Israel, Iran should be wary of provoking an unintended conflict
There is no straightforward answer to the question of whether a war between Iran and her Gulf neighbors and Israel is inevitable. However, one possible response is that there is already a war taking place, albeit on a small scale, and the more pertinent question is whether its escalation into a much wider conflict is inevitable. Tehran’s behavior across the region is provocative, whether in Yemen, Iraq, Syria or Lebanon — and its masterminding of the recent attacks on Saudi oil installations can only be regarded, for all intents and purposes, as a declaration of war. Combine this with the mutual exchange of vitriolic threats with Israel and an escalation looks increasingly likely. Yet a war is avoidable and a withdrawal from the brink is possible.
Although it can’t be entirely separated from the nuclear issue, it is actually Iran’s subversive approach in the region, by way of more conventional means, which poses the main threat to regional stability. Unsurprisingly, there has been a backlash in the form of widespread anti-Iran demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, not to mention disquiet across Iran itself. Yet the greatest threat of an immediate and large-scale flare-up is of one with Israel, and possibly on more than one front. Political instability in both countries is heightening the risk of clashes.
Late last month, Israel’s air force struck dozens of targets in Syria, most of them belonging to the Iranian government and its allies, stepping up the confrontation between Israel and Iran. Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of operations deep inside that country, hitting many Iranian and Hezbollah targets, as well as those of other organizations closely associated with Tehran.
If, in the early days of these operations, Israel maintained a smokescreen of secrecy and a high level of ambiguity to allow Iran and its allies the room not to retaliate, in recent years Tel Aviv has abandoned its cautious approach in favor of openly taking responsibility and opting for clear and direct deterrence. Israel’s overall strategy has been labeled by its defense establishment as the “war between wars.” The objective of this relatively low-intensity war has been to limit the transit of weapons from Iran into the hands of Hezbollah and disrupt a military build-up by Iran and its proxies close to Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon, and by Palestinian militants associated with Tehran.
A major working assumption held by Israel’s security establishment is that, at some future date, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are likely to face the sophisticated weaponry transferred to Iran’s allies and also in the hands of Iran’s Quds Force. Disrupting or at least slowing this development while establishing deterrence is Israel’s aim. It believes this strategy will avert, or at least delay, the predicted wider-scale conflict by keeping the enemy guessing and feeling vulnerable, especially in the rather messy situation in Syria.
Immediately after the intensive raids of Nov. 20, an IDF spokesperson tweeted that it was behind these strikes on “Iranian Quds Force and Syrian Armed Forces targets in Syria in response to the rockets fired at Israel by an Iranian force in Syria” the night before. It was a blunt reminder to Tehran that Israel would not only retaliate to any military action against it, but that such retaliations would be deliberately disproportionate. And, worse for Iran, Israel has the intelligence on a bank of Iranian targets.
Israel’s overall strategy has been labeled by its defense establishment as the ‘war between wars’
Iran’s relatively muted response suggests that its leaders are, at least for now, not ready to confront Israel directly in a military conflict. In this sense, there is a commonality of interests between the decision-makers of both countries. Nevertheless, they are edging closer to a confrontation that, according to Israeli media reports, has worried Washington to the extent that it has dispatched Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to meet with his Israeli counterpart, Aviv Kochavi.
There seems to be mutual suspicion between the two allies about each other’s intentions regarding Iran’s challenges to regional stability. Israel is worried that the Trump administration is losing interest in the region and in Iran in particular. For quite some time, Israel has concluded that Washington’s highly critical rhetoric directed at the Tehran regime will not be backed up by action, and most definitely not with military force.
The US reluctance to respond to Iran’s naked aggression against Saudi oil installations or to its downing of a highly sophisticated US drone has demonstrated what some might regard as American restraint, while others see it as a sign of weakness. Meanwhile, Washington is worried that the fluid political situation, both in Iran and especially in Israel, might lead to the US being dragged unwillingly into a regional war alongside not only its close ally Israel, but other allies in the Middle East who could also get embroiled in such a conflict, willingly or otherwise.
For now, it is important to turn down the heat between Iran and Israel. For instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif’s phone call to Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s leader Ziyad Al-Nakhalah to express support for the group’s “valiant resistance in confronting the Zionist aggression against the Gaza Strip” raised the stakes and heightened the risk of a miscalculated military clash. So did the threat last week by Benjamin Netanyahu and his newly appointed belligerent Defense Minister Naftali Bennett that, should Iran establish its presence in Syria, it will “find a strong and powerful IDF that will hurt them.”
There is no suggestion that Israel, Iran or its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah are eager, or even mildly interested in, a full-blown outbreak of hostilities, but their behavior and posturing has been suggesting otherwise and, with it, the chances only increase of an unintended military confrontation. Both antagonists need to be reminded that there is very little for either to gain from an all-out conflict, while there is plenty to lose — and any such conflict could drag the entire region, and beyond, into an avoidable war.
• 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