"Better now than never." These were the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a recent tweet affirming his country's resolve to block Iranian aggression at any cost. Perhaps no statement could better encapsulate the current Israeli mindset and resolve to block Iranian aggression at any cost. When else will Israel have the ear of a U.S. president willing to tear up a diplomatic deal and double down on Iran, the freedom to strike with impunity against targets in a state already ravaged by civil war, and a young Saudi prince willing to openly collaborate with the Jewish state against the Islamic republic?
Israel cannot escape the fact that it is a tiny state in a hostile geopolitical environment that depends on a great power patron. Historical tragedy has a way of molding a state to rapidly seize opportunities that come along ever so rarely and are always laden with risk.
Stratfor forecast that Israel would take advantage of a window of opportunity to escalate its confrontation with Iran in Syria. That window widened with the insertion of Iran hawks in the White House over the past quarter, leading to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. As the United States tries to reduce its security commitments in the region, Iran will remain the big hindrance to those plans, giving Russia an opportunity to deepen its leverage in the Middle East.
Israel's strategic goals in Syria are threefold: to prevent advanced weaponry from reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon, to prevent the Syrian civil war from spilling into the Golan Heights and to prevent Iran from militarily entrenching itself on its northern frontier. In this carpe diem moment, Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria have picked up. Three major attacks have occurred in the past two weeks alone, and at least 150 strikes have taken place since the civil war began in 2011. By accelerating and widening the scope of the strikes, Israel is deliberately entering a cycle of attacks and counterattacks that could spiral beyond its control.
Its war rhetoric is also on the rise. Israeli ministers in recent weeks have threatened not only to topple Syrian President Bashar al Assad if he "lets Iran turn Syria into a military base against us" but also to take the fight to the Islamic republic if it dares to attack their country. The move is a notable departure from Israel's usual modus operandi of selectively and discreetly carrying out strikes from the shadows when targets of opportunity arise. If Israel is going to risk a broader confrontation with Iran spanning from the Levant to the Persian Gulf, then it needs to beat its war drums hard enough for both Washington and Moscow to hear.
Baiting Uncle Sam
Israel knows that in this age of emerging great power conflict, it cannot take for granted the United States' long-term commitment to the Middle East. On the one hand, the U.S. administration has been vocal about trying to reduce its overseas commitments, demanding that regional players step up to the plate so it can remove its own forces. The last thing the White House wants is to get pulled into a confrontation with a major power such as Russia over a minor power such as Syria. On the other hand, the White House under President Donald Trump is bent on recasting Iran as an international pariah and is evidently willing to risk confrontation with Tehran, even if doing so ends up prolonging the United States' presence in the region.
Israel's objective is to steer the United States toward the latter course. If Israel is to seize its opportunity to weaken Iran, which also entails taking on more risk, then it needs to do so in a way that keeps the United States engaged. The heightened pace of strikes in Syria recently was the crescendo building to the dramatic U.S. decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As Iran works to avoid retaliatory actions that could drive Europe closer to the U.S. position on sanctions, Israel is taking advantage of Tehran's relative restraint to scale up its attacks.
And who could forget Netanyahu's prime-time PowerPoint performance in the lead-up to Trump's pivotal decision? The Israeli prime minister didn't pull out the 2,000-point text in Times New Roman to declare "Iran lied" about its nuclear intentions for analysts like me who would quickly conclude that there was nothing particularly revelatory or incriminating about the statement. The simple and blunt message was meant to galvanize the U.S. president and his supporters against Iran to justify bigger and bolder action under the shelter of an American-made security umbrella.
Who could forget Netanyahu's prime-time PowerPoint performance in the lead-up to Trump's pivotal decision to withdraw from the JCPOA?
The Russian Factor
But Netanyahu and Trump must first get around their Russia problem. Moscow may not carry as much clout as it claims, but it has the power to at least narrow the scope of U.S. and Israeli ambitions against Iran.
The presence of Russian forces dispersed across Syria's main conflict zones is a vexing issue for military planners trying to target Syrian and Iranian assets without creating an international incident with Moscow. Russia's presence does not preclude military action, but it does require careful diplomatic attention to deconflict with Moscow, giving Russian President Vladimir Putin an opportunity to make demands in return.
Russia also has a penchant for playing spoiler with air defenses. Before the JCPOA materialized, when Israel was trying to goad a reluctant United States into a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, Russia often used the threat of supplying the Islamic republic with advanced surface-to-air missile systems to raise the cost of a military strike. (Russia finally ended up delivering the S-300 system to Iran in 2016.) Moscow dusted off the old tactic recently when it claimed in the wake of a U.S.-led strike on Syria in April that it would put the S-300 system directly in Syrian hands.
Russia has since walked back the threat, and it was probably bluffing all along. Its leverage in Syria rests on its ability to dial the pressure up and down as it maneuvers in negotiations with its chief adversary, the United States. Frequent cease-fire violations and major transgressions like the latest Syrian chemical attack in Douma only expose the limits of Russia's influence over Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese forces in Syria. Moscow doesn't necessarily want to further dilute its clout by improving Damascus' chances of shooting down Israeli, U.S. or other coalition aircraft and risk drawing it into a bigger conflict. Nor does Russia want to suffer an even bigger hit to its credibility if Israel promptly blows up the S-300s.
Still, the threat itself was enough to compel Netanyahu to show up as Putin's special guest for a military parade May 9 (Russia's Victory Day), donning the politically loaded ribbon of St. George — a symbol of Russian irredentism — as the latest models of surface-to-air missiles rolled past in Red Square. Netanyahu's best hope for persuading Putin to stay out of his way in Syria is to make abundantly clear that Israel is on a relentless drive to rout Iran there and that it has U.S. backing to help mitigate any fallout from its plans. Israel is also signaling to Russia that it may even consider targeting the Syrian president should Iran entrench itself too deeply under Moscow's watch.
But just as Russia was bluffing with the S-300 threat, Israel is likely bluffing about its willingness to risk the all-consuming consequences of attempting regime change in a war zone that has become a breeding ground for radical Islamists. The question that neither country can reliably answer, however, is how far the Trump White House is willing to go in its building confrontation with Iran.
No Room for Nuance With Iran
The U.S. decision to unilaterally pull out of the JCPOA and to increase sanctions to the "highest level" possible is another exercise in "maximum pressure" tactics against an adversary, but to what end? By opting for full withdrawal right off the bat, the Trump administration is deliberately cutting diplomacy out of the process. Neither Trump nor Netanyahu realistically expects a drastic change in behavior from Iran as a result of their pressure tactics. Instead, the move is designed to strip the nuance from the U.S. containment strategy. It doesn't matter that the JCPOA was negotiated to focus exclusively on Iran's nuclear program; if it doesn't address Iran's destabilizing actions in the region or ballistic missile program, then it's null and void in the eyes of the White House. Along the same line of thought, trying to parse out the various pragmatists and principlists among Iran's moderates and conservatives to steer the country toward cooperation is a waste of time. Unlike Barack Obama's administration, which saw the JCPOA as a tool to boost Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's moderate camp, the Trump administration sees shades of radicalism across the whole Iranian political spectrum.
Iran can only assume then that the U.S. move on the JCPOA was designed in part to get the ball rolling on regime change in Tehran. Ditching the agreement already has destroyed any sense of a guarantee that the Iranian government thought it had secured from the previous U.S. administration. By ratcheting up economic pressure while social stress is mounting in the Islamic republic, the United States is compounding the frustration of Iran's numerous aspirant youth who had put their hopes in an opening with the West after years of economic isolation. That frustration can be harnessed to create a post-Islamic Iran, at least according to some in the White House.
Iran can only assume that the U.S. move on the JCPOA was designed in part to get the ball rolling on regime change in Tehran.
That's a big bet. The last time Iran underwent a revolution, it ended up as a theocracy founded in opposition to the United States. Another heavy dose of the "axis of evil" treatment from Washington could drive Iranian politics down a more radical course and create a more intractable U.S.-Iran relationship down the line. Unlike many of its peers in the Gulf region, Iran's political system allows for a degree of competition among factions to air dissent. And though it faces significant pressure from large segments of the population who are in economic and social anguish, the country's powerful security apparatus has been effective — at least so far — in quashing unrest early on. Iran also is no stranger to the resourcefulness and strain that come with running a resistance economy.
The Moscow-Tehran Axis Deepens
Furthermore, Iran knows that in its more vulnerable state it will have little choice but to turn to Russia, the only other global power invested in the Middle East that shares a need to push back against the United States, as well as an extreme aversion to regime change. Iran is in the throes of a debate over the risks of returning to a nuclear path. Since the U.S. sanctions are designed to whittle down Iranian exports over time, Tehran will have less and less incentive to stay in the JCPOA. At the same time, however, Iran isn't necessarily looking to hand the United States and Israel a casus belli, especially when there's a distinct possibility Trump's successor could take a more moderate approach.
Either way, Iran will be looking to Russia for ways to build up its defenses and complicate any U.S.-Israeli military contingencies in this murky interim. Russia already has been trying to use its heavy involvement in Syria over the past year to secure basing rights in Iran. A naturally wary Iran has rebuffed that request, but it may not be able to do so in the future. Russia will also likely float sales of advanced air defense systems, including the S-300, the Pantsir-S1 and possibly the S-400, to Iran while reserving the right to veto U.S. attempts to sanction such transactions through the United Nations. The U.N. arms embargo against Iran — which exempts air defense weaponry — is set to expire in July 2020, and then Russia could sell an even wider array of weapons to the Islamic republic.
The United States' instinct may be to reduce its security commitments in the Middle East so it can focus on the emerging great power competition after 15 years of costly wars in the region. But Iran, for now, will remain the spoiler to those plans. Israel has an opening to tie down its American ally while Russia widens the playing field with its U.S. adversary. It's better now than never for both countries to raise the stakes in their relationship with the United States.