The conflict between Israel and Iran entered a new phase on Monday, which combines a number of dimensions – military and intelligence, diplomacy and public diplomacy. In the evening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed the “Iranian nuclear archive,” tens of thousands of secret documents that reached Israeli hands by covert means. Less than 24 hours earlier, Iranian military sites in Syria were bombed from the air, in an attack once again attributed to Israel.
Netanyahu is conducting a campaign to achieve two different goals. In the international arena, it seems as if he wants to give U.S. President Donald Trump another little push toward an American decision to abandon the Iran nuclear agreement. And in Syria, Israel looks more determined than ever to prevent Iranian military entrenchment. There is a certain connection between the two tracks. Israel apparently believes that the pressure the Iranians are under as Trump’s announcement gets closer, together with economic distress and increasing protest at home will make it difficult for Tehran to respond immediately and forcefully to the bombings.
In the hours that passed between the attack and the prime minister’s press conference there was a certain fear among the public, which was fanned by fake news reports spreading on WhatsApp that a war with Iran was imminent. That concern proved to be exaggerated, and in the evening Netanyahu put on the performance of the year. One can assume that displaying the binders from the Iranian archives on live TV left no small impression on at least some Israeli viewers.
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Beyond the impressive intelligence achievement, there remains the question of the significance of the revelations. In short, Israel is saying that it has new, persuasive proof of its old claim that the Iranians were lying through the negotiations process with the large powers and was operating a secret military program all along. These documents, Netanyahu said, had been shown to the Americans and would soon be submitted to other countries.
The debate from here on in becomes interpretive: Is there a smoking gun that proves that the Iranians continued their development efforts after 2015? Retired senior Military Intelligence officials who watched the press conference couldn’t discern any such proof at this point. In an interview with Haaretz in early April, Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot argued that the Iranian nuclear agreement, despite its flaws, “Is working now.” One can imagine that his assessment was not greeted with great enthusiasm in Netanyahu’s office.
The army is with him
After the attack on Syria attributed to Israel on Sunday night, at least the fifth since September, there seems to be little room for doubt. Israel is determined to uproot the Iranian military presence from Syria.
Following the previous attack at the T4 airbase by Homs on April 9, in which 14 people died including seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran threatened severe retaliation. Israel's defense establishment braced accordingly, but nothing has happened so far. Instead, now there has been another belligerent move against Iran's interests in Syria.
Based on Syrian reports, the raid on military targets between Hama and Aleppo in Syria's north caused powerful explosions – one media outlet reported that the intensity was akin to a small earthquake. Some were killed, apparently Syrian soldiers and pro-Iranian Shiite militia people.
Last week the TV network CNN reported that American and Israeli espionage are closely watching the movement of Iranian arms into Syria that could be used to "close accounts" with Israel. The attack on Sunday night – at this time, with such force – could attest that a major weapons cache was hit. In turn, that could attest to an attempt to foil a potential Iranian reaction.
The confrontation with Iran in Israel's north is direct: Israel drew a line in the sand, and is prepared to enforce it with force. Since the Iranians object to both Israel's prohibition on its presence and the means Israel is employing, and in the absence of a mediator between the sides, this conflict could yet escalate. The week is young.
Afraid of provoking Trump
Over the last year, two trends have become evident in the Middle East: Syrian President Bashar Assad camp won the bloody civil war in Syria, and the U.S. is scaling back its presence in the region. Even its recent punitive attack against the Assad regime felt like a symbolic gesture of farewell. Meanwhile, two other trends are taking shape: Israel's effort to expel Iran from Syria, and Washington preparing for a resolution to ditch the nuclear agreement between Iran and the powers, which should happen around May 12.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government seems to tie between these last two trends. The thinking is that Iran is restraining itself from reacting against Israel for its latest alleged moves in Syria, because it's afraid of making a mistake that would provoke U.S. rage. According to that view, U.S. President Donald Trump could respond to escalation between Iran and Israel by abandoning the nuclear agreement even earlier, and later, it might even attack the Iranian nuclear sites itself (which would be incalculably more painful than a theoretical Israeli attack). The authorities in Tehran are also worried about various threats at home, from financial crisis to stormy protests. The requisite ostensible conclusion is that Israel can continue to flail at Iranians in Syria as it pleases.
Indeed the U.S. is behaving very differently than during the Obama days. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Israel upon taking the job and took off for Jordan just before the first reports came in about the Israeli attacks in Syria. Concurrently, Trump and Netanyahu talked by phone, reportedly also discussing Iran. That is a clear back-wind from Washington for the winds of war blowing in Jerusalem. One might think that if Pompeo could only have stayed in Israel a few more hours, they'd have suggested he clamber into a cockpit and fire some missiles himself.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu, as we wrote some weeks ago, is in a particularly Trumpian mood, quite different from his normal behavior. His interest in security incidents has trumped even his preoccupation with political infighting within the coalition. He is prepared to undertake uncharacteristic risks, bordering on gambling. Unusually, the defense establishment is with him. In contrast to the dramatic argument over bombing nuclear sites in Iran at the start of the decade, this time Israel's defense chiefs are leading a hard, aggressive line regarding Iran's presence in Syria.
The annoying but necessary question this morning is what happens if an Israeli move fails.
True, Iran doesn't want to annoy the U.S. right now. It is invested in protecting its nuclear program from yet more pressures, and is concerned about exposing its forces to harm in Syria. A fight in Syria wouldn't suit the Russians either as they set about stabilizing Assad's regime.
But Israel's calculations could go completely haywire if the flames in Syria blaze out of control, and if Iran decides, in contrast to assessments, to toss Hezbollah into the conflagration, for example after the Lebanese elections scheduled for May 6. Hezbollah has gained extensive operational experience in Syria. It has an arsenal of more than 100,000 missiles and rockets. Hezbollah certainly isn't stronger than the Israel Defense Forces, but in the event of war, it could wreak real damage on the Israeli home front, and ground fighting in Lebanon would cost the Israeli army dearly.
A conflict like that could drag in Hamas in Gaza, as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has warned time and again (there seems to be a discrepancy between the confident tones emanating from Jerusalem, including Lieberman's, in public, and their actual fears). So far Israel has managed to establish and maintain coordination with the Russian air force to prevent friction in the Syrian skies. But couldn't Moscow decide at some point that it's sick of receiving diktats from Jerusalem?
Israel has a justifiable purpose in Syria. Iran's presence is developing into dangerous potential that could weigh on the IDF in the future. Even so, this morning, questions beg to be asked. Is the blanket goal of expelling all Iranian forces from Syria even attainable, as the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff seem to think? Are they taking into account that things can go wrong, to the point of a broader conflict that will exact a far heavier price? There has been no real public discussion on this so far, nor has dispute surfaced over the policy taking shape in the north – not in government, and not among the top security brass.