Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a two-part assessment. The first part assessed the burgeoning ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran and Israel have been ideological and strategic enemies, although the implacable foes have largely limited their battles to the Palestinian territories and the Levantine states of Lebanon and Syria. Now, however, the United States is turning up the pressure on Iran, a country that both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also view as a threat. Both factors present an opportunity for Israel to act against Iran well beyond the traditional Levantine theater — and bring Israel closer to key Gulf states.
Israel is a small but militarily strong country in a hostile neighborhood — factors that create a unique set of imperatives for the state. Regional enemies represent a constant threat, although Israel also has the ability to strike such enemies both near and far. That makes it likely to strike even relatively small threats whenever it can, as evidenced in past operations from Tunisia to Uganda. Now, Israel is looking on with trepidation as Iran stations ballistic missiles in Iraq and Tehran-backed Houthi rebels threaten $15 billion in Israeli shipping off the coast of Yemen. Israel will seek to roll back Iranian influence in both countries, but its considerations in each state will be different.
The recent public revelation that Tehran has delivered ballistic missiles to allied militias in Iraq has led some Israeli officials to suggest the country could become a new front in its bid to counter Iran. The musings, meanwhile, come not long after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to send Israeli ships to ensure the Red Sea's Bab el-Mandeb strait remains free of Iranian-backed Houthi harassment. Israel has a long history of pursuing enemies well beyond its immediate neighbors. But any Israeli action in Iraq will test the United States' relationship with Baghdad and could be a boon to Iran, which would capitalize on the anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment ignited by a strike. In Yemen, Israel has little need to conduct overt strikes, but it could use the battle there to foster closer relations with Saudi Arabia. There can be little doubt about Israel's ability to hit targets in either Iraq or Yemen, but the ramifications of such a strike will give the country pause for thought.
Weighing Up a Strike on Iraq
Israel has famously gone on forays near and far in pursuit of its aims. The country rescued hostages on the tarmac in Uganda in 1976, destroyed Iraq's nascent nuclear reactor in 1981, bombed the Palestinian Liberation Organization's headquarters in Tunisia in 1985 and conducted strikes on Sudan at least three times since 2009.
New operations to places like Iraq and Yemen, however, carry significant risk, particularly in Iraq. There, Iran is reportedly creating a ballistic missile force among its various proxies, replicating its strategy in Lebanon, in which its ally Hezbollah is a major force, as well as in Syria, where its militias — including Lebanon’s Hezbollah — wield considerable influence. Tehran's reasons for the buildup are straightforward: It provides another platform from which to attack Israel if it or the United States ever attacks Iran itself. It also strengthens Iran's allies inside Iraq, arming them outside of the central government's control.
Israel, naturally, has no desire to witness the emergence of an Iranian proxy in Iraq that is as entrenched and powerful as Hezbollah, meaning it could conduct airstrikes to prevent such a buildup. Before it can do so, however, Israel will face several diplomatic, political and military hurdles. First, Israel must determine how much it is willing to push Washington's relationship with Baghdad. If Israel strikes Iraq, Iraqi politicians of all stripes — even nationalist, Sunni and anti-Iranian Shiite ones who have no love lost for Iran's proxies in the country — will feel compelled to close ranks and condemn the attack. In such a situation, they are also likely to direct their anger at the United States, Israel's biggest backer. Even politicians nominally friendly to the United States, such as former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, will be unable to defend such actions. In such a situation, Iraqi politicians from across the spectrum would question the United States' role as a neutral guarantor of Iraqi sovereignty, especially if Washington fails to issue a meaningful response to Israel. And the likely diplomatic crisis could worsen if Iraq intercepts and ultimately captures Israeli pilots or if Israel shoots down and kills Iraqi pilots during the course of the operation.
Additionally, an Israeli strike on proxies would impact Iraq’s nascently forming government. A strike would undermine factions close to the Americans, possibly leading to defections and greater support for pro-Iranian factions and policies. That would represent a substantial setback for the United States, especially in light of anti-Iran protests in Iraq's south that appeared to highlight the limits of Tehran's influence. Moreover, organizations associated with the United States, including civil society groups and corporations, would face a significant backlash in the resultant protests. Militias of all stripes — not just Iranian-backed ones — might also choose to retaliate against groups seen as too cozy with the Americans.
Moreover, limited Israeli strikes provide no guarantee that Iran will not resupply its factions, meaning only a longer-term campaign will suffice to prevent Iran's allies from bolstering their capabilities in Iraq. Ultimately, every Israeli strike on targets in Iraq would increase the level of risk, for Israel and the United States alike.
Although Iran could accrue some benefit from an Israeli attack on Iraq, it is perhaps Iraq's non-sectarian nationalists who would be the big winners. Rather than push Iraq into Iran's camp, Israeli strikes could strengthen these forces, which are pursuing an independent stance free of Iranian and American influence under the direction of groups like Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr's Sairoon movement. Such nationalists would not only excoriate the United States for its alliance with Israel but also blame Iran and its Iraqi allies for making Iraq a target in the first place. Because Iran is particularly unpopular in specific segments of Iraqi society (not just among Sunnis, but also among southern Shiites in and around Basra), such nationalist factions could capitalize on the resentment of Iraqis who have become exhausted by the tug of war between the United States and Iran.
Although Iran could accrue some benefit from an Israeli attack on Iraq, it is perhaps Iraq's non-sectarian nationalists who would be the big winners.
Wooing the Saudis
Meanwhile, mutual antipathy to Iran could foster a closer relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, two countries whose ties have historically stumbled on the Palestinian question. For both, a venue for collaboration is readily at hand: Yemen's civil war, which pits the Iranian-backed Houthi movement against a Saudi-led coalition.
Israel has no pressing need to strike the Houthis, even if the group does threaten $15 billion worth of Israeli trade that passes through the Bab el-Mandeb strait — the U.S. Navy and the Saudi-led coalition can and will strike these targets on their own. Israel, however, can facilitate Saudi-led operations in Yemen by sharing intelligence and transferring technology. Saudi-Israeli intelligence sharing is one means of keeping the two Middle Eastern powers' burgeoning ties out of public sight, all while building trust and producing results on the ground in Yemen. After all, Israel's spy satellites are an asset that could yield some useful information for Saudi Arabia, especially if the United States pares back its intelligence sharing in response to domestic political concerns in Congress, where a budding bipartisan movement aims to punish Saudi Arabia for its alleged responsibility for civilian deaths in Yemen, as well as for the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In addition, Israel has the ability to affect U.S.-Saudi arms deals thanks to its influence in Congress. It could choose to aid further Saudi military development in this regard, especially as trust increases between the two countries, and Israel perceives technology and arms transfers to Saudi Arabia as less of a potential threat. Saudi Arabia could also use this trust to build momentum toward direct Israeli-Saudi arms and technology transfers.
Though the theaters are quite different, Israel has a chance to build on its anti-Iran strategy in both Iraq and Yemen. Striking in Iraq, however, would jeopardize the United States' political standing, potentially pushing Iraq closer to Iran. In Yemen, by contrast, it could foster a closer, albeit quiet, friendship with Saudi Arabia to mutual benefit. As the regional contest between Iran and its foes in the United States, Israel and the Gulf continues, Israel will take more risks against Iran — even at the cost of hurting other allies — at the same time it pursues ties with other states, like Saudi Arabia, that are also confronting the Islamic republic.
Iran's growing influence, as well as the pressure on Tehran from Washington, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, is pushing Israel to assume a more active regional role. In the event of a wider war between Tehran and Washington, the United States will draw on this network, which includes Israel and the Gulf states, to help wage a campaign against the Islamic republic. In such a contest, Israel's government could well follow in the footsteps of past administrations in venturing further afield to protect its interests.