Today, Iran's relationship with the Jewish state of Israel is hostile, potentially explosive. It wasn't always this way. Iran's Jews go back thousands of years before Zionism was even a concept, in fact Judaism in Iran predates the introduction of Islam. During the 6th century BC, the Persian king Cyrus the Great freed enslaved Jews in Babylon, allowing them to either return to their homes or settle in Persia with full rights as citizens.
The Old Testament also tells the tale of Queen Esther, a Persian Jew who married the third Persian King Xerxes and a villain named Haman, a non-Persian, who had plotted to kill the Jews. King Xerxes' intervention on behalf of the Jews resulted in the capture and death sentence of Haman. Each year, the joyous Jewish holiday Purim commemorates this act of humanitarianism.
In the early 1950's Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh's government kept in place Iran's de facto recognition of Israel initiated in March 1950, and the two countries maintained a healthy economic relationship.
After the Iranian revolution in 1979, the majority of Jews left Iran, although those remaining have continued to live freely, even under the despotic Islamic regime.
Choronology of Jews in Ancient Persia
8th century B.C.: Thousands of Jews settled in Media (northwestern Iran)
More Jews settled in Ecbatana (Northern Iran) and Susa (in Southwestern Iran). Ecbatana (now named Hamadan) is also the burial site of Queen Esther, the Jewish wife of the third Persian King, Xerxes. The grave of Daniel, an Old Testament prophet is in modern day Susa
559 B.C.: Cyrus assumes the throne of Persia
539 B.C.: Babylon falls to King Cyrus' army and thousands of Israelites are freed from captivity
538 B.C.: The "Decree of Cyrus" allows Jews to return to Jerusalem, with many Jews choosing to settle in Persia
520-515 B.C.: Persians pay for the rebuilding of the Second Temple in Jerusalem
Chronology of Iran-Israel relations, 1947-1963
During WWII, the head of Consular affairs at the Iranian Embassy in Paris saved many Iranian Jews and provided 500 blank Iranian passports to be used by non-Iranian Jews for immigration.
1947: The United Nations General Assembly partitioned Palestine, creating the state of Israel without the approval of a single neighboring state
1949: Turkey becomes the first country in the region to recognize Israel in September 1949
1950: On March 6, while the Majles was in recess for Norouz, the Iranian government granted de facto recognition to the state of Israel
1951: In July, Mossadegh's government closed Iran's Jerusalem consulate, citing "financial difficulties", but continued trade and economic ties
1953: IRIS, an Iranian-Israeli trading company was formed
1956-1963: Israeli diplomat Zvi Duriel serves a seven year mission in Iran
Prior to the revolution of 1979, there were about 80,000 Jews living throughout Iran. Today it is estimated that approximately 25,000 Jews remain, still the largest population outside of Israel in the Middle East.
Excerpt from a book by Dr. Jacob Abadi, author and Professor of Middle East history at the United States Air Force Academy:
Israel's Quest For Recognition and Acceptance In Asia (2004)
by Dr. Jacob Abadi
In July 1951, the bilateral relations [between Israel and Iran] began deteriorating. The Consulate General of Iran in Jerusalem was closed by the order of the Iranian government and Iran's representative, Reza Safinia, was ordered to leave Jerusalem. This decision came apparently as a result of a promise made by Egypt that its representative would support Iran at the Hague International Court. In addition, the Arab states promised to support Iran in its oil dispute with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Confronted by Israel and asked to explain the reason for this step, the Iranian government argued that the closure of the consulate was a consequence of budget constraints. Officials in the British Embassy in Tehran offered another explanation for the sudden Iranian move. One of them writes, "For what it is worth, we think this sudden move by the Persians was mainly dictated by their anxiety to please the Iraqis, in the hope of inducing them to prevent British troops and warships from using Iraqi territory and territorial waters. Nevertheless, the Iranian government did not wish to sever its relations with Israel and did not yield to Arab pressure to withdraw its de facto recognition. Shortly after the oil dispute, Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq turned to a representative of Bank Igud Le Yisrael asking him about the possibility of transferring funds to Iranian Jews living in Israel. The latter sought an amicable solution and suggested that commercial ties between the two countries be established. Consequently, a 'clearing' agreement of US$500,000 was signed between the national banks of Iran and Israel.
Israel's attempts to normalize relations with Iran were pursued with greater vigor during the Mossadeq era. Israeli officials continued to pressure Iran to grant Israel de jure recognition. However, presented by nationalist and militant religious groups within the Majlis who were lead by the vocal pro-Arab speaker Ayatollah Kashani, Mossadeq's government was in no position to upgrade its relations with Israel.
The fall of Mossadeq in August 1953 led to a slight improvement in the bilateral relations. In one of his letters to the Foreign Ministry, Israel's Military Attaché, Chaim Herzog had written that he was not invited to parties on the Iranian Embassy during the Mossadeq era. That policy changed after Mosadeq's fall and in December 1953 he was invited to celebrate Armed Forces Day. The commercial ties between the two countries improved as well. However, Tehran refrained from sending a representative to Tel Aviv, preferring instead to maintain contact with Israel through the Swiss Embassy.
Israel - Relations With Iran, (December 15, 2007)
by David Menashri
In 1949 Israel’s foreign ministry asked the head of its UN mission, Abba Ebban, to initiate talks with the Persian ambassador, Nasr-Allah Entezam (q.v.), and stress the good will Israel has shown toward Persian nationals in Israel. Entezam, in turn, promised to work to improve relations. Responding to yet another Israeli initiative, after the Israeli-Arab cease-fire talks in Rhodes, the Persian ambassador to Washington, said his country will consider recognition of Israel, though doubted that it could be achieved soon (Hacham, pp. 83-89). The Persian efforts to get support from the United States, combined with American interest in securing Persian recognition of Israel, provided fertile ground for Israeli lobbying. During the shah’s visit to the United States in late 1949, Israel’s recognition was discussed. Turkey’s recognition of Israel in September 1949, made Persia’s recognition more appealing as they could not be accused of breaking the Israeli blockade first. Israel also stressed the financial benefit to Persia, as Israel would supply Persia with the raw materials it needed to import. A peculiar scheme was also underway to pay a considerable sum of money to interested parties to help expedite the recognition (Hacham, pp. 90-100; Bialer, 1985, pp. 301-8; Welayati, 2001, pp. 57).
On 6 March, 1950 while the Majlis was in New Year recess, the government recognized Israel de facto, without formal announcement. On 7 March Entezam informed Abba Eban of the recognition (Hagana Archives, 14/13A; Hacham, p. 95). On 26 March, Reza Safinia, a Persian diplomat with ministerial rank, presented his credentials as a “special envoy.” The recognition led to fierce opposition at home (mainly clerics and nationalists) and abroad in Arab countries. On 7 July 1951, shortly after taking power, Mohammad Mosaddeq’s government closed its Jerusalem consulate, due to “financial difficulties,” but did not revoke the de facto recognition (Israel Government Archives, 2410/11/A; Hacham, pp. 101-6). Economic cooperation continued, and Persia offered agricultural products in exchange for the importation of industrial goods, medical equipment, and for additional technical assistance. On 11 June 1953, an agreement was signed between the respective National Banks for opening a line of credit (Hacham, p. 109; Gilad, 1953, p. 294). To encourage business ties an Iranian-Israeli trading company IRIS was also founded in 1953 (Bialer, 1988, p. 193).
Following the fall of Mosaddeq government through the coup d’etat of 1953 (q.v.), the prevailing Cold War and regional tensions bolstered an improvement in Persian-Israeli relations. The Egyptian revolution (July 1952) presented Israel and Persia with a common enemy: Gamal/Jamal Abdal-Nasser and Egypt’s arms deal with the Soviet Union (September 1955) illuminated the challenges of regional subversive activity and Soviet penetration in the Middle East. The shah, then, based his “positive nationalism” on maximizing Persian security and promoting economic development through alignment with the United States. The Baghdad Pact (q.v.) of 1955 also provided him with the sense of security that he needed to pursue his regional goals. Israel fit these goals perfectly: it could help Persia’s economic programs, balance Egyptian-Soviet alliance, and be instrumental in strengthening his ties with the United States. Persia also needed oil-markets following the 1954 agreement with the Consortium (an international body of companies that replaced Anglo-Persian Oil Company, q.v.), and Israel was viewed as a potential partner. It was not surprising then that Israel’s diplomat, Zvi Duriel, arrived in Persia (early 1956) under the cover of an IRIS representative, settling in an indistinguishable office with no flag or official sign (Gilad, 2002, p. 252).