Israel and Iran are at daggers drawn, as Iran's missile-rattling last week testifies. But it was not always thus, declares Claire M. Lopez, an intelligence specialist, in this succinct analysis for the Middle East Times.
" Jews and Persians have, in fact, millennia of cordial relations between them; it is only in the past three decades that the relationship has turned deadly.
The historical presence of a small Jewish minority in Iran dates to the Babylonian captivity of biblical times: when Cyrus the Great freed the captive Jewish people, not all chose to return home.
At the 1948 formation of the State of Israel, there were some 100,000 Jews living in Iran — a factor that must have figured to some extent in the quick establishment of good relations with the shah by Israel's first national leadership.
Over the next quarter century, this Jewish community in Iran prospered as they played an important role in the economic and cultural life of the country. A good fit in economic and trade matters saw a steady exchange of Iranian oil in return for Israeli technical expertise in agricultural areas and high quality military hardware for the shah's rapidly modernizing armed forces. The development of Israel's nuclear weapons program, discreet but hardly a secret, aroused no evident concern in the shah's Iran.
Strains of anti-Semitism, historically an integral element of Islamic jihadi ideology in general, had begun to expand anew in the first part of the 20th century. As the Zionist movement developed from 19th century dreams into the reality of fulfillment with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, key figures such as Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, stoked latent Arab hatred of Jews as he joined forces with Adolf Hitler's Nazi war machine.
But when Holocaust survivors actually succeeded in re-constituting the Jewish homeland, in one fell swoop, Jews achieved the impossible: they cast off their dhimmi status and established a modern nation state on land Muslims considered sacred (the waqf).
And while Iran's deeply conservative Shiite clergy did not automatically share the Arab world's resentment against the upstart Jewish nation, their own seething hostility toward the rule of the Pahlavi Dynasty, at once secular and repressive, had turned outward against the shah's friends and allies long before the 1979 revolution.
The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was among a minority of Iran's deeply traditional Shiite marjas who absorbed and nurtured the virulent anti-Semitic motifs that eddied up from early Koranic references, certain German political philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, and the full-fledged poison of Nazi ideology.
Khomeini's mentor, the Ayatollah Abol-Shassem Kahsani, an intensely anti-Semitic cleric himself, also played a defining role.
Of course, it's not just anti-Semitism that fuels today's enmity between Iran and Israel. Largely a creation of European Jews whose long centuries of exile steeped them in the thinking and values of Western civilization, today's State of Israel is also an outpost of modern, secular, democratic, civil society — which, of course, makes it anathema to the tradition-bound mores of an Islamic society hearkening back to the seventh century.
So it was that when Khomeini took power in his 1979 coup d'etat, tens of thousands of Iran's Jews fled to Israel, Israel's key world ally (the United States) became the Great Satan, and relations between the two countries took a nosedive.
Today, Iran's theocracy is seized with a millennialist fervor that harnesses the bitter resentments of its IRGC Iraq war survivors to spearhead its 21st century geo-strategic ambitions. The theological inspiration draws from belief in the return of the Disappeared 12th Imam (or Mahdi), who is expected to return to earth in time of great chaos and strife to usher in the Day of Judgment and preside over 1,000 years of peace and justice. The Shahab-3 missiles project the more earthly ambitions of a would-be nuclear power.
The lines are drawn; Iran and Israel are at swords' points. The implications for the United States and the world are incalculable. What is not known is what are Israel's ultimate red lines, what is the final tipping point that could spell the difference between militaristic posturing and war. Jews and Persians have never fought a war. They needn't now if tolerance and reason can somehow triumph over blind faith in thrall to seventh century zeal.