Iran calls Israel “The Little Satan.” Israel calls Iran “the greatest threat to [its] security”. It’s evident that Israel and Iran don’t exactly have warm relations. But, Iran was the second Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel in 1948. Under the Shah of Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution, the two countries did enjoy close and friendly ties, as the Shah tried to expand Iran’s influence in the region. However, after the first gulf war, Iranian-Israeli relations went downhill, even so that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme leader of Iran, called Israel a “cancerous tumor” in 2000. This shift happened due to a changing Iranian strategy in the Middle East, the defeat of Iraq during the first gulf war, and Israel’s wanting to make peace with is Arab neighbors.
The history between the Arabs and Persians (Iranians) goes back centuries, but there has always been a mutual suspicion between the two. Naturally, people of different ethnic groups are suspicious of one another, particularly if that suspicion is compounded by ignorance of the other’s culture and history. Given that Iran is situated in a majority Arab neighborhood, Iranian leaders have sought to maintain better ties and project Iranian influence in the Arab world. Shah Pahlavi of the Pahlavi dynasty tried to acquire Arab allies by adopting a pro-Western, and therefore pro-Israel stance in addition to Iranian nationalism. Furthermore, as both Iran and Israel were threatened by Arab nationalism and Soviet influence in the Middle East, they developed close ties. However, Iran failed to make any new friends in the Middle East. When the Shah was removed during the Islamic revolution of 1979, the new leaders sought, again, to project Iranian influence in the Arab world. Iran adopted a “pro-Arab” stance that yielded the state “few” Arab allies. So, Iran’s shift from being pro-Israel to pro-Arab is partly due to a change in leadership, and therefore a change in strategy.
An obstacle to Iranian influence in the Middle East was Iraq and Saddam Hussein, which is what partly drove Iran and Israel together. Saddam Hussein was a member of the Arab nationalist Ba’ath party and since the Ba’ath party was socialist, the Soviet Union wielded influence in the region. The good relations enjoyed by Iran and Israel were out of feeling threatened by Ba’athism and the Soviet Union’s influence. So, when Iraqi influence in the region was diminished due to its defeat in the First Gulf War, when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, only to be pushed out by an international coalition, both Iran and Israel saw an opportunity to make friends and wield influence in the Arab world. This competition was further intensified since the threat of Soviet influence had ceased, due to the Soviet Union’s collapse. As per two countries jockeying for influence in a region (i.e. the United States and Russia), Iranian and Israeli relations began to sour. If one has a competition for influence, the other person immediately become their enemy. This scenario is exactly what happened between Iran and Israel.
In addition, in the 1990s, as Israel tried to make peace with its Arab neighbors, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin adopted a more aggressive stance on Iran in order to suit his own interests. He believed that if he could convince the Israeli people and the Arab leaders of an Iranian threat, then they would be more open to peace and relations with Israel. This new Israeli shift came at the expense of their relations with Iran.
Iran and Israel weren’t always enemies, but fell victim to cynical power politics. Both countries are located in an unfriendly neighborhood, which brought them together in the 20th century. However, due to competing interests, it was easier to denounce the other as an enemy rather than a friend. With tensions rising due to Iran’s attempted proliferation of nuclear weapons and Israel’s policy of preemptive strikes, only time will tell if there will ever be a rapprochement between the two countries.