Is an Israel-Iran war inevitable?
Nov 8, 2019 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
This Update asks the question, is a major military conflict between Israel and Iran its proxies inevitable in the next few years? Increasing numbers of knowledgable Israeli security analysts are arguing that it is, and this Update explores why.
We lead with a piece on the subject from Michael Oren, the noted historian turned Israeli diplomat and later parliamentarian. He cites numerous signs that both Israel’s political and military echelons are preparing for a major conflict that they believe could break out at any time. He says the most likely scenario would be an Iranian counter-strike, likely with cruise missiles, replying to Israeli attacks on Iranian assets in Syria or another third country, and Israeli retaliation leading to all-out conflict. He paints a picture of a devastating conflict, given the missile arsenals of Iran and its proxies, and also sketches what Israel hopes the US will do in the event of such a war. To read Oren’s insightful and worrying discussion in full, CLICK HERE.
Next up is a piece from Israel Hayom canvassing the views of the possibility of such a war with Iran from former Israel National security advisor Major General (Ret.) Yaakov Amidror and academic Eitan Gilboa. Both are sure that conflict is all but inevitable, with Amidror saying the “assumption,” is that it “is not a question of if, but when.” Both also discuss how Israel might approach such a conflict. For their views, CLICK HERE.
Finally, we offer a good BBC summary of a new report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) on Iran’s increasing power across the Middle East region. The report says Iran has been successful in building networks of influence across the Middle East – particularly in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen – primarily through the militia and asymmetric warfare-building efforts of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps across the region. This, in turn, has enabled Teheran to cheaply surpass its regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia, even as Iran’s economy is being devastated by sanctions. For the complete summary, CLICK HERE. The full IISS report is available here.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Further JCPOA nuclear deal violations by Iran, including enriching uranium at the Fordow plant, using advanced centrifuge cascades to enrich, and detaining an International Atomic Energy Agency inspector.
- Some analysis of these Iranian moves from Seth Frantzman.
- More on the uprisings – in part against Iranian influence – in Lebanon and Iraq from US analyst Eliora Katz.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- An AIJAC factsheet on the significance of Iran’s latest announced breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal.
- Naomi Levin on why the resignation of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) director-general Pierre Krahenbuhl over corruption allegations is a good time for Australia to rethink our policy toward UNRWA.
- Oved Lobel on Israel’s effort to meet the threat of drones and cruise missiles from Iran and its proxies.
- Sharyn Mittelman in the Herald Sun on why teaching the Holocaust is one key to countering antisemitism in Australian schools.
- Visiting counter-terrorism expert Prof Boaz Ganor explains the ongoing terrorist threat from ISIS after leader Baghdadi’s death in a short video.
- Visting top Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari on Israel’s post-Election negotiations, and the ongoing Leifer case saga on ABC-TV News 24’s “The World”.
- Readers can see or record Yaari’s Sydney Institute lecture from earlier this week on Sky News Extra, Channel 604, on Saturday, November 9 at 9 am, 4.55 pm, & midnight. They can hear his latest interview with Geraldine Doogue on ABC Radio National “Saturday Extra” tomorrow at 7:30 am – and the interview will likely also subsequently be available on the Saturday Extra website. Finally, Ganor is scheduled to appear on Sky News “Outsiders” (channel 600) on Sunday, Nov. 9 at 10:00 am.
The Coming Middle East Conflagration
Israel is bracing itself for war with Iranian proxies, as Tehran escalates its provocations. But what will the United States do if conflict comes?
The Atlantic, Nov. 4, 2019
The senior ministers of the Israeli government met twice last week to discuss the possibility of open war with Iran.
Israel’s senior ministers have had two meetings in a week to discuss the possibility of war breaking out with Iran.
They were mindful of the Iranian plan for a drone attack from Syria in August, aborted at the last minute by an Israeli air strike, as well as Iran’s need to deflect attention from the mass protests against Hezbollah’s rule in Lebanon. The ministers also reviewed the recent attack by Iranian drones and cruise missiles on two Saudi oil installations, reportedly concluding that a similar assault could be mounted against Israel from Iraq.
The Israel Defense Forces, meanwhile, announced the adoption of an emergency plan, code-named Momentum, to significantly expand Israel’s missile defense capacity, its ability to gather intelligence on embedded enemy targets, and its soldiers’ preparation for urban warfare. Israeli troops, especially in the north, have been placed on war footing. Israel is girding for the worst and acting on the assumption that fighting could break out at any time.
And it’s not hard to imagine how it might arrive. The conflagration, like so many in the Middle East, could be ignited by a single spark. Israeli fighter jets have already conducted hundreds of bombing raids against Iranian targets in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Preferring to deter rather than embarrass Tehran, Israel rarely comments on such actions. But perhaps Israel miscalculates, hitting a particularly sensitive target; or perhaps politicians cannot resist taking credit.
The result could be a counterstrike by Iran, using cruise missiles that penetrate Israel’s air defenses and smash into targets like the Kiryah, Tel Aviv’s equivalent of the Pentagon. Israel would retaliate massively against Hezbollah’s headquarters in Beirut as well as dozens of its emplacements along the Lebanese border. And then, after a day of large-scale exchanges, the real war would begin.
Rockets, many carrying tons of TNT, would rain on Israel; drones armed with payloads would crash into crucial facilities, military and civilian. During the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, the rate of such fire reached between 200 and 300 projectiles a day. Today, it might reach as high as 4,000. The majority of the weapons in Hezbollah’s arsenal are standoff missiles with fixed trajectories that can be tracked and intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system. But Iron Dome is 90 percent effective on average, meaning that for every 100 rockets, 10 get through, and the seven operational batteries are incapable of covering the entire country. All of Israel, from Metulla in the north to the southern port city of Eilat, would be in range of enemy fire.
But precision-guided missiles, growing numbers of which are in Iranian arsenals, pose a far deadlier threat. Directed by joysticks, many can change destinations mid-flight. The David’s Sling system, developed in conjunction with the United States, can stop them—in theory, because it has never been tested in combat. And each of its interceptors costs $1 million. Even if it is not physically razed, Israel can be bled economically.
First, though, it would be paralyzed. If rockets fall near Ben-Gurion Airport, as during Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza, it will close to international traffic. Israel’s ports, through which a major portion of its food and essential supplies are imported, may also shut down, and its electrical grids could be severed. Iran has honed its hacking tools in recent years and Israel, though a world leader in cyberdefense, cannot entirely protect its vital utilities.
Millions of Israelis would huddle in bomb shelters. Hundreds of thousands would be evacuated from border areas that terrorists are trying to infiltrate. The restaurants and hotels would empty, along with the offices of the high-tech companies of the start-up nation. The hospitals, many of them resorting to underground facilities, would quickly be overwhelmed, even before the skies darken with the toxic fumes of blazing chemical factories and oil refineries.
A Hezbollah missile war on Israel could paralyse the country with millions of people confined to bomb shelters for weeks.
Israel would, of course, respond. Its planes and artillery would return fire, and the IDF would mobilize. More than twice the size of the French and British armies combined—at least on paper—the IDF can call up, equip, and deploy tens of thousands of seasoned reservists in less than 24 hours. But where would it send them? Most of the rockets would be launched from southern Lebanon, where the launchers are embedded in some 200 villages. Others would be fired from Gaza, where Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both backed by Iran, have at least 10,000 rockets. But longer-range missiles, including the deadly Shahab-3, would reach Israel from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran itself.
This presents a daunting challenge to the Israeli Air Force, which does not possess strategic bombers capable of reaching Iran and must grapple with the advanced Russian anti-aircraft weapons situated in Syria. Israeli ground troops would be forced to move into Lebanon and Gaza, house-to-house, while special forces would be dispatched deep within Syria and Iraq. Israel’s own conventional missiles could devastate Iranian targets.
But even if these countermeasures could succeed in curtailing much of the missile fire, they would also inflict many thousands of civilian casualties. This is precisely what Iran wants, its proxies preventing the flight of residents from combat areas in order to accuse Israel of committing war crimes. West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, meanwhile, would likely stage violent protests that Israel would put down harshly, setting the stage for the Security Council to condemn Israel for employing indiscriminate and disproportional force and for the United Nations Human Rights Council to gather evidence for the International Criminal Court. What Iran and its allies cannot accomplish on the battlefield, they can achieve through boycotts, isolating and strangling Israel.
Does all this seem a little far-fetched? Not to the senior Israeli government ministers who have been contemplating precisely these sorts of scenarios. And over all of them looms a pressing question: How will the United States respond?
The question is paramount for multiple reasons, beginning with America’s role in precipitating the potential for conflict. Whether inadvertently, by diminishing its principal Sunni enemies—Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Taliban, and the Islamic State—or purposefully, by signing the nuclear deal, the United States has empowered Iran. While quick to oust Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi—both Sunni—President Barack Obama refused to intercede against Iran’s Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad. President Donald Trump failed to respond forcefully to the Iranian attacks on Saudi Arabia and on international shipping in the Gulf, or even for the downing of a U.S. Navy drone last June.
Rather than a departure from long-standing policy, the hasty withdrawal of American troops from Syria appears to many in the Middle East as yet another American move that will strengthen Tehran. Few in the region will be surprised if the American president eases sanctions and negotiates with his Iranian counterpart.
But along with turning a blind eye to Iranian aggression, the United States has also provoked it. Iran has exploited the profits and legitimacy of the nuclear deal to dominate great swaths of the Middle East and surround Israel with missiles. With the expiration of the treaty’s sunset clauses, Iran could then break out, making hundreds of nuclear weapons while deterring Israeli preemption.
But if that was the Iranian hope, its aspirations were destroyed overnight by President Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal and reimpose sanctions. Faced with a collapsing economy, the regime had two painful options: Either enter into talks with Trump under conditions the Iranians find humiliating, or else initiate hostilities—first in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and if that fails, against Israel. Turning to action, the regime must hope, will prove to the United States that without sanctions relief and a renewed nuclear treaty, Iran can plunge the entire region into chaos.
Aware of these dangers, Israeli leaders nevertheless supported the undoing of a deal that they believed paved Iran’s path to hegemony and a nuclear arsenal. They fully supported the sanctions, even though they risk triggering a war. Better for it to face that risk now, they reasoned, than in five years, after Iran has completed its Middle East conquests, encircled Israel, and acquired nuclear bombs. Better for conflict to occur during the current administration, which can be counted on to provide Israel with the three sources of American assistance it traditionally receives in wartime.
The first is ammunition. Beginning with the 1973 Yom Kippur War and continuing through two Lebanon wars and three major clashes with Gaza, Israel has run low on crucial munitions. In each case, the United States agreed to resupply the IDF either by airlift or from its pre-positioned stores inside Israel. Only once, during the 2014 Protective Edge operation, did the Obama administration delay shipments of arms—in that case, Hellfire missiles—to express its displeasure over rising Palestinian casualties.
The second kind of backing is legal. Because the UN reliably votes to condemn Israel, the United States has rallied like-minded states to oppose or at least soften one-sided resolutions and, in the Security Council, cast its veto. The United States has also acted to shield Israel from UN “fact-finding” missions that invariably denounce it, and from sanctions imposed by international courts. When the Goldstone Report, filed after the 2009 Cast Lead operation in Gaza, accused Israel of crimes against humanity, both the Obama White House and the Democratic majority in Congress came to Israel’s defence.
Finally, the United States has supported Israel on the day after the fighting, in negotiating cease-fires, troop withdrawals, and prisoner exchanges, and establishing frameworks for peace. The tradition began after the 1967 Six-Day War, with the U.S.-brokered Security Council Resolution 242, and continued through the shuttle diplomacy of Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger in 1973–74 and Condoleezza Rice in 2006. Only after the 2014 fighting did Israel reject America’s offer of mediation, due to its government’s lack of faith in Secretary John Kerry.
Such distrust is absent from Israel’s relations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and there is little doubt of this administration’s willingness to supply the three traditional types of assistance. But what if Israel needs more than that? What if there were a situation in which the survival of the Jewish state were threatened? Would the United States intervene?
The answer is yes—to a degree. Every two years, U.S. and Israeli forces hold joint exercises called Juniper Cobra to strengthen Israel’s air defences. After participating as an IDF reservist in the first Juniper Cobra, in 1990, I worked with my American counterparts to deploy Patriot missile batteries in Israel during the Gulf War. Since then, the cooperation has significantly expanded, including the stationing of an American-manned X-band Radar system in Israel and the temporary deployment of the THAAD system, employing some of America’s most advanced antiballistic technology.
Though the details remain top secret, the United States is clearly committed to helping protect Israel’s skies. Whether American troops would go on the offensive on Israel’s behalf, striking Iranian bases, remains uncertain.
That ambiguity is only deepening in an election year in which the incumbent and his opponents are campaigning to end old Middle Eastern wars, not get bogged down in new ones. Polls taken after the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria showed a lack of bipartisan support for even a small-scale American military involvement in the region. Yet administration officials have repeatedly assured me that Israel is not Syria or Saudi Arabia, and that Israel can count on massive U.S. support if needed.
I continue to believe that is true. I recall President Obama’s comment to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office six years ago this week, on the last day of my service as Israeli ambassador. “The United States will always come to Israel’s aid in the event of a war,” he said, “because that is what the American people expect.” But I also remember that, back in 1973, Egypt and Syria saw a president preoccupied with an impeachment procedure, and concluded that Israel was vulnerable. In the subsequent war, Israel prevailed—but at an excruciating price. The next war could prove even costlier.
MICHAEL OREN was Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013 and, from 2015 to 2019, a member of Knesset and deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.
‘Iranian attack on Israel is just a matter of time’
And if the Islamic Republic does attack, there will have to be a massive retaliation against its interests by the Jewish state, ideally with reassurances of backup from the United States.
Israel Hayom, 05-11-2019
As Iranians took to the streets this week to commemorate 40 years since the US embassy takeover in 1979, Iran announced new violations of the nuclear deal it signed in 2015. The rogue Islamic Republic admitted that it now operates 60 advanced IR-6 centrifuges and is working on a new type of centrifuge that will work 50 times faster than what is currently permitted under the deal.
This announcement comes after Iran has engaged in attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities, shooting down an American drone, and, of course, its ongoing and aggressive efforts to build a war machine against Israel in Syria and elsewhere.
For its part, on Monday the US Treasury Department announced new sanctions against nine Iranian military commanders and officials. US President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018 and reimposed tough sanctions in an effort to curb the regime’s destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and around the globe.
Regardless, Tehran has continued to engage in destabilization efforts and heavily supports terror activity and weapons buildup in the Middle East.
Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and currently an analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, told JNS that the Iranians want to remain far away from the Jewish state, but at the same time build “a ring of fire” around it. Iran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and the terror organization is estimated to have as many as 100,000 missiles. Iran is also trying hard to create an independent war machine in Syria, which Israel has been working to dismantle. According to foreign and some Israeli reports, Israel has struck 300 targets in Syria so far.
According to Amidror, Iran realized that Israel has been succeeding in Syria, so it began to build a branch of its independent war machine in Iraq, taking advantage of the fact that the Iraqis don’t have total control of some parts of their land. For Iran, the idea is to have a military capability close to Israel, while it itself remains at a distance.
Major General (ret.)Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former national security advisor: “The Iranians want to remain far away from the Jewish state, but at the same time build ‘a ring of fire’ around it.”
“An interesting question,” Amidror said, “is what should Israel’s reaction be in such a situation? We know the head of the snake is in Iran. Will Israel go after targets in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Yemen? Or will we go directly to the head of the snake?”
Iran has the capability to attack Israel from multiple locations, including Lebanon and Syria – and now Iraq and possibly Yemen – as Netanyahu mentioned recently.
‘This will be complicated’
Eytan Gilboa, professor and director of the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, told JNS that a number of elements have changed recently that impact Israel’s preparedness and decision-making.
First, Iran attacked the Saudi oil fields. Second, the United States withdrew from Syria. And third, Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf were not met with any aggressive American answer.
“We also see Islamic Jihad in Gaza, on orders from Iran, trying to sabotage and undermine the situation there,” he said.
Like Amidror, Gilboa noted that Israel has been trying to prevent Iran from building another front in Syria, saying “this strategy has been extended to Iraq.”
He laid out the current state of affairs from Israel’s perspective. According to Gilboa, “it is obvious, for all kinds of reasons, that Iran would not attack Israel directly from its own territory. Iran lost some of the surprise that could have been inflicted on Israel had it not used cruise missiles against Saudi Arabia.”
Israel is preparing adequate answers to this kind of threat as it expects Iran to attack it with precision-guided cruise missiles and drones.
Gilboa suggested that the components of Israeli strategy must first be to reveal Iran’s plan. Then, Israel must threaten direct and severe retaliation. Finally, Israel must make it clear that Syria and Lebanon will pay the price if attacks on Israel originate on their soil.
“If Iran orders Nasrallah to attack Israel, this will be complicated,” said Gilboa. “In the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel distinguished between the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah. This is no longer the case. If Israel comes under attack, it will attack Lebanon, including Hezbollah. The same is true for Syria. Israel is trying to persuade [Syrian President] Basher Assad and Russia that if Israel comes under attack from Syria, it is Assad who will pay the price.”
Additionally, continued Gilboa, Israel must inform Russia of potential Israeli action after any attack by Iran. “These exchanges of fire between Israel and Iranian attempts to build a base in Syria is completely not in Russia’s interest, and this is why Russia is not protesting Israeli military actions in Syria,” he said.
Israel should work to procure an American statement of support and must coordinate with the United States to announce that attacks on Israel will trigger American action.
“On the face of it,” Gilboa said, “these components should create some level of deterrence. Israel’s main strategy is to create deterrence or at least limit any potential Iranian attack.”
If Iran does indeed attack, there will have to be a massive retaliation against Iranian interests.
According to Gilboa, Europe should not be expected to join in the fight against Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and support of global terrorism. They are “stupid and deaf,” he charged, and only trying to appease Iran.
Both Amidror and Gilboa agree that Iran is certainly bent on Israel in its crosshairs.
“Confrontation between Iran and Israel is unavoidable,” said Gilboa. “There is great probability for some Iranian military action; this is something Israel is preparing for.”
“Our assumption,” said Amidror, “is not a question of if, but when.”
Reprinted with permission from JNS.org.
Iran’s network of influence in Mid-East ‘growing’
By Frank Gardner, BBC security correspond
BBC, 7 November 2019
Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), the key to Iran’s strategic position across the region, is estimated to have more than 150,000 active personnel (Photo: Getty Images).
Iran is winning the strategic struggle for influence in the Middle East against its rival, Saudi Arabia, according to a study by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Iran’s regional rivals have spent billions of dollars on Western weaponry, much of it from the UK.
Yet for a fraction of that cost, sanctions-bound Iran has been able to successfully embed itself across the region into a position of strategic advantage.
It has a major influence – verging on a controlling influence in some cases – over the affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
‘Tipping the balance’
The fact that Iran has stealthily built up a network of non-state alliances right across the Middle East, often referred to as “proxy militias”, is nothing new.
Starting with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamic Republic has been seeking to export its revolutionary ideology and expand its influence beyond its borders ever since the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Tehran in 1979.
But the 217-page report by the IISS, entitled “Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East”, provides unprecedented detail on the extent and reach of Iran’s operations in the region.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran,” says the report, “has tipped the balance of effective force in the Middle East in its favour.” It has achieved this, argue its authors, “by countering superior conventional forces with influence operations and use of third-party forces”.
The key ingredient here has been the Quds Force, the external operations wing of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC).
Both the Quds Force and its leader, Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani, answer directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, bypassing Iran’s conventional military structures to become effectively an independent entity.
Since the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, the Quds Force has intensified its operations across the Middle East, providing training, funding and weapons to non-state actors allied to Tehran.
It has also developed unconventional forms of asymmetric warfare – such as swarm tactics, drone and cyber-attacks – that have allowed Iran to offset its enemies’ superiority in conventional weapons.
In April, US President Donald Trump designated the IRGC, including the Quds Force, a “foreign terrorist organisation” (FTO). It was the first time the US had named a part of another government as an FTO.
Iran reacted to Mr Trump’s decision by designating the US military in the Gulf region as a terrorist entity, a largely symbolic gesture.
Jack Straw, who was the UK’s foreign secretary from 2001 to 2006 and who has visited Iran several times, believes that Gen Soleimani’s role goes well beyond that of a military commander.
“Qasem Soleimani has basically been running their foreign policy in the region through alliances backed by force,” he says.
In response to the IISS report, a spokesman at the Iranian embassy in London told the BBC: “If the report means that Iran’s role in its region should be respected, it is a welcome sign.
“The policy of ignoring Iran did not work. Iran resisted. Iran has also successfully controlled damages of US economic terrorism. So yes, it is a powerful nation and has a lot of relations with other nations with a lot of initiatives for regional co-operation.”
Hezbollah – ‘junior partner’
Hezbollah supporters in Beirut display a picture of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Photo: Getty images)
The Lebanese Shia Islamist movement Hezbollah, which is both a political party and an armed militia, “has achieved unique status among Iran’s partners”, says the report, which documents in detail Iranian supply routes via Syria and Iraq.
Hezbollah has played an important role in conflicts in both of those countries, fighting alongside Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and assisting Iraqi Shia militias.
Although the report classifies Hezbollah as “more akin to a trusted junior partner and a brother-in-arms for Iran than a proxy”, it nevertheless says the group has become a central interlocutor for an array of Arab militias and political parties with ties to Iran.
Embedding into Iraq and Syria
The US-led invasion of Iraq and the subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime completely changed the shape of the Middle East and provided Iran with ample opportunity to take advantage.
Prior to that event, the Gulf Arab states saw Sunni Arab-ruled Iraq as something of a bulwark against any Iranian expansionism.
With that bulwark gone, Iran has successfully capitalised on its religious and cultural ties inside Iraq – which has a Shia Arab majority – to become a dominant force in the country.
It has armed and trained a paramilitary force called the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), which helped defeat IS but which many Iraqis see as a form of Iranian colonisation.
The Iranian-back and trained Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) fought alongside Iraqi forces against the Islamic State group
But Iran has not had it all its own way. The recent mass demonstrations and violence across Iraq show that young people are far from happy with their Iranian-backed government.
The report says “the PMU’s transition from a band of patriotic volunteers to an entrenched part of the country’s ruling order has cost it popular support”.
Jack Straw believes Iran may have taken on more than it can handle in Iraq.
“What’s going on in Iraq is very serious for the Iranians as they risk losing control there,” he says.
The Syrian government has long been an Iranian ally. In the country’s civil war, Iranian forces, Hezbollah and other Shia fighters, along with Russian air power, have been instrumental in helping President Assad survive and turn the tide against the rebels.
Today, says the IISS report, “Iran is embedding itself in the evolving Syrian government and informal security structures… enhancing its threat to Israel”.
Disrupting Gulf rivals
Iran would very much like the US to leave the region and to replace it as the dominant military power. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in particular, have no intention of letting that happen.
When the Arab Spring protests erupted in 2011, Iran capitalised on the unrest in Bahrain. It tapped into legitimate grievances among that country’s majority Shia population, but also helped to arm certain violent groups.
“Iran’s support for militant groups in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is primarily meant to irritate and pressure their governments, and impose a political cost for their partnership with the United States,” the report says.
The security threat posed by these groups, says the IISS, is manageable. However, the drone and missile strikes on vital Saudi oil installations in September showed just how vulnerable the Gulf Arab states are to asymmetric attacks of this nature.
Saudi Arabia had bought expensive missile defence systems from the US, but these were unable to stop this relatively low-tech attack that temporarily knocked out half its oil production capacity.
The Saudi foreign ministry has said there is “compelling evidence that the September attacks on Saudi oil installations were carried out by Iranian-made missiles fired from the north of the kingdom”. But Iran has denied any involvement.
Another think tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), also sees Iran having gained advantages through backing the groups that fit its purpose.
“Iran cannot compete with Saudi Arabia when it comes to conventional military capabilities – as such it has sought to use asymmetric tools to secure its interests and protect itself from external threats,” it says. “Relative to Saudi Arabia, Iran has backed the right players when it comes to winning the military battles.”
When Yemen descended into war in late 2014, there was very little Iranian involvement.
But after Saudi Arabia intervened in March 2015 with an air campaign aimed at dislodging the Houthi rebels from areas they had taken over, Iran stepped up its support.
The IISS report maintains this includes the supply of advanced weaponry as part of Iran’s aim to “bog down at a limited cost its rival Saudi Arabia but also to establish a forward presence in the strategic [Red Sea] area of Bab al-Mandab”.
The Yemen war has certainly bogged down the Saudis, costing them billions of dollars and triggering the launches of more than 200 missiles and drones across the border from Yemen.
“The Iranians have provided ballistic missiles to terrorist organisations, such as Hezbollah and the Houthis, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions,” the Saudi foreign ministry says.
The damage to Saudi Arabia however, while alarming, has been dwarfed by the destruction wreaked by the war on Yemen, notably by Saudi-led air power.
There have been no winners in this catastrophic war. Both Saudi Arabia and its ally, the UAE, believe their principal achievement in Yemen has been to prevent Iran from gaining a permanent foothold in their backyard.
Maximum effect, minimum cost
The report concludes that Iran is unlikely to change course while Mr Trump remains in the White House and will “continue to seize opportunities to expand its third-party capability”.
As Tehran feels the squeeze from sanctions reinstated by the president last year in an attempt to force it to negotiate a new nuclear deal, the temptation among hardline factions to lash out will only grow.
“Iran is likely to continue its defiant response to widening US sanctions,” says the Texas-based geopolitical think tank, Stratfor. “The next six weeks offer Iran several possible opportunities for conducting attacks against Saudi Arabia and other US allies in the Middle East.”
The fact that Iran now has such an extensive and geographically dispersed network of alliances gives it ample scope to conduct deniable operations at arms’ length, should it choose to.
These could range from missile and drone attacks, ambushes on US military forces in Iraq, disruption of maritime traffic around the Strait of Hormuz, to sophisticated cyber-attacks that target Israel or the Gulf Arab states.
The bottom line is this: after 40 years of steadily recruiting, funding and arming its network of alliances, Iran is now in a far stronger position than it would appear.
Yes, the sanctions are biting and its population is suffering the effects. Economically, Iran is in a dreadful place. But the IRGC’s Quds Force has built up a system of alliances that allows it to bring about maximum effect for minimum cost.
Strategically, through the network described in the IISS report, Iran has become a force to be reckoned with.