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What is this Israel-Iran tension leading to?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) in Washington, US on 6 March 2018 [Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency]

It does not matter whether or not the evidence revealed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the Iranian nuclear programme is true. The recent Israeli media reports quoting security and military sources saying that Iran is preparing to launch missile strikes against Israel via its loyal forces in Syria are also unimportant.

What is important is the objective or purpose behind the political and media propaganda against Iran promoted by the Israeli occupation government at this specific time. Is it really stemming from Israel’s fear of an Iranian military reaction, the signs of which have not yet appeared? Or are these preliminary steps to offer a fig leaf of legitimacy to Israeli military action against Iran in Syria or Lebanon?

The current rules of engagement between the two sides are uncomfortable for both, despite the fact that Israel has a lot of room to manoeuvre and Iran doesn’t. In Israel’s case, its repeated air strikes do not weaken the Iranian military presence in Syria nor do they prevent Iran from distributing weapons and advanced military equipment. Israel’s room to move does not seem enough for it because it may change at any moment if Russia decides to intervene and stop the Israel Defence Forces from carrying out any qualitative military action in Syria.

For Iran, while the current rules of engagement do not prevent it from strengthening its presence in Syria, they do not allow it to retaliate militarily against Israel’s attacks for many reasons, some of which are legal while others are political and linked to the nature of the international community. There are also other reasons related to the military balance of power between the two sides. Faced with this situation, Israel seems determined to take advantage of the current regional-international situation, especially with the presence of a US administration eager to punish the government in Tehran.

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This does not mean that Israel would wage a war against Iran directly, or vice versa. This is impossible, because such a war would be destructive for both sides. Iran is suffering from clear economic weakness; its regional allies — Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — are completely drained; and such a war would destroy Iran’s strategic presence in the region. The same goes for Israel, as it would not risk sustaining hundreds of advanced missile strikes. In addition, ever since the 1973 October War the decision to go to war has been in the hands of the US, which will not allow major battles to occur that have the potential to threaten global oil production.

The current rules of engagement will remain the same, but two important developments will happen: the US will intensify its economic siege on Iran and Israel will expand its military attacks in Syria, moving from deterrence to disabling. The two developments are based on American and Israeli assessments that Iran is unable to change its policy across the region due to its ideological and sectarian makeup, and because this involvement in Arab geopolitics constitutes a strategic advantage that it could play in order to establish itself as the strongest player in the region after Israel. This would give it the power it needs to negotiate with the West as a regional player whose interests must be taken into consideration in major agreements affecting the region.

Based on this, the Israeli political and media campaign can be put in the correct context. First and foremost, it is a message to Tehran telling it not to respond militarily to any qualitative Israeli attack inside Syria, as such a response would have devastating consequences that neither Damascus nor Moscow could bear.

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This is the issue that Netanyahu is discussing with Putin in Moscow during his surprise visit. The issue is not a matter of Russia deterring Iran, as that would not require such a visit by the Israeli leader. It is a matter relating to tangible Russian measures, such as refusing to provide Damascus with a sophisticated missile system like the S-300, along with preventing Iran from distributing advanced missiles inside Syria.

Nuclear Deal: Israel is behind it - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Nuclear Deal: Israel is behind it – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The Russian-Israeli understanding seems to be somewhat complicated, as Moscow is very upset by the magnitude of the Israeli attacks, because it exposes Russia and makes it look helpless. On the other hand, Moscow cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening because Israel’s continued attacks could undermine the Russian efforts to maintain the existing — albeit difficult — balances, and cost it its place as the guarantor of strategic stability in Syria, for all parties, including Israel, which has coordinated its actions with the Russians for years.

Today, Russia is facing three problems: its surrender to the vision of the political system; its forced obligation to take into consideration the interests of its Astana partners (Iran and Turkey); and its inability to deter both Iran and Israel. In light of this, the Syrian arena will remain the same in the upcoming phase, and it will remain the arena for international-regional engagement.

This article first appeared in Arabic on Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 11 May 2018

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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