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People in Tehran on April 18 walk past a mural depicting Iranian missiles.ARASH KHAMOOSHI/The New York Times News Service

Events in the Middle East have been dominated for decades by the covert struggle between Iran on one side, and Israel and the U.S. on the other – a shadow war now on the verge of exploding into direct conflict.

The old pattern saw Iran and its allies strike at Israel and Jewish targets around the world. U.S. military bases in the Middle East have also been frequent targets.

Israel, in turn, was blamed for a series of assassinations inside Iran targeting the country’s top nuclear scientists. As the battlefield widened, Israeli warplanes repeatedly hit Iranian targets inside Syria, an ally of Iran, including on April 1 when Israel bombed an Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus. That assault killed seven people, including two top commanders in the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, according to the IRGC.

It also set in motion a series of retributive attacks that have pushed the conflict between Israel and Iran closer than ever to all-out war. The apparent Israeli strike on Friday targeting the Iranian city of Isfahan was in reply to Iran’s launching of more than 300 missiles and explosive drones on April 12, though most of those projectiles were shot down by Israel and its allies before they reached their targets.

But the two countries weren’t always foes. For decades before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Israel and Iran cultivated each other as allies. Iran was the second Muslim country, after Turkey, to recognize the Jewish state after its 1948 Declaration of Independence.

After the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967, the two countries co-operated on the Trans-Israel pipeline – a project that transported Iranian crude from the Red Sea port of Eilat, at the southern tip of Israel, to the Mediterranean port of Ashkelon, and then onward to markets in the West. It was a joint venture between Israel’s left-wing government, headed by then prime minister Levi Eshkol, and the oil-rich regime of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of pre-revolutionary Iran.

The years that followed were a time when David Menashri, an Israeli academic, felt welcome living and studying in Tehran. “I didn’t see any animosity toward Israel. Relations were very good. An Iranian politician told me it was like a marriage without a contract,” said Prof. Menashri, who spent two years in Tehran in the late 1970s and later was founding director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

That period of co-operation ended with the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his angry followers. The newly born Islamic Republic viewed Israel in the same light as the shah they had freshly deposed – as a tool of the United States, a colonial power that refused to leave the Middle East alone. There was also lingering anger over the role Israel’s Mossad had played in training the shah’s hated Savak security service.

But despite Ayatollah Khomeini’s rhetoric, the Islamic Revolution didn’t immediately turn Iran and Israel into enemies. Israel continued to supply weapons and intelligence to Iran throughout the latter’s 1980-88 war with Iraq, seeing Iran’s Persian population – despite the nature of the new regime – as natural allies in a majority Arab region.

It was only in 1982, when Israel launched an invasion of Lebanon to root out Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, that Israel’s policy of building an “iron wall” against its neighbours came into conflict with Tehran’s aim of establishing itself as a regional power through the Shia Muslim populations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

After driving the PLO out of Beirut, Israel decided to ensure the security of its northern border by occupying predominantly Shiite southern Lebanon, provoking an 18-year insurgency that gave birth to Hezbollah, which fought Israel to a standstill in a 2006 war and is now the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon.

“The people who happened to live in south Lebanon were Shia and they happened to be close to Iran, so it’s as if Iran itself was occupied,” said Hossein Derakhshan, a London-based media analyst. “From then on, it became a very different thing.”

Mr. Derakhshan, a dual Iranian-Canadian national, spent six years in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison after a pair of trips to Israel in 2006 and 2007 that he hoped would help residents of the two countries understand each other better through posts on his popular blog. He says he was jailed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in 2008, “not for what I’d said or what I’d done, but for breaking the taboo of engaging with Israel.”

Hezbollah is now a key player in the so-called “axis of resistance” that stretches from Tehran to Beirut, through territory controlled by proxy militias and friendly governments in Iraq and Syria. Iran has also provided financial and military support to the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, although Tehran does not have direct control over Hamas – a Sunni Muslim movement. (Iranian officials have said they were not consulted before Hamas launched its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which left more than 1,100 Israelis and foreigners dead and saw the group take hundreds more people hostage in the Gaza Strip.)

The glue that holds the axis together is a shared opposition to the idea of a Jewish state that calls Jerusalem, the third-holiest city in Islam, its capital. Anger over Israel’s 57-year occupation of the Palestinian territories has risen to fury during the war that Israel launched against Gaza after Oct. 7. A relentless ground-and-air attack aimed at rooting out Hamas and rescuing the hostages has left more than 30,000 Palestinians dead, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, and reduced much of the densely populated coastal territory to rubble.

Prof. Menashri said the Palestinian issue has provided Iran and its allies with a unifying cause. “If you are an Islamic revolutionary, the best way to promote their prestige in the Islamic world is to raise the flag of Jerusalem. It’s not that they love the Palestinians – they do not. But it’s very convenient to raise their flag.”

He’s hopeful the limited scale of Israel’s response to Iran’s April 12 barrage will slow or halt the current cycle of escalation. But, he said, an end to the hostility between Israel and Iran would likely only come as part of a regional peace that delivers a Palestinian state – something that seems nowhere in sight.

“The only solution we have is to make peace with the Palestinians. That’s the main issue. Even the Iranians say they will accept any agreement the Palestinians accept,” Prof. Menashri said. “Ayatollah Khomeini had the ability to end the war with Iraq after eight years. Today there is no one on the Iranian side who has the courage, and we have the same problem.”

Mr. Derakhshan says that Israel has turned to the hawkish far-right over the past 18 years, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in power for most of that time, and that the Iranian regime that responded to his travels by arresting him has hardened even further.

He fears the hatred and violence will continue to build for as long as hard-liners lead in both Israel and Iran. “Both countries are facing a reality where all the moderate and more pragmatic groups have been purged by the radical one, which is why this is going toward a real military confrontation.”

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Evin prison is in Tel Aviv. It is in Tehran. This version has been updated.

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