Did Israel, under the shah, help start Iran’s nuclear program?

A new documentary recalls the ‘paradise in a bubble’ of Israelis in Iran before 1979. It also suggests they played an initial role in setting Iran on the nuclear path

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israelis dancing at a Purim party in the Israeli Embassy in Tehran in the late 1970s. (photo credit: screenshot from 'Before the Revolution,' courtesy Journeyman Pictures)
Israelis dancing at a Purim party in the Israeli Embassy in Tehran in the late 1970s. (photo credit: screenshot from 'Before the Revolution,' courtesy Journeyman Pictures)

Sometime in the late 1970s, Yaakov Nimrodi, who served as military attaché in Israel’s unofficial embassy in Iran, hosted a number of high-ranking army officers at his Tehran home. Trying to impress his esteemed guests, Nimrodi asked his son Ofer to show them his skills on the piano. At first the child hesitated, but his father insisted, so he played a little bit. The Iranian generals loved the performance, and applauded heartily. Then Iran’s chief of staff, Gen. Fereydoun Djam, speaking in Persian, called little Ofer over to him.

“He took off his gold watch and gave it to me as a present,” Ofer Nimrodi, now 56, remembered. “I’m an 8-year-old boy, I have no idea what’s happening. But [Djam] said, ‘You played really nicely, you deserve it.’ I looked at my dad and he said, ‘No, General Djam, this is inappropriate, please.’ But the Iranian general insisted, and more than 30 years later Nimrodi, a prominent businessman and former publisher of the Maariv daily, still possesses the watch.

There are countless such anecdotes that illustrate the close ties between the State of Israel and the Iranian regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi before he was deposed in 1979 — a relationship utterly unthinkable in the current political climate.

Before the Islamic Revolution, thousands of Israelis, mostly diplomats and businessmen, sought and found their fortunes in Iran. A gripping documentary, by Dan Shadur and Barak Heyman, tells this “untold story of the Israeli paradise in Iran.”

Before the Revolution” reminds viewers that there used to be daily El Al flights connecting Tehran with Tel Aviv; that there was an Israeli school in the Iranian capital — one of only two outside Israel; and that some Israelis made so much money in Iran in a few years that upon their return they could afford to buy large houses in fancy Tel Aviv suburbs without mortgages. Over 8mm video footage from the 1970s, the 54-minute film quotes Israelis saying their years in Iran were “the happiest times in our lives.” They recall Purim parties in Tehran that “felt like Tel Aviv.” Former kibbutzniks talk of suddenly having maids to cook and clean for them.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the late shah of Iran photo credit: Ghazarians/Wikipedia Commons)
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the late shah of Iran (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ghazarians)

“Before the Revolution” — which is now being screened at film festivals, was shown on Israel’s YES satellite TV, and will hit international television screens later this year — does not ignore the more dubious aspects of Israel’s close ties with the dictatorial regime. The film contains some chilling quotes of Israelis who say they were aware of the regime’s human rights abuses (including torture of dissidents) but couldn’t be bothered with that, as they were busy making money and partying in the shah’s splendid palaces. It details the massive arms deals (Yaacov Nimrodi sold the Iranians advanced missile systems and 50,000 Uzi submachine guns). And it depicts a controversial framework of military and intelligence cooperation that likely included helping set up what became Tehran’s rogue nuclear program.

In one of the film’s many intriguing moments, Nachik Navot, who headed the Mossad’s branch in Tehran from 1969 to 1972, explains that the shah started Iran’s nuclear program as a means of deterrence against Iraq. Asked by filmmaker Shadur — an Israeli who grew up in Iran — who helped the Iranians develop their nuclear program, Navot quickly replies, “The heavens,” and then awkwardly averts his look away from the camera, clearly uncomfortable with the question.

Asked by The Times of Israel this week to expand on that topic, and whether he could state which countries or individuals assisted Iran with what became the rogue nuclear program, believed by Israel and others to be aimed at attaining nuclear weapons, Navot replied warily that he could comment “only on issues I am familiar with or was involved in.”

(Iran had formally launched a peaceful nuclear program in 1957, with the announcement of plans for cooperation with the US “in research in the peaceful uses of atomic energy.” Iran opened a nuclear research center in Tehran a decade later, with a US-supplied research reactor. It signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 and ratified it in 1970. All formal US and European cooperation in this area ended with the 1979 Islamic Revolution. )

‘Relations of love, without a marriage contract’

The Israeli-Iranian friendship was mutually beneficial. In Iran, a non-Arab country that in the 1970s underwent a tremendous economic boom, Israel had an important ally in a hostile region. Jerusalem imported Iranian oil. Tehran profited from Israel’s know-how in agriculture, business and, especially, the military.

“The Arab countries continue to be concerned with the close relations prevailing between Iran and Israel. A special grievance was the reported export of oil from Iran to Israel,” read a report in the 1961 issue of the Middle East Record, a journal published annually by Tel Aviv University. The Arab League’s secretary-general at the time worried that “Zionist penetration and influence in Iran were increasing daily,” the journal reported, adding that the group recommended that “all Arab nations break off diplomatic relations with Iran, whose activity defeated the aim of economic boycott of Israel.”

The shah admired Israel mainly because of its military success. “The cooperation with Israel was tremendous. Every Iranian general visited Israel and we visited them,” Gen. Yitzhak Segev, Israel’s military attaché from 1977 to 1979, says in “Before the Revolution.”

Top Iranian military officials Hasan Toofanian and Bahram Ariana meet with Israeli officers in the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces, 1975 ((Photo credit: public domain, Wikimedia commons)
Top Iranian military officials Hasan Toofanian and Bahram Ariana (left), meet with Israeli officers in the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces, 1975. (photo credit: public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Since the Islamists came to power, of course, the Iranian regime has relentlessly denounced Israel and repeatedly expressed a yearning for, and a confidence in, the Jewish state’s rapid disappearance. Israel, for its part, has been tirelessly calling on the international community to force the regime to abandon its rogue nuclear program, threatening a military strike if all else fails to prevent Iran from reaching nuclear weapons capacity. But Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made thwarting a nuclear Iran the defining mission of his prime ministerial life, also well remembers the two nations’ past friendly relations.

“Today, our hope for the future is challenged by a nuclear-armed Iran that seeks our destruction. But I want you to know: that wasn’t always the case,” Netanyahu said during his October 1 address at the United Nations General Assembly. He went so far back as to mention that Persian King Cyrus ended the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people 2,500 years ago. “He issued a famous edict in which he proclaimed the right of the Jews to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. That’s a Persian decree, and thus began an historic friendship between the Jews and the Persians that lasted until modern times.”

Back in 1942, before the State of Israel was founded, the Jewish Agency opened a “Palestine Office” in Tehran. In an ironic twist of history, that very same office, which served as Israel’s diplomatic mission until 1979, was handed to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization that year, after the Israelis were chased out of the country by the Islamic Revolution.

Yasser Arafat at the building that used to house the Israeli embassy (photo credit: screen shot 'Before the Revolution,' courtesy Journeyman Pictures)
PLO leader Yasser Arafat at the building that used to house the Israel Embassy. (photo credit: screenshot ‘Before the Revolution,’ courtesy Journeyman Pictures)

(photo credit: screenshot from ‘Before the Revolution,’ courtesy Journeyman Pictures)

The Imperial State of Iran officially extended de facto recognition to Israel in March 1950, being the second Middle Eastern country to do so (after Turkey). Three months later, Iranian minister plenipotentiary Reza Safinia, who represented Tehran in Israel, hosted an official reception in Jerusalem, which marked “the first such function to be held by a foreign diplomat in Jerusalem since it was proclaimed Israel’s capital,” according to a JTA report at the time. The event was attended by prime minister David Ben-Gurion, several ministers and both chief rabbis.

“After the Suez campaign, from 1956 onward, we began working in Iran, attempting, eventually succeeding, to purchase oil, which was denied to us by the Arabs and the West,” Aryeh Levin, the No. 2 official in Israel’s diplomatic mission in Tehran from 1973 to 1977, told The Times of Israel.

Iranian Minister Plenipotentiary Reza Safinia, center, who represented Tehran in Israel, chats with then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion at a party in Jerusalem, June 1, 1950 (photo credit: Teddy Brauner/GPO)
Iranian Minister Plenipotentiary Reza Safinia, center, who represented Tehran in Israel, chats with then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion at a party in Jerusalem, June 1, 1950. (photo credit: Teddy Brauner/GPO)

Israel contributed greatly to Iran’s agriculture, town planning, and other fields, he added. “Israelis were considered devoted, hard-working and supportive — especially, for instance, after the tragic 1962 earthquake in the Qazvin area, where we eventually planned and remade their agriculture, village construction and communal organization,” noted Levin, whose official title was minister plenipotentiary. “In agriculture, we had a number of talented and experienced experts who helped and guided the Iranians, excellent agriculturists themselves, toward modern methods of production and husbandry.”

Besides flourishing trade relations, the Israeli officialdom was also very close to the Iranian government and the shah himself.

In “Before the Revolution,” Israeli businessman Yehuda Artziele reminisces about a lavish dinner he attended at the royal palace. As classical music played in the background, he recalls, the shah told him that, in the ballroom, the rules of Islam do not exist. “Drink as much as you want. Feel free, do whatever you wish,” he was urged by the Iranian ruler. “I hadn’t seen such wealth even in Europe, where people know how to be wealthy without showing off.”

‘It’s better to have love relations without a contract, then having a contract that doesn’t mean much’

Yet even then, Iran’s relationship with Israel was not entirely uncomplicated. No flag fluttered outside the Israeli diplomatic mission in Tehran, which was never officially recognized as embassy.

David Menshari, who spent two years conducting a field study in Iran on the eve of the Islamic Revolution, once asked an Iranian Foreign Ministry official why Tehran could not formally recognize Israel, given that bilateral relations were so cordial. “He told me: ‘This is like relations of love without a marriage contract.’ He said it’s better to have love relations without a contract, than having a contract that doesn’t mean much.”

Today a Tel Aviv University professor focusing on the history of modern Iran, Menashri said that even El Al’s daily flights in and out of Tehran were not officially listed. Arab League Secretary-General Mahmoud Riad once arrived in Iran and was surprised to see an Israeli plane at the airport, according to Menashri. Riad asked the Iranian foreign minister how such a thing was possible. “The minister said: ‘As far as I know there are no flights from Tel Aviv to Iran, but I will check with his majesty the shah.’ Before he left Iran, Riad asked the foreign minister if he had checked. ‘Yes, I checked, and we don’t have El Al planes landing in Iran,’ the foreign minister said. ‘But I saw it with my own eyes,’ Riad insisted. The foreign minister replied: ‘Do you want me to believe your eyes or the word of the shah?’”

El Al's office in Tehran, after it was ransacked by anti-shah protestors in 1979 (photo credit: screen shot 'Before the Revolution,' courtesy Journeyman Pictures)
El Al’s office in Tehran, after it was ransacked by anti-shah protestors in 1979. (photo credit: screenshot from ‘Before the Revolution,’ courtesy Journeyman Pictures

But who needs official recognition when life is good? In upscale northern Tehran, Israelis lived in a bubble of comfort and wealth that apparently prevented them from noticing both the misery all around them and, later on, the dangers of the looming Islamic Revolution — which was initially motivated less by religious zeal than social injustice.

“I didn’t really understand that there was a terrible injustice, of so few rich and so many poor that were really suffering,” admits Rebecca Meromi, a dance teacher who gushes in the film that their in-house maid washed their dirty laundry by hand. “We weren’t aware of it,” adds her husband Eylon Meromi, an architect, in the movie. “We thought we were helping them. We really thought to ourselves that we’re helping the Persian people — building them apartments, strengthening their army and protecting their country. It was clear that there was a huge social gap, but that was out of our hands.”

Nili Yanir says in the documentary: “We lived on a different planet, we really didn’t know. We weren’t really involved in their domestic policies. I also don’t think that really interested us. We were young.”

‘Of course the Iranians suffered. But if you ask me if it bothered us, the answer is no’

Perhaps more problematic than merely living the high life while being oblivious to the local population’s suffering, the Israelis in Iran also were fully aware of the repression by Savak, the autocratic regime’s notorious secret police. Critics of the shah often mysteriously disappeared. There were no Xerox machines on university campuses because the Savak feared the dissemination of anti-regime propaganda. But the Mossad maintained excellent relations with the Savak, and everyone knew it. It was even rumored among Israelis that the Mossad helped set up the Savak, teaching it how to torture people, the film reports — an allegation other experts reject.

“Of course the Iranians suffered, I won’t say they didn’t. But if you ask me if it bothered us, if it was subject for day-to-day conversation, the answer is no,” says Nathan Frenkiel, who directed a construction group in Tehran, in “Before the Revolution.” “They didn’t complain and we didn’t intervene. We’re not blind; we knew what kind of reality we were living in — but it’s not our bloody business.”

Menashri is forgiving: “As much as they [Israelis] benefited from Iran, Iran benefited from them coming to Iran. Iran needed expertise,” he said. Israel was ready to extend even altruistic help, for instance when it sent aid to Iran after the devastating 1962 earthquake. “Iranians have the tendency to blame everything on the foreigners. But the Iranians invited them.”

Before the Revolution
‘Before the Revolution’

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli Middle East analyst, says Israelis in Iran should not be accused of abetting the regime’s brutal repression of dissent. The Savak did not need Israeli training to know how to beat people up, he said. “Probably they [the Mossad] helped the Savak in other areas,” he said, “but it wasn’t in torturing people.”

All kinds of people live in undemocratic countries and don’t intervene lest they be accused of interfering in the state’s internal affairs, continued Javedanfar, who left Iran in 1987 and now teaches contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Either way, he argued, they wouldn’t have been able to do much about the ordinary Iranian’s plight. “The shah certainly wasn’t going to take lessons from Israelis. [Then-US President Jimmy] Carter was having enough trouble convincing the shah to respect human rights. I don’t think Israel would have had any chance whatsoever.”

According to Levin, Israel’s No. 2 at the embassy in Tehran, Israel’s close ties to the Savak did contribute to the fact that many ordinary Iranians weren’t too fond of Israelis. “Identifying Israel’s activities with the Savak was not totally justified, however, since we did not help the intelligence agencies in tracking the opposition, but rather worked hand in hand with them on intelligence-related matters that dealt with the Arab world,” he said.

‘We didn’t want to leave; we had a lot to lose’

“Before the Revolution” documents how oblivious many Israelis were to the beginning of the Islamic takeover in 1979. After the first anti-shah demonstrations turned violent, there were tanks in the streets and a nightly curfew was imposed. Yet most Israelis, while worried, stayed put, expecting the uprising would soon be crushed and life would continue as usual. As the protests grew more intense, some of the Israeli security staff started to think about evacuation, but the powers-that-be hesitated.

“We had an emergency plan which said that we would not leave too soon, because we had a lot to lose, strategically and economically, in Iran,” recalls Eliezer “Geizi” Tzafrir, who headed the Mossad station in Tehran at the time, in the film. “If we left too soon and order was restored, we would never be able to get back to Tehran.”

But as the weeks passed by and the revolt turned into a full-blown revolution, the Israelis finally realized it was time to send the embassy staff home. “I didn’t leave thinking we’d never come back. I thought we were leaving for a little bit, until they get things into order, and that we’d return,” a former employee remembers.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to Iran on February 1, 1979; the Islamic Revolution was now in full swing and the remaining Israeli diplomats and security officials feared for their lives. They changed locations several times in order not to be detected by the Revolutionary Guards, who happened to be headquartered right next to the Israeli embassy.

“Outside, people were shooting like mad in every direction,” recounts David Nachshol, a security guard at the embassy, in the film. “On the streets we saw a graffiti. It was written there: ‘Don’t hurt the Jews — but any Israeli you meet, kill him.'”

The Israeli embassy after it was ransacked by anti-shah protestors in 1979 (photo credit: screen shot 'Before the Revolution,' courtesy Journeyman Pictures)
The Israeli Embassy after it was ransacked by anti-shah protestors in 1979. (photo credit: screenshot from ‘Before the Revolution,’ courtesy Journeyman Pictures)

Nearly all Israelis left Iran before the Islamic Revolution was completed. The embassy and the El Al office were ransacked in mid-February, and soon after, on February 18, the last Israelis were smuggled out of the country with the help of the Americans.

Was Israel loathed even before the ayatollahs made it the Islamic Republic’s state doctrine? Experts differ.

The “vast majority of Iranians, who are Shiite Muslims, while not actively involved in anti-Israel activity, certainly identified with the Arab-Palestinian-Muslim camp and were not friends of Israel,” Ze’ev Maghen, a professor of Islamic history and expert on revolutionary Iran and Islamic fundamentalism, told The Times of Israel. Levin likewise said he had “always had the feeling that ordinary Iranians were not great Israel lovers.”

Menashri, on the other hand, asserted that he never sensed hostility to Israelis. On the contrary, he added, “being an Israeli made you more secure in many ways” before 1979, partially because people knew that the shah was a good friend of Israel. “We traveled all over the country; I always identified myself as an Israeli, and there was never a case or an incident in which I felt danger or lack of security.”

Iran’s 100,000 or so Jews, however, plainly felt deep unease about Khomeini’s rise, fearing a revolution taking religious colors was doomed to harm their community. Sixty thousand of them fled; today, there are only some 10,000-20,000 left, according to most estimates.

“For one thing, this was revolution against the shah and the Jews were considered to be friendly with the shah. So whoever is the friend of the shah is the enemy of the revolution,” Menashri said. “This was also a revolution against gaps in society, between rich and poor, and Iranian Jews were on the wrong side again, they were on the wealthier side.”

The young leaders of the community approached the supreme leader to explain to him that they were Jews but not Zionists. “Therefore the slogan, the official attitude, was: Jews are Iranian citizens and they are part of our movement; they are protected. Israelis and Zionists are totally bad,” Menashri explained.

And so it has remained: Israelis and Zionists “totally bad.” How different from those halycon days in the bubble under the shah.

Follow Raphael Ahren on Twitter.

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