by Akash Radia
Recent talks to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity have been prevalent in the news. At times the history can blend into what the most recent forum, sanction or threat was. But to remember the true historical context is to remember a time when geopolitics was turned on its head.
By 1975, Iran and Iraq were entrenched in a dispute along their shared border. The 1975 Algiers Agreement sought to quell tension between the two nations who had quarreled over regions surrounding the border for centuries. Only five years later, Iraq would invade Iran and the longest war of the 20th century, the Iran-Iraq War (The First Persian Gulf War) would ensue. However, it was the time between the signing of the Algiers Agreement and the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War that is often ushered away from the annals of history.
The United States, an increasingly withdrawn ally under President Carter, created new fears for Iran in the late 70s. Pro-Soviet Arab states as well as the undiminished threat of Iraq left Iran almost certain of an upcoming conflict. Furthermore, they feared the United States would treat this as a local conflict and not interfere. At the time, Iraq’s military capabilities vastly outweighed Iran’s. In response, Iran requested the purchase of Pershing missiles from the United States, but was rejected due to the capacity to equip said missiles with nuclear warheads. Carter’s steadfastness to negate the use nuclear weaponry and question issues of human rights in Iran at the time left the Persian nation with only one option to secure themselves. As Iraq grew their artillery of Scud missiles, Iran turned to Israel and brokered one of the most secretive arms deals in history.
Project Flower was initiated between the two defense ministers of Israel and Iran. The project went further than Israel simply supplying Iran with ballistic missiles to protect its border region. Instead, Israel proposed the exchange of Iranian investment for Israeli technology. This meant that Israel could invest in their own military research and replace American parts in their current arsenal. This would by-pass the United States purview of the trade. In April 1977, Iran and Israel agreed on six oil-for-arms contracts totaling $1 billion.
A new Israeli Prime Minister in 1978, Menachem Begin, offered to derail Project Flower. But the incumbent would resurrect the project showing Israel’s commitment to peace between the two countries. The benefits for Israel, although now almost entirely dependent on Iranian oil, was to show other Arab states the benefits of acceptance and cooperation with the Jewish state.
The missiles equipped by Israel had capabilities to carry nuclear warheads, although such armament was not pursued at the time. There was a suggestion however, that Iran would look to develop such capacity in the coming decades. Such historical origin seems at-odds with the players currently involved in negotiations with Iran.
Much of this now anomalistic cooperation, purposefully hidden from the gaze of the US was due to the Shah’s both wariness to the Iraqi threat (shared with Israel at the time), and his own quest for regional prominence. Such was his desire to secure Iran’s borders and defend against an impending attack from Iraq that problems arising from within the country went unaddressed. The 1979 Islamic Revolution put a stop to Project Flower and signified a drastic alteration in regional alliances. The time preceding the revolution however served more as a warning to Arab states. In essence, the real impact of the Israel-Iran alliance demonstrated Israel’s growing concern to the rising military force of not only Iraq, but of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
Now it is unimaginable that Israel would in any way help increase Iran’s nuclear arsenal. But Project Flower does establish one definite truth about geopolitics in the region: alliances brokered and broken are not definite. They are not as indoctrinated as we may assume. In fact, international security is a malleable concept that changes with history. Even during the Cold War, there was room for unique negotiations, and historians are aware of this fact. Thus, understanding the historical context can, at the very least, alleviate fears of an idealistic Cold War with Iran and give credence to current negotiations.
Much of the information gathered for this article was taken from Trita Parsi’s book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007).
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