An escalation of violence on the Gaza border came on Feb. 17, precisely one week after the IDF intercepted an Iranian drone over Israel, subsequently carried out broad-scale airstrikes in Syria, and an air force F-16 was downed by the Syrian military. Purportedly, the events in Gaza and the north have nothing to do with one another. What has become clear, however, is that every single footprint from Syria, Lebanon and Gaza leads straight to Teheran.
Unlike the past, this is no longer a mere tailwind of support provided by Iran to terrorist groups, nor is it just monetary aid and weapons transferred to Hezbollah and Hamas. We are also accustomed to Iranian commanders and military experts on the ground, planning and directing terrorist activity against Israel. What we have not seen, until now, is the presence of Iranian forces in Syria, directly subordinate and beholden to Teheran, without the need for Hezbollah or Hamas leaders to act as a go-between.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar are not, as we all know, great lovers of Zion, and yet they have been deterred in recent years from acting against Israel out of concern for the fates of their people – whether Shi’ites in Lebanon or Palestinians in Gaza. They know their people would pay the price for any confrontation with Israel and also know from their own experience that in the event of any military clash, such as the Second Lebanon War or Operation Protective Edge, they would bear the brunt of the responsibility. Iranian commanders and forces do not think the same way. They have nothing to deter or restrain them; after all, home in Iran is far away and they aren’t concerned that an escalation of violence would exact any type of price from their own people.
Moreover, friction with Israel serves the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in its own struggle at home to justify its existence, remain independent and preserve its power. From the IRGC’s perspective, its interests are identical to their country’s interests, an assumption that most Iranians do not accept – as attested to by the demonstrations in Iran in January under the banner: “Stop wasting money on Lebanon and Gaza, Iran’s needs come first.”
Friction with Israel also helps Iran further its advancement into the Fertile Crescent and the Levant, which it views as a vital buffer zone. To be sure, the Iranians, much like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, want to use the fight against Israel to overcome the historical distrust and fears harboured by many Arabs toward these two former empires, Turkey and Iran, both of which ruled over the Middle East for hundreds of years.
It seems, however, that Israel is not Iran’s only target. In essence, no Arab country is immune to its subversive activities. For example, Bahrain, along with Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, in turn, have all suffered the effects of Iran’s machinations. Iran’s destructiveness has been especially palpable in Yemen, which it has turned into a vanguard, similar to Lebanon, from which to threaten and even launch missiles at Saudi Arabia. We can only assume that in the future it will also try blocking shipping and flight routes in the Bab el-Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
The Iranians’ achievements in Syria and Iraq, the tailwind of support provided to them by Moscow, and finally the lack of clear and determined American policy – all enhance their sense of confidence and willingness to continue pushing the envelope.
The fact that the majority of the Iranian public, and perhaps even most of the Iranian Government, are not on board with this adventurism and warmongering is largely irrelevant because these decisions and their implementation are ultimately in the hands of the IRGC and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As long as Western countries and Russia continue viewing Iran as a stabilising force aiding in the fight against the Islamic State group, and as long as Iran is not forced to pay a price for its subversion and belligerence across the region, it will not cease or desist from its endeavours in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen. Only unambiguous deterrence and penalisation will compel the Iranians to reconsider their steps.
This has to be kept in mind if US President Donald Trump ever gets the opportunity to revisit the nuclear deal with Iran. The deal put Iran’s race toward an atomic bomb on hold, thanks to certain troublesome sanctions Iran cannot bypass, but it also gave it a green light to continue its drive into the heart of the Middle East.
Dr. Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University. © Israel Hayom (www.israelhayom.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.