The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Israel needs to be prepared for potentially dramatic consequences, including rapid deterioration towards confrontation on all Israel’s borders. Resilience and readiness to act can serve to deter provocations by Iran’s proxies. Ultimately, only a credible military threat from Israel will indicate to friend and foe alike that in a showdown, Iran will be forced to back down.

In recent weeks, events across the region offered, like a widening frame in a cinematic drama, a new meaning and a significant strategic setting for the Hamas-Israel clash in early May 2019.

Consider events in the Gulf: Four ships were sabotaged off the coast of Fujayrah. The Houthis launched a drone attack on Saudi oil facilities. Rockets were fired at the US embassy in Baghdad. All these must be read as signals by Iran that the rules of the game are changing; as have the messages about Iran’s decision to stop complying with the JCPOA, to begin to stockpile enriched uranium, and to possibly reactivate the Arak plutogenic reactor.

Together with the military, diplomatic and declarative steps taken by the Trump Administration in response, these events have produced a dramatic transformation.

Consequently, Israel’s clash with Hamas in Gaza needs to be understood in a much broader context. The clash was ignited by provocative actions carries out by Palestinian Islamic Jihad – a “fully owned” Iranian proxy. Israel’s decision to stop the fighting (to the dismay of many Israelis) – well short of exacting a full price from Hamas and PIJ for a barrage of 700 rockets, mortar shells and anti-tank missiles that claimed the lives of four Israeli civilians – must also be understood in this context. The fact is that regional realities have rapidly changed and could lead to full-scale confrontations.

What set events in motion was the US decision – a year after President Trump nixed US commitments to the Iran deal – not to renew Iranian oil purchase exemptions given to eight key countries. In addition, the Administration banned Iranian steel and iron exports, and designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization.

In practical terms this means that the Iranian economy, which is fully dependent on oil exports, can quickly come to the point of collapse. The effectiveness of this pressure on Iran can be deduced from Hizbullah conduct in Lebanon, which reflects a significant cutback in Iranian cash to that organization.

Apparently, there is a running argument within the Iranian regime as to how to manage conflict with the US. Some, like Foreign Minister Zarif, seemed ready to resume negotiations with Washington, aimed among other things at securing an exchange of prisoners held by both sides – but clearly designed to open the door to  a broader discussion.

The radical camp in Tehran rejects the notion of negotiating under pressure, and pragmatists have been forced to follow suit. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has openly attacked President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif for poorly managing the JCPOA portfolio. A burst of combative statements – including Khamenei’s assertion that the younger Iranian generation would live to see the disintegration the “rotten” American civilization and Israel’s elimination – came from leaders of the radical camp, including Qassem Suleimani, head of the IRGC’s international arm, the “al-Qods Forces.” Even Rouhani has been boasting that the “firm stand” of the Iranian people has deterred the US from acting.

Iranian leadership has also asserted that it does not want war. But this has not stopped Iran from unleashing its proxies for violent action, or from resuming the stockpiling of fissile material in breach of the JCPOA.

It can be argued that rising tensions between Iran and the US can be attributed to the absence of a sophisticated player, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who passed away in January 2017. Under Rafsanjani, the regime knew how to mask its overtures and its open channels with the US under the guise of virulent hostility toward America and belligerent statements against “the Great Satan” (and its smaller sidekick, Israel). It was Rafsanjani who kept the channels of communication open (while at the very same time planning attacks against the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel).

It was Rafsanjani who cooked-up the arms deal with the US and Israel during the Iran-Iraq war (which morphed into the Iran-Contra scandal). Prior to Khomeini’s death, Rafsanjani tried to persuade him to normalize relations with the US but was turned down. On the eve of “Desert Storm” in 1991, Rafsanjani foiled an IRGC plan to attack US forces based in Saudi Arabia. He was involved in pushing forward and promoting the talks with the Obama Administration which led to the JCPOA. His death or elimination (– the family suspects foul play), was a severe blow to the relatively liberal camp he led, and significantly undermined all covert or overt communications between Tehran and Washington.

Now, it is the radical camp now led by Khamenei and his protégé, Suleimani, which is advancing an array of aggressive responses to the economic pressures being applied by the Trump Administration.

This can get out of hand. It is true that the regime always has been keen to avoid face-to-face confrontations with the US (despite having been involved in the past in terror attacks on American targets). But as senior American officials have been making clear, Tehran can no longer hide behind proxy attacks against American targets in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Such actions will now lead to a direct confrontation with the US.

As this crisis evolves, the likelihood of a miscalculation seems to be on the rise. It cannot be ruled out that at the field level of the IRGC an offensive infrastructure may initiate a strike against the US. Alternatively, as the CIA has warned in the past, one of Iran’s proxies may choose to implement a pre-planned attack “off the shelf” as previously designed by the IRGC, on the assumption that this is the Leader’s will.

Voices in Washington are already indicating that there is conclusive proof that the sabotage off the coast of Fujayrah (one of the United Arab Emirates) was indeed a deliberate act by Iran – a violent signal of what may yet happen. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Iranian Majlis, Kheshmollah Felahat-Pishe, has spoken of “fragile” conditions in the Gulf; and even Zarif warned that the presence of too many naval units in a small space such as the Gulf may lead to an “accident.”

Both can be read as cynical warnings that the US. if it ratchets up the pressure on Iran, may be sailing in harm’s way. The Iranian regime seems to be in a dangerous mood.

Green-lighting proxy organizations to look at options for action against American targets (or to attack the Saudis from Yemen) would seem to be clearest indication that pressure is rising in Tehran. Apparently, this also accounts for the efforts by the new leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziyad Nakhaleh, to prove his worth to his Iranian masters by provoking a crisis in Gaza.

Elements close to the Khameini may have come to the conclusion, or at least now fear, that the option of just lying low and waiting until after the next US presidential elections (– which seemed to have been Iran’s chosen course of action until recently) may not be viable. The squeeze on the Iranian economy may be too painful, putting regime stability at risk.

Facing this apparent shift in Iranian tactics, and various audacious statements by Iranian officers and officials about “closing” the Hormuz Straits (– if Iran cannot sell its oil, nobody will…) the US has chosen to enhance its strategic presence in the region. A carrier task force as well as long-range strategic bombers have been deployed with some fanfare to the Gulf and to the ‘Udayd Air Force Base in Qatar.

This firm American response was further underlined by explicit warnings by the President and Secretary of State Pompeo. The latter decided to come suddenly to Baghdad, cancelling a visit to Berlin (much to the annoyance of his German hosts) as a strong signal to the Iranians that their actions are under active scrutiny. This led the Iranians, in an act of defiance, to go one step further and dramatically announce an end to compliance with significant elements of the JCPOA.

This has gone beyond words. It seems that Iran is now beginning, albeit slowly, to stockpile enriched uranium (still low grade, but this could be changed quite rapidly); and in parallel, it is threatening to re-activate the plutogenic reactor at Arak. Put together, this could mean complete abandonment of the JCPOA. Rouhani in fact gave what amounts to an ultimatum to the US and the West: Propose a new (and favorable) agreement within 60 days or face further escalation of the crisis.

The way Iran chose to ignore the stern warnings from its friends in Europe (and apparently from Russia too) proves that in fact the US which holds the key cards – even in the eyes of Tehran. This in effect disproves the claim put forward by the Obama Administration, that without the JCPOA the US would not have been able to leverage others into keeping the pressure up.

Now, while playing crisis games with both the PRC (over trade) and the PDRK (over North Korea’s resumption of missile tests), the Trump Administration now faces at the same time a primary test of its policy, its resolve and its capacity to act effectively. (There are signs of resistance to Trump’s stance from the progressive left, but most Americans basically recognize that Iran is a threat).

Under these circumstances, and given the uncertainty about Western unity, only firm pressure backed by a credible military threat – both by the US and by Israel – can force Iran to reverse course and abandon its defiant posture. An effective and firm American management of the crisis may even bring Tehran back to the table to renegotiate the JCPOA, and specifically its so-called “sunset clauses.” (These provisions mean that Iran will be able to opt for a fast break towards the bomb as soon as the middle of the next decade).

Unless the option of re-negotiation is backed by the possible use of force, it will be difficult to convince China, Russia and some of the European players to stand with the US rather than undermine Trump’s policy. They may not like Iran’s present course and do not want to see it cross the nuclear threshold; but only the fear of a violent eruption can persuade them to take action that cuts across their economic interests and overcomes their instinctive dislike of Trump’s policies.

For Israel, this means that the government, intelligence services, and above all the IDF must shift rapidly away from the local problems vis-à-vis Gaza to prepare for potentially dramatic events. A drastic deterioration towards a violent confrontation can occur in Israel’s north, south or both. As things stand, a southern scenario seems more likely, given Nakhaleh’s open warnings about “a war” this summer. Nasrallah, on the other hand, seems to rule out this option.

Cohesion, resilience, preparedness and readiness to act will contribute to the deterrence of possible provocations. At the same time, it is of growing importance for Israel to demonstrate quite clearly, to friend and foe alike, that Israel is ready and able to act against Iran if need be – despite the high price that Hizbullah and Iran are likely to exact. Only such a firm message can persuade both the US and the relevant regional players facing Iran that the evolving crisis should be thought of an opportunity and a test of wills in which Iran would be forced to back down.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

photo: Tasnim News Agency [CC BY 4.0]