Iran and Israel: simmering tensions threaten to boil over

Gulf tanker crisis has masked depth of the Israel-Iran confrontation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Reuters

From a US “maximum pressure” campaign running out of steam to flouting western sanctions on Syria, international confrontations have favoured Iran since Washington pulled out of the nuclear deal last year.

The exception has been Israel, the only country that has taken on Iran since its war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988.

Israel’s increased strikes on Iranian-controlled compounds in Syria and reportedly Iraq, have been launched to stop Tehran from eroding Israel’s regional influence by giving greater weapons capabilities to Shiite militias, particularly Hezbollah.

Israel sent drones to Hezbollah’s nerve centre in the southern suburbs of Beirut, sparking a flare-up last week.

The Israeli elections on September 17 and Hezbollah’s need to preserve domestic political gains limited the hostilities.

The tension remains the closest to a Middle East time bomb even as the US shows signs of backing off from the confrontation with Iran in the Gulf, turning the focus back on the Levant.

US President Donald Trump fired national security adviser John Bolton, a major proponent of a tough line against Tehran.

Tehran’s gains have also included failed US and UK attempts to stop an Iranian supertanker delivering oil to the Syrian regime.

The EU has also bowed to Tehran’s demands to circumvent US economic pressure, undermining a historic alliance between Washington and Europe.

But regionally, providing Iranian proxies with missiles and other weapons prompted Israel to extend its of bombing operations into Syria and Iraq.

In doing so, it strained rules of engagement that had helped to limit the carnage from confrontations in the past 25 years between Israel and Iran.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Reuters
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Reuters

Adding to the muddled picture has been Hezbollah’s development into a regional militia organising others outside Lebanon.

Among them are less sophisticated copies of Hezbollah in Iraq and militias in the Quneitra and Deraa governorates near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Large rebel areas in the two governorates surrendered to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in 2018 under an arrangement between Russia, the US and Israel that was supposed to keep Iranian forces out.

But Hezbollah and other proxies moved in, prompting Israeli attacks.

In 1996, an international arrangement, called the April Understanding, was reached to contain the violence after Israel’s “grapes of wrath” operation in Lebanon.

Although the two sides breached the agreement, the theatre of war became somewhat defined and civilian casualties were generally less.

After the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the UN drew a Blue Line as a temporary border between Israel and Lebanon.

Hezbollah crossed that line in 2006 and conducted a deadly raid against an Israeli patrol, sparking massive Israeli retaliation and a 34-day war.

Since then, Hezbollah made two forays across the Blue Line. In early 2015, Israel struck a Hezbollah convoy in Quneitra.

The attack killed a general in Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a son of the late Imad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah mastermind. Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus in 2008.

Retaliation for killing the Iranian general came weeks later with a Hezbollah ambush on an Israeli patrol across the Blue Line in the disputed territory of Shebaa Farms, killing two Israeli soldiers.

Hezbollah conducted a similar raid last week across the Blue Line in response to the killing of two of its members in Syria and increased Israeli drone activity over its strongholds in Lebanon. But there were no Israeli casualties.

Hezbollah has reacted seriously against Israel only when Iranian or one of their own was killed in Israeli operations.

The other proxies have been expendable, such as 18 Iraqi and Syrian militia members killed this week in an Israeli raid on a Syrian town near the Iraqi border.

But Iran may need to preserve its credibility with the proxies through a strong retaliation at some point, adding to the possibility of a larger flare-up.

Hezbollah would also fall under pressure as the leading member of an international coalition led by Iran, although Israel has made it clear that the next war would cost Lebanon dearly in infrastructure and internal displacement.

But the scenario for the next war might not only cover Lebanon, Syria or Iraq.

After the February 2008 assassination of Mughniyeh, there was no response beyond verbal tirades from Hezbollah.

But rockets fired by Iranian-backed Palestinian militants from Gaza into Israel increased sharply, escalating into a three-week war by the end of the year.

Although Palestine remains a national cause among the Gaza players, diplomats in the region at that time regarded the war as a new form of Iranian retaliation.

Whether the same could hold true this time depends on how much the militants are willing to be seen as Iranian tools in a more regional conflict.

Updated: September 12, 2019 09:56 AM


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