The Biden administration is reportedly making a major push for a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia by the end of the year, including the installation of a new State Department envoy to lead the effort. It would expand the Abraham Accords of 2020, a groundbreaking achievement that normalized relations between Israel and Arab powers, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and later Morocco and Sudan. Before that, the last similar agreements were reached in 1979 and 1994, with the peace treaties between Egypt and Israel and Jordan and Israel, respectively. But in the 1950s-1970s, the bilateral relationship between Israel and pre-revolutionary Iran provided a road map for the process leading to a normalization in ties between the Jewish state and Arab countries in the 2020s. This dynamic can be seen in the mutual interests, close high-level contact, and impressions of Israel’s standing in the United States — drivers that continue to this day in the desire to expand the circle of peace to include Saudi Arabia.
The periphery doctrine and mutual interests
In the absence of relations with its neighbors, Israel spearheaded the development of the periphery doctrine, whose origins can be traced to the 1950s, when Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion attempted to forge partnerships with non-Arab states — namely Turkey and Iran — to counteract the then hostile powers led by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. On March 6, 1950, the Iranian government even granted Israel de facto recognition, which was especially needed after the 1956 Suez Crisis. As a U.S. intelligence assessment noted, “Israel figured that it had much in common with these states, each of which nurtured its own set of grievances with neighboring Arab countries.”
Israel aspired to establish formal diplomatic relations with Iran, yet according to a declassified 1959 U.S. intelligence report, Tehran was hesitant to do so because it did not want to offend Arab countries or elements in Iran that would react adversely to overt moves. These sensitivities are reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s concerns over normalizing ties with Israel today, weighing its own unique equities given King Salman’s role as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the reaction from the broader Islamic world.
Both Israel and Iran eventually established missions with diplomatic privileges in their capitals and forged a robust economic and security partnership, which endured through the 1960s and 1970s. Ben-Gurion described the nature of the relationship as “friendly, informal, but not hidden, and based on mutual benefit.”
Fast forward to 2023, and, as other scholars like Yoel Guzansky have noted, a “reverse periphery doctrine” has taken shape in Israel’s foreign policy strategy. This was triggered by the rise of the Islamic Republic in 1979, which branded itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause in a similar way to Nasser’s Egypt. The shared threat perception of the Islamic Republic drove the Abraham Accords countries together much like Nasser’s Pan-Arabism did to Israel and Iran. This can be seen in a U.S. Special Memorandum published by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1968, which detailed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s “deep-seated fear of revolutionary Arab nationalism.” It noted, “most of Iran’s oil comes from the province of Khuzestan, which has a large Arab population, and which has long been claimed by Arab nationalist groups. The shah sees Nasser as the principal leader of these hostile forces and believes that control of the Persian Gulf is Nasser’s ultimate objective.” Nasser himself described the shah as “an agent of the United States” and went as far as to say that “we do not consider the shah as a Muslim as he is subjected to Zionist influence.”
In fact, both Nasser and later the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were perceived by world powers as engaging in behavior akin to Adolf Hitler. In a 1956 message from then U.K. Prime Minister Anthony Eden to U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, Eden fretted over “Nasser’s plans and intentions” regarding the Suez Canal and noted that “in the 1930s Hitler established his position by a series of carefully planned movements.” Likewise, Eden argued that “the seizure of the Suez Canal is, we are convinced, the opening gambit in a planned campaign by Nasser to expel all Western influence and interests from Arab countries.” U.S. officials such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles also likened Nasser to Hitler. Even Ben-Gurion himself underscored the parallels, calling Nasser a “Nazi tyrant.”
Jumping ahead to 2018, just a few years before the first Abraham Accords were signed, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was engaging in a similar comparison. He told The Atlantic that, “I believe the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good. Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. […] The supreme leader is trying to conquer the world.” In fact, roughly 60 years apart, the U.K. prime minister and Saudi crown prince both recalled that countries in Europe underestimated the danger of Hitler in their warnings about Nasser and later Khamenei. The crown prince went on to stress in other interviews that the kingdom does not regard Israel as an enemy, rather as a “potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together.” Thus, this shared geopolitical outlook that defined the early bilateral relationship between Israel and Iran echoed the underpinnings of the warming of ties between Israel and the Arab world decades later.
The shah of Iran and the Abraham Accords countries, including aspiring members, were all also attracted to Israel’s technical and security prowess. After an earthquake in Qazvin in 1962, the shah allowed Israeli water engineers to travel to Iran to advise on efforts to aid reconstruction and improve efficiency. This is redolent of the blossoming of agreements over water technology between Israel and the UAE years later. In December 2020, just two months after the inking of the Abraham Accords, an Israeli company, Watergen, signed a partnership with Al Dahra in the UAE to install fresh-water production equipment there. According to some estimates, around a half-dozen similar agreements followed. In an energy and water pact brokered and funded by the UAE in 2021, Israel and Jordan assented to the construction of a major solar power plant in the latter to generate electricity for the former, while a desalination plant would be built in Israel to send water to Jordan.
Just as Israel was reportedly poised to sell Iran Jericho-1 missiles and even cooperate in the joint-development of the Jericho-2 during the Pahlavi monarchy, the Jewish state in 2022 decided to supply the UAE with advanced air defense systems, like the Rafael-made SPYDER mobile interceptors, and agreed in 2021 to jointly design unmanned vessels to undertake anti-submarine warfare. Whereas in 1958, Israel even established a trilateral intelligence alliance with Iran and Turkey, named Trident, which entailed joint intelligence exchanges and counterintelligence operations, efforts continue to this day to establish a joint integrated air and missile defense architecture among U.S. partners in the Middle East, particularly among the Abraham Accords countries. This includes “rapid notification” of aerial threats. Israel and the UAE have also shared intelligence on Iran-backed Hezbollah’s cyberwarfare. Israel’s Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agencies have trained Bahraini intelligence officers, as Israel did with Iran’s security services before the Islamic Revolution.
And the shah of Iran was able to maintain these close ties with Israel while holding diplomatic relations with the Arab world, which remained hostile to the Jewish state, although Egypt severed ties in 1960 in protest over his affirmation of de facto recognition of Israel. The shah once told a Lebanese publication that there was “no contradiction” between Iran’s support for Arab countries and economic ties with Israel. Likewise, leaders of the Abraham Accords countries, namely the UAE, have been able to maintain full diplomatic relations with both Israel and the Islamic Republic. This is especially relevant after Saudi Arabia agreed to restore ties with Iran in March 2023 while at the same time continuing to eye a normalization deal with Israel.
The clandestine visits of Israeli prime ministers to both Iran and later countries like Saudi Arabia also resembled each other. Successive Israeli prime ministers personally visited Iran, beginning with Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion in 1961. In a conversation with then Iranian Prime Minister Ali Amini, he discussed the nature of the ties between the two countries as if it was an illicit love affair. Ben-Gurion reportedly said, “allow me to keep it a secret between us. Our relations are like a true love between people without their getting married. It’s preferable that way.” Later, in 1972, then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir also wanted to visit. In the diaries of Assadollah Alam, the shah’s minister of court, he recounts raising the request with the shah, who then replied, “we have nothing of importance to discuss with Israel, but if they’re really determined to see me, they must bear full responsibility for keeping our meeting a secret.” The meeting eventually took place on May 18, 1972, with the shah remarking to Alam about Meir, “that old woman has such stamina.” The diaries also note that the shah sought to encourage Meir to be softer toward Egypt with Nasser’s successor President Anwar Sadat, under whom he assessed there might be a chance to reduce Soviet influence. Following the meeting, Meir remarked to her defense minister, “what do you think about my affair with the shah? I think it’s too much of a good thing.”
And the surreptitious visits continued. On Dec. 7, 1974, Meir’s successor as prime minister Yitzhak Rabin also visited Iran. According to Alam’s memoirs, he reviewed the preparations and noted that he instructed “the guard how to transfer him [Rabin] to the Palace without arousing suspicion.” Alam bragged how he also selected a servant to attend the shah on the day of the meeting “of quite outstanding stupidity in the knowledge that he would be incapable of recognizing Rabin.” Later, in mid-July 1976, Rabin visited again. The visit was kept so secret that even Washington appeared out of the loop. In a memorandum to the U.S. secretary of state, the U.S. ambassador to Iran at the time, Richard Helms, complained that “the secrecy surrounding the visit can be judged by the fact that despite my best efforts at flycasting, I could elicit nothing from either the shah or Uri Lubrani, the unofficial Israeli ambassador.”
This covert history repeated itself in the leadup to the Abraham Accords of 2020 and in Israel’s ongoing flirtation with Saudi Arabia. In 2012 the UAE’s foreign minister reportedly met with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a New York hotel room, entering discreetly through an underground parking garage. Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth revealed that Netanyahu flew to the UAE for a secret meeting with then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2018. It was arranged by the then director of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, who also participated. According to another Israeli outlet, the prime minister made at least two visits there in the two years before the Abraham Accords were finalized. A similar tête-à-tête took place when Netanyahu journeyed to Saudi Arabia in November 2020. Not even Israel’s foreign and defense ministers knew about the trip. Riyadh denied the reports, which mirrored the sensitivity and precautions involved in such visits to Iran decades earlier under the shah.
Netanyahu later teased that, “I meet with many, many leaders in the Arab and Muslim world. Much more than you think. There’s much I still cannot tell you, but I believe it will come out eventually.” If the history of Iran under the Pahlavi monarchy and its hosting of Israeli prime ministers is any guide, Netanyahu is not exaggerating.
Israeli power in Washington
Another shared attribute that the periphery and reverse periphery relationships have relates to perceptions of Israeli influence in the United States. Both the shah and current Arab leaders who have normalized or are considering normalization with Israel have viewed such steps as force multipliers in enhancing their standing in Washington, particularly vis-à-vis the American Jewish community, whom they have viewed as influential.
A U.S. Central Intelligence Bulletin in 1959 previewed a trip by Israel’s then former ambassador to the United States, Abba Eban, to Iran, where he was described as poised to provide expert advice to Iran on how to gain more U.S. assistance after Iran’s envoy to Israel complained of lackluster American aid. A 1975 entry in the diary of Alam also speaks to the shah’s interest in using Israel to improve Iran’s image in the United States. He briefed the shah on a meeting he held with Lubrani, Israel’s then envoy to Iran, to discuss a press campaign, including a proposed schedule based on market research. Alam noted that, “Israel is willing to put all manner of information at our disposal and to introduce us to various leading experts on public relations. […] Lubrani stressed that we cannot expect them to work miracles, but that they will do whatever is humanly possible.” He then recalled an anecdote offered by Lubrani that President Lyndon Johnson “once asked the Israelis to persuade the U.S. press and its leading Jews to improve the popular perceptions of the Vietnam War.”
Years later, in 2022, after the Houthis in Yemen fired missiles and drones at the UAE, it enlisted Israel to lobby Washington to redesignate the Iran-armed group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) after it was delisted in 2021. While Washington still has not added the Houthis to the FTO list again, this shows that the Emirates views Israel as adding heft in advancing its interests in the United States in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords, much like the shah viewed the Jewish state in pre-revolutionary Iran. This mindset can also be seen in Saudi Arabia’s leadership using normalization with Israel as leverage to secure better security guarantees from the United States and its hosting of U.S. Jewish leaders in 2021 as a prelude to eventual establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel.
In the end, Ben-Gurion’s description of ties with Iran in the 1950s — “friendly, informal, but not hidden, and based on mutual benefit” — offered a template for Israel’s development of relations with Arab countries years later. Currently, Israel’s relationship with the Abraham Accords countries can be characterized as more advanced than they were under the shah of Iran, namely because what was more informal and partial then is formal and complete today with regional players like Bahrain and the UAE. However, its ties with Saudi Arabia are not as advanced as they were with Iran under the Pahlavi monarchy given the lack of any formal diplomatic missions in Israel and the kingdom. Nevertheless, there is a parallelism in the interests, processes, methods, and motives that have defined Israel’s bilateral relationships with regional powers. What was once covert became gradually more overt. Israel’s ties with pre-revolutionary Iran have offered a formula for the Abraham Accords and its expansion.
Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program. His research focuses on leadership dynamics in Iran, the IRGC, and Iran’s relationship with Israel.
This article is part of a series about Iran and Israel made possible by a grant from the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York and the Nazee & Joseph Moinian Foundation.
Photo: Iranian minister Reza Saffinia greets David Ben-Gurion on his arrival at a cocktail party given by the Iranian legation at the Y.M.C.A. building in Jerusalem, June 1950. Photo by Théodore Brauner, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
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