By David K. Shipler
History is a fickle thing, and given Israel’s intransigence toward Iran today, and toward the nuclear deal just negotiated, it’s worth remembering how differently the two countries’ interests lined up thirty-five years ago, even after Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979.
In the early 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, Israel’s then Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, invited me down to his ranch for a chat. He had a specific purpose, which emerged during our long conversation on a range of subjects. The point he pressed most urgently was the need for the United States to repair its relations with Iran. The country was a major player in the region, he argued, not to be ignored by Washington in the aftermath of the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He believed the Americans should be reaching out to Tehran, cultivating a restoration of ties.
His view was self-serving, in that Iran was the chief counterweight to Iraq, Israel’s archenemy at the time. Egypt had signed a peace treaty with Israel, Jordan had a weak military. Syria and Israel were technically still at war but were observing a de facto peace along their common border on the Golan Heights.
But Iraq was a formidable military power in the region, and a threat. It had never endorsed the Arab-Israeli armistice of 1948, was helping finance the Palestine Liberation Organization, and had tried to go nuclear—an effort halted by Israel’s bombing in June 1981 of its nuclear reactor.
So Israeli officials quietly celebrated the grinding Iran-Iraq war as it went on year after year, reasoning that Iran would handicap and preoccupy Iraq and, in the longer term, serve as a balance against aggressive impulses in Baghdad. The enemy of Iraq was, well, if not a friend, at least a convenience. Indeed, Sharon publicly accused the US of arming Iraq with heavy weapons during the war.
Israel had had extensive, mostly clandestine relations with Iran under the Shah in the form of trade, construction contracts, and the like. Then, in the early years of the Khomeini regime, Israel quietly lobbied Washington to sell Iran military equipment, and secretly—without US approval—sent Iran 250 spare tires for US-built F-4 fighter jets in 1980. The Carter administration complained. Israel was also reported to have sold Iran tank ammunition and spare parts.
In 1985, however, officials in the Reagan administration enlisted Israel in the Iran-Contra scheme, an effort to get Iran to press groups in Lebanon to release American hostages in exchange for weaponry. Israel was authorized to transfer American-made TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran. The proceeds from the sale were used to evade a congressional cutoff of funds to the anti-communist Nicaraguan Contras. A key Israeli official involved in organizing the secret sale was David Kimche, a former Mossad official who was close to Sharon and had been involved in Iran in the days of the Shah.
But that was then. In the intervening decades, of course, Iran has grown more threatening to Israel by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and other radical movements in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere. It has cleverly moved in to fill vacuums where Arab regimes have collapsed or been weakened in Syria and Iraq, and now Yemen. And since the United States removed Iraq from the Arab order of battle, there’s no telling what Sharon would say now about the importance of Iran.
He had a higher opinion of himself as a canny geopolitical operator than he deserved. He led Israel into a disastrous war in Lebanon in 1982 by exaggerating his military capacity to remake Arab politics in a neighboring country. Still, his willingness in the early 1980s to see past hostile assumptions and to urge regard for Iran’s weight in the region makes for interesting speculation about how he would see Israel’s interests today.
He might be as hardline as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in denouncing the nuclear agreement and assessing Iran as an existential threat. Or, he might remember that reflective conversation at his ranch, when he urged the United States to remake its relationship with a country that will be a key to Israel’s security and well-being.