ISRAEL'S IRANIAN SYNDROME
Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu
development of the Iranian nuclear program has Israel and its
political leader Netanyahu greatly worried. The Israeli PM had
ostracized the nuclear accord of 2015 signed by President Obama to
the extent of speaking in Congress against the former American
Netanyahu had activated the Hebrew lobby of A.I.P.A.C. and the weapons lobby in conjunction with Saudi interests; something which he continues to do today with the Trump administration.
In 2011, even before the signing of the nuclear treaty between Teheran, the USA, Russia, China and the EU, Netanyahu had ordered the army’s chief of staff Benny Gantz to draw up a strategy to strike Iran on a very short executive notice. A choice that was frowned upon by the Mossad in the person of Tamir Pardo, who had resigned from his post. Even Pardo’s predecessor, Meir Degan, was against such initiative.
But Netanyahu continued nonetheless to pursue the goal of blocking the Iranian nuclear program, even when – with the Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015 – he had for the first time the advantage of realistically checking on the advancement of Iranian nuclear structures and of being able to discover any violation of the agreement by Teheran.
The advent of Trump
With the end of Obama’s administration – which was responsible for
the accord – and the advent of Trump’s, the controversy between
the USA and Iran was rekindled. Trump put an end to the
traditional foreign policy of the United States which saw them
equidistant from opposing parties in the region and decided to
side openly with Israel.
The US approach in bilateral relations has changed radically into a strategy based on threats, contrasts, retaliations and impositions. In other words, Trump chose to be the bully rather than the silent diplomat.
This change prompted Israel to also rethink its strategy and to try to scale back the regional power of Iran without ruling out the extreme option of an all out war against them.
An unnatural coalition
Apart from Trump’s verbal aggressiveness, Israel can count on the favor of other countries in the region that are bothered by Iran’s hegemony.
It is the case of Saudi Arabia, which is the other Arab contender for hegemony in the Gulf. And of the United Arab Emirates, faithful allies of the Saudis in the Yemeni war, who share Saudi fears that Iranian power put an end to their reign.
The Persian Gulf has the world’s greatest traffic of hydrocarbons in the world. The strait of Hormuz is a geographical bottleneck that is 50 km wide with one shore controlled by Iran. The Emirates have three little isles in the strait that have been occupied by Iran since the days of the Shah.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, to which these countries adhere together with other countries – and which opposes Iran – has been practically dismembered: Qatar quarreled with Saudi Arabia and sought the protection of Turkey and Iran; Oman, a country with a strong Ibadite tradition (a sect halfway between the Sunni and the Shiites), has always been against the stiffening of political stances between Arab countries; Kuwait is torn between its loyalty to the Saudi cause and the imminent danger of having its oil fields right next-to the Iranian ones; Bahrein, for what it’s worth, is more interested in sedating the dissident Shiite majority within its borders that continuously endangers the stability of its’ Sunni Emir’s power.
This unnatural convergence of interests sees potential allies in countries that were traditionally on opposing fronts of the various conflicts in the region. Today, the rule that my enemy’s enemy is my friend could have a practical value, but it is blind to the possible reactions of regional Arab communities that have been held together for decades by the demonisation of the Hebrew State. And Saudi Arabia’s Wahabism – which fueled the growth of Al Qaida and the ISIS – remains the main element of social cohesion and legitimization of the Saudi dynasty.
That Israel could find its political and military ally among the Arab countries is a distant possibility. Yes, there were visits of Saudi emissaries in Israel and Israeli messengers in Riyadh. There are rumors that these contacts were handled directly by the heir to the Saudi throne, Mohammed bin Salman. But holding talks and sharing strategies is one thing, while fighting side by side is an entirely different ball game. As was demonstrated during the war against Saddam Hussein, US presence on Saudi ground is always met by recurrent popular protests.
U.S. President Donald Trump
the nuclear accord was scrapped
One reason why the accord was cast aside was without doubt Trump’s intention of contrasting president Obama’s doing with a striking gesture.
The accord was canceled by the US but is still considered to be valid by other signatories such as the European Union, China and Russia. It was an agreement – not the best – that had the merit of allowing controls to be carried out on Iranian nuclear structures. But Israel was always against the accord, especially for one reason: it gave Iran the possibility of learning how to build a nuclear weapon without having to seek foreign assistance in doing so and the mere idea that another country in the region could scratch the Israeli nuclear supremacy was reason for much preoccupation.
But doing away with the deal brings up another problem: if the 2015 accord is canceled and there is no other form of deterrence against Iran, it could incite the development of nuclear weapons rather than halting it. In such case, Iran would have to be stopped militarily, which is what Netanyahu and Trump are perhaps envisaging as an option.
The religious factor
The controversy between Iran and the other monarchies in the Gulf is not solely a matter of political-military hegemony or of economic interests. The line dividing the two parties is religious as well: the same old Shiites against Sunnis problem.
Just like in all the other controversies originating from religious motives, differences become more difficult to iron out and extremism becomes a central issue. It is alas historically demonstrated that these controversies tend to be the most bloody and ferocious.
Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
But it is not just a religious matter. There is a second element that pits the Israeli theocracy against the Iranian one.
Israel has recently approved legislation that defines the nation a “State of the Hebrew people”. It is a law that ratifies the legitimization of Israeli settlements (while disregarding Palestinian protests and international bans). The Hebrew language is now the official tongue of Israel while the other languages (Arab – spoken by roughly 18% of the population – Druse, Christians and Muslims) will have a “special” status, which seems just a prelude to social and political marginalization.
And then there is the Iranian theocracy, which upholds the country’s destiny, both politically and socially speaking.
The divergence between the religious connotations of the two parties is such that there is little room left for a negotiated coexistence.
The hypothesis of a war
Iran has a population of roughly 80 million, making it a giant in the region. Defeating such a nation in a war calls for an enormous military effort, about 4 times what it took to defeat Saddam Hussein.
Iran is also a country that knows how to fight a war: they demonstrated as much against the then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, in the Syrian theater and in the fight against the ISIS.
Could Iran survive a war against a coalition formed by the US and Sunni Arab countries?The answer is that Iran would surely succumb.
But to put together such a heterogeneous coalition would take much time and preparation.
One could object that the war would not be a conventional conflict (which calls for a long technical preparation) but rather a series of missile strikes, perhaps against nuclear structures, centers of power and infrastructures that would bring Iran to its knees. Such hypothesis would appear more realistic and would be comforted by Trump’s words, inciting the population to rise against the Ayatollah.
However, it is widely demonstrated that wars can only be won by occupying militarily the adversary’s territory. If such occupation fails to come into effect, the enemy is not defeated but rather temporarily weakened. Such a scenario would leave room for retaliation, rancor and revenge.
In Iran’s case, it could be argued that the regime is non-liberal and that human rights are systematically violated, as is the case in most theocracies, but the Iranian people have already shown that, when faced with a foreign peril, they can put aside social discontent and fight as one.
The strength of Iran is not measurable on the military level alone: if such were the only valid parameter, the other monarchies in the Gulf – Saudi Arabia and the UAE above all others – would have been wiped out after the recurrent debacles in Yemen.
Iran has designed and produced missile systems that can easily strike Israel. This deterrent has kept the Hebrew State from striking Iran this far. Netanyahu would have already destroyed Iran’s nuclear plants if he could have gotten away with it. It is an option that has already been implemented in the past.
Also, Iran has many enemies but also plenty of friends. Iran’s friends are brought together by religion and include the countries inhabited by Shiite majorities or ruled by Shiites, such as Syria, ruled by an Alawite minority, and Iraq. Iran can also count on Russia and on the interests that it shares with Turkey.
Most of all, it can rely on Shiite volunteer militias that have acquired much military experience while fighting in Syria and in Iraq; on the Hezbollah which are the only direct enemy of Israel; on their friendship with Hamas (they could stir up another Palestinian Intifada); it can instigate the 20% Shiite minority that occupies the oil-rich regions of Saudi Arabia and could incite the Shiite opposition in Bahrain. Lastly, it could offer support – as it already does – to the Houthi Zaids in Yemen who are busy fighting the Saudis.
If the war between Iran and its enemies failed to develop into a conventional conflict or if it didn’t entail an occupation of the Iranian territory; if it were an asymmetrical war fought by proxy militias; then Iran’s power would be by far superior to that of any other Arab country in the region and even to that of Israel.
In other words, to strike Iran without destroying it fully would mean exposing oneself to endless forms of retaliation.