During the last decade of his life, Qassem Soleimani emerged from the shadows and was promoted as a noble and self-effacing warrior, an Iranian Napoleon who would recreate a new Persian empire — a Shia crescent from Mashad near Turkmenistan to the Mediterranean in Lebanon.
Soleimani’s story was that he was recognised as a military entrepreneur when he led Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s which cost the lives of a million people.
What is less well known is that Israel strongly supported Iran and supplied the ayatollahs’ regime with abundant arms in an attempt to prevent a victorious Saddam Hussein’s army — four times as big as the IDF — from turning its guns on Tel Aviv. It is perfectly possible that Soleimani and his successor, Esmail Ghani, fought with Israeli arms to resist the Iraqi aggressor.
All this was taking place as Iranian luminaries vowed to wipe “the little Satan” off the face of the earth and said that Israel was a poisonous weed, planted on holy Islamic soil.
Even before the outbreak of the war in September 1980, the son of Grand Ayatollah Kastani reportedly visited Israel to discuss arms sales in the midst of the American hostage crisis.
President Carter was furious with Menahem Begin’s government and the breaking of the arms embargo on sales to Iran. The export of US military spare parts to Israel was halted, but Tehran did permit the exodus of thousands of Iranian Jews at Begin’s insistence.
Israel’s attack on the Osirak nuclear facility in 1981 eliminated Saddam’s plans to develop a nuclear capability and thereby helped the Iranians in their conflict. Moreover, Ayatollah Khomeini crucially did not join an all-Arab front during Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Israelis and Iranians met quietly in Zurich and concluded an arms agreement, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Despite all the screaming headlines in the Iranian press, there was no mention of “the Iranian threat” in government circles in Israel.
Cargo ships, registered in Denmark and Liberia, were reported to be regularly transporting arms from Eilat to Bandar Abbas in Iran.
Israel’s backchannel to the Iranians was useful to the White House which wished to secure the release of Americans held by Hezbollah in Lebanon. US missiles were passed to Israel which in turn passed them on to Iran. However, only a few hostages secured their freedom.
The Iranian-American commentator, Trita Parsi, remarks in his book, Treacherous Alliance: “Not only had they shipped the wrong missiles, but the ones they had sent had the Star of David stamped on them”. The Iranians were not amused and the release of Americans stopped.
With the end of the war with Iraq and the death of Khomeini, President Rafsanjani wished to adopt a more pragmatic policy towards the West.
However the absence of a common enemy, the collapse of the USSR and Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait suggested that the unofficial alignment between Israel and Iran now no longer existed.
Tehran embarked on the development of long-range missiles and restarted the Shah’s nuclear energy programme.
Moreover, Iran was not invited to the Madrid peace conference in 1991, which was arranged to secure a rapprochement between the Arab world and Israel.
In response, Khomeini’s successor, Supreme Leader Khameini, initiated a conference of hardline Palestinian rejectionists, including Hamas, which had supported Saddam Hussein during the conflict with Iran. The Oslo Accord with Arafat’s PLO was subsequently regarded as treasonous by Tehran.
By 1995, Israelis believed that Iran was training Islamist suicide bombers in the black arts of killing civilians.
Tehran saw Israel’s sudden rapprochement with the Arab world after Oslo as a move away from the common cause of two non-Arab states in a hostile neighbourhood.
Hezbollah continued to be a problem for Israel. Its assassination of the Hezbollah leader, Abbas Mussawi, was viewed by many as the cause for the bombing of the community centre in Buenos Aires with the killing of 86 people and the injuring of hundreds.
Hezbollah continued to stockpile huge numbers of Iranian missiles — the firing of which effectively depopulated northern Israel during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
Israel’s approach towards the Gulf states began to evolve out of its periphery doctrine, first formulated in the 1950s, in which states on the edge of the Arab world such as Ethiopia and Turkey, as well as embattled minorities such as the Kurds and South Sudanese, would prove to be trustworthy allies.
British withdrawal east of Suez in the 1960s essentially forced independence on these states.
All were sandwiched in between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran with initially little possibility of forging their own destiny. They felt pressured to join the Saudi-led oil boycott following Israel’s victory in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
However it was the fear of the ayatollahs’ seizure of power in Iran in 1979 that led to the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council two years later.
Saudi Arabia funded the Iraqi purchase of arms to be used in the war against Iran while Israel funnelled arms to Tehran. While the Gulf region maintained strong support for the Palestinians, its own worries about Iran took pole position in its policies.
In contrast to Tehran, the Oslo Accords of 1993 unblocked relations with many Arab states. There was an official Israeli delegation to Bahrain to discuss environmental cooperation and a trade mission to Qatar. Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres met Sheikh Qaboos of Oman in Muscat in 1994.
Relations however plunged with the demise of the peace process and the dominance of Palestinian Islamism during the al-Aqsa intifada. When there were conflicts such as Operation Cast Lead in 2009 with large numbers of Palestinian dead, relations with Israel were placed in cold storage.
However what united Benjamin Netanyahu with the monarchies of the Gulf States was the expansion of Iranian influence under Soleimani’s guidance.
In part, this was due to the vacuum left by the US debacle in Iraq, but also to the profound fear of Iran’s developing nuclear ability.
Indeed Oman kept channels open to Tehran, such that Sheikh Qaboos’s intervention averted a possible Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2011 — and this in turn led to quiet mediation between the Americans and the Iranians.
The Omani backchannel led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015 which extracted Iran’s nuclear prowess from other military activity.
While nuclear weapons were seemingly removed from the political equation, conventional Iranian missile units were embedding themselves in Syria, pointing in the direction of Israel.
The JCPOA was vehemently opposed by Netanyahu, but welcomed by the Israeli intelligence community. In 2010, leading figures in the Mossad, Shin Bet and the IDF all attacked Netanyahu’s order to prepare for an imminent assault on Iranian nuclear facilities.
American Jewish organisations were also divided — establishment groups were critical whereas J-Street and Americans for Peace Now endorsed the JCPOA. All this changed with the election of Donald Trump, who revoked the agreement and imposed biting sanctions on Iran.
While there are certainly internal differences between some of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, there is a greater fear that a conflict with Iran might break out at any moment.
Qatar recently attended a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Saudi Arabia about Iranian actions despite being ostracised and boycotted by its neighbours for its independent stance.
The fear of the ayatollahs has been reflected in more sympathetic comments about Israel. The Emirati Foreign Minister defended Israel’s right to attack Iranian targets in Syria.
It is said that an Emirati military delegation recently visited Israel and that there have been joint military exercises in Greece.
Netanyahu visited Oman in October 2018 and Chad in January 2019, and there will be an Israeli pavilion at the Expo Trade Fair in Dubai in 2020, despite the absence of diplomatic relations.
It is believed that while the Mossad has expanded its teaching of Farsi, the Qatari Ministry of the Interior has promoted the teaching of Hebrew. Israeli businesses proliferate in the Emirates while being registered in third countries.
But as Ian Black, the former diplomatic editor of the Guardian, has pointed out in his report for the LSE Middle East Centre, appropriately entitled ‘Just Below the Surface’, Israel has a representative in Abu Dhabi, accredited to the International Renewable Energy Agency rather than being accorded recognition by the Emirates administration itself.
In addition, the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman (“MbS”) as Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in June 2017 has seen a further marginalisation of the Palestinians’ position and more open contacts with Israel.
MbS represents a new generation which is more distant from the emotions of the Israel-Palestine conflict — and which challenges the rigidity of the religious establishment in Riyadh.
Israel has sold security apparatus to Gulf states — often through third parties. However, while surveillance equipment was cleared by Israel’s Defence Export Controls Agency, it appears that purchasers in the region have often used these apps not only to eavesdrop on potential terrorists but also to track dissidents and human rights activists.
The Herzilya-based NSO Group provides Pegasus spyware, which allows for the remote surveillance of mobile smartphones. There have been press reports that such software was utilised in the tracking of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.
The killing was attributed to MbS’s close aides — one of whom, Saud al-Qatani, according to the Wall Street Journal, was alleged to have visited Israel. While five of the Saudi hit squad have been given death sentences, these senior aides remain untouchable.
Significantly, WhatsApp has recently filed to sue NSO in a San Francisco court.
The maverick Qataris have earned the ire of Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis by retaining good relations with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and supporting the activists of the Arab Spring, using Al Jazeera to antagonise virtually every state in the Arab world while avoiding any criticism of Qatar itself.
At the same time, it has allowed the US to maintain a base at al Udeid outside Doha due to the Saudi refusal to do so.
Such Qatari manoeuvres often appear contradictory, but they are designed to preserve the state’s freedom of action. Its relationship with Hamas has allowed it to intervene to secure the release of Israelis held in Gaza. In addition, they have — with Israeli approval — provided funds for public employees and needy families in Gaza. In so doing, Gaza has not exploded despite the ongoing Israeli state of siege.
The Israeli approach to both Iran and the Gulf states is thus far more complex than meets the eye. The reality of relations does not always reflect the stereotypes of the megaphone war.
The deeper cause for the killing of Soleimani may well be less to do with his long time involvement in opposing Israel and the US but a domestic Iranian need to deflect attention from widespread protests against the Shia regime in Baghdad.
By instructing Iran-controlled militias to attack the US Embassy as a means of diverting the justified anger of the masses, he probably sealed his fate in Trump’s eyes.
Whatever the rationale, with thousands of Hezbollah’s missiles ready for use and Teheran’s military presence in Syria, few in Israel will shed tears over Soleimani’s passing even if he has been successful — even in death — at galvanising Iranian hostility.
Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London