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Despite Israel-Iran clash, political forces work against escalation

Why We Wrote This

Recent military strikes between Iran and Israel underscore rising tensions that some say could point to war. But a broader calculus by key regional players could check escalation.

Israeli soldiers approach tanks in the Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, Thursday, May 10, 2018. Israel says it struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria the night before in response to a rocket barrage on Israeli positions in the Golan.
Ariel Schalit/AP
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All the Middle East talk in recent days has been about the danger of war between the region’s two preeminent military powers: Israel and Iran. But while it’s almost certain that last week’s Israeli air attack on Iranian positions in Syria will not be the last such response to Iran’s growing military presence there, the chances of a wider conflict will depend on political considerations: in Israel, Iran, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. At least for now, the political signs seem to suggest such a war may well be averted. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in his strongest position for months, buoyed by US support for his determination to contain further military strengthening by Iran and its Hezbollah militia allies across Israel’s northern border. In the wake of President Trump’s withdrawal from the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranians’ immediate focus is on whether the other signatories – the Europeans, China and Russia – will prove willing, or able, to keep it in place. Russia has used its intervention in Syria to gain a strategic foothold in the Middle East for the first time since the 1970s and does not want to find itself mired in a wider war at a time when it hopes to play a central role in shaping Syria’s political future. One unknown factor: the future direction of America’s Middle East policy.

The only certainty in the wake of last week’s Israeli air attack on Iranian forces in Syria – Israel’s largest military operation there in decades – is that it won’t be the last.

That’s down to simple military calculus: the Israelis are determined to prevent a new order of threat from Iran and its Hezbollah militia allies across its northern border. If Iran persists in trying to establish bases of operation in Syria, and in trying to provide more advanced and accurate missiles to Hezbollah, the chances of Israel not responding with force are approximately zero.

But will this mean all-out war, as headlines worldwide predicted darkly after the Israeli attack? That will depend not so much on military calculations as political ones: in Israel and Iran and, no less importantly, Russia. On that score, the early signs seem to suggest such a conflict might well be averted.

Given the instability and tension in the region, especially after President Trump’s withdrawal from the international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program, there is always the danger of stumbling into a war through miscalculation or inertia. But at least for now, the key players have reasons for caution.

Netanyahu more secure

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself more secure politically. After months of being dogged by corruption allegations, he has been dealt a pair of diplomatic triumphs by Mr. Trump. One is largely symbolic, though important domestically: today’s formal move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Successive US administrations have assumed the city’s final political status would be resolved only as part of an eventual peace agreement with the Palestinians.

The other boost has more strategic implications. It is Trump’s embrace of the central focus of Netanyahu’s longstanding political narrative: that Iran is the main, “existential” threat to Israel and the wider Middle East. Trump has not only withdrawn from the Iran nuclear agreement. He has stated openly that the Iranians must be prevented from deepening their hold in Syria and southern Lebanon. The US response to last week’s Israeli air strike was full-throated support, holding the Iranians responsible for provoking it.

As long as Israel is free to respond as it did last week, to what it described as an Iranian missile attack on its positions on the Golan Heights, and to prevent a further Iranian-Hezbollah buildup in Syria, Netanyahu is likely to feel little need, and even less incentive, to risk a wider conflict.

Iran, at least for now, also has incentive to tread carefully. Under the nuclear agreement, a system of limits and inspections aimed at keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon was traded for a loosening of economic sanctions. Tehran’s immediate interest is to see whether the remaining signatories – the Europeans, China, and Russia – prove willing, or able, to keep the agreement in place, salvaging at least some of the economic benefits.

Russia leery

Russian President Vladimir Putin has reasons of his own to be leery of a widened Iranian-Israeli war. Iranian and Hezbollah support was indispensable to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the early stages of the civil war. But it was Russian forces, arms, and above all air power that turned the tables in his favor. Russia has gained a major strategic foothold in the Middle East for the first time since the 1970s, and Putin is determined to be at the center of defining a post-civil war arrangement. The last thing he will want is to find his forces mired in a wider war, involving Iran, Israel, and conceivably the Americans, who retain a special-forces presence in Syria as well.

Like the old Sherlock Holmes clue – the dog that didn’t bark – the Russians provided evidence of their thinking during last week’s Israeli attack. Alerted by Mr. Netanyahu beforehand, Putin stood by and let it happen. Just as significantly, since Assad’s current defenses have proven no serious impediment to Israeli air operations, a Russian spokesman retreated from earlier suggestions that Moscow might give the Syrians an upgraded anti-aircraft system.

What about the US?

There does remain, however, what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld memorably dubbed a “known unknown.” It’s the future direction of America’s Middle East policy, especially with a reshaped national security team under John Bolton. As recently as last year, Mr. Bolton was still advocating regime change as the answer to Iran’s nuclear program. That, of course, would almost surely mean putting a significant number of American troops on the ground, something his boss has so far publicly opposed.

But there is another military option: a short, sharp US military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. When a series of hard-hitting statements from President Trump raised concerns last year that he might be contemplating a similar strike against North Korea, the president’s top defense and intelligence advisers cautioned against it, warning that even a “successful” attack could risk hundreds of thousands of lives in South Korea within hours.

That kind of danger is not in play with Iran, according to military experts familiar with US weapons capabilities and attack plans. Operationally, they agree such a strike is not only possible, but would carry little risk to US personnel, or of any major, immediate Iranian response.

Yet the key question, if the US did launch such a strike, is what would come in the days or weeks that followed.

Before the nuclear agreement, Israel itself was considering a similar, though potentially riskier, attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. At the time, the Israeli intelligence assessment was that Iran would respond mainly through Hezbollah, with large-scale missile attacks from southern Lebanon. Israel’s missile-intercept capability has become far stronger in recent years. But it’s not foolproof. Iran now has a presence of its own in Syria. Hezbollah is there, too, not just in Lebanon, and has tens of thousands of missiles at its disposal.

All of that could yet create the circumstances for the kind of wider Iran-Israel conflict that, at least for now, seems likely to be avoided.

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