Tensions between Iran and Israel are heating up, and time to find a peaceful solution seems to be running out. The past foreshadows a future answer to this conflict.
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It was the worst face-off to date between Israel and Iran. Israel fired dozens of missiles at what it said were Iranian positions in Syria early on May 10—hours after Israeli forces in the Golan Heights were allegedly targeted by Iranian rockets.
What ensued the next day was a war of words. Israel’s defense minister Avigdor Lieberman called on Syria’s President Bashar Assad to rid his country of Iranian forces—warning their presence will only cause more trouble to the already war-ravaged country.
Mr. Lieberman’s comments were followed by threats from an Iranian cleric that Tel Aviv or Haifa would be in danger if Israel did “anything foolish.”
Speaking at the Herzliya Conference, an annual security gathering north of Tel Aviv, Mr. Lieberman warned that Israel would respond fiercely to any further Iranian actions. “We will not let Iran turn Syria into a forward base against Israel,” he said. “If we get rain, they’ll get a flood. I hope that we ended this chapter and that everyone understood.”
In a statement issued as Israel’s security cabinet met, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the strike sent a “clear message” that “whoever attacks us—we will attack them sevenfold and whoever prepares to attack us—we will act against them first.”
Iranian state television announced the Israeli strikes, sourcing the information to Syria’s state-run SANA news agency, and described the Israeli attack as “unprecedented.”
With each inflammatory comment and threat of military response, both sides become more committed to the exchange. Iran cannot back down, or it risks no longer being taken seriously in the region. And Israel cannot relent, or it may be seen as a sign of weakness, which would encourage more acts of aggression from neighboring nations.
As both countries continue at each other’s throats, concerns exist that Syria could be the ground for a showdown. Already, a shadow war is essentially being fought there and tension has been building. An airstrike on a military base in Syria in April, which Iran and Russia blamed on Israel, killed seven Iranians. In February, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that entered its airspace, triggering a clash in which an Israeli warplane crashed after being struck by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
If such encounters continue, the region could face one of its worst cross-border conflicts in decades, one that could potentially drag in the United States, a major ally of Israel, and Russia, which is Syria’s mightiest ally. Although Iran may not be a match for Israel’s military power, it has a variety of allies and ways to hit back if cornered by the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival.
Iran’s supporters in the region include Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a range of Shiite militias in Iraq that have close ties to the political leadership.
The Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen’s civil war are also backed by Iran. The Houthis are fighting Saudi-backed government security forces, and the war, now in its fourth year, is practically a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of providing the missiles that Yemeni rebels fired toward the Saudi capital.
Notch by notch, the two sides escalate, and a positive outcome—for any involved—drifts farther from view.
A trio of provocative circumstances have exacerbated Iran-Israel relations. Each is its own spark in the Middle East tinderbox: Iranian involvement in Syria’s civil war, the U.S. backing out of the Iran nuclear deal, and the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem.
First is Syria. Iran has sent massive military help to its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, to protect his rule from an armed rebellion during that country’s seven-year civil war. With the war winding down in favor of President Assad, Israel—which saw him as the lesser of two evils compared to Islamic hard-liners among the rebels—is now finding that his victory has brought Iran closer to its borders.
Israel sees Iran’s military presence and Iranian-backed militias in Syria as a threat to its security. Israeli officials have said that 80,000 Shiite fighters in Syria are under Iranian control, including forces of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraqi and Afghan fighters.
Iran officials and allies have spoken of securing a corridor from Iran to Lebanon through Syria and Iraq. Israel fears that would allow Tehran to more easily transfer weapons to Hezbollah and reinforce the militant group’s influence over the region. It is believed Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes on weapons shipments in Syria during the civil war.
Second is the Iran nuclear deal. From the get-go, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a sharp critic of the agreement. On April 30, Mr. Netanyahu unveiled what he said was a half-ton of Iranian nuclear documents collected by Israeli intelligence, claiming it proved Iranian leaders covered up a nuclear weapons program before signing the deal with world powers in 2015.
Now, with President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, Mr. Netanyahu may be emboldened to pursue his confrontation with Iran.
Tehran, meanwhile, is under pressure from the U.S. and Western allies to negotiate a new deal, one that goes beyond restricting the nuclear program to curb Iran’s military power in the region. Iranian officials have rejected any new accord.
Tehran has not completely walked away from the nuclear deal since co-signing member nations of the European Union are still participating. But if it completely collapses and the U.S. imposes heavy new sanctions on Iran, prospects for major fallout with Israel are higher.
Third is the U.S. embassy move. Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani said Muslim nations should consider “revising” political and economic ties with the U.S. and called on the international community to cut ties with Israel and boycott it through trade.
“If Israel faces a united front of Islamic nations, it will never be able to continue its crimes,” Mr. Rouhani said. He cited the example of the “new and young generation of Palestine who is aware of their rights and has no intention to withdraw or compromise.”
The potential collapse of the Iran nuclear deal may be the spark with the greatest possibility of bursting into full-blown conflagration. A top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has proposed the nation resumes its uranium enrichment in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
Ali Akbar Velayati was quoted by Tasnim News Agency as saying Iran is “capable to spin centrifuges for enrichment” to higher levels should it choose to do so.
Mr. Velayati said Iran should also accelerate production of nuclear propulsions and research on advanced centrifuges. He claimed this would not violate the nuclear deal, which put limits on Iran’s atomic program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions.
In the wake of President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the deal, several Iranian officials have indicated Tehran could resume its nuclear program.
According to the Times of Israel: “An Iranian nuclear energy official…repeated a warning from earlier this year that his country is able to create highly enriched uranium in ‘two to three days.’
“Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting that officials should be prepared for a possible resumption of nuclear activities, which were suspended under the nuclear deal…In March, Kamalvandi told the Iranian Arabic-language al-Alam TV network, ‘If we want to enrich uranium to the 20-percent level, we can do it in less than 48 hours.’
“Uranium enriched above the level of 20 percent is considered highly enriched and could theoretically be used in an atomic weapon, though most nuclear bombs contain uranium enriched to higher than 80%.”
Shortly after this news came out, remarks from a chief of Israel’s intelligence agency were released claiming Prime Minister Netanyahu had given an order in 2011 for the military to prepare to attack Iran within 15 days.
Tamir Pardo, who served as head of the Mossad from 2011 to 2016, told Israeli Keshet TV’s investigative show Uvda that the order was not given “for the sake of a drill,” according to excerpts of the interview released ahead of the broadcast.
“When he tells you to start the countdown process, you know that he isn’t playing games with you,” Mr. Pardo is quoted as saying. “These things have enormous significance.”
On May 30, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel “will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons. We will continue to act against its intentions to establish itself militarily in Syria beside us, not just opposite the Golan Heights, but any place in Syria.”
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who served as Mr. Netanyahu’s defense minister in 2011, has previously claimed Mr. Netanyahu sought to bomb Iran in 2010 and 2011, but was opposed by senior Israeli officials. Israel never did carry out a strike on Iran in 2011.
Israel and Iran must walk a fine line to avoid all-out war.
Israel wants to garner the Western world’s support before resorting to military action. But the nation likely cannot ignore the threat of an Iranian attack for too long.
On the other hand, Iran desperately wants to be a regional leader, a status it would secure with proven nuclear-weapon capabilities. To most quickly achieve this, it must avoid an attack from the West.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Yergin summarized what the standoff means for the region in his book The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World: “An Iran with nuclear weapons would change the balance of power in the Gulf. It would be in a position, to borrow a phrase that Franklin Roosevelt had used prior to World War II, to ‘overawe’ its neighbors. It could assert itself as the dominant regional power. Iran could directly threaten to use the weapons in the region—or actually use them—although the latter would likely trigger a massive and devastating response. But such weapons would also provide it with a license to project its power and influence with what it might regard as impunity throughout the region—both directly and through its proxies [such as the terrorist group Hezbollah].”
“The alarm among the other Gulf countries, as well as in Israel, about Iran’s objectives has been rising in direct proportion to Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons capability. They fear that Iran will become more and more aggressive in seeking to assert its dominion over the region and in trying to destabilize other regimes. As one Saudi put it, ‘They want to dominate the region, and they express it strongly and clearly.’”
Amid continuous brinkmanship and political posturing, one would think Israel and Iran have always been vehement enemies. Indeed, it is hard to imagine conditions that would allow Tehran and Jerusalem to enjoy favorable relations.
Yet, in utter contrast to today, Israelis and Iranians were consistent allies until 1979. During the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran had close relations with Israel starting in the 1950s, including diplomatic representations and direct flights. The two countries were the United States’ main allies in the region, and Iranian oil was shipped to Israel during the nation’s 1973 war.
The experience of a New York Times journalist years ago provides an example of how much Iran’s attitudes toward Israel have changed: “As an American Jew visiting Iran, I apparently made an irresistible target. ‘Zionist Israel,’ an Iranian official instructed me, was the root of all problems in the Middle East; a Western ‘colonial imposition’ on Muslim lands that must be reversed. ‘It’s Iran’s own fault,’ I replied. ‘If Cyrus the Great hadn’t freed the Jews from Persian slavery 2,500 years ago and told them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple, there wouldn’t be an Israel.’ The official chuckled and changed the subject.”
The article continued: “Before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, ancient cultural bonds and common strategic interests between Persians and Jews made Iran and Israel close allies…Iranian diplomats in Europe saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust and…Iran served as an escape route for Iraqi Jews fleeing to Israel after the 1948 war for Israeli independence. In fact, Iran was one of the first Muslim countries to establish diplomatic and trade relations with the state of Israel. Common Sunni Arab enemies made Persians and Jews close friends for the next three decades.”
The example that shines above all others in regard to favorable relations between Iran (Persia) and Israel is the reign of King Cyrus over the Persian (or Achaemenid) Empire. Far from an ancient tyrant, historians regard him as a “man of peace,” and also a “strong and righteous ruler.”
Cyrus was able to bring together subjects of diverse cultures. According to Encyclopaedia Iranica, “The Achaemenids’ role in universal history lies in their fashioning a model for centralized rule over various peoples…to the advantage and profit of all and their achievement of a unified Iranian nation for the first time.”
In the book Ancient Persian Warfare, author Phyllis G. Jestice states, “Those he conquered, he treated well…so they would not think they had to fight to the death against him.”
The ruler is highly esteemed in Iranian culture. The Iran Chamber Society describes him as “upright, a great leader of men, generous and benevolent.”
King Cyrus even has a favorable report recorded in the Bible’s Old Testament: “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia…he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth has the Lord God of heaven given me; and He has charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all His people? The Lord his God be with him, and let him go up” (II Chron. 36:22-23).
Under the rule of Cyrus, the Jews who were forcibly enslaved during the Babylonian Empire were allowed to return to the Holy Land. Encyclopaedia Iranica states, “In the Hebrew tradition embodied in 2 Chronicles 36:23 and Ezra 1:1-2 Cyrus is regarded with favor, and he has figured prominently in Jewish thought through the ages.”
Cyrus the Great is one positive subject that most Iranians and Israelis can agree on. Persian descendants consider him an exceptional leader. And the Jews have him to thank for allowing them to return to Jerusalem—and helping to fund the building of the Second Temple.
Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote in the Antiquities of the Jews that Cyrus would “write to the rulers and governors that were in the neighborhood of their country of Judea, that they should contribute to them gold and silver for the building of the temple, and besides that, beasts for their sacrifices.”
Yet the historical record of King Cyrus does more than merely reveal an antiquated example of good Israel-Iran relations. It also typifies the only permanent solution for the Middle East.
The kingdom of Cyrus stretched from the western edge of modern-day India all the way to Turkey. He was “upright,” a “law-giver,” and a just ruler of the Persians, Assyrians, Jews and Babylonians.
Notice how the king was portrayed in the Old Testament book of Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him…” (45:1).
Read the passage again. The God of the Bible calls Cyrus His “anointed.” The Hebrew term for this word is mashiyach. The other times this word is used, it refers a high priest or a king over Israel or Judah.
Beyond Cyrus, this term also applies to one additional Being: the Messiah. Thus, this ancient Persian king’s reign can be seen as a forerunner of the ultimate climactic fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy.
Notice the descriptions of Cyrus throughout the Old Testament:
• The king was named God’s “shepherd” (Isa. 44:28).
• He was charged to build a house for God (II Chron. 36:23).
• “All the kingdoms of the earth” were given to him (vs. 23).
Despite these physical parallels to the returning Jesus Christ—who is also known as a Shepherd (John 10:11)—a Builder (Heb. 11:10)—and King over all nations (Rev. 17:14)—the importance of what King Cyrus’ reign signified is hidden from almost all of mankind.
In his booklet What Is the Kingdom of God? David C. Pack describes the future fulfillment of what Cyrus’ kingdom and government exemplified: “Like a newscaster far ahead of his time, Christ came to make an announcement about a complete change in the way the world would one day be governed. With this change would come unprecedented world peace, happiness, harmony, universal health and prosperity.
“Everywhere He went, Christ spoke about the kingdom of God. It was the subject of most of His parables. When He commissioned His twelve apostles and sent them to preach, the instruction was to preach about the kingdom of God (Luke 9:1-2). When He later sent out His seventy disciples (Luke 10:1), He also commanded them to preach the kingdom of God (vs. 9). Paul preached this same ‘kingdom of God’ message everywhere he went (Acts 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). The terms kingdom and kingdom of God are found scores of times throughout the New Testament. Yet, it is absolutely astonishing how nearly everyone has lost the knowledge and true meaning of what this kingdom is!”
The definitions of the English words “gospel” and “kingdom,” however, clearly explain what Christ meant. Gospel simply means “good news”—and a kingdom is a form of government.
Mr. Pack continued: “In other words, Christ preached ‘the good news of the government of God.’ The coming of world peace, happiness, health and abundance will certainly be good news for a mankind that has not known it for 6,000 years.
“Christ’s disciples asked Him what the sign of His Coming and the end of the age would be (Matt. 24:3). He warned the disciples of deception from many who would come ‘in His Name,’ saying, ‘Christ was Christ’ (vs. 5). He meant that they would put an emphasis on the person of Christ instead of the message He brought. But, He also prophesied that ‘this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come’ (vs. 14).”
Yet the verse concludes stating “the end is not yet.” The chapter continues describing that world conditions will grow even worse: “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…” (vs. 7).
Ultimately, verse 22 states that “except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved [alive]…”
In other words, without God’s intervention, mankind will push itself to annihilation!
Unlike the temporary reign of Cyrus, the coming Kingdom of God will bring lasting peace and prosperity throughout the world.
At that time, God “shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4).
Only then will Iran and Israel finally—and forever—be able to return to the friendly relations they once enjoyed.
This article contains information from The Associated Press.