March 22, 2019

COLLISION COURSE: Will the Escalating Tension Between Israel and Iran Lead to War?

With apologies to poet T.S. Eliot, May, not April, is the cruelest month. That is, if you care to believe the warnings — some grave, some not as dire — of Israeli officials and policymakers.

It will be the most dangerous month of the past 50 years, said former head of intelligence Amos Yadlin. It will be sensitive, but the 50-year pronouncement might be an exaggeration, said former head of intelligence — and also former lieutenant general, defense minister and prime minister — Ehud Barak.

And what “dangerous” means is that a war might break out, the result of deliberate designation or a miscalculation.

Why May? Because on May 12 President Donald Trump is likely to announce his decision to opt out of the Iran deal. He has said he hated this deal, was an early and fierce critic of it, and remained committed to see it dismantled. Some Israeli decision-makers are not pleased with the possibility of a vacuum; a better agreement is unlikely to materialize, they say, and with no agreement, the Iranians could decide to go back to enriching weapons-grade nuclear material. But the official government position, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reiterated, is that no agreement is better than a bad agreement under which the Iranians can advance their plans uninterrupted.

May is problematic for a lot of other reasons. The United States officially will move its embassy to Jerusalem mid-month; a few days later, the Palestinians will mark the Nakba — their Day of Catastrophe. More clashes near the Gaza border are expected around these dates, and a few days later, when Israelis mark Jerusalem Day — the anniversary of the city’s reunification.

All of this will be tense, and all of this comes in the wake of other tension-escalating developments. An attempted Iranian drone attack inside Israel, Israeli attacks on Iranian forces in Syria, the attack by the U.S., France and Britain on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria, Trump’s declared intention to pull U.S. troops out of Syria entirely, Russia’s role in the region, and the list goes on.

Palestinian Nakba Day.

May is problematic for a lot of other reasons. The U.S. officially will move its embassy to Jerusalem mid-month; a few days later, the Palestinians will mark the Nakba – their Day of Catastrophe.

Would this lead to war? It might not. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, while blaming Israel for escalating “tension by violating Syrian airspace,” also negated the belief that “we are headed toward regional war.” But a warning followed: If Israel continues “to violate territorial integrity of other states, there’ll be consequences.”

Israeli military analysts believe that Iran already is looking for a way to punish Israel for previous attacks in Syria, and is not going to wait for another violation of “territorial integrity” to serve as a pretext for retribution. But even if Iran decides to wait for the next round before taking action, that doesn’t mean much because another Israeli attack is more a certainty than a possibility.

Of course, Israel is hardly keen about having a war with Iran, but it is even less keen about the alternative: letting Iran build a permanent base of operation in Syria, not far from the Israeli border. Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described it colorfully by saying that “no matter the price, we will not allow a noose to form around us.” By “no matter the price,” he means war. The noose means Iran establishing its presence in Syria.

Simply put, the problem is that Iran seems determined to entrench in Syria, and Israel is determined to prevent this from happening. Thomas Friedman described it at The New York Times in similar fashion: “I’m sure neither side really wants a war. It could be devastating for Israel’s flourishing high-tech economy and for Iran’s already collapsing currency. But Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force seems determined to try to turn Syria into a base from which to pressure Israel, and Israel seems determined to prevent that.”

No one, or almost no one in Israel’s establishment, argues against the need to prevent Iran from building a base in Syria. Diplomats and officers, politicians and planners — all agree that a permanent and significant Iranian presence in Syria is a red line for Israel. And of course, when such consensus emerges, two possible conclusions can be reached: 1) this is a no-brainer: Israel truly has no choice but fight to remove this danger; 2) group-thinking prevents Israel from looking for alternatives or from realizing that Iranian presence in Syria is not such horrific scenario.

An anonymous former minister, quoted by columnist Ben Caspit, framed it in this way: “This arouses my suspicions. It creates an unhealthy situation in which the prime minister and ministers do not stop for a minute to ask themselves, ‘Is this scenario truly unavoidable? Do we have an iron-clad reason to embroil ourselves in a war that might cause thousands of deaths on the Israeli home front as well?’ ”

And remember — all this tension comes before the shockwave that could follow a decision by the U.S. to pull out of the nuclear agreement. All this comes before we know for sure what Iran’s response  will be to this decision. Iran’s nuclear program is what makes some Israeli leaders lose sleep, makes them ponder doomsday scenarios, as Netanyahu did — he does almost every year — on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The agreement with Iran now under renewed consideration, “released the Iranian regime from its chains and since has devoured country after country, similar to what happened in Europe in the 1930s.” And while Israel continues to vow to prevent Iran from having the capabilities to annihilate Israel — Iranians continue to vow to do just that: ”If you provide an excuse for Iran, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be razed to the ground,” said Maj. Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Israel, he predicted, will be destroyed within 25 years. That is, five years short of its 100-year anniversary.

So what will Iran do if Trump opts out of the agreement? Iran’s leadership might say that if the U.S. opts out, so do we — and return to enriching uranium, thus rolling the ball back into Trump’s court. Or Iran could continue to operate as if there is still an agreement, so as not to give the U.S. or Israel a pretext to launch a large-scale attack on its nuclear infrastructure. A senior Israeli official who requested not to me named told me this week that he is quite certain that this will be the course Israel will take “because of Trump — they know that his actions cannot be predicted and do not want to risk war with the U.S. under him.”

Germany, Britain and France have tried without success to find a middle ground that will relieve Trump of having to make a decision on the agreement. This can still happen if the European Union hurries to impose a few additional sanctions on Iran, thus tossing Trump a lifeline he could use by announcing that he was able to strengthen the “weak” agreement signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Until now, the talks held in Brussels resulted in failure. It’s possible that Iran’s restrained response so far, amid Israel’s aggressive approach, is because of these talks. Iran does not want to give Trump more talking points with which to pressure Europe to alter the agreement.

The reluctance of the U.S. to have skin in this game of geopolitical battle for power sends an emboldening message to Iran. A less involved U.S. is Israel’s fear and Iran’s hope.

Trump’s role in this unfolding drama is interesting. On the one hand, he is the menacing presence that could tame Iran, merely because he is the current occupant of the White House. “They surely are more afraid of him than they were of Obama,” the senior official told me. On the other hand, it is Trump whom Israel can’t persuade to keep U.S. forces in Syria. The reluctance of the U.S. to have skin in this game of geopolitical battle for power sends an emboldening message to Iran. A less involved U.S. is Israel’s fear and Iran’s hope. A less involved U.S. means a more involved Russia — and Russia’s interests are not always easy to fathom.

Russia surely does not want an all-out war in the region. Not when it is about the host the World Cup, and political stability will play a major part in whether the event is successful. Not after the World Cup, when others might prompt Russia to urge calm. But calm under what circumstances? Will it be calm because Israel no longer worries about Iranian presence in Syria, or will it be calm because Iran no longer has to worry about Israel attacking its forces in Syria?

There is no way to confidently predict how this complex scenario will unfold. Iran must consider its weakened economy in its decision making. Israel must consider its whole northern front – Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Hezbollah — while keeping a watchful eye on Gaza and preventing any eruption of violence in the West Bank. Russia’s interests are global, and its decisions in Syria will be closely linked to its other objectives, including its relationship with the U.S. Trump has not made his intentions clear: Is he committed only to opting out of the agreement with Iran, or also to preventing Iran from gaining more power, including nuclear capabilities?

Donald Trump, a candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination for President of the United States, appears at a rally against the Iran Nuclear Deal on the West Lawn of the US Capitol in Washington, DC on Wednesday, September 9, 2015. Photo via Newscom.

The reluctance of the U.S. to have skin in this game of geopolitical battle for power sends an emboldening message to Iran. A less involved U.S. is Israel’s fear and Iran’s hope.

For all of these players, war is a not an appealing prospect. For all of them, preventing war is a priority, but not necessarily the highest priority. Israel, wrote veteran military analyst Alex Fishman, “probably reached the conclusion the military and diplomatic tools it has been using so far to stop the Iranian entrenchment in Syria are not bearing fruit. What other avenues of actions are there? For example, putting out a fire using a lot of fire, in the hopes Israel could control the flames throughout the entire process of extinguishing the fire.”

In other words: Israel might decide that war, which is never desired option, is still better than the outcome if a war doesn’t break out. And what is true for Israel is also true for Iran (Iran doesn’t want war — it wants to win without having to fight a war), and for Russia (it doesn’t want war, but what will be the cost it pays for preventing it?), and the U.S. (why would the U.S. want war? Maybe to stop Iran from becoming a real threat to world stability), and Saudi Arabia (it already is fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen), and Lebanon (if Iran makes a decision, Lebanon will not have much choice), and Hezbollah (same as Lebanon), and Hamas (to divert the attention from its failure to govern) and all the others (yes, there are still others).

This policy of brinkmanship, of acceptance of the possible necessity of war, wrote Fishman, is one “with a very high level of risk and gamble.” He is right. May will be a dangerous month.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at