As Russia prepares to deliver fuel for Iran's nuclear reactors, it is worth casting a reviewer's eye over the potential for further conflict in the Middle East. In one corner we have the Zionist state of Israel and its somewhat reluctant – although faithful-ally, the United States. In the other corner we have Iran, Lebanon and Syria and their various proxies.
In a memorandum sent to the US President, Barack Obama, former intelligence specialists warned him of Israel's likely pre-emptive strike on Iran, not for the commonly stated "threat"' of it developing nuclear weapons but to initiate regime change to remove one of Israel's most prolific critics, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. This memo was released after skirmishes broke out between the Israeli Defence Forces and the Lebanese army on the border between the two states; political analysts suggest that it is not a question of if a strike will happen but a matter of when, unless Obama steps in and pulls Israel back into line.
Looked at from the Israeli side, it can make a strike on Iran more effective by removing Syria from the equation. Not, of course, through conventional military means or the use of Israel's own nuclear arsenal; the Israelis are far more sophisticated than that. Israel would simply neutralise Syria by appeasement, completing the peace talks brokered by its once close friend in the region, Turkey, before Israel doomed the relationship with its invasion of Gaza and the assault on the Freedom Flotilla.
At the moment, if Israel was to strike Iran today Syria would have no choice but to come to Tehran's aid and support its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah in the ensuing conflict. However, commentators in Israel regard with optimism recent talks in Lebanon between Syria's President Bashar Assad, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and the host Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in which Syria's political hegemony over the region was established, pushing Iran aside and, in the process, probably weakening Hezbollah's political base in Israel's northern neighbour.
One commentator in the Jerusalem Post suggested that if Israel were to take advantage of the momentum arising from this meeting and initiate talks with Assad who has in the past claimed to want peace talks with Israel Syria could be out of the strike-on-Iran equation. A peace deal between Syria and Israel would see Syria turning its back on Tehran, which will in turn neutralise or weaken any potential retaliation from Lebanon and Hezbollah.
There is, of course, a price to pay for such a deal; Israel would have to relinquish any claim to the strategically important Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. Peace with Syria would remove the justification for the occupation, namely "legitimate security concerns". A deal with Israel would also lead to Syria normalising its relations with the US, a step Damascus would be only too happy to take for the benefit of its own strategic interests. A pact with Syria creating a new Israel-Syria-US axis would thus clear the field for the Jewish state to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear reactors, as it did against Iraq in 1981, without overt US support. If Russia is waiting to offer more than material support for Iran, this could provoke a stand-off between the old Cold War foes, Washington and Moscow. The stakes are high and Israel's actions have the potential for far-reaching consequences.
One thing stands in Israel's way, though, and that is its founding ideology's greed for more territory. Zionism is an expansionist creed and Israel's leaders have always been reluctant to give up land for peace; even after the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 Israel maintained the occupation by controlling Gaza's land, air and sea borders. Analysts suggest that this may be Israel's weak point which will make it impossible to do any deal with Syria. In turn, this may be what the government in Tehran is relying on to keep the Israeli wolves at bay. If so, it's a slender hope. Israel doesn't always do things the logical way. When it feels threatened, it has a tendency to hit out; woe betide anyone standing in the way, friend or foe. For that reason alone, it is not only Iran which must be vigilant, but also any state in the region considering peace deals with the Zionist state. So how do you solve a problem like Syria?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.