OpinionMiddle East

Iran takes a page from Israel’s playbook

All of the Islamic regime’s peripheral allies could be expected to launch attacks in response to a military strike by the Jewish state.

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower with Emperor Haile Selassie I in the White House in 1954. Credit: The Associated Press via Wikimedia Commons.
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower with Emperor Haile Selassie I in the White House in 1954. Credit: The Associated Press via Wikimedia Commons.
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

In the 1950s, Israel hoped to ally with the United States, but Secretary of State John Foster Dulles advised President Dwight Eisenhower against any formal agreement. Consequently, Israel began to look for other allies that might help encircle her enemies with a ring of friends. In late 1957 and 1958, Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion sent agents to three non-Arab countries—Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia—to explore possibilities for an alliance. As non-Arab states with long historical ties to the Jewish people and strategically important geographic locations, these nations were potentially valuable allies.

Israel could only expect to obtain the cooperation of the three pro-Western nations in its periphery alliance with the tacit support of the United States. Hence, Ben-Gurion wrote a memo to Eisenhower on July 24, 1958, in which he offered the proposal:

Our object is the creation of a group of countries, not necessarily a formal and public alliance, that will be able to stand up steadfastly against Soviet expansion through Nasser and might even be able to save the freedom of Lebanon and, perhaps, in the course of time, Syria too … we can carry out our mission … since … it is a vital necessity for us, as well as a source of perceptible strength to the West in this part of the world.

Ben-Gurion asked the president to provide political, financial and moral support and to convey to Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia that the United States backed the Israeli initiative.

The memo was neatly phrased to appeal to the primary concerns of Eisenhower and Dulles—that is, the threat of Soviet expansion rather than Israel’s conflict with the Arabs. Eisenhower’s initial reply came the day afterward: “I am deeply impressed by the breadth of your insight into the grave problems which the free world faces in the Middle East and elsewhere … you can be confident of the United States’ interest in the integrity and independence of Israel.” This equivocal response was accompanied by a promise that Dulles would respond in more detail. When Dulles did respond, he told Ben-Gurion that the United States supported the Israeli plan and encouraged him to establish the peripheral pact.

In 1950, Turkey and Iran became the first Muslim states to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. In 1958, Ben-Gurion and Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes met secretly to discuss a “peripheral pact” that included public-relations campaigns, exchange of intelligence information and military support. After the CIA-assisted coup in 1953, the Shah of Iran became closer to the West and believed that Israel’s influence in Washington could further enhance its position. Israel saw Iran as a critical counter to Iraq. Both benefited from economic (Iran became Israel’s principal oil supplier) and military cooperation. In 1958, the Mossad created a trilateral intelligence alliance (“Trident”) with Iran and Turkey.

In the case of Ethiopia, the nation is in the Horn of Africa and has a coastline along the Red Sea. The approach to Ethiopia was made after the Suez War, and the Gulf of Aqaba had been recognized as an international waterway. Hence, Israel saw Ethiopia’s port as a gateway to the rest of Africa. In addition, as a predominantly Christian nation, Ethiopia is, along with Israel, the only non-Muslim riparian state and, therefore, a deterrent to Arab efforts to make the Red Sea either an Arab or an Islamic lake. When Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran in 1956, it became clear to Israel’s leaders that having a friend on the Red Sea coast was necessary to avert future blockades. That waterway would become progressively more critical as the amount of Persian Gulf oil moving to Israel from its new friend in Iran increased.

By 1959, the trilateral alliance was informally in place. Israel believed that its non-Arab allies could force Israel’s enemies to devote resources to defending themselves and be less likely to initiate a new war. The theory did not hold up in practice as Israel was forced to fight again in 1967 and 1973.

The pact began to collapse with the Ethiopian civil war in Eritrea in 1964. Ethiopia subsequently became mired in internal and external fights that rendered it unable to contribute to Israel’s security. The fall of the Shah in 1979 was even worse as Iran shifted overnight from ally to enemy. Turkey continues to share similar interests with Israel, but under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country has become more Islamist (it hosts members of Hamas) and critical of Israel.

Israel has adopted a new version of the periphery policy to respond to the threat of Iranian hegemony. It has formed an informal alliance with its Abraham Accords partners Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Jordan and Egypt, to counter Iranian influence in the region. These predominately Sunni Arab states are cooperative because they no longer seek Israel’s destruction and are far more concerned with the threat to their security posed by Iran.

Iran learned from the Israeli strategy and has adopted a similar one by surrounding Israel with its allies. Without Iranian funds and arms, it is unlikely Hamas could have become a severe threat or carried out the Oct. 7 massacre. To keep Israeli forces occupied and decrease the possibility of a direct attack on its homeland, Iran created proxy forces in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, all of which are engaged in what should be a local war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Iran is now extending its tentacles into the West Bank to complete Israel’s encirclement, which has prompted the strong response of the IDF to neutralize Hamas terrorists there.

As others have speculated, the timing of Hamas’s attack was likely designed to sabotage normalization talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran is also trying to intimidate the Gulf states to abandon ties to the West and Israel. It has worked to some extent as Gulf leaders began to engage with the Iranians over the last year (the Saudis restored relations last March).

Iran has so far skillfully managed its proxies’ attacks so as not to provoke an escalation that might include the United States. Allied militias have attacked U.S. bases from Iraq and Syria, and ships from Yemen, and the Biden administration has used that as an excuse not to strike Iran. Tehran reportedly told its allies to scale down their attacks after the United States did respond against bases in Syria and Iraq after the killing of U.S. personnel; however, not all of their puppets have listened.

One of the operating theories about the behavior of Hezbollah is that Iran wants the terrorists to keep Israeli forces occupied in the north but does not want to give Israel an excuse (they already have justification to ensure that their citizens can safely return to their homes near the border) for an all-out war that might lead to Hezbollah’s forces being degraded, if not destroyed. Hezbollah’s estimated 150,000 missiles targeting Israel are viewed by Tehran as an insurance policy against an Israeli attack on Iran. All of Iran’s peripheral allies could be expected to launch attacks in response to an Israeli military strike. Still, Hamas may have undermined Tehran’s strategy by failing to hold its fire until it was needed, removing an important player in the encirclement plan. Now because of the U.S.-U.K. response, the Houthis are also unlikely to be much help, making Hezbollah’s survival even more important.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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