Israel faces two severe threats today that may soon require some very difficult decisions, possibly leading to war.
The Iranian-Hezbollah-Syrian axis in the north is growing stronger, under Russian auspices, with Iran reportedly trying to establish permanent bases and rocket factories in Syria and Lebanon. Iran appears to have temporarily ceased its efforts in response to attacks that Israel allegedly conducted in Syria, but may have renewed them recently.
Based on the open-source picture, one cannot say with confidence what Iran is doing, and it's possible that the prime minister and other Israeli spokesmen have intentionally overstated the threat in order to focus international attention on it.
At the same time, U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran by May unless U.S. allies agree to "fix" it by then. The allies, for lack of better alternatives and out of concern that the entire nuclear agreement may crumble, have expressed some willingness to do so. If that indeed happens, it will be an impressive accomplishment for the president, achieved in his usual style in a humiliating and untoward manner.
The real problem, however, is that it is not at all clear that Trump truly seeks agreement with the Europeans. Indeed, his recent actions, including the appointment of the new secretary of state and new national security adviser, point in the opposite direction – that he intends to withdraw from the agreement. In any event, it will be a long slog to get the Iranians to agree to any changes.
While all the above has been taking place, the regional battle for power has continued apace, with Iran continuing to establish itself as the regional hegemon, in control of a Shi’ite crescent extending all the way to the Mediterranean, amid the ongoing Sunni weakness.
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The United States – the president’s strident rhetoric notwithstanding – has ceased playing a leading role in the Middle East. Russia, conversely, has been spreading its influence throughout the region through deft strategic maneuvering and the sale of weapons and nuclear-power reactors.
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As a diplomatic move, Israel is right to try to focus international attention on Iran’s activities in Syria, even to amplify the threat somewhat, as long as we are not carried away by our own public diplomacy. Israel’s actual policy, however, should be based on as precise an understanding as possible of what the Iranians are actually doing.
I believe that Israel is strong and secure enough to adopt a national security strategy based on heightened restraint, so I have advocated a greater emphasis on defense and diplomacy. Still, I believe that Israel cannot let Iran establish a permanent military presence on its border, including air, naval and ground bases. The change in Israel’s strategic circumstances would be severe.
If we establish that Iran is indeed trying to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, Israel should adopt a clear and firm deterrent posture designed to prevent Iran from doing so. To this end, it should adopt an approach of “coercive diplomacy” – that is, the credible threat to use military force precisely to avoid conflict and achieve the desired diplomatic outcome.
As part of this approach, and to induce the Syrians to put an end to Iran’s activities in their territory, Damascus must be made to understand that it is truly playing with fire this time, and that Israel will respond by launching graduated attacks against Syrian-regime targets, to the point of threatening its very existence. Iran, too, should be made to understand that if it persists in its efforts it will no longer have the immunity from attacks it has hitherto enjoyed due to geographic distance, and that Iranian regime targets will also be fair game.
This recommendation may lead to a severe escalation and even to war. If, however, it turns out that the Syrians and Iranians have ignored Israel’s warnings, we will be on a path to conflict in any event and it’s better that Iran be put to the test now before it crosses the nuclear threshold.
An Israeli deterrent policy such as this will undoubtedly also lead to a strong Russian response, and that is exactly the intention – to force Russia to restrain Syria, Hezbollah and Iran and thereby prevent conflict. Clearly, this approach requires maximum coordination with the U.S. administration, to the extent that there is one today.
Despite the president’s tough talk, an American military attack against Iran’s nuclear program is probably not in the cards. Israel can, of course, continue covert measures against it, but they have proved of limited effectiveness to date.
If the nuclear agreement comes apart we will really only be left with one final option: an Israeli strike.
On the positive side, such a strike may now enjoy the support of the United States, whereas the Obama administration’s opposition was a main reason Israel refrained from an attack. Conversely, an Israeli strike can cause no more than a delay of a few years in the Iranian program, at the expense of a war with Hezbollah and possibly Iran itself.
Israel should thus encourage the Trump administration to reach a compromise with the Europeans and make do, if necessary, with a partial "fix" of the agreement. All other options are far worse. The battle to ensure that the limitations on Iran’s nuclear capabilities never expire should be left for the future, closer to the deal’s expiration.
Opponents of the nuclear deal are undoubtedly celebrating the imminent realization of their greatest dream, its termination, but they may soon find that the dream has rapidly turned into a nightmare. Israel already behaves as if it is deterred by Iran and Hezbollah, while it is cautious in its actions in Syria and refrains from offensive operations in Lebanon. Imagine how things would look without the nuclear agreement and if Iran had already crossed the nuclear threshold.
Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and the author of Israeli National Security: a New Strategy for an Era of Change, Oxford University Press, 2018.