Reprinted from Consortium News
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to accuse Iran's Islamic State of seeking Israel's destruction -- and U.S. neocons talk openly about bombing Iran -- the history of Israel's cooperative dealings with Iran, including after the ouster of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, seems to have been forgotten.
Yet, this background is important when evaluating some of Iran's current political players and their attitudes regarding a possible deal with world powers to limit Iran's nuclear program to peaceful purposes only. In the United States and Israel -- for their own politically sensitive reasons -- much of this history remains "lost" or little known.
For instance, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's current Supreme Leader, was more the ideological purist in 1980, apparently opposing any unorthodox strategy involving Israeli and Republican emissaries that went behind President Jimmy Carter's back to gain promises of weapons from Israel and the future Reagan administration.
Khamenei appears to have favored a more straightforward arrangement with the Carter administration for settling the dispute over the 52 American hostages who were seized from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, by Iranian radicals.
However, other key political figures -- including Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mehdi Karoubi -- participated in the secret contacts with the Republicans and Israel to get the military supplies needed to fight the war with Iraq, which began in September 1980. They were later joined by Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.
In 1980, these internal Iranian differences played out against a dramatic backdrop. Iranian radicals still held the 52 hostages; President Carter had imposed an arms embargo while negotiating for the hostages' release; and he was struggling to fend off a strong campaign challenge from Republican Ronald Reagan.
Meanwhile, Israel's Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin was furious at Carter for pushing him into the Camp David peace deal with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that required Israel returning the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for normalized relations.
Begin also was upset at Carter's perceived failure to protect the Shah of Iran, who had been an Israeli strategic ally. Begin was worried, too, about the growing influence of Saddam Hussein's Iraq as it massed troops along the Iranian border.
At that time, Saudi Arabia was encouraging Sunni-ruled Iraq to attack Shiite-ruled Iran in a revival of the Sunni-Shiite conflict which dated back to the Seventh Century succession struggle after the death of the Prophet Mohammad. The Saudi prince-playboys were worried about the possible spread of the ascetic revolutionary movement pushed by Iran's new ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini.
Determined to help Iran counter Iraq -- and hopeful about rebuilding at least covert ties to Tehran -- Begin's government cleared the first small shipments of U.S. military supplies to Iran in spring 1980, including 300 tires for Iran's U.S.-manufactured jet fighters. Soon, Carter learned about the covert shipments and lodged an angry complaint.
"There had been a rather tense discussion between President Carter and Prime Minister Begin in the spring of 1980 in which the President made clear that the Israelis had to stop that, and that we knew that they were doing it, and that we would not allow it to continue, at least not allow it to continue privately and without the knowledge of the American people," Carter's press secretary Jody Powell told me in an interview for a PBS documentary.
"And it stopped," Powell said -- at least, it stopped temporarily.
Questioned by congressional investigators a dozen years later, Carter said he felt that by April 1980, "Israel cast their lot with Reagan," according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files of a congressional investigation conducted in 1992. Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his possible reelection in 1980 to a "lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs."
Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski also recognized the Israeli hostility. Brzezinski said the Carter White House was well aware that the Begin government had "an obvious preference for a Reagan victory."