Opinion

Neither Israel nor Iran Trust Russia. But Only Putin Can Prevent War Between Them

Iran and Israel would never volunteer to place crucial national security interests in the Kremlin's hands. But they need a third party to umpire their conflict in Syria – and there’s no other option

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs in Moscow, Russia. March 14, 2019
Alexander Zemlianichenko,AP

The 1979 revolution that transformed Iran into an Islamic republic wasalso a turning point in Iran’s foreign policy - and in particular, its approach to the State of Israel. 

Its hostility towards Israel has manifested itself over the years in repeated declarations by Iranian leaders that Israel should be destroyed, as well as anti-Semitic assertions and Holocaust denial, leading to an escalatory cycle of Israeli reactions and Iranian counter-reactions. 

Iran has avoided direct military confrontation with Israel, but at the same time provided substantial military, financial and political support to Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups for their operations against Israel and Jews, on the basis that they serve Iran’s interests. 

Iran’s nuclear program, perceived by many in Israel as an existential threat, raised for the first time the possibility of a direct military confrontation between the two states. That would likely be the consequence of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure to prevent Tehran achieving a military nuclear capability.

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That Israeli strike scenario is still off the table thanks to the Iran nuclear deal. Even though President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, a move the Israeli government celebrated, Iran continues to abide by the terms it agreed with the U.S., Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany and as long as it lasts, and the limitations on Iran's nuclear program hold, Israel has no interest in initiating a strike.

Mugs bearing the portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin are sold in the old city of Damascus, Syria. March 12, 2019
AFP

The more likely trigger for an armed conflict between the two states at this stage is the deployment of a strategic Iranian presence in Syria, near Israel's northern border.  The fade-out of the Syrian civil war with the Assad regime's victory, means this is not a question of Iranian forces or proxies bolstering the regime's survival – this is about a long-term entrenchment. 

Its continued presence in Syria serves Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions and its ability to threaten Israel on two fronts - from Syria as well as from Lebanon. Israel has made it unequivocally clear that it will not allow Iran to establish a long-term presence in Syria.

There is already low-level direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran on Syrian soil. 

Israel has used its military superiority to hit at the different elements of Iran’s military presence in Syria, including its proxies. There have been several unsuccessful and feeble Iranian attempts to reciprocate in kind. Had they been more successful, we would already have witnessed a serious escalation.

The prospects of bridging the contradictory Iranian and Israeli interests in Syria seem slim. Iran is not likely to remove all its military presence from Syria; it is an important part of its first line of defense against Israel. Israel will do its utmost to prevent Iran from building up a long-term strategic infrastructure which, together with the threat emanating from Hezbollah in Lebanon, will pose a serious threat to Israel. 

Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018
\ Aziz Taher/ REUTERS

But neither side is interested in a wider direct confrontation. That can be concluded from Israel’s adoption of low profile media policy, most of the time, and Iran’s limited responses to Israeli attacks. That gives space to the possibility that this low-level military conflict will be managed in a way that will prevent a major escalation. 

Neither side will get all that it wants, but the new status quo that results will be bearable to both.

However, escalation – thanks to miscalculations, misunderstandings, and domestic political pressures – is always possible, even when the two sides are interested in avoiding it. 

An effective way of dealing with this would be to create a crisis prevention mechanism enabling an exchange of messages between the two sides, making it possible to transfer clarifications, present credible red lines etc. Such a mechanism has proved to be effective in global and regional conflicts (including the latest crisis between India and Pakistan).

Since neither Israel nor Iran are politically able to establish such a mechanism by themselves and engage in a direct dialogue, there is a critical need for a third party trusted by the two parties. Preferably it should be a party that doesn’t have its own agenda, and at the same time is not interested in an escalation between Israel and Iran. Such a party, acceptable to both sides, has not yet been found.

An image grab from a video broadcast purportedly shows Syrian air defense systems intercepting Israeli missiles on May 10, 2018.
HANDOUT / STR / CENTRAL WAR MEDI

In its absence, the next-best option can only be Russia. Russia is already involved in Syria, and is certainly keen to present itself as the only player that can play this mediator role despite its shortcomings. Israel and Iran are aware that Russia has its own agenda in Syria, and its own power aspirations in the region; that hurts both Iran’s and Israel’s trust in Russia and its integrity in playing this role.

Neither Iran nor Israel would enthusiastically welcome Russia playing umpire, nor would they feel secure with, in effect, placing crucial national security interests in the Kremlin's hands. But neither will they agree on a more reliable third party. 

The Putin option is far from perfect – but it's still better than nothing. A flawed de-escalation mechanism that has even diminished chances of success is still preferable to the absence of any obstacles to deliberate or miscalculated escalation - with repercussions for both Iran and Israel and the entire region.

Shimon Stein Ambassador (ret.) is senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and was previously a deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council