Israel and Iran seem implacable enemies, regularly exchanging insults and threats, yet for decades they’ve also been secret trading partners.
Two years ago, Eli Cohen, an Israeli citizen, presented his passport at Ben Gurion Airport border control near Tel Aviv. He and his family were on their way to London for a short holiday, but later that day, just as he was about to board the plane, he was arrested.
Cohen was charged with exporting F-14 and F-15 fighter parts to Iran, in violation of a prohibition on trading with an enemy state. Details of the case, which has yet to go to court, are sketchy but it has drawn attention to Israel’s covert trade in military equipment and goods that can be traced all the way back to Iran’s 1979 Revolution.
Under the Shah, Israel and Iran were firm allies, with Israeli Prime Ministers, Chiefs of Staff and heads of Mossad regularly travelling to Tehran. Israel exported weapons and helped Iran develop missile systems. In return, Israel received some of the Iranian oil that was exported to Europe through a jointly owned pipeline running from the Red Sea port of Eilat to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast, circumventing the Suez Canal, which was closed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
After the fall of the Shah, Israel’s ties with Iran officially came to an end, but the two states continued to trade covertly through third countries and foreign middlemen. The oil agreement had by then broken down, but the trade in arms and other goods continued. Over the years, Israel’s exports are said to have ranged from fertilisers and irrigation pipes to seeds, fruit and hormones for milk production; Iranian exports have included marble, cashews and pistachios.
When the Iran-Iraq war broke out, America employed Israel as a conduit to sell Iran military equipment. The Israelis also supplied the Iranians with weaponry, some of which ended up in the hands of Tehran’s s allies in the region. During the 1981 war in South Lebanon, Israeli forces were hit by mortar shells that had been produced in Israel.
The military trade was so secretive that it went largely unreported, until the sensational trial of Nahum Manbar in 1998. A small-time Israeli weapons dealer, he grew rich buying Israeli military surpluses and selling them to Africa and other third world countries. Between 1992 and 1994, he sold the Iranians 150 tons of Thionyl Chloride (SOCI2), which in its concentrated form can be used in chemical warfare. He was jailed for 16 years for collaborating with, and passing on information to, the enemy.
It’s hard to say why Cohen and Manbar were brought to book. Cohen may not have played by the rules of the clandestine trade while in the case of Manbar, one can only assume that the Israelis feared that, since the Iran-Iraq war had ended in 1988, his poison gas ingredients might one day be used against them.
Recently, Israel has found itself in the dock over its links with Iran. Last year, a Swiss court ruled that the former should pay the latter $1.1 billion in a long-running dispute over the sale and shipment of oil under the Shah’s government. Israel has refused to comply with the award, arguing that its laws prohibit it from transferring money to an enemy country. But it is facing the prospect of even bigger compensation claims from the Iranians for their share of revenues generated by the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline, which was nationalised by the Israelis after the Islamic Revolution.
The legal disputes may ratchet up the war of words between the two countries, which is unlikely to be tempered by Iran’s reintegration into the international community. Israel regards Iran as even more of a threat now that sanctions have been lifted. So are we likely to see an end to their clandestine trade? Probably not. In fact, given its strange logic, it may even increase.