In the Iranian arena, two separate processes converged last week: the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the exchange of blows between Iran and Israel in Syria. Israeli defense officials are satisfied with the developments in Syria so far. Israel demonstrated its power, thwarted the Iranian counterattack and massively bombed Revolutionary Guards targets in Syria. Presumably neighboring countries and organizations have taken note.
Meanwhile, the Iranian authorities are preoccupied with the ramifications of Donald Trump’s decision on the nuclear deal. The military buildup led by Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, was controversial in Tehran even before the latest escalation.
Now it seems that every new move will be weighed in relation to its possible impact on the nuclear crisis. Trump’s declaration came at a sensitive time for the Iranian regime – a time of rising unemployment, climbing inflation and protests. The fear is that new international sanctions will cancel huge deals that were signed after the nuclear agreement was reached in 2015.
Soleimani still enjoys star status in Iran. A recent poll showed he was the most popular person in the country. His moves in Syria weren’t a whim but part of a long-term strategy backed by Iran’s spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei. The Revolutionary Guards now receive 40 percent of Iran’s defense budget and the state invests nearly $1 billion a year in military aid to its partners in the Middle East: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and to a lesser extent Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
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The Israeli operations didn’t stop Iran’s moves in Syria for good. It’s more likely that they’ll make the Iranians take time to rethink and regroup. At the same time, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s threats against Israel this week are best taken with skepticism. Precisely because of the movement’s success in this month’s parliamentary elections, it’s hard to believe that Nasrallah wants to destroy Lebanon’s tourism season, the cornerstone of the country’s economy, with another summer of war.
The Beirut-based, Hezbollah-linked newspaper Al Akhbar complained this week that the Arab media is adopting the Israeli narrative of the clash with Iran in Syria, admiring the Israel Air Force’s achievements and dismissing the Iranian version of events. Nasrallah himself, somewhat unusually for him, provided his listeners with a baseless description of recent events. He claimed that Iran had damaged Israel much more badly than was reported, while Israel lied about the intensity of its attacks.
While doing his master’s degree at the University of Haifa’s political science department a few years ago, Gadi Eisenkot, now chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, devoted his final project to an analysis of Nasrallah’s speeches.
The work dealt with how well Hezbollah’s future policies could be ascertained based on his speeches. For years, Israel has assessed that in his addresses, Nasrallah tends to tell the truth. But based on his comments this week, he seems to have been weaned off that habit.
The IDF is insisting that even with the current turmoil, there are opportunities as well as risks. Under this approach, Washington’s abandonment of the nuclear deal may, for the first time, get Iran to come to a new agreement and make significant concessions. At the same time, the attacks on Iranian military sites in Syria could make Damascus, Moscow and even Tehran realize that Soleimani must be restrained before he ignites the region and jeopardizes the Assad regime’s achievements in the Syrian civil war.
The messages recently conveyed by Moscow – the warm welcome to Benjamin Netanyahu on the eve of the latest attack in Syria, followed by a surprising statement by Russia’s deputy foreign minister on the need to reevaluate the nuclear agreement – have certainly not escaped Tehran. These indeed seem like positive developments, but let’s first get through May and June in peace.