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How Iran and Israel became archenemies

Emergency and security personnel extinguish a fire at the site of strikes that hit a building annexed to the Iranian embassy in Syria's capital Damascus on April 1. Iran blames Israel for the attack.
Louai Beshara
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AFP via Getty Images
Emergency and security personnel extinguish a fire at the site of strikes that hit a building annexed to the Iranian embassy in Syria's capital Damascus on April 1. Iran blames Israel for the attack.

ISTANBUL — Israel is on high alert for a possible attack from Iran, following an airstrike that hit the Iranian consulate in Syria two weeks ago and killed several senior Iranian military officers. Iran blames Israel for the attack, and has vowed to retaliate.

Many countries have issued warnings to their citizens not to visit the region, as tensions flare and fears grow that an Iranian attack may be imminent — and the war in Gaza may spread.

Iranian leaders have been among the sharpest critics of Israel's military operation in the Gaza Strip. Tehran has made no secret of its praise for those who attack Israelis, including the Hamas-led attack that Israel says killed 1,200 people on Oct. 7.

Israel compiled a video showing Hamas gunmen killing civilians, including babies, and burning corpses. Human Rights Watch verified some of the videos of the attack, and called on the International Criminal Court to investigate the attacks as war crimes.

People attend the funeral procession for seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members killed in a strike in Syria, which Iran blamed on Israel, in Tehran, April 5.
Hossein Beris / Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
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Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
People attend the funeral procession for seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members killed in a strike in Syria, which Iran blamed on Israel, in Tehran, April 5.

Iran, however, wasted no time in hailing the Hamas attack as a "victory." Hours after news of the attack broke on Oct. 7, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani told Iran's ISNA news agency that "What took place today is in line with the continuation of victories of the anti-Zionist resistance in different fields, including Syria, Lebanon and occupied lands."

Iran blames Israel for the April 1 airstrike on Iran's consulate in Damascus that killed seven members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, including two IRGC generals. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied being behind the attack.

If Israel was responsible, it would be the latest in a long line of attacks against Iranian targets.

1979 was a pivotal year

While Iran was ruled by the Pahlavi dynasty for more than a half-century, Iranian-Israeli bilateral relations were far from hostile. Iran was one of the first Muslim countries to recognize the new state of Israel.

Palestinians saw that recognition as a tacit international acceptance of what they call the "Nakba," or catastrophe — the forced dispossession and displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians when Israel was created in 1948.

For its part, Israel was quick to establish ties with non-Arab states, including military and security cooperation with Iran.

Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, though, sent relations between the two nations into a tailspin. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was ousted, and the new supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, pursued a policy of standing up to "arrogant" world powers. During his regime, the United States became known in Iran as the "Great Satan," and Israel as the "Little Satan."

Even so, limited cooperation between Israel and Iran continued into the 1980s. But later a hostile rivalry emerged as Iran built up and funded proxy militias and other groups in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. A shadow war between Iran and Israel grew over the years.

Iran's nuclear program is a main target

Iran's nuclear program — which it has always insisted is entirely peaceful — has been a primary focus of Israeli attacks. Tehran believes Israel and the U.S. introduced the Stuxnet computer virus in the early 2000s to target the centrifuges enriching uranium for Iran's nuclear program

A series of sabotage attacks continued into the 2020s, as Israel sought to damage Iranian nuclear facilities. Nuclear scientists were also targeted. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement in 2018was seen as a blow to Tehran and a victory for Israel.

Iran continues to insist that its program is 100% peaceful, although certain incidents, such as an unexplained discovery of uranium particles at sites Iran never disclosed to the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, trouble critics who doubt Iran's motives.

With Iran firmly under the control of Islamist hard-liners, and conservatives leading Israel, there seems little likelihood of a return to cordial Iranian-Israeli relations anytime soon.

War by proxy

Iran has long backed armed groups around the region that target Israel as well as the U.S. military. The main one is Hezbollah in Lebanon, formed in the 1980s to fight the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has been firing rockets into northern Israel since the Gaza war began in October.

Iran also supports Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that led the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel that triggered the current war, which Gaza health authorities say has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, over the past six months.

Iran also has provided support to Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have fired ballistic missiles at the Israeli resort town Eilat on the Red Sea, and attacked shipping vessels — attacks which the Houthi rebels say are in support of Hamas.

Iran supports the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, and Israel says Tehran uses Syrian territory to ship missiles and other weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel has carried out numerous airstrikes in Syria to halt that flow of weapons, and said the Iranian general killed in the consulate strike was a key figure in that logistical chain.

Now, however, American and Israeli officials are warning of the risk of a direct attack by Iran against Israel. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said the April 1 attack on the consulate building in Damascus, for which Iran blames Israel, was tantamount to an attack on Iranian territory. He has threatened that Israel "must be punished and shall be."

Israel has said that an attack from Iranian soil would be met with a direct response against Iran. That could trigger a major regional war.

U.S. officials say that they have sent messages to allies with closer ties to Tehran to urge Iran to exercise restraint. The U.S. officials noted that the U.S. has also relayed the same message directly to Iranian officials.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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