Tensions between Israel and Iran have hit a new high following last weekend’s unprecedented military clashes inside Syria. The fighting has intensified fears that the Middle East is heading for all-out war. But such alarming predictions assume both protagonists standing toe-to-toe, actuallywant to fight. Is this reallytrue?
Iran is portrayed as a wanton aggressor, especially by the Trump administration and the Saudis. It has steadily expanded its military presence in Syria since supporting Bashar al-Assad after 2011, deploying Afghan and Pakistani Shia militias, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and its own Revolutionary Guards.
Its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, permanently upped the ante in 2005 when he allegedly called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”. His exact words are disputed, but the sentiment behind them has not been convincingly repudiatedby Tehran. Many Israelis remain convinced that Iran poses an existential threat.
Emboldened by a belief that Assad is winning, Iran is turning its eyes, and guns, on Israel – or so Israeli leaders believe. Their “red lines” – forbidding a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria and the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah – are being ignored.
Israeli commanders are particularly exercised by Iran’s construction of an underground factory in Lebanon that will, they say, provide Hezbollah with long-range, precision missiles. There was talk last week of taking the fight to Iran, rather than waiting to be attacked – as happened in December, when the Israeli forces reportedly destroyed an Iranian-built military facility at al-Kiswah, near Damascus.
The temperature is certainly rising. Last weekend’s clashes saw several “firsts”. It was the first time Iran openly engaged Israel, sending a drone into its territory; the first time an Israel combat aircraft has been shot down since 1982; the first time Israel openly targeted Iranian assets in Syria – a command centre and missile batteries around Damascus.
But for all the fire and fury, Iran’s intentions remain opaque. The Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force in Syria commanded by the infamous Major-General Qassem Suleimani,has links to radical-conservative factions in Tehran that routinely threaten to “erase the Zionist entity”.
While sympathetic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is usually obliged to retain some sort of balance with pragmatist factions represented by Hassan Rouhani, the popularly elected, two-term president. Recent street protests were a reminder that the cleric-led regime is vulnerable to pressure from within. The demonstrations were primarily about economic grievances, but Iran’s costly involvement in foreign conflicts such as Syria and Yemen is a sore point. A new regional war could be political suicide for the regime.
Iran’s leaders, right and left, know open conflict with Israel would give Trump the excuse he yearns for – to tear up the nuclear deal, reimpose swingeing sanctions, gang up with Saudi Arabia, and possibly order military intervention. Some in Iran would welcome a showdown with the Great Satan. Most would not.
Other members of the pro-Assad coalition would oppose a wider war. Russia is trying to extricate itself militarily and secure a peace settlement. It has no interest in provoking Israel. Indeed, it wasPresident Vladimir Putin called Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last weekend to demand the air raids ceasebefore things got out of hand (and Russians in Damascus got hurt). Likewise, Assad is focused on eliminating remaining resistance in rebel holdouts such as Idlib and on reconstruction, not on opening a new western front. And Hezbollah bloodied in Syria, is said to be keener on fighting this year’s Lebanese elections than fighting the IDF head-on.
Does Israel want another war? Probably not. Other considerations aside, it is facing a political crisis over bribery allegations against Netanyahu. But as in Iran, there are hawks who relish a scrap. Israel has mounted more than 100 raids in Syria in 18 months and their frequency is growing.
The hawks cite Israel’s superiority in weaponry and other assets. Despite losing a combat aircraft last weekend, Major-General Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence, claimed victory. “Israel demonstrated excellent capabilities in defending its airspace ... and it established its ability to leave Damascus exposed after destroying major components of the regime’s air defence system,” he wrote.
Whether this is true or not, other factors militate against war. All-out conflict with Iran in Syria could quickly morph into a titanic three-front struggle with Lebanon and Gaza. It would be no use Israel looking for help from its secret new friends, the Saudis: hatred of Iran does not cancel out visceral enmity with Israel. And who would bet Israel’s future on meaningful, timely assistance from mercurial Trump? As in the past, Israel could be left to fight alone. And Iran is a different proposition from the Arab armies it has fought in the past. What it lacks in sophisticated weaponry, it makes up for in numbers and determination – as Saddam Hussein discovered during his ruinous 1980s war with Iran
For both countries, all-out war, right now, is a losing proposition. But if Iran refuses to leave Syria and continues to expand its military presence there, and if Israel continues its cross-border raids, something big, sooner or later, is going to blow.