The Trident alliance, through which, between 1956 and 1979, Israel shared intelligence with Iran and Turkey on a scale not seen since, was one of Israel’s most far-reaching and comprehensive foreign policy accomplishments. The program represented the vanguard of Israel’s doctrine for dealing with its neighbors and provided the nation with a grand strategy for the first time since its creation. Jerusalem’s relationship with Tehran lasted more than 20 years, until the fall of Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. Israel’s strategic relationship with Turkey continued on and off for several decades, ending with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s acerbic comments at the Davos summit in 2009. Although ambitious, Trident was just one in a series of Israeli attempts to find common ground with non-Arab allies—most of which yielded only fleeting success.

Iran and Turkey voted against the creation of Israel by the United Nations in 1947, and neither supported Israel’s request for UN membership in 1949. Nevertheless, both proceeded to recognize Israel on a de facto basis, establishing low-level or thinly concealed relations through trade missions. Iran and Turkey had a number of motives to enter into relations with Israel and maintain them at low and often deniable levels. For one, those countries’ relations with their Arab neighbors were often tense, and warming or cooling to Israel was useful leverage. Additionally, there was the U.S. dimension: Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion marketed Trident to Washington as an asset to the West against Soviet inroads into the Middle East and as a force to fight Arab radicalism. Both Iran and Turkey understood Jewish influence in the United States and perceived that a close relationship with Israel would mean that the U.S. Jewish lobby would convey their needs to Washington.

Although ambitious, Trident was just one in a series of Israeli attempts to find common ground with non-Arab allies—most of which yielded only fleeting success.

Trident also wrought regional geostrategic incentives. Israel’s achievements in the 1956 Sinai campaign, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s erratic regime in Egypt, the Iraqi coup in 1958, and growing fears of Soviet incursion all brought Iran, Israel, and Turkey into an intelligence relationship that took form in a series of separate meetings in Europe, Ankara, and Tehran from 1956 to 1958. At the first triangular meeting, heads of each national intelligence organization established an impressive array of cooperative intelligence ventures, some leading to subversion projects directed against Nasserist and Soviet regional influence.

In those days, the Israeli-Iranian aspect of the trilateral relationship was generally more active than the Israeli-Turkish dimension; Iraqi Jews who fled the Baghdad regime to Iraqi Kurdistan were then able to migrate to Israel and elsewhere via Iran. Israeli officers trained Iranian forces, and Israel sold arms to the shah. Israel’s relationship with Turkey was based on historical cooperation: Turkey sheltered Jews during the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi occupation of Europe. Ankara’s decision to enter the agreement, however, was rooted in Cold War fears of regional communism and anger over Arab support for Greece in Cyprus.

To be sure, however, from the earliest days of Trident, Ankara and Tehran would temporarily downgrade their ties with Israel whenever Arab pressure became problematic. Both Turkey and Iran allowed themselves to offend Israeli sensibilities; they believed that Israel needed secret ties with them much more than they needed Israel. While Trident flourished quietly, Turkey raised and lowered the profile of its overt relationship with Israel in accordance with sensitivities to Arab pressure over the Palestinian issue. During both the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, Turkey refused to allow U.S. military resupply efforts to use Turkish bases or airspace in order to aid Israel. In 1975, Ankara even voted for the “Zionism is Racism” resolution in the UN General Assembly; in 1991, when the resolution was revoked, Turkey abstained. Even when Turkey finally raised relations with Israel to ambassadorial level in 1991—long after Trident—it balanced this by recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization as a state. 

People march around a truck bearing a large poster with pictures of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and late Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during a rally to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Qom, 120 km (75miles) south of Tehran, February 11, 2011.
Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters

By 1979, attitudes shifted in Tehran, and Trident was all but dead. During the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, the shah joined the OPEC oil embargo, punishing countries linked with Israel and cutting off oil shipments to Israel. In 1975, Pahlavi gave a revealing interview openly acknowledging Iran’s military and intelligence ties with Israel, rationalizing them in terms of Arab hostility during Nasser’s time. “But now the situation has changed,” he added. “Israeli media are attacking us energetically. . . . We advised Israel that it cannot conquer the entire Arab world. For that you need a population of at least 20–30 million. . . . Israel commands the attention of all the Arab nations. I’m not certain there is a final solution for the problem of this confrontation.”

After the fall of the shah and the collapse of Trident, Israeli-Turkish relations maintained their early roller coaster of high and low points, corresponding with Turkey’s crises and successes with the Arab world. After a low point in the late 1980s, senior Israeli officials invested heavily in rebuilding the relationship, including helping Turkey counter the Armenian lobby in Washington. A major strategic upgrade in Israeli-Turkish relations took place during the 1990s, spearheaded by the all-powerful Turkish armed forces. Ankara concluded arms sales with Jerusalem, and Turkish leaders visited Israel. Eventually, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party’s ascent to power in 2002 under Erdogan heralded yet another downward swing for relations with Israel. The relationship’s nadir culminated in the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, in which Israeli naval commandos, in self-defense, killed nine Turkish Islamists in international waters in the course of an ill-conceived interception of a Turkish aid ship headed for the Gaza Strip.

From Israel’s standpoint, Trident was a lopsided intelligence alliance under a gloss of pompous protocol: Israel provided far better information and more intelligence know-how than it received in return. Despite its lack of real substance at the trilateral level, Trident sent an important message to the Americans, the Soviets, and the Arabs: Israel was not alone; it had important regional allies. From the point of departure of Israel’s acute isolation in the 1950s, this was of huge importance. It projected deterrence, permanence, and stability in a period where Israel found itself lost in a broader landscape of enemies.

Yossi Alpher is an Israeli consultant and writer on Israel-related strategic issues. He is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. This essay is adapted from his most recent book, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Rights to the text of this piece are reserved by Rowman & Littlefield.

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  • YOSSI ALPHER is an Israeli consultant and writer on Israel-related strategic issues. He is a co-editor of bitterlemons.org and the author of Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies, a chapter of which is excerpted here.
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