Khomeini’s Iran: Israel’s Ally
“How can we tolerate the disgrace of having our Islamic country turned into a base for Israel and Zionism?. . . Israel wants to take our economy in its clutches. Israel wants to destroy our trade and agriculture. Israel wants to destroy that which stands between them and domination. This buffer is formed by the ulama who have to be broken. . . In this way Israel gets what it wants, and in this way the government of Iran threatens us with contempt to achieve its base wishes.” -Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Qum, June 1963
After the Shiite fundamentalist movement led by Ayatollah Khomeini seized political power in Iran, many observers predicted the end of the close political-military relationship between the shah’s Iran and Israel, and the beginning of a realignment of Iran toward nationalist Arab states and movements including the Palestine Liberation Organization. Within two years, however, both predictions proved wrong.
Soon after the overthrow of the shah, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat went to Tehran, where Khomeini and a group of Iranian religious and secular leaders expressed their support for the struggle of the Palestinian people against Israel. The newly established Islamic regime closed down the Israeli Embassy there and offered the building to the PLO as its new office in Tehran. After the American Embassy was seized by a mob, Yasser Arafat journeyed again to Tehran to plead for the release of the U.S. staff. Had Khomeini allowed the PLO leader to conduct the Americans safely out of Iran, it could have reversed years of negative imagery of the Palestinians in the United States. Khomeini, however, had plans of his own to hold the Americans for arms if possible, and for the release of Iranian funds frozen in U.S. banks.
After their spectacular beginning, relations between the Khomeini regime and the PLO quickly deteriorated. Iranian officials made clear that documents recovered from the Israeli Embassy would not be handed over to the PLO along with the building. The Iranians said the documents belonged to the state of Iran and could not be turned over to a foreign government or organization. (Iranian opposition newspapers claimed, however, that the documents revealed that influential members of the Iranian clergy had received regular payments from the shah’s secret police.) Soon after this incident, the PLO office in Ahwaz, in southwestern Iran, was closed down and accused by the Iranian government of spying and interfering in the internal affairs of the country.
No country has helped Iranian terrorism and subversion more than Israel, which emerged after the 1979 departure of the shah as one of Iran’s closest and most reliable allies.
The increasing tension between the Khomeini regime and the PLO was a byproduct of the Iranian government’s attempts to penetrate and subsequently take over the Palestinian national movement. The Iranian strategy was first to create an Islamic fundamentalist faction within the PLO, then use this faction to replace the PLO’s predominantly secular nationalist leadership with a new pro-Iranian fundamentalist leadership. As the PLO leadership increasingly resisted Iran’s fundamentalist penetration, the Islamic regime moved away from the PLO, attacking it in the state-controlled media as a group comprised of “those who refuse to admit that the Palestinian cause is an inseparable component of an Islamic movement.”
The final breakdown of the relationship between Iran and the PLO corresponded with the outbreak of war with Iraq and the sudden desperate need of the Khomeini regime to find allies willing to help in Iran’s war efforts. The Iranian military found itself unable to carry out successful counteroffensives against Iraq due to a lack of spare parts and armaments. As a result, Iranian national morale showed signs of cracking.
The Beginnings of the Israeli-Iranian Secret Alliance
It was at this critical juncture that Israel and Iran began to restore their historic secret alliance. The origin of the Israeli-Iranian relationship dates back to the 1950s, when emerging radical Arab nationalist movements and governments caused much anxiety both in Tel Aviv and Tehran. Although Iran had recognized Israel in 1950, relations between the two countries at first remained distant.
The unification of Egypt and Syria in 1958 seemed to be transforming Arab nationalism into a dynamic political and ideological force. Israel and Iran, both of which greatly feared Arab unity, saw these first tangible steps toward it as a major threat. By the early 1960s, therefore, the Israeli-Iranian relationship had evolved to include trade as well as military intelligence cooperation and coordination. David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Abba Eban, Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin, and many lesser Israeli leaders visited Iran and discussed the common interests between the two countries with the shah.
When it became clear that Iraq could not win, continuation of the Iran-Iraq war was considered beneficial for Israel because it divided the Arab states into two antagonistic camps.
Petroleum was the major Iranian export to Israel, and military equipment the principal Israeli export to Iran. By 1968, according to Edward A. Bayne (Persian Kingship in Transition), “virtually every general officer in the shah’s army had visited Israel, and hundreds of Iranian junior officers had undergone some aspect of Israeli training.” In contrast to the assertion made repeatedly in the popular media, therefore, Israel’s close contacts with the Iranian military did not begin in the early 1980s but were a continuation, with only a brief interruption, of the relationship going back to the early 1960s.
Israel Penetrates Iran During Shah’s Reign
Between 1962 and the shah’s downfall in 1979, Israel’s military intelligence established close contacts with many of the Iranian officers being trained by the Israeli military. Israel also expanded its intelligence network in Iran by using members of Iran’s large Jewish community. William H. Sullivan, the last U.S. ambassador to Iran, noted that “the Israelis enjoyed an information network that was second to none, thanks to the large colony of 80,000 Jews who penetrated into almost every aspect of Iranian life.”
One of the most prominent of these Iranian Jews with special contacts with the Israelis was Albert Hakim, who has subsequently figured so prominently in the Israeli-brokered sales of U.S. arms for American hostages. Hakim’s company, Stanford Technology, dealt in sophisticated electronics and had extensive business dealings with the shah’s military.
Besides its strong links with the Iranian military and the Jewish community in Iran, Israel also enjoyed a very close relationship with the shah’s notorious secret police, Savak. The popular belief in Iran was that Savak agents were trained by the Mossad and the CIA. Richard T. Sale reported in the Washington Post on May 9, 1977, that “Innumerable Iranians, including many in a position to know, told me that the Israelis oversee Savak’s techniques.”
Throughout the shah’s reign, Israel also recruited Savak agents to work with Israel’s external intelligence service, the Mossad. One Savak agent recruited by the Israelis was Manucher Ghorbanifar, who later emerged both as a key player in the Iran-contra secret operations and as the originator of false reports of armed Libyan “hit squads” headed for Washington that had the U.S. national capital tied in knots throughout much of 1981.
By arming Iran to the extent that it was able to turn the tide of the war against Iraq, Israel raised the prestige of the Khomeini regime and fueled Islamic fundamentalist sentiments in the Arab world.
After the fall of the shah, Ghorbanifar and other such former Savak agents proved to be extremely useful to Israel because they continued to maintain their contracts with the Israelis while working for the Khomeini regime. Their central role in the Iranian-Israeli (and U.S.) relationship was made possible by Khomeini’s decision to leave the shah’s secret police untouched. Beyond executing three former chiefs of Savak and changing the name of the remaining organization to Savama, the Khomeini regime did little to alter its functions. Many of its agents were called back and assigned the same duties by the Khomeini regime that they had performed for the shah.
Double Agents Sell Iran Israeli, U.S. Arms for Its War With Iraq
After 1980, with the Iranian military desperately short of spare parts for its war with Iraq, Ghorbanifar and other former Savak agents were assigned to find badly needed armaments. Ghorbanifar’s principal Israeli contact was Gen. Yaacov Nimrodi, a former Israeli military attache in Tehran who had become a successful arms merchant. Nimrodi, while he was head of the Mossad station in Iran, had been the Israeli official closest to the shah and to the former chief of Savak, Gen. Nassiri.
As early as Nov. 30, 1980, the London Observer reported that Nimrodi had sold the Khomeini regime advanced U.S. military hardware including “Lance missiles and the latest laser-guided Copperhead anti-tank shells.”
Nimrodi subsequently played a role in organizing the mysterious shipments of U.S. arms from Israel to Iran which were exposed when, in July 1981, one of the three planes carrying them crashed on the Turkish-Soviet border. Israeli officials said the three shipments had been authorized by the Reagan administration shortly after the hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran were released on President Reagan’s inauguration day.
In his memoirs published in 1983, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, said the U.S. government had become aware of Israeli shipments of U.S.-made armaments to the Khomeini regime in 1980. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon himself admitted in May 1982 that Israel was selling military equipment to the Khomeini government. Five months later, the then-Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Moshe Arens, stated that Israeli shipments of arms to Iran were “taking place in coordination with the highest level of the U.S. government.”
Ghorbanifar’s role as a double agent working for both the Israeli Mossad and Khomeini’s secret police assumed greater significance when the Israelis decided to involve the U.S. directly so that Israel could continue shipping arms to Iran at a time when the U.S. was urging its NATO allies to avoid such sales. After David Kimche, director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and former deputy chief of Mossad, suckered—to use Secretary of State George Shultz’s term—the Reagan administration into selling arms to Iran, Ghorbanifar and others enticed Col. Oliver North and other American negotiators to remain involved by suggesting diversion of the profits to the Contras.
From the very beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, the Jerusalem Post reported on Dec. 6, 1986, the entire Israeli intelligence community “supported the policy of backing Iran because Iraq has taken part in every war against Israel and is an integral component of the Eastern Front, whereas Khomeini’s fundamentalism is first and foremost a threat to the Arabs themselves.”
Israel Gains Economically and Politically From Iran-Iraq War
When it became clear that Iraq could not win, continuation of the Iran-Iraq war was considered beneficial for Israel because it divided the Arab states into two antagonistic camps, with Syria and Libya supporting Iran, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan backing Iraq. The increasing instability caused by the war permitted Israel to pose as the only internally stable country and the only reliable U.S. ally in the region. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Iranian arms tie enabled Israel to renew the relationship which has always been central to Israeli strategic objectives in the region.
Israel’s faltering arms industry has profited immensely from the Iran-Iraq war. Despite assertions by Israeli officials, Israel’s sales were not mainly of munitions for Israeli-made systems that had formerly been sold to the shah, but included Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, TOW anti-tank missiles, and aircraft spare parts. In this case, as in the past, Israel’s export-geared arms industry was a primary consideration in political decision-making.
A U.S. Department of State special report, entitled “Iran’s Use of International Terrorism,” asserts that “major goals of Iranian-backed terrorism and subversion include spreading its Shiite fundamentalist revolution to other Islamic states, creating a copy of an Iranian Islamic Republic in Lebanon, and driving Western influence-esspecially that of the U.S.-from the Middle East.”
It would have been only fair for the State Department to add that no country has helped Iranian terrorism and subversion more than Israel. By helping to arm Iran to the extent that it was able to turn the tide of the war against Iraq, Israel raised the prestige of the Khomeini regime in the region and fueled Islamic fundamentalist sentiments in the Arab world, particularly among the Lebanese Shiites who are now the principal source of terrorism directed against Americans in the Middle East.
Ever since the public disclosure of the Iran-contra connection, the Israelis have continued to supply the Khomeini regime with armaments made in the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China. The Danish Seaman’s Union reported that between September 1986 and March 1987, Israel constituted the major exporter of military supplies to Iran.
Iranian opposition groups now cite Israeli press reports to demonstrate that Israeli cooperation with the Khomeini regime increasingly resembles cooperation with the shah’s Iran. These groups say Israel has been training Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who are charged not only with internal suppression of the Iranian people and continuation of the war with Iraq, but also with the training of Hezbollah members in Lebanon. They are the same “Party of God” terrorists who are holding Americans and other foreigners for ransom, and who have undermined American influence in what once was the most pro-American country in the Middle East.
Originally published in April 1988, being reproduced here.
Bahram Alavi is the pseudonym of an Iranian-born instructor at a major U.S. university who wishes his identity withheld to protect his family. He published a detailed analysis of the factions within the Khomeini regime which supported and opposed the Reagan administration’s arms-for-hostages negotiations in the January 1988 issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. His analysis of the opposition in Iran will be published in a forthcoming issue.
By Bahram Alavi
Source: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs