewal of such cooperation largely because Iran needed weapons. Indeed, Iran’s military at the outset of the war was in a dire state and Israel was one of the few options they had for assistance. At the start of the war, it was reported there were only twenty-eight tanks in the entirety of the Khuzestan province (the closest Iranian province to Iraq). The Iranian air-force— which had been one of the strongest in the region under the Shah— was in even worse shape; with only 40 percent of the entire fleet being salvageable (60 percent of F-5s, 40 percent of F-4’s, and 10 percent of F-14’s were functionable at the time).[24] It is also estimated that in 1979-1980, 60 percent of Iranian military personnel had quit, in addition to the thousands arrested or killed by the new regime. Israel sold more than $100 million dollars’ worth of arms to Tehran in 1983,[25] and by 1985, Danish cargo ships chartered by the Israeli government and private arms dealers made over 600 trips carrying American-made arms through the Persian Gulf to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.[26]  As the war drew on, Israel made sure to keep Iranian planes flying, and Israeli instructors trained Iranian commanders on how to handle their troops.[27]

Although the Shah was better at keeping a diplomatic front when it came to publicly discussing ties with Israel, neither him nor Khomeini could realistically cite ‘ideological alignment’ with Israel as being a factor in their cooperation. Additionally, the usefulness of Ben Gurion’s periphery doctrine —a key geostrategic doctrine involving Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia— was also dwindling in importance during the 1980s. What remained though, was Iran’s commitment to its position as a major regional power. 

The reality is that Khomeini’s harsh rhetoric towards Israel was more of an impassioned charade than it was a foreign policy doctrine during the 1980s. In these years, Iran’s strategic and rhetorical objectives contradicted each other  and revolutionary ideology was often set aside in light of realist considerations.[28] Essentially, while Iran publicly condemned Israel and all it stood for, it continued covert cooperation and took very little tangible action against the Jewish state. The Israelis seemed to recognize this discrepancy between rhetoric and policy early on and continued to treat Iran as a potential regional ally regardless of the regime and its classification of Israel as a “cancerous tumor.”[29] This was largely because Shimon Peres — Israel’s prime minister and foreign minister at the time — believed that Khomeini was just a temporary ailment to Iran-Israel relations, and that the United States should actively strive to bring Iran back into the Western-camp. Surprisingly, in 1982, Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon publicly announced on television that Israel would continue selling weapons to Iran despite American opposition. Iran denied, ridiculed, and responded to this claim by introducing resolutions to expel Israel from the United Nations.[30] Yitzhak Rabin perpetuated this outlook, stating in 1987 that “Iran is Israel’s best friend and we do not intend to change our position in relation to Tehran, because Khomeini’s regime will not last forever.”[31] Strangely enough, this paradox of rhetoric and policy lasted for eight years, waning with the end of the Iran-Iraq War and concurrent Cold War.

A key takeaway from Iran’s pragmatic policy was that security was ultimately more important to the regime than its hatred for the West. Throughout their respective reigns, both Saddam Hussein and Khomeini demonstrated their ability to compromise to ensure their political survival. Although not an automatic response, it was always known that both were willing to tone down their ideology if it meant they could maintain their power.[32] This, however, changed with the end of the war in 1988. After emerging from an eight-year war alive, Iran began to back its anti-Western rhetoric with action. 

Compromise was less important to the regime after the war. Thus, even the tiny remnants of the Shah’s pragmatic relationship with Israel became severed. These years also saw a return to Khomeini’s desire to export the Revolution. This time, however, the regime’s approach was less focused on getting Arab countries on board, and more focused on targeting regional Shi’a minority populations. Lebanon and Syria became major points of interest for Iran because they were home to a large minority of Shiites, but Iran’s wandering eye was soon perceived as a direct threat to Israel’s security. The end of the Iran-Iraq War led the regime to realize it could protect itself even with all odds against it, and so compromising their ideology was no longer necessary for survival.

B. The Lesser of Three Evils

Neither east nor west, sometimes Israel, when it serves our interest best.

Sohrab Sobhani, The Pragmatic Entente” (1989)

Khomeini’s rise to power brought with it a new populist dimension to Iranian foreign policy. This included a vehement hostility towards the United States and the Soviet Union, which the Ayatollah considered imperialists and enemies to Islam. To say the regime’s resentment was solely towards the West in the 1980s would be inaccurate, as Khomeini was insistent in his doctrine of “neither East nor West, only the Islamic Republic”. 

What is especially interesting about this period in history is that Khomeini’s regime accepted military supplies from Israel but rejected a similar proposal from the Soviet Union. Israel’s non-superpower status gave it an edge over cooperation with the United States or the Soviet Union, even if such cooperation was undisclosed to the public. In a way, it seems Khomeini ranked the United States and the Soviet Union higher than Israel in his proverbial ‘abomination’ scale. In this view, cooperation with ‘the Great Satan’ or the imperialist Soviets was a disgrace, so cooperation with ‘the Lesser Satan’ was less of a disgrace — especially in the midst of the Cold War when the Islamic regime prided itself on non-alignment. At the end of the Iran-Iraq War Khomeini gave a speech stating:

We did not collude even for a moment with America, the Soviet Union, and other global powers, and we consider collusion with superpowers and other powers as turning our back on Islamic principles.

The shift in post-revolutionary and post-war Iranian foreign policy occurred through a revived emphasis on its role as the defender of Islam, which was used to antagonize both superpowers more so than Israel. [34] Furthermore, Iran’s shaky history surrounding the Shah and U.S. – Russian intervention throughout the 20th century makes Israel a less threatening foe vis-à-vis the Iranian people. 

Ultimately, the Islamic Republic preserved the Shah’s clandestine policy towards Israel due to international security threats and a reluctance towards superpowers.

II. Evidence

A. Case Study #1: Israel and Saudi Arabia

The relationship between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia varies greatly in its public image versus its private utility. The two states— historically hostile to one another— possess no official diplomatic relationship yet cooperate frequently on a covert level. Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the commemorated Abraham Accords, even though the UAE and other Gulf neighbors are. Throughout history, what bonded this unexpected pair has been common security threats arising from regional neighbors. In the 1960s, this was the threat coming from Nasser’s Egypt. Since 1979, the two have shared an interest in curtailing Iranian expansion — specifically Tehran’s nuclear endeavors and Shi’a proxies. 

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Khomeini and his regime began a propaganda campaign aimed at panning Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries as “un-Islamic” for evading their ‘Islamic duty’ to protect the Palestinians. What made this campaign threatening was the fact these statements were accompanied by Iranian-inspired Shi’a uprisings in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.[35] The latter, being an absolute monarchy with a significant Shi’a minority population in its northern region, has always been concerned about Iranian influence on its soil. Conflicts involving Iranian proxies around Israel and the Kingdom’s borders exacerbated these concerns in the past twenty-years. The steady rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen have been a nuisance to Israel and Saudi Arabia’s security and have thus steered the two states towards intelligence sharing and clandestine diplomacy.   In an era where America’s regional influence is dwindling, and rapprochement between the West and Iran is underway, Saudi Arabia and Israel find themselves needing to adjust to the ever-shifting times. This shift caused Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to recognize Israel’s military capability and close relationship with the United States as a valuable connection that could help preserve a partnership with Washington.[36] Most recently, evidence of cooperation between the two began to surface because of the Kingdom’s use of Israeli-made cyberweapons such as Pegasus, a spyware the monarchy uses to monitor dissidents abroad.[37] For the most part, however, this cooperation has remained unofficial and out of the public eye. Some consider this to be because open relations with Israel historically carried higher costs than benefits for the Kingdom given domestic opposition and the position of other Arab countries towards the Palestinian issue.[38] Thus, conducting clandestine diplomacy with the Jewish state is considered a win-win situation for the Saudi monarchy and its legitimacy as a conservative Islamist power. 

B. Case Study #2: Israel and Azerbaijan

The relationship between Israel and the former Soviet-state of Azerbaijan differs in some ways to the alliances mentioned above. First off, although Azerbaijan has yet to have an official embassy in Israel, cooperation between the two states is much more publicized. The capital city, Baku, is has a significant Jewish population, and the country recognized Israel’s statehood relatively early on (in comparison to Arab neighbors). These factors generated a more productive relationship, regardless of Azerbaijan’s majority-Muslim population and conflicting regional allies. 

Azerbaijan and Israel cooperate on three main fronts: interstate security concerning Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, strong trade relations, and countering Iranian influence. Like many other states that choose to maintain civil relations with Israel, Azerbaijan sees Israel’s influence in Washington as a major benefit to getting the Azeri voice heard on issues pertaining to Armenia and the ongoing conflict. The two states also face what they deem a constant existential threat, bringing them together in a coalition based on protecting their sovereignty and right to exist. From the outset of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Israel has supported the Azeri position while states like Iran and Russia supported the opposing side. Turkey, another major ally of Azerbaijan, plays an increasingly important role in Israeli-Azeri relations as the deteriorating relationship between Jerusalem and Ankara in recent years has increasingly pressured Azerbaijan to reevaluate its already-brittle ties with Israel. Such pressure provides insight on why relations between the two have not been publicized, and helps explain why Azerbaijan frequently votes against Israeli proposals in international forums.

In the economic realm, both countries have long enjoyed prosperous energy and arms trade, with the latter being the most controversial aspect of their relationship. Therefore, instances where the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resurfaces are often when Azeri-Israeli relations are highlighted and most contentious. Regardless, Baku is also one of Israel’s most reliable oil suppliers following the fallout with Egypt after the Arab Spring.[39] Still, the Israel-Azerbaijan relationship is most effective in curtailing the shared Iranian threat.

Azerbaijan, being previously part of the Persian Empire and then briefly a Soviet entity, has had a long battle with independence. Today, the small state borders Iran to the South and Russia to the North, making its geopolitical posture highly valuable to the West and its allies. Israel, realizing this, took advantage of Baku’s strategic position vis-à-vis Iran, especially as Iranian proxies began springing up around Israel’s borders. The past ten years, for instance, have witnessed an increase in cooperation between the two states regarding intelligence gathering on the Iranian border. Furthermore, Azerbaijan is a major target for Israeli defense industry exports.[40] Over the years, Israeli defense companies have been involved in training Azeri special forces, constructing security systems for the country’s airports, and upgrading Soviet-era military equipment.[41] In 2011, Israel began supplying the Azeri military with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and satellite systems to monitor the border. In 2012, $1.6 billion worth of weapons had been sold to Azerbaijan by Israel Aerospace Industries.[42] Such actions against Iran worry the regime not only because of a heightened Israeli presence on their borders, but also because Azeris make up the largest minority group inside Iran. These developments could exacerbate longstanding tensions the regime suppressed for decades. The two states are playing a remarkably risky game, but it is through these common objectives that their relationship remains sturdy in the face of regional disapproval.

C. Comparing the Two

Having examined two separate case studies illustrating unconventional covert alliances, I now compare them in relation to Iran-Israel relations from 1948-1989. 

First, I focus on the secret aspect of these relationships. The logic behind the covert nature of the Israeli-Saudi and Israel-Iran relationships both stem from the outward hostility these countries possess with one another on the world stage. Some claim this enmity is primarily due to conflicting ideologies, but I find this argument weak. It is true Israel, being a Jewish state, differs from the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia’s Islamic anatomy, but this is not the primary driver or repellent of relations between the states. If this were the case, then Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan, also a Muslim state, would be just as unlikely. What is in fact similar between these cases is that they all prefer cooperation to stay out of the public eye. This might seem odd when weighing the costs and benefits of having a strong public alliance, versus a fragile secretive relationship, but in the greater context of the Middle East and its ever-shifting loyalties, a hesitancy towards commitment is less surprising. 

The modern Israel-Azerbaijan relationship is also reminiscent of the Iran-Israel relationship from 1948-1978. Both depended on containing the threat of an aggressive neighbor and both were kept secret due to domestic and international backlash. What makes the Israeli-Saudi case different is that the Kingdom largely shares with Iran a similar outward vilification of the Jewish State unlike Azerbaijan, who maintains a relatively civil exterior. As a bonus, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan both view Israel as being highly influential in Washington. In their eyes, a good relationship with Israel means more clout with the Americans— another conception shared by the late Shah.  

In the 1990s, the idea was that an Israel – Turkey – Georgia – Azerbaijan axis could constrain a developing Syria – Iran – Armenia – Russia axis.[43] If you compare this to Ben-Gurion’s periphery doctrine in the 1950s, which envisioned an Israel – Iran – Ethiopia alliance as a counterweight to the Arab threat, a similar geopolitical strategy remains. The difference now is that the regional balance of power has shifted, and the Iranian regime is no longer threatened by its Arab neighbors in the same way it was in the latter half of the twentieth century, meaning Israel has become less useful to its interests. Using this logic, one surmises a world with a recovered and strengthened Iraq and Afghanistan would push Iran closer to Israel once again, but this is mere speculation. 

The rhetoric utilized by Khomeini and similar zealous figures in Saudi Arabia against Israel seems to have little to no effect on their actual foreign policy. Instead, radical figures utilize these tactics in an attempt to mask cooperation they themselves preach as taboo to their domestic populations. Such a strategy has less to do with ideology, and more to do with realism and regime security.

Another question one might ask: what needs to happen for a secret relationship to evolve into an open relationship? Truthfully, the answer to this question depends on several factors: individual leadership, regional security, great power competition. However, publicizing a formerly secret relationship would require, above all, the states involved to solidify their priorities. If a state with a thriving economy and strong military were to publicize a previously covert alliance with a weaker, ideologically-opposed state, there would need to be a practical reason to do so. For example, Iran-Israel cooperation up until the end of the Shah’s reign illustrated a scenario where one party wanted to publicize relations (Israel) and another felt it was unnecessary (Iran). The reason cooperation continued even after Israel’s wishes to publicize the relationship were turned down by the Shah was because Israel needed Iran more than Iran needed Israel at the time. Today, we can see a similar pattern emerging between Israel and several Arab states, making an agreement like the Abraham Accords more attractive to old enemies.  

III. Conclusion

In this paper, I attempted to answer the question of why the Islamic Republic continued clandestine cooperation with Israel. My argument attributes the prolonging of cooperation to the Islamic Republic’s implementation of realist policy to address security threats arising from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran.

This conclusion came after exploring several competing explanations in existing literature for this covert relationship, largely split into theories around (1) international security, (2) domestic pressure, and (3) individual or ideological aspirations. Ultimately, the international security argument is the most convincing, but the literature does not consider the discrepancies in Khomeini’s rhetoric versus his ultimate policy. The second group does a good job at explaining the complex internal makeup of Iran and how such complexity can affect foreign policy decisions, but this group falls short due to an underestimation of Khomeini’s determination to uphold the regime at all costs. The final group emphasizes the role of the individual in a state’s foreign policy and compares the leadership styles of the Shah and Khomeini but fails to explain precisely why Khomeini would preserve the policies of the Shah, a figure who the Ayatollah vowed to be the foil of, as well as why an Iran-Israel entente did not resume after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. The puzzle can best be understood through an amalgamation of certain aspects drawn from the current literature and new evidence I present further along in the paper. 

After reviewing the literature, I argue the decision to continue clandestine cooperation with Israel after the Islamic Revolution was a choice of pragmatism over revolutionary ideology induced by security threats stemming from the ongoing Iran-Iraq War. In the end, regime security was more important than Tehran’s hatred for the West. I also explored the security threat triggered by the Iran-Iraq War and explained the role Cold War politics played in the regime’s ultimate decision to extend covert collaboration. Since the Islamic Republic adhered to a “neither East nor West” doctrine during the Cold War, Israel’s non-superpower status made it a more attractive option for a state who desperately needed a security partner at a time of war.

In the following section, I compared two separate case studies of states with unorthodox secret alliances: Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel and Azerbaijan. I chose these two specific cases because certain aspects of their relationships resembled those of Iran and Israel from 1948-1989. By drawing parallels between these states and their covert cooperation with Israel, one can see how common security objectives between states often subdue ideological differences, a logic that could be easily applied to the Islamic Republic during the Khomeini years. 

While I find this theory helpful in answering the puzzle at hand, there are several shortcomings that arise from it. One limitation is a lack of attention towards the influence of the United States and Soviet Union on Iran’s decision to continue, and later eliminate, ties with Israel during these years. Furthermore, this article focused on the Iran-Israel relationship from 1948-1989 because covert data from more recent years has not yet been made publicly accessible. Once new information becomes available, there will be more room to assess the relationship in light of Iran’s recent history and the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei. Additionally, it would be interesting to analyze the Iran-Israel relationship during Iran’s ‘reformist era’ under Rafsanjani and Khatami and compare it to the Khomeini years. 

Moving forward, I envision several different takeaways that could emerge from an understanding of this unique relationship. For one, we should learn to prioritize a state’s actions over divisive rhetoric offered at face value. This will reveal a new world of possibilities when it comes to dealing with seemingly diplomatically unreachable states. A modern-day example would be U.S.-Iran cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and counterinsurgency coordination against the threat of ISIS. Low-level security cooperation between Iran and other states threatened by ISIS bolstered an interim coalition driven by common security objectives, showcasing such cooperation is achievable, even in the most unsuspecting of times.             

Some important questions that remain are: will Iran and Israel return to a pragmatic alliance in the future? And what needs to happen for this to occur? In light of this analysis, it seems possible that an Iran-Israel entente will surface once again, especially if the United States continues its withdrawal from the region. An absence of the United States from the Middle East will surely be a shock to the system, but major regional powers such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran have already begun taking steps towards rapprochement. The Abraham Accords and recent diplomatic engagements between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia signal a new tide in Middle Eastern politics, and this newfound momentum holds the potential to bridge several deep regional chasms. Furthermore, I do not think a new Iranian regime is necessary for diplomatic progress to take place between Iran and Israel. The two states maintained a relationship for ten years under the leadership of Iran’s most radical leader to date — Ayatollah Khomeini — so arguments stating diplomatic advancement between the two countries is impossible under Iran’s current leadership seem overly simplistic. It is true both states are in different positions today than they were forty years ago, but the primary objectives of states in an anarchic world remain the same. To a large extent, I am optimistic about Israel and Iran’s potential to overcome the obstacles they face today — the uncertainty that taints the international system also assures its progression.

[1] George E. Gruen, “The United States, Israel, and the Middle East,” The American Jewish Yearbook, no. 81 (1981): 143.

[2] Sohrab Sobhani, The Pragmatic Entente: Israeli-Iranian Relations, 1948-1988 (New York: Praeger, 1989), 231.

[3] Ibid, 231.

[4] Len Scott, “Secret Intelligence, Covert Action and Clandestine Diplomacy, Intelligence and National Security,” Intelligence & National Security19, no. 2 (2004): 331.

[5] Ibid, 337.

[6] John Calabrese, Revolutionary Horizons: Regional Foreign Policy in Post-Khomeini Iran (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 51.

[7] Shahram Chubin, Iran’s National Security Policy: Intentions, Capabilities, and Impact (Washington, D.C: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), 60.

[8] R. K. Ramazani,  “Ideology and Pragmatism in Iran’s Foreign Policy,” Middle East Journal 58, no. 4 (2004): 555.

[9] R. K. Ramazani, “Iran and the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” Middle East Journal 32, no. 4 (1978): 414-415. 

[10] Ibid, 419.

[11] Ibid, 416.

[12] John Bulloch and Harvey Morris, The Gulf War: Its Origins, History, and Consequences (London: Methuen, 1989), 183.

[13] Ibid, 183.

[14] Behrouz Souresrafil, Khomeini and Israel, 2nd ed. (England: I Researchers Inc., 1989), 72.

[15] Ibid, 2.

[16] Ibid, 91.

[17] Ibid, 113.

[18] Trita Parsi,  Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 29.

[19] Parsi, Treacherous Alliance, 39.

[20] Helmut Richards,  “America’s Shah Shahanshah’s Iran,” MERIP Reports, no. 40 (1975): 7.

[21] Ibid, 7.

[22] Sobhani, The Pragmatic Entente, 171.

[23] Stephen M. Walt,  The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 183.

[24] Souresrafil, Khomeini and Israel, 57.

[25] Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and Jane Haapiseva-Hunter, The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1987).

[26] Seymour M. Hersch, “The Iran Pipeline: A Hidden Chapter/A Special Report.; U.S. Said to Have Allowed Israel to Sell Arms to Iran,” The New York Times, December 8, 1991.

[27] Bulloch and Morris, The Gulf War.

[28] Parsi, “The Iran-Israel Cold War.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Parsi, Treacherous Alliance, 127.

[32] Mansour Farhang, “The Iran-Iraq War: The Feud, the Tragedy, the Spoils,” World Policy Journal 2, no. 4 (1985): 672.

[34] Mohammed E. Ahrari,  “Iran and the Superpowers in the Gulf,” SAIS Review 7, no. 1 (1987): 161.

[35] Uzi Rabi and Chelsi Mueller, “The Gulf Arab States and Israel Since 1967: from ‘No Negotiation’ to Tacit Cooperation,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 44, no. 4 (2017): 581.

[36] Omar Rahman, “The Emergence of GCC-Israel Relations in a Changing Middle East,” Brookings, July 28, 2021. 

[37] Eli Lake, “The Dark Side of Israel’s Cold Peace with Saudi Arabia,” Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-06-03/israel-s-cold-peace-with-saudi- arabia-has-a-dark-side.

[38] Udi Dekel and Yoel Guzansky, “Israel and Saudi Arabia: Is the Enemy of My Enemy My Friend?,” The Institute for National Security Studies, 2013.

[39] Ismayilov Elnur,  “Israel and Azerbaijan: The Evolution of a Strategic Partnership,” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs 7, no. 1 (2013): 71.

[40] Gallia Lindenstrauss, “Israel-Azerbaijan: Despite the Constraints, a Special Relationship,” The Institute for National Security Studies, January 2015.

[41] Ibid, 70.

[42] Ibid, 70.

[43] Lindenstrauss, “Israel-Azerbaijan,” 76.


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