During the current pandemic, one region that was uncharacteristically quiet for some time was the Middle East. It has come back to life just when it was being assessed that the US is working overtime to shift the centre of gravity of its international security concerns to the Indo Pacific. One is tempted to immediately dive into the recent riots in Jerusalem and the sudden reawakening in Gaza, but what should concern most observers is the evolving situation between Iran and Israel, which probably bears greater strategic significance in the Middle East with unpredictable consequences. The Gaza tension in many ways is also connected to the Iran-Israel standoff. Reputed strategic affairs magazines are predicting a war-like situation between the two nations early in the near future.
Under the Trump administration, Israel had everything going for it. The emergence of the US-Israel-Saudi triangle had secured Israeli interests even more than in the Cold War period when it had unequivocal US support. Although US strategic interests were assessed to be diluting when it came to the core concern of energy (the shale gas revolution being responsible), America was in no mood to concede space to Russia in Iraq and Syria and did not wish to see a resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) terror group. Most of all, Donald Trump did not wish to allow Iran any leeway in enhancing its strategic capability; this essentially meant placing limits on Iran’s potential nuclear weapon capability and ability to launch proxies at will to destabilise any part of the Middle East and secure its interests. The assassination of the Iranian IRGC Commander General Qasem Soleimani by the US in December 2019 displayed the ends that it could go to secure its interests and that of its allies. In May 2018, Trump had withdrawn the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of July 2015 that had been signed by the Big Powers with Tehran, under which the first signals of the mainstreaming of Iran had begun and a semblance of control over its nuclear weapon ambitions had been established.
The end of the Trump era and the coming of the Biden administration promised a reversal and a return to the JCPOA, which Iran is now hard bargaining at Vienna in talks with the US. For Israel, the potential of Iran’s nuclear weaponisation has always posed an existential threat to the Jewish state. The Iran-Israel enmity has had a chequered and complex past with breakdown in relations since the Revolution in 1979; although Israel assisted Iran with weaponry during the Iran-Iraq war of the Eighties. After 1990, Iran adopted a more hardline stance as it pushed for assuming a greater leadership role in the Islamic world with enhanced support to the Palestinian cause. This gave it a higher moral authority in the light of dwindling Arab support that paid only lip service to the Palestinians. In the eighties, Iran built a system of proxies on Israel’s Lebanon border through the Shia Hezbollah. Financing, training and arming led to Hezbollah eventually becoming one of the chief adversaries of Israel, along with Hamas in the Gaza area that too emerged as an Iranian proxy. In 2003, a clandestine Iranian nuclear weapons programme was discovered. The combination of potential nuclear weapon capability and ability to proliferate proxies at will would have given Iran an out-of-proportion power in the Middle East. As a potential nuclear weapon state itself, Israel shunned nuclear weapons and thus threw the moral mantle of responsibility on the Big Powers. Iran became an international pariah with a range of sanctions imposed on it until the JCPOA was finally signed. It however became redundant with the US withdrawing from the agreement in 2018. The spectre of achievement of an earlier date for development of nuclear fuel capability by Iran started to look real, with all its consequences.
Israel has never been convinced by the international community’s negotiations with Iran. It therefore retains its strategic independence to deal with the threat as it perceives correct. Clandestine means to neutralise Iran’s progress have been launched from time to time. Spies deployed months in advance to plant explosives inside an Iranian nuclear plant, a lethal cyber-attack to corrupt computers that control centrifuges spinning uranium, and automatic fire on a leading nuclear scientist by remotely activating a machine gun in Tehran have all been tried out. Delay yes, but stopping the nuclear programme has not been achieved and this worries Israel. Possession of nuclear weapons capability by Iran in future will create asymmetry although the effect of this scenario will be minimal because of virtual US security guarantee for Israel. Yet living with nuclear weapons in the possession of a sworn adversary in the neighbourhood that threatens its destruction is not the least bit comfortable for Israel. Can Israel therefore do anything within its own capability to confront Iran and execute a regime change? Without common borders between the two countries, it is essentially airpower, missilery and proxies that will make up the arsenal, the latter only in the possession of Iran. Israel cannot expect Arab support in any such venture except clandestinely. Israeli security officials often mention the presence of a very large arsenal of Iranian missiles in Lebanon and Syria, almost four times more than the capability of Israel’s iron dome anti-missile system to handle. It also faces the challenge of proxies on ground and Hezbollah in the north undertaking conventional operations as against sub-conventional ones. Israel’s famous proactivity, as displayed in the Six Day War in 1967 when it knocked out the Egyptian Air Force on the ground in one swoop, may not easily be repeated against Iran unless there is enough provocation for the US to be involved directly. The latter situation does not fit into the matrix of the international order today.
Iran should assess no major advantage from upping the ante at this stage when its move out of sanctions is under negotiation by a more reasonable US leadership. However, rising tensions in the Middle East directly related to Israel’s security would place a pause on US-Iran negotiations too. Is this the intent of some of the events whose timing at this moment appears inexplicable? The pull of the Middle East has reappeared, it seems, to keep the US centred here once again.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir (email@example.com)