"The enemy of my enemy is my friend."m Nowhere has this old Middle Eastern proverb taken a stranger turn than in the Israel-Iraq-Iran triangle.
On the one hand, Iranian President Muhammad Ali Rajai and many of Iran's mullahs have promised to "liberate Jerusalem" and have laid blame for many of their problems -- when not on america -- on "Zionist conspiracies."
On the other hand, it now seems virtually certain that Israel has been supplying military spare parts to Iran. The July 11 crash of a chartered plane on one trip of a $30 million arms transfer deal (according to a recent report in the London Times) was one indication.
And an informed Israeli official, who refuses to discuss that ill-fated deal or to furnish data on Israeli arms sales abroad, nevertheless says, "Just because one [supply] route is gone, it is illogical to say there are not others."
If the Times article is correct, why is Israel willing to help an apparent enemy of Israel? The answer, in a word, is Iraq.
Israeli Mideast specialists have long expressed concern about rich, relatively populous, well-armed Iraq: "Iraq is an avowed enemy," says an Israeli official, who points out that the 1969 Iraqi national charter mentions "Zionism" as a national foe 35 times.
Iraq, he says, "spearheads" diplomatic, propagandistic, and military campaigns against Israel using "oil blackmail," support for Palestinian guerrillas (specifically the Arab Liberation Fund), and, most worrisome to him, a strong military and a nuclear program.
"Combine all of these," the official says, "and you get a very dangerous enemy of Israel."
By comparison, notes a specialist on Iran, Iran may rhetorically condemn Israel but it does little else. Nothing came of a 1979 promise by Ayatollah Khomeini to send militants to Lebanon to fight Israel.
Before the Shah fell in 1979, Iran and Israel had diplomatic relations and traded heavily. The Israeli Embassy in Tehran was ordered shut by Ayatollah Khomeini a few days after he took power, but reports persist of continued contacts between Israel and Iran.
The continuing power struggles and commencement last September of war with Iraq, says this Israeli official, have been Iran's main concern: "The Iranian leaders know that their main enemies are Arab and Sunni. It's a religious and racial struggle for them."
He admits that while Israel is not actively involved in the Gulf war it is clearly in Israel's interests to see the war continue in order to preoccupy Iraq.
"What we are trying to do is to encourage Iran that Iraq is not that strong and that it has weak points," the official says.He declines to specify how this might be done. (Israel's tilt toward Shia Muslims in this case is reflected in Lebanon, where Shias are being cultivated by Israelis and their Lebanese allies in the south of the country; in the north, Phalangists are doing likewise.)
At the moment, however, Iran seems in no position to take advantage of the Israeli advice, given its internal turmoil and the deterioration of its armed forces.
On Aug. 1, Iraqi Foreign Ministry officials seized upon the alleged Israeli-Iranian arms link and called in the head of the US interest section in Baghdad to blame the US for overstocking Israel and letting it supply Iran. The July 11 plane crash seems to have given Iraqi President Saddam Hussein support for his argument that there is a "Perso-Zionist" plot against Iraq.
Israeli officials say Iran has been on an armsbuying spree since late last winter when the economic boycott against it was lifted. Most of Iran's military purchases are from Europe, but supply sources also include the Soviet Union and North Korea.
The arms, however, may not be going to the Army but to the Revolutionary Guards, says an Israeli official. He believes that the Islamic clerics are attempting to prevent a massing of military power by the Army, which they feel is of questionable loyalty. The Israeli denies that Israel favored former President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr or Iranian insurgents over the Islamic clergy .