Analysis

U.S.-Iran Tensions Temporarily Restrain Israel on Northern Front

Amid an escalation in the Gulf, Israeli officials are being cautious – and it looks like the military is doing the same ■ Tehran must meanwhile deal with unwanted consequences

Israeli troops on the Golan Heights on the border with Syria, December 23, 2019
AFP

It took the American media more than a week, but on Sunday morning the expected, almost traditional report came across describing Israel’s role in the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. According to NBC, Israeli intelligence provided supplemental information about the schedule of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander, whose plane took off from Damascus and landed at Baghdad International Airport slightly after midnight on January 3.

A detailed report in the New York Times gave a precise description of the sequence of events during the week of the killing  and said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the only foreign leader informed by Washington of the intent to kill Soleimani. The report is consistent with assessments by Israeli media immediately after the killing. In retrospect, remarks Netanyahu made the day before the killing, as he left for a visit to Greece, about Israel’s vigilant monitoring of events while “in close contact with our great friend, the United States,” might indicate that he knew something.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56Haaretz

On Sunday, at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu once again addressed the situation in Iran, condemning the Tehran regime for mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian commercial airliner, praising the courage of those demonstrating against the regime and congratulating U.S. President Donald Trump on his decision to impose additional sanctions on Iran. But the vow of silence the premier has imposed on his ministers is still in effect, and they’re keeping mum about events in the Gulf region.

It looks as if Israeli caution includes, at this stage, restraint with regard to offensive action on the northern front. The report from last week that attributed to Israel an attack on a truck carrying weapons near the Bukamal crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border doesn’t seem reliable. If it is true that Israeli offensive actions have been halted, one must assume that this is temporary, until what’s going on between the United States and Iran is clarified.

Meanwhile, it seems that the upheaval the killing has caused is having unintended consequences. The Iranians sought to depict the missile fire at American bases in Iraq last week as the end of their public revenge. But anxiety among those operating their air defenses led to the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane by a surface-to-air missile and to the deaths of 176 passengers and crew who were not in any way connected to the conflict with the United States. The regime was seriously embarrassed, and at first responded, as totalitarian regimes do, with lies and attempts to obfuscate.

When there was no other choice, Iranian leaders told their people the truth – but doing so reignited the wave of protests the regime had violently suppressed in November. Now the brave demonstrators taking to the streets of Tehran are attacking the regime’s handling of the plane shoot-down. This has punctured a hole in the image of unity Tehran was trying to establish with the huge rallies that accompanied Soleimani’s lengthy funeral last week. And unlike in November, when the regime managed to cut Iran off from the internet and thus the rest of the world, this time the demonstrations are being recorded and reports are sent out in real time. There may not be that many participants, but the image is still impressive – and this is in the heart of Tehran, not some outlying districts.

It’s doubtful that Trump, or even his advisers with more expertise on the Middle East than he, anticipated all this when deciding on Soleimani's killing, but Iran is now in serious trouble. The severe U.S. sanctions on the regime, over which the Iranians launched a series of military attacks in the Gulf region in May, have not been rescinded; the domestic protests have resurfaced; and the regional instability is liable to rekindle the protests against the governments of Iraq and Lebanon, which are friendly to Tehran.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, seems to be facing contradictory pressures. On the one hand, Iran hasn’t persuaded the United States to remove its sanctions, and did not convincingly avenge Soleimani’s killing, while on the other hand, another demonstrative attack on American targets and lives could lead to a harsh response from Trump. Furthermore, the Shi’ite militias in Iraq have their own score to settle over the death of Soleimani and militiamen killed in the same drone strike, and it isn’t clear whether they will obey Tehran’s orders. And finally, Tehran continues to broaden its violations of the nuclear agreement, which only heightens tensions with Washington.

Sir John Jenkins, a leading British expert on the Middle East and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, recalled in an article on the Arab News website last week the dilemma that faced the Iranian leadership at the height of the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. In the end, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini decided to “drink the cup of poison,” as he described it, and end the war. The agreement with Iraq brought Iran peace and a measure of recovery. “The choice is essentially the same this time,” Jenkins writes. “If they make the wrong call, then all bets are off.”

There’s no doubt that Soleimani's killing was a dramatic, even historic event. The crisis in the Gulf region is far from over. Its consequences will be felt and studied throughout the area in the coming months.