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Do Iranian Clerics Dream of Eliminating Israel?

The enlightened-benighted paradoxes of the Shia state have deep roots, and relations with Jews are at a historical nadir

Ofra Bengio
September 24, 2015
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Medieval Persian manuscript depicting Muhammad leading Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer.Wikipedia Commons
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Medieval Persian manuscript depicting Muhammad leading Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer.Wikipedia Commons
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In August 2015, shortly after the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, the supreme Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei published a book of 416 pages under the title Palestine. The book carries one central message: the urge to annihilate the state of Israel and establish the state of Palestine in its stead. According to Amir Taheri, who got hold of the book early, the three key words are: “nabudi,” which means “annihilation,” “imha,” which means “wiping,” and “zaval,” meaning “effacement.”

Khamenei claims that his strategy for the destruction of Israel is based on “well-established Islamic principles” one of which is that a land that falls under Muslim rule can never again be ceded to non-Muslims. He provides various reasons why Israel, which he terms “adou” and “doshman” (enemy), should be destroyed. First because it is the loyal ally of “the American Great Satan,” second because it has waged wars against Muslims on various occasions, and finally because it occupies the third holiest city to Islam: Jerusalem.

In what has become standard language in the anti-Semitic jargon, Khamenei describes Israel as “a cancerous tumor” whose elimination would mean that “the West’s hegemony and threats will be discredited” in the Middle East. In its place, he boasts, “the hegemony of Iran will be promoted.” The message is hardly a subtle one.

The timing of the publication was no coincidence. It was meant to celebrate Iran’s victory over the “Great Satan,” the United States, and more specifically the “Little Satan,” Israel, which had worked assiduously to forestall the nuclear deal. To propagate his message all over the world, he then prophesized that Israel would cease to exist within 25 years.

Seen in retrospect, the publication of Khamenei’s book marks the nadir in the history of Iranian-Jewish/Israeli relations, which have extended for the last two and a half millennia, witnessing ups and downs in different periods and under different regimes. At times paradoxical ties existed even under the same regime, including under the Islamic Republic itself. While this history suggests plenty of room for improvement from the current low, the recurrence and the strengthening of the dream of Israel’s destruction leaves little hope as long as the clerical regime holds sway.


A quick look at the turbulent history of Iran’s relationship with the Jews and their national life would show that on the one hand it was Iranian rulers, Cyrus the Great and Darius, who had respectively ordered the building of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem and brought it to completion in 516 BCE. On the other hand, the current Iranian regime has vowed to destroy the so-called “third temple” and annihilate the Zionists, the Jews of Israel. This is the same Iran which as early as 1950 recognized the newborn state of Israel, albeit de facto, and built strategic relations with it that endured for 30 years. Yet when the Islamic Republic headed by Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, it turned Israel into Iran’s official nemesis—while buying arms from Israel during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988). At the same time, it also established Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982 in order to fight Israel. So what is the explanation for these paradoxes?

The ebb and flow in the relations reflect rulers’ specific tendencies, ideological and political perceptions, as well as regional configurations. Cyrus the Great, for example, was motivated by his tolerance for different religious groups as well as his enmity for Babylon, which had caused the destruction of the first temple. The opposite was true of the Shia Safavid regime, which came to power one millennium later and which was motivated by Shia religious zeal. Thus the establishment of Shi’ism as the religion of the state in Iran at the beginning of the 16th century was crucial for the standing of the Jews who had lived in those lands one millennium before the advent of Islam. Among all Muslim sects the treatment of Jews was the worst under Shia rule, especially in Iran, the only place where Shi’ism has been the religion of the state since the 16th century and where Shias came to represent 93 percent of the population. In Shia Iran the Jews were persecuted and had to wear a special badge on their clothing to distinguish them from the Muslims. There were also occasions of massacre of Jews or forcible conversion to Islam. One of the most famous cases was the pogrom against Jews of Meshed in 1839, which was followed by forced conversion of the entire community.

What is the explanation for this Shia stance? The Jews are considered by the Shia to be ritually impure (nijs), and any part of their body such as blood or sweat may cause ritual impurity to Shia Muslims. For example, the Jews were not allowed to go out when it was raining or snowing so that their shoes would not leave impure remnants on the ground. Uri Lubrani, the last head of Israeli diplomatic missions in Iran (ambassador from 1973-1978), noted how his Iranian counterparts would take all necessary precautions not to get in touch with such impurity.

The anti-Jewish attitude inherent in Shia beliefs and practices received a boost during World War II. According to the German scholar Matthias Kuntzel, who recently published a book titled Germany and Iran: From Aryan Axis to the Nuclear Threshold, between 1939 and 1945 the Nazi’s anti-Semitism was exported via a daily Persian-language broadcast from Berlin to Iran. This broadcast was popular and its main radio speaker, Bahram Sharokh, was a celebrity during those years. The Nazis based their anti-Semitic incitement in Persian language on Islamic roots. Ruhollah Khomeini was, according to Amir Taheri, a regular and ardent listener of “Radio Berlin.” According to Kuntzel, Hitler was celebrated by Shia clerics as the Twelfth Imam. Furthermore in Kuntzel’s view the special relationship that has existed for 35 years between Germany and the Islamic Republic of Iran is critical to understanding the ongoing controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.


From an Israeli perspective, the period between 1953 and 1978 may be considered as the golden era in Iranian-Israeli relations. The Shia clergy’s clout was diminished and relations with the Jewish state flourished. In this respect it should be observed that whenever the clergy has the upper hand the situation of the Jews or relations between the two states has taken a negative turn.

Even though Israel was tied with both Iran and Turkey in the famous secret peripheral alliance of the 1950s and ’60s, the Jewish state’s relations with Iran under the Shah were on the whole deeper and much more extensive than those with Turkey. Five Israeli heads of state came on undisclosed visits to Iran, the first being Ben Gurion in 1961. Israel bought oil from Iran and in exchange it sold weapons. It also exported agrarian know-how. Intelligence was also an important sphere of cooperation between the two states. The regional and international geopolitical framework that kept relations moving was the common threat perceptions from the USSR and communism on the one hand and the radical Arab states, most importantly Egypt and Iraq, on the other.

Reflecting the strong ties between Iran and Israel, the situation of the Iranian Jews was at its zenith in that period. The Jews, who numbered at the time around 80,000, were an important part of the intelligentsia as well the country’s economic and business activities. But even in that honeymoon period Jews were still looked at as inferior and impure. There were also occasional cases of harassment, such as for example in the aftermath of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War.


The intimate relationship between Israel and the Shah regime changed abruptly with the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979. The change is made up of several layers: the religious, ideological, political, and strategic. The first and deepest layer is the religious one, which has fed the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli stances of the Islamic Republic. Since the religious clergy got the upper hand in 1979, the situation of the Jews deteriorated significantly so that the greatest number of them had to leave the country. According to the 2012 Iranian census less than 9,000 Jews were left in Iran at that time.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, those Jews who remained in Iran had to practice taqiyya (dissimulation) and to echo the regime’s hate speech toward Israel and Zionism. On one occasion Iranian News Agency quoted the Jewish community expressing its “sympathy with the oppressed Palestinian people” and condemning “the Zionist regime’s” “atrocities” against them.

Iran sought to disguise its anti-Semitic tendencies, claiming that it is merely opposed to Zionism. However, its consistent and strong denial of the Holocaust speaks volumes of its true tendencies. Still, paradoxically enough, while Muslim Sunnis are not allowed to have one single mosque in Tehran, the Jews have several synagogues. Another paradox is that Iran is a unique case among Muslim countries of the Middle East in that it has a Jewish member in the majlis, the Iranian parliament: Siamak Moreh Sedgh, who became a member in 2007, and who stated on the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel that the Jewish community enjoys comfortable living conditions in Iran. Moreh Sedgh further condemned “Israel’s atrocious tactics in Gaza.” President Rouhani’s invitation to Moreh Sedgh to escort him to the United Nations in September 2013 is part of this cynical policy.

In addition to being the state of the Jews (a state without legitimacy in the Shia clergy’s world view), Israel had also committed the original sin of cooperating with the hated regime of the Shah. Its association with the West in general and the United States in particular added another layer to the Islamic Republic’s hostility toward Israel. Targeting Israel has also had a political-practical value to it, namely challenging Arab Sunni countries by portraying Iran as the champion of the Palestinian cause—the Quds (Jerusalem) Day inaugurated by Khomeini immediately after the establishment of the Islamic Republic is a case in point. Clerical Iran took up the role of the most radical secular Arab states, which had formerly used all their propaganda tools to propagate the dream of annihilating Israel.

Another aim of anti-Israeli rhetoric is to distract from problems at home. It is interesting to note that Iran’s radicalization against Israel intensified in the aftermath of the Iraq-Iran war, which ended in 1988, a moment when the leadership needed to find a new enemy for mobilizing Iranian society.

While the upheavals in the region and the paradigmatic changes in the international arena such as the end of the Cold War have moved Arab states to change their perception of Israel as their main enemy, Iran escalated its attacks. Echoing Khamenei’s blatant call for the destruction of Israel, an Iranian media outlet stated recently: “We will witness the destruction and fall of the Zionist regime in the near future.”

No less dangerous for Israel is the proxy war that Iran is conducting against it on various fronts, the most conspicuous of which is that of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Another Iranian war by proxy is that leveled against Israel by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. As Khamenei boasts in his book: “We have intervened in anti-Israel matters, and it brought victory in the 33-day war by Hezbollah against Israel in 2006 and in the 22-day war between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip.” One should also add the terrorist attacks masterminded by Iran against Jews or Israelis worldwide, such as those in Argentina in 1994 or Bulgaria in 2012. The common denominator of all these wars is that they target Israel’s soft underbelly—its civilian population.

The most disturbing recent development from Israel’s point of view was that the nuclear deal delivered Syria to Iran on a silver platter. True, the involvement of Iran in Syria was of long standing beginning from the early 1980s. However, the combination of a collapsing Syrian state and the legitimacy Iran gained thanks to the deal have emboldened Tehran to send some thousand troops in direct support of the Assad regime. This Iranian precedent might very easily turn into a permanent forward base from which to target Israel directly on the battlefield. The American strategy of using Iran as a balance to the Islamic State has therefore boosted Tehran’s ambition of becoming the hegemonic power, not just in the Gulf but throughout the Middle East, while encircling Israel and embattling it on various fronts.

And while the government of the Shah nourished the peripheral alliance with Israel, the clerical regime is nourishing new dreams of its destruction. The unsavory conclusion, then, is that as long as the clergy rules Iran, the prospects for it accepting the legitimacy of Israel are dim.

Read more about 40 years of the Iranian Revolution in Tablet’s special series this week.

Professor Ofra Bengio is senior research associate at the Moshe Center, Tel Aviv University and the author of several books, including The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders.