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Iran and Israel Weren’t Always Enemies

“History is littered,” the British writer and politician Enoch Powell said, “with the wars which everybody knew would never happen.”

A full-blown conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Israel once seemed implausible. But last month, the long-running shadow war between the two nations burst into the open in a series of unprecedented drone and missile strikes, raising the specter of a fight that would contain enough advanced technology, paramilitary forces and mutual acrimony to incinerate large parts of the Middle East, collapse the global economy and entangle the United States and other major powers.

Now the two sides appear to have hit pause, but for how long? As long as Iran is ruled by an Islamist government that puts its revolutionary ideology before the national interest, the two countries will never know peace, and the Middle East will never know meaningful stability.

Iran and Israel are not natural adversaries. In contrast to other modern conflicts — between Israel and Palestine, Russia and Ukraine, China and Taiwan — Iran and Israel have no bilateral land or resource disputes. Their national strengths — Iran is an energy titan and Israel is a tech innovator — are more complementary than competitive. The nations also have a historical affinity dating back over 2,500 years, when the Persian King Cyrus the Great freed the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity. Iran was the second Muslim nation, after Turkey, to recognize Israel after its founding in 1948.

Their modern animosity is best understood through the lens of ideology, not geopolitics. It began with the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the dogmatic Shiite cleric who led the 1979 revolution that transformed Iran from a U.S.-allied monarchy into an anti-American theocracy. Mr. Khomeini’s 1970 treatise “Islamic Government,” which became the basis of the constitution that governs the Islamic Republic, is laced with tirades and threats against “wretched” and “satanic” Jews. Then, as now, antisemitism often lurked below the surface of anti-imperialism.

“We must protest and make the people aware that the Jews and their foreign backers are opposed to the very foundations of Islam and wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world,” Mr. Khomeini wrote. “Since they are a cunning and resourceful group of people, I fear that — God forbid — they may one day achieve their goal, and that the apathy shown by some of us may allow a Jew to rule over us one day.”

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