Trump's Erratic Last Days in Office Put the Middle East on High Alert

Although an escalation doesn't suit anybody, Iran and its proxies remain primed, while Israel is maintaining contact with the Pentagon over any unbidden moves

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force chant anti-US slogans during a protest over the killings of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, in Karrada in central Baghdad, January 6, 2020
Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force protesting the killings of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, in Karrada in central Baghdad, January 6, 2020Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE - AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

UPDATE: 16 reportedly killed in massive Israeli strike in Syria, near Iraqi border

The coming week will be anything but calm in the Middle East. There are only eight days remaining before President-elect Joe Biden enters the White House on January 20. Until then, Iran is still concerned about an American military strike against it, ordered by outgoing President Donald Trump. And even though such a scenario doesn’t appear plausible as seen from Israel, the Israeli defense establishment is nevertheless concerned over the possibility of a miscalculation that would produce an unplanned military conflagration that could also have implications for Israel.

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The nervousness in Tehran has been notable for several days against the backdrop of Trump’s final days in office. That also has implications on Iran’s partners and proxies, including Hezbollah and the Shi’ite militias operating in Iraq and Syria. The failure experienced by supporters of the American president and the condemnations they came in for following the storming of the Capitol last Wednesday actually appears to have increased the level of fear among the Iranians.

Prior to the commotion on Capitol Hill, media in the United States reported on scenarios related to Trump’s final step in the Middle East. Then, following the violent invasion by Trump supporters on Capitol Hill, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said she had spoken to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, to ascertain that “an unstable president,” as she put it, wouldn’t be able to initiate a nuclear attack during his last days in office.

The United States, for its part, has been concerned over Iranian revenge connected to the first anniversary of the U.S. assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who was killed in Iraq on January 3 of last year. So far, there have been no reports of Iranian attempts to respond, but the Americans have deployed several showcase aerial displays of B-52 bombers that were flown to the Persian Gulf region from their bases in the United States, and also have moved naval forces in the area, apparently for deterrent purposes.

A billboard depicting Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump side with a slogan which reads "Netanyahu, a different league", in Tel Aviv, on January 10, 2021Credit: Jack Guez/AFP

The Israel Defense Forces, for their part, have been on a high level of defensive alert in recent days. An aerial defense battery of Patriot missiles was deployed in Eilat, and an exceptionally large presence of fighter planes has been seen in the sky over the country, in all sectors and for a considerable portion of the day.

In Lebanon, Beirut residents have complained about frequent flights of Israel fighter planes over the capital. Israel appears to be prepared to halt a possible attack of missiles, rockets or drones by organizations taking orders from the Iranians. The IDF is alert to threats from a number of theaters – Syria and Lebanon in the north, Iraq in the east and Yemen in the south. In the background, the Iranian effort to deploy weapons in Syria and smuggle weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon continues. As was reported in Haaretz this week, in a space of 10 days there were three aerial attacks attributed to Israel on targets in Syria belonging to Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime.

Israel’s state of alert also comes in response to possible revenge by Iran. Tehran accuses Israel of assisting in the assassination of Soleimani and of the assassination near Tehran in November of the head of Iran’s nuclear program, Prof. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The alert is also related to the miscalculation scenario between Iran and the United States.

Defense sources in Israel told Haaretz that the Israeli defense establishment has been maintaining constant contact in recent days with the Pentagon and the senior command of the American military. Based on the conversations, the sources say the Americans have no intention of assaulting Iran during the current period, and that despite the sensitive political circumstances in Washington, it’s not plausible for the president’s erratic behavior to be translated into military action in the Middle East. Israel too, they stress, has no intention of initiating a widescale offensive against Iran in Iranian territory during the current period.

The main concern in Israel, the sources added, is over the potential for a series of mutual misunderstandings that would lead to a conflagration, mainly due to Iran’s fear of an unexpected step on Trump’s part. Israel was also concerned about such developments in the past during periods of gradual escalation. In retrospect, the chain of events that led to the beginning of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in summer 2014 can be attributed to Israel’s and Hamas’ misreading of each other’s actions, when limited, specific steps were misinterpreted as signals of the other side’s intention to start a war.

Security forces loyal to the separatist Southern Transitional Council stand guard as they are deployed in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen, December 20, 2020.Credit: Fawaz Salman/Reuters

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