It might be the case that in prioritizing the issue of Iran’s emerging nuclear capabilities, Israel and other actors in the international community failed to see that a major danger was embodied in Tehran’s canny exploitation of regional disputes to advance its regional ambitions. Consequently, Israel can see Iran not only via satellite images, but also across the Golan Heights’ border with the naked eye.
The nuclear deal of two years ago, as imperfect as it was, at least created a hiatus, according to most reliable intelligence assessments, in Iran’s efforts to develop its nuclear-military capabilities. But this has not stopped Tehran from pursuing its ambition to extend its presence and influence throughout the region. Whether it is in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or even Palestine, Iranian footprints are clearly noticeable.
A nuclear threat to Israel from Iran has always been a remote and unrealistic possibility. Israel has sufficient conventional and allegedly unconventional military capabilities to deter Tehran from contemplating attacking the Jewish state with unconventional weapons or even conventional ones. Yet a permanent military presence in terms of personnel or bases in Syria is a completely new ballgame for Israel.
Two hastened visits by senior Israeli officials to meet US and Russian leaders to discuss this development signify the level of concern of Israeli decision-makers. First, an Israeli delegation led by the head of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, who was joined by the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, met US President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Power in Washington.
The cease-fire agreement in southern Syria, and what it entails, were at the top of the agenda. Israel was completely marginalized in the negotiations to reach the cease-fire, as the draft agreement that was formulated by the US and Russia did not take into consideration its security interests.
Following the trip to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Sochi last week for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to express his deep concern that by the time the cease-fire is concluded, Iranian forces, Hezbollah and other Shiite militias will end up permanently closer to the border with Israel. This is a situation that Israel is adamant it will not tolerate. Neither appeals yielded the results it wanted.
The US has very little influence on unfolding events in Syria, and Russia, as much as it would like to see Iran play a much reduced role in Syria, is unable to make it happen. Cooperation between the two countries and support for the Assad regime are a matter of convenience, but their long-term outlook for Syria and their countries’ role in it are profoundly different.
In neither of the meetings were the Israelis given any guarantees that Iran’s influence in Syria would diminish. Tehran, which has invested immensely in the conflict in Syria, is in no mood to voluntarily surrender the influence it has gained there at a very heavy cost in casualties and economic terms.
The nuclear deal of two years ago at least created a hiatus in Iran’s efforts to develop its nuclear-military capabilities. But this has not stopped Tehran from pursuing its ambition to extend its presence and influence throughout the region.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has more than 1,000 military personnel in Syria and growing economic interests. Tehran has also mobilized and financed a 20,000-strong Shiite militia. It has a distinctive interest in preserving its almost only strategic ally in the Middle East.
To attain this, preserving the Assad regime, or something very similar to it, is essential. The regime’s dependency on Iran and Russia for its survival is almost absolute. This gives Iran an opportunity to consolidate its political, military, economic, religious and cultural influence.
Moreover, maintaining its position in Syria is essential to ensuring the supply line to its strategic ally, the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, and to its aspirations for greater regional power. In pursuit of this, Iran is determined to maintain pressure on Israel. With Hezbollah militarily better equipped than ever, and with Iran’s ability to inflict serious damage on Israel, permanent Iranian bases in Syria potentially present an even bigger threat to Israel.
Israel has few options, but none of them can either provide a full answer or are risk-free. It can lobby in coordination with regional powers and the international community to increase political and economic pressure on Iran. But this may yield very limited results. Iran feels so confident that its President Hassan Rouhani threatened to abandon the nuclear deal.
Alternatively, Israel could pursue a military option, as Netanyahu implied this week after his meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. This is a limited option, considering the congestion of multiple forces in this arena, in which any miscalculation could lead to unforeseen and dangerous escalation. In reality, Israel will have to learn to live with the close Iranian presence for the foreseeable future, and establish a credible deterrence to any Iranian or proxy threat.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg