All opinions are the author's alone. Dr. Bahgat would like to thank Ms. Camille Majors, librarian at the NDU, for her generous help.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran and Israel have seen each other as sworn enemies. Iranian leaders do not recognize the Jewish state and refer to it as the "Zionist regime," while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the world's most outspoken critic of Tehran's policies, particularly the nuclear program. Over the last four decades, the two sides have been engaged in a "low-intensity conflict." Iran has been accused of sponsoring terrorist attacks against Jewish/Israeli targets around the world. Israel is alleged to have assassinated several Iranian nuclear scientists and to have been the main force (along with the United States) behind the Stuxnet virus at Iran's nuclear facility in Natanz. This cyber worm caused significant (though temporary) damage to the country's nuclear program. It is important to point out that this list of accusations is not exhaustive, and neither side has ever acknowledged carrying out any of these alleged attacks.
In the last few years, Syria has emerged as the main battleground of the Iranian-Israeli confrontation. For example, in late January 2015, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general, Mohammad Ali Allah-Dadi, was killed in a suspected Israeli air strike in the Syrian Golan Heights.1 Since early 2018, the confrontation between Tehran and Jerusalem has significantly intensified. In February, an alleged Iranian drone was launched from T-4 air base east of Homs in central Syria. An Israeli Apache helicopter shot it down after it penetrated the country's air space. This limited operation quickly escalated when Israeli jets bombed several Iranian military positions, and an Israeli F-16 crashed after being hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire (the first downing of an Israeli plane in decades). Reacting to this development, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that "Israel's so-called invincibility has been shattered."2 In turn, Prime Minister Netanyahu threatened, "We will act, if necessary, not only against Iranian proxies that are attacking us but against Iran itself."3
Another attack by Israeli jets on Iranian bases and a command-and-control center was reported in April. Seven Iranian Quds Force members were killed, including Col. Mehdi Dehghan, who led the drone unit.4 Ali Akbar Velayati, the Iranian supreme leader's top aide for international affairs, warned that this attack "will not remain unanswered."5 Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman responded, "No matter what the price, we will not allow Iran to have a permanent military foothold in Syria."6 In May 2018, within hours from announcing the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action/nuclear deal (JCPOA), Israel launched the most intensive attack on Iranian positions in Syria since the beginning of the war in 2011. Responding allegedly to Iran's first rocket attack on its troops in the Golan Heights, Israeli jets attacked and destroyed dozens of Iranian targets, including weapons-storage facilities, logistics sites and intelligence centers used by the Quds Force.7
Two conclusions can be drawn from this series of attacks. First, Israel has been carrying them out with relative impunity. Tehran's technical ability to hit back is limited (though, as will be discussed below, this does not mean Iran has no options). Israel's air-force chief, Major General Amikam Norkin, announced that his country had launched the world's first air strike using the new fifth-generation fighter jet, the F-35, known in Israel by its Hebrew name, "Adir" (Mighty). Manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corporation, it is the most advanced weapon system in the world;8 Israel has praised it as a "game-changer." Second, several senior Israeli officials have acknowledged that the air force has launched more than 100 strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria in recent years.9 The frequency and intensity of these skirmishes have brought Tehran and Jerusalem closer to the brink of direct military confrontation. The standoff between them has entered a new and dangerous phase.
Rhetoric aside, I argue that neither country is looking to engage in an all-out war. Currently, neither Tehran nor Jerusalem regards a full-scale conflict as in its strategic interest.10 This calculation is shared and supported by the other regional and global powers involved in the Syrian war. However, the Iranian-Israeli confrontation is likely to further intensify in the coming months. Tehran will seek to consolidate its military presence in Syria, and Israel will try to prevent it. They will keep testing each other. Their military operations will be firm but measured. This likely scenario, however, should not be taken for granted; there is always room for miscalculation.
IS AN IRANIAN-ISRAELI FULL-SCALE WAR LIKELY?
Despite deep and decades-long animosity between Tehran and Jerusalem, the two sides have, more or less, agreed on some unwritten rules in their undeclared confrontation. The recent developments in the Syrian war and key changes in global policy have altered the dynamics of the Iranian-Israeli hostility. Their preference not to engage in an all-out war should be analyzed within the broad regional and international context.
Iranian military strategists, like their counterparts in other countries, draw their defense policies based on their perception of Iran's geography and the lessons they have learned from recent wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. Being a Shiite-Persian nation, Iran is a minority in its neighborhood. It is surrounded by the United States and its allies — Israel and Sunni/Arab Persian Gulf states — who enjoy massive military and economic resources. Within this context, Tehran's defense strategy is based on two fundamental intertwined notions: asymmetrical warfare and forward-defense doctrine. This combination explains the key role Syria and Hezbollah (and other militias) play in Iran's national security.
A nation of approximately 80 million people with an oil-dependent economy, Iran cannot match the high military spending of its regional adversaries. The Soviet Union collapsed partly because it engaged in an arms race with the United States that its economy could not afford, and this contributed to its eventual demise. Aware of these Cold War geopolitical lessons, Iranian military leaders have conceived an asymmetrical warfare strategy to compensate for their economic disadvantages. In 2017, Iran's defense spending per capita was $195, representing 3.75 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP); the figures for Israel were $2,235 and 5.33 percent, respectively11 — a significant gap.
The U.S. Department of Defense defines asymmetrical warfare as "the application of dissimilar strategies, tactics, capabilities and methods to circumvent or negate an opponent's strengths while exploiting his weaknesses."12 One of the main strategic advantages Iran enjoys is its ability to build partnerships with states and nonstate actors in its neighborhood. The IRGC's Quds Force, led by Major General Qasem Soleimani, oversees the creation and enhancement of proxies and partners in foreign countries. Probably more than any country in the world, this network plays a central role in Iran's defense policy.13 In the last several years, Iran has created strong strategic ties with political and military groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen — the relationship with Hezbollah being by far the strongest. Together, these groups form what Iranian leaders call the "axis of resistance."
By providing these allies with money, training and weapons, they serve the twofold objective of deterring an attack and engaging the enemy outside Iran (forward defense). Hezbollah was established in 1982 after Israel invaded Lebanon. Since its inception, it has proven itself Israel's strongest military foe. Unlike traditional Arab armies, Hezbollah was able to engage Israel in a costly 34-day war in 2006. Iranian missiles in the hands of Hezbollah fighters send Israel a clear message: confrontation with either Tehran or the Lebanese militia will exact a heavy toll on the home front. Stated differently, the huge imbalance between Israel's traditional military capabilities and those of Iran leaves Tehran vulnerable to potential Israeli strikes; however, Hezbollah's capabilities, particularly Iranian-supplied missiles, fill this gap. Most of Israel is within range of these missiles. Thus, a strategic equilibrium based on mutual deterrence has been established between the two sides. In recent years, Israel has made tremendous progress in developing and deploying missile-defense systems, but they are not very effective, at least not yet.
Iran's alliance with the Assad regime in Damascus serves similar objectives. The strong ties between Tehran and Damascus were initially driven in the early 1980s, by their shared animosity to Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, was the only Arab leader to support Iran in its war against Iraq. Over the years, this tactical relationship has evolved into a strategic alliance. Syria plays a key role in ensuring Iran's arms supplies to Hezbollah. Without a friendly regime in Damascus, the sustainability of these supplies would be at risk. Syria's strategic significance, moreover, is not limited to arms supplies to Hezbollah. The Assad regime plays an indispensable part in the "axis of resistance." Iranian leaders believe that if they do not fight Sunni extremists in Damascus, they will have to fight them in Tehran (forward-defense doctrine). Thus, the survival of the Assad regime represents a major component of Iran's national security. It is not only about projecting power; it is a matter of Iran's national security and the survival of the Islamic Republic.14
Iran's strong support to the Assad regime has been both costly and controversial. There is no accurate assessment of the cost of Iranian intervention in Syria, but there is no doubt that Tehran diverted significant badly needed resources from domestic development to the war. This diversion was one of the reasons behind the public resentment and wave of demonstrations in late December 2017. Equally important, an unknown number of IRGC members were killed defending the government in Damascus. Finally, Tehran's support to the brutal Assad regime has alienated many people in the Arab world, Turkey and elsewhere. It is important to point out that several senior Iranian officials have stated that Tehran supports the regime and not just Bashar al-Assad as an individual. The underlying objective is to establish a stable Syria with a government sensitive to Iranian interests.
There is no way to predict when or how the war in Syria will end, but historical experience in the Middle East and elsewhere indicates that most civil wars do end. Given the perceived key role Syria plays in the "axis of resistance" and the high price Iran has already paid defending Assad, it is certain that Tehran will fight as hard as it can to maintain some form of military presence there. Two models support this assumption: Iran's intervention in the civil wars in Lebanon in the 1980s and in Iraq in the 2000s. In the recent period, Iran's proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hashd Al-Shaabi and other Shiite organizations in Iraq) have established themselves as key military and political players. Will Israel tolerate a direct or indirect Iranian military presence in Syria?
Like other players, Israel's objectives and policies in Syria have evolved since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. One can argue that Israel, like other countries, does not wish to see instability right next door. From the Israeli perspective, the situation in Syria before 2011 was not bad. President Assad had proved to be both predictable and deterrable. The frontiers between the two countries had been quiet for more than three decades. There were no violations of the ceasefire (concluded in 1974) on the Syrian-Israeli border. Furthermore, both Assads had sought (unsuccessfully) to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel. In March 2000, President Bill Clinton met President Hafez Al-Assad in Geneva and presented proposals from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.15 Eight years later (2008), President Bashar Al-Assad exchanged messages with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan serving as mediator. Assad stated, "The United States was the only party qualified to sponsor direct talks."16 In 2010, one year before the civil war broke out, Assad called for the resumption of peace talks with Israel.17 In short, the Assad regime kept the borders quiet and was open to negotiations with Israel.
The Syrian war and the prominent role Iran, Hezbollah and other Shiite groups play in supporting President Assad have changed Israel's strategic calculation and presented a number of bad options. A victory by either the Sunni extremist groups or Assad and his Iranian allies is bad for Israel. This complicated strategic landscape has compelled Israel to avoid taking sides. Though statements by the leaders of ISIS and other extremist groups leave no doubt about their strong hostility toward the Jewish state, recent polls indicate that support for ISIS is low in the West Bank and Gaza and among Arab Israelis. This suggests that, from the Israeli perspective, the threat from Iran is more dangerous than that from ISIS. In January 2016, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon stated, "In Syria, if the choice is between Iran and the Islamic State, I choose the Islamic State. They don't have the capabilities that Iran has."18
A prolonged war that produces the emergence of a weakened Assad who can restore stability to Syria without threatening Israel might be a desired outcome. Israeli intervention in the Syrian war was limited to strikes on Iran's weapons supplies to Hezbollah, not to take sides or change the course of the war. The main objective still is to prevent the establishment of a territorial corridor, controlled by Iran and its allies, stretching through Iraq into Syria and Lebanon. This outcome would arguably facilitate the movement of fighters and the transfer of weapons, which Israel would see as an "existential threat." To counter this scenario, Jerusalem has proposed the creation of a buffer strip or a no-fly zone in the area bordering the Golan Heights. In addition, Jerusalem has provided humanitarian aid to the Syrians on their shared border area, including basic medical treatment, food, clothes and fuel.19
Since mid-2017, Jerusalem has adopted a more assertive stance, and the air strikes against Iran/Hezbollah targets have substantially intensified. This hardening of the Israeli position can be explained by three developments. First, in the last year or so, the military balance has shifted in favor of President Assad and his Iranian allies, and Jihadist groups have lost most of the territory they once held in both Iraq and Syria. In mid-November 2017, Major General Soleimani sent a message to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei declaring the defeat of ISIS.20 Stated differently, the military stalemate of the last several years between two sworn enemies of Jerusalem (ISIS and Iran) seems to be coming to an end, with Tehran and its allies increasingly shifting their attention to Israel. In April 2018, Major General Amir Eshel, commander of the Israeli Air Force, acknowledged that Israel had launched nearly 100 strikes on weapons convoys bound for Hezbollah since 2012.21
For most of the last two decades, the Israeli government has focused its attention on opposing the Iranian nuclear deal, though in recent years, attention has been given to Tehran's rising role in regional conflict as well. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been almost frenzied in his condemnation of Iran's nuclear program and lobbied tirelessly against the JCPOA. It is important to point out that some senior officials in Israel's security establishment have been less hostile to the nuclear deal than the prime minister, but all share similar assessments of Tehran's policies and intentions.22 For example, Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces stated, "The JCPOA, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years."23 The perception that by signing the JCPOA, Iran had received billions of dollars and become less isolated globally and more aggressive regionally, has become a major concern for Israeli leaders.
Second, in recent years, a noticeable shift has taken place between Israel and the Sunni/Arab world.24 Israel, one can argue, enjoys the warmest relations it has ever had with several of its Arab neighbors. This growing cooperation on a number of strategic issues is driven by the shared perception that the two sides face common enemies: Iran and militant Islam. Furthermore, some Arab leaders believe that reducing tension with Jerusalem can help them win Washington's support. Egyptian President Al-Sisi has found common cause with Israel in containing Hamas and combatting Islamic extremists in the Sinai Peninsula.25 Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently stated, "The Israelis have the right to have their own land," and "It is about time the Palestinians agree to come to the negotiation table or shut up and stop complaining."26 The UAE hosts an Israeli representative to the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency, and Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa expressed support for Israel after its attack on Iranian targets in Syria.27 These warming Arab-Israeli ties raise questions about where some of these regional powers stand on the growing tension between Tehran and Jerusalem and whether they would support military operations by the latter against the former.
Turkey, the other major regional power involved in the Syrian war, has a complicated relationship with both Tehran and Jerusalem. Ankara is heavily involved in the peace talks (along with Russia and Iran), and President Erdogan and President Rouhani confer regularly. Furthermore, the two countries share a huge and growing trade volume. On the other hand, Turkey strongly opposes the Assad regime and has called on the Syrian president to step down. Relations between Ankara and Jerusalem are equally complicated. Erdogan uses crises with Israel to bolster his popularity in both Turkey and the Muslim world. Despite this public criticism, Ankara and Jerusalem enjoy strong economic ties, including trade, investment and tourism. In Syria, the two states are not competing for influence.28 Turkey is mainly interested in northern Syria, to block Syrian Kurdish territorial gains and autonomy, while Israel is primarily interested in southern Syria, to thwart the Iran/Hezbollah presence. Against this background, Ankara has not played an active role in supporting or containing the rising Iran-Israel tension.
Third, for decades the United States has seen Israel as its closest ally in the Middle East. This overall very close alliance, however, has occasionally faced challenges under both Democratic and Republican administrations. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, President Kennedy opposed the clandestine Israeli nuclear program; President Reagan temporarily suspended the delivery of four F-16 planes in 1981; President Bush rejected loan guarantees in 1992; and President Obama strongly disagreed with Prime Minister Netanyahu over settlement construction and the Iran nuclear deal. Arguably, the current leaders in the White House are hawks like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. The core of U.S. strategy under the Trump administration is to build a coalition between Sunni/Arab states and Israel to confront Iran. Israeli leaders face few, if any, constraints from Washington and might decide to choose a militant option before a change in the U.S. administration can occur.
The Assad regime's close relations with Moscow are the oldest in the Middle East. When he was defense minister, Hafez Al-Assad established warm ties with the Soviet Union, which he maintained and further strengthened after he became president. Bashar followed suit. Given this history, Moscow has three strategic goals in the Syrian civil war:
• to preserve the Assad regime as a major ally and maintain Russia's air base in the western province of Latakia and its naval base in the port of Tartus (Russia's direct access to the Mediterranean Sea)
• to defeat Sunni extremist groups, which are, in Moscow's eyes, an extension of the terrorist groups it fights in Chechnya, Dagestan and other parts of the country
• to use Damascus as a springboard to expand its influence in the Middle East, project power and challenge U.S. regional and global dominance
In pursuing these objectives, Russia started a massive military intervention in Syria, the first outside of Europe since the end of the Cold War. Starting in October 2015, Russia has provided significant military and political support to President Assad. Russian air strikes against his opponents have turned the tide of the war in favor of the Syrian government and established Moscow as the main global military power in the country. By deploying the S-400 cutting-edge air-defense system, Moscow controls most of the air space in western Syria.29 In addition to this heavy military presence, Russia enjoys a major political advantage: warm relations with all the other players in Syria — Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Russia's relations with Iran and its perception of Tehran's role in the Syrian war are complicated. Relations between the two are driven more by shared geopolitical considerations than by economic interests.30 Arms sales and political support are the major drivers of the alliance between the two nations, whereas economic ties are anemic; Tehran has a much larger volume of trade with Asian powers, particularly China, and the EU. Moscow and Tehran are simultaneously allies and competitors. In the Syrian war the two nations need each other, but their strategic objectives are not identical. They both fight against Sunni extremist groups supported by regional and Western powers. Both Russian air power and Iranian/Shiite-militia ground forces are essential to win this fight, but Tehran insists on a military victory and wants to establish a permanent presence along Israel's borders. Moscow, on the other hand, is more open to a political compromise; after securing its military bases, it wants to bring its troops home. A decisive victory by President Assad and his Iranian, Hezbollah and other Shiite-militia allies might not be the outcome Russia would like to see in Syria. Moscow seeks to balance its strategic relations with Tehran with those of other regional powers. Specifically, Russia has adopted an accommodative approach to Israel's security concerns.
Since the beginning of the Syrian war, Prime Minister Netanyahu has met with President Putin more often than he has met with American presidents. The two countries have a de-confliction mechanism in place, allowing Israeli jets to strike Iranian targets in Syria without simultaneously hitting Russian forces.31 Russia has refused to sell the S-300 air-defense system to the Syrian government. This advanced weaponry would raise the risk level for Israeli jets carrying out strikes against Syrian and Iranian targets. Meanwhile, Russia has not used its advanced anti-aircraft batteries to stop the Israeli attacks. This suggests that Moscow has either given Jerusalem a green light or is turning a blind eye to air strikes against Iran/Hezbollah targets. Russian officials have been calling for restraint from all parties, but Moscow's reluctance to take a strong stand against Israeli air strikes indicates a desire to avoid confrontation with Jerusalem and a willingness to tolerate some degrading of Iran's capabilities in Syria.32
The rising tension between Tehran and Jerusalem has put more pressure on Moscow to find a balance that will accommodate their opposing strategic objectives. Iran and its Shiite-militia allies want to maintain a military presence in Syria to deter potential Israeli aggression against the Islamic Republic. Jerusalem rejects such a scenario and has launched military operations to prevent it. Given its heavy military involvement in the Syrian war and its close relations with both Iran and Israel, Moscow is well-positioned to negotiate a compromise. Russia does not want the fighting between these sworn enemies to escalate and further destabilize Syria (and the entire region), delaying the withdrawal of Russian troops.33 Against this background, President Putin stated that "foreign armed forces will withdraw from Syria."34
There is a problem, however: it is not clear whether the Assad regime is strong enough to survive without Russian and Iranian support. A premature withdrawal might force Assad to give up some of the gains he has recently won from opposition groups. Furthermore, it is not clear that Tehran will accept the Russian proposal. President Putin's call was followed by a modification from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said that only Syrian forces should be stationed on the country's southern border, implying that Iranian and Hezbollah forces should be ruled out.35 This modified proposal amounts to the creation of a buffer zone along the Israeli-Syrian borders. Iranian-allied Shiite forces would not be allowed in this zone, so the launching of short-range missile attacks on Israel would diminish. The Israeli government seems to accept this compromise.36
The United States
The strategic goals of the United States in Syria are far less ambitious than those of Russia. Washington has no plans to use Syria to project power in the Middle East and does not have permanent military bases there. In the last several years, the underlying U.S. objective has been to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) and its affiliated extremist groups. In pursuing this goal, Washington has established an international coalition and maintained a small military presence, mainly in northeastern Syria. Since early 2017, ISIS has lost most of the territory it once held, prompting President Trump to announce his desire to bring American troops home. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford had successfully argued against an immediate withdrawal on two grounds. First, the military needs extra time to clean out residual pockets of ISIS fighters and train local forces to stabilize the liberated territory and prevent the return of the extremist groups.37 Second, premature withdrawal would leave a vacuum that could be exploited by Iran and its allies.38
Statements by senior U.S. officials suggest that the Trump administration is in the process of redefining the mission in Syria from fighting ISIS to containing Iran. In January, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson argued that disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position and threaten Israel. Four months later (May 2018), Secretary Mike Pompeo demanded that Iran "withdraw all forces under its command throughout the entirety of Syria."39 On the other hand, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee last February, General Joseph Votel, CENTCOM commander, denied that countering Iran is one of the coalition's missions in Syria.40 Votel further explained that "at the moment" nonmilitary options are being pursued to contain Iran. Indeed, it seems the current U.S. policy in Syria does not seek direct military confrontation with Iran and its allies. Instead, the Israelis have taken the lead through airstrikes, with no objection from Washington
THE WAY FORWARD
Currently an all-out war between Iran and Israel seems unlikely. Rhetoric aside, both the United States and Russia want to bring their troops home after securing their strategic interests. Regional powers seem to agree that a direct and broad military confrontation between Tehran and Jerusalem would further destabilize the entire Middle East and South Asia. Instead of pursuing such a costly option, there are growing signs that Israel, working with "moderate Sunni/Arab countries" and the United States, has opted to increase military and economic pressure on Iran in Syria and elsewhere in order to promote "regime change" in Tehran.
In late May, Prime Minister Netanyahu warned, "We will continue to act against Iran's intention to establish a military presence in Syria, not just opposite the Golan Heights, but anywhere in Syria."41 Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman added that Israeli military attacks reflect "not only our position, but the positions of others in the Middle East and beyond."42 Faced with overwhelming Israeli military power in Syria (and other military/political pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Syria and other Arab countries), the Iranian government will be faced with public humiliation. This strategy will leave Tehran with two options: either accept defeat and reduced leverage in these regional conflicts or divert financial resources from domestic economic development to finance the war efforts. Either option would supposedly deepen public contempt and lead to the collapse of the regime.43
Within this context, the Trump administration has decided to impose "unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime — the strongest sanctions in history." Secretary Pompeo stated, "At the end of the day, the Iranian people will get to make a choice about their leadership."44 Wendy Sherman, former senior diplomat in the Obama administration, described this new policy: "Ultimately what they're apparently trying to do is incite, if not directly bring about, regime change."45 Certainly, like any other country, the Iranian regime is not immune to economic pressure. But this strategy to apply a combination of military pressure and economic sanctions to promote regime change faces several challenges. In the first decade following the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Tehran survived a bloody war with Iraq and was under military/economic embargo by almost all countries in the world. Almost four decades later, the regime has consolidated its grasp on power domestically and learned how to evade sanctions. As bad as the situation might be under the new sanctions, it endured much worse in the 1980s. Second, Israel is not alone in applying military/economic pressure on Iran; it is strongly supported by the United States and some regional powers. But other Middle Eastern countries and international players do not subscribe to this strategy. The 2012-15 sanctions regime was based on broad regional and global consensus and was proven effective. The current policy lacks such consensus. Europe, Russia, China and many other countries are not as fully committed to it as they were prior to the signing of the nuclear deal.
Third, arguably, there is no credible alternative to the clerical regime in Tehran. John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani and other senior aides to President Trump have spoken at the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) rallies and conferences. The MEK is an Iranian exile group that for a long time was designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. By supporting Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran in the 1980s, it lost any domestic support it had ever had and has become more of a religious cult than a modern political party.46 Fourth, the experience of regime change in the Middle East and elsewhere has not been promising. The outcomes in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have been civil wars and/or failing and failed states, demonstrating that foreign-imposed or inspired regime changes rarely produce the results their advocates predict.47 Trying to reform a regime from inside might be a more viable option.
Iran's response to this military/economic-pressure strategy reflects the complicated diversity of power centers within its religious/political establishment. Ayatollah Khamenei has always claimed that the United States has refused to accept the Islamic Revolution and that there is no point negotiating with Washington. He recently argued that although U.S. enmity toward Iran is deep, "this animosity has nothing to do with Tehran's nuclear program, as Washington is against the Islamic establishment."48 President Rouhani, on the other hand, was more reserved, urging a wait-and-see approach: "The outcome of the Congress election or other upcoming elections is uncertain….The U.S. stance on the JCPOA and Iran might change."49
So far, Tehran's reaction to the rising pressure has been guarded. There has been no massive retaliation to Israeli airstrikes and no re-activation of the nuclear program. Instead, Iran has embarked on a diplomatic campaign to strengthen economic and strategic ties with Europe, Russia, China and other global powers. The continuation of Israeli air attacks in Syria and the intensification of economic pressure would further deepen the Iranian government's public humiliation and might force it to adopt a more aggressive approach. More military/economic pressure, however, would play into the hands of the hardline elements in Tehran.
An escalation of the military confrontation between Iran and Israel would deal a heavy blow to political stability in the Middle East and the strategic interests of regional and global powers. Currently, there is no mechanism in place to de-escalate the conflict; the United States needs to work with other parties to create one. Israel's security concerns should, of course, be addressed. On the other hand, Iran's heavy political/military investment in Syria should be taken into account; it is hard to imagine a scenario under which Iran and its Shiite-militia allies would be denied a military presence in Syria. A de-escalation mechanism should accommodate these two conflicting perspectives.
In the long run, efforts should be made to create a consensus on a new regional security paradigm. Building a Sunni/Arab-Israeli coalition to contain Iran and its allies is a recipe for war and instability; both the Islamic Republic and the Jewish state are here to stay. Global powers should work with their regional allies to reduce tensions and eventually to get the two states to recognize and accept each other. An inclusive regional-security system is needed; a structure similar to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in which a wide range of security-related concerns are addressed, may serve as a model.50 An Iran that is well-integrated into the regional and global systems would be a significant step toward reducing the prospect of another devastating war in the Middle East.
1 Yasser Okbi and Maariv Hashavua, "Report: Iranian General Was Killed in Israeli Strike because He Didn't Turn Off His Phone," Jerusalem Post, January 24, 2015,https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-conflict/Report-iranian-general-was-….
2 "Iran's Zarif Says Israel's Myth of Invincibility Has Crumbled," Reuters, February 18, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iran-israeli-irans-za….
3 Griff Witte and Michael Birnbaum, "Brandishing Drone Fragment, Netanyahu Warns that Iran Risks Conflict," Washington Post, February 18, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/brandishing-drone-fragment-netanyahu-war…; and "Holding Iran Drone Part, Netanyahu Challenges: Do not Test Israel's Resolve," Jerusalem Post, February 18, 2018, http://www.jpost.com/printarticle.aspx?id=542917.
4 Thomas L. Friedman, "Are Iran and Israel Headed for Their First Direct War?" New York Times, April 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/15/opinion/war-syria-iran-israel.html.
5 Fars News, "Iranian Leader's Top Aide Warns of Response to Israeli Strikes on Syria," Fars News, April 10, 2018, http://en.farsnews.com/print.aspx?nn=13970121001336.
6 Tovah Lazaroff, "Liberman: We'll Do Our Utmost to Stop Iran in Syria," Jerusalem Post, April 10, 2018, http://www.jpost.com/printarticle.aspx?id=549412.
7 Yaniv Kubovich, "Israel Launched World's First Air Strike Using F-35 Stealth Fighters, Air Force Chief Says," Haaretz , May 24, 2018, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/with-iran-in-syria-israel-laun….
8 "F-35 Stealth Fighter Sees First Combat in Israeli Operation," BBC News, May 22, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-44210403.
9 Bethan McKernan, "Golan Heights Attack," Independent, May 10, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/Israel-iran-war-la…; and Robin Wright, "Israel Wages a Growing War in Syria," New Yorker, April 9, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/israel-wages-a-growing-war-in-….
10 Avi Issacharoff, "Iran vs. Israel: Is a Major War Ahead?" The Atlantic, May 11, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/05/iran-israel-s….
11 International Institute for Strategic Studies, "Military Balance 2018," http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/tmib20.
12 Joint Chiefs of Staff, DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/dictionary.pdf.
13 Matthew Mcinnis, "Iranian Deterrence Strategy and Use Of Proxies: Testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations," December 6, 2016, http://www.aei.org/publication/iranian-deterrence-strategy-and-use-of-p….
14 Emile Hokayem, "Iran, the Gulf States and the Syrian Civil War," Survival 56, no. 6 (December 2014): 59-86.
15 Jane Perlez, "Clinton's Effort Fails to Get Syria to Resume Talks," New York Times, March 27, 2000, https://www.nytimes.com/2000/03/27/world/clinton-s-effort-fails-to-get-….
16 "Assad Confirms Turkish Mediation with Israel," The Guardian , April 24, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/apr/24/syria.israelandthepalesti….
17 Ayla Jean Yackley, "Syria Ready to Resume Peace Talks with Israel – Turkey," Reuters, May 8, 2010, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-syria-Israel-idUSTRE6471Q7201….
18 Elisabeth Marteu, "Israel and the Jihadi Threat," Survival 60, no. 1 (January 2018): 85-106, https://doi.org/10.1080/00396338.2018.1427366.
19 Judah Ari Gross, "Operation Good Neighbor: Israel Reveals Its Massive Humanitarian Aid to Syria," Times of Israel , July 19, 2017, https://www.timeofisrael.com/operation-good-neighbor-israels-massive-hu….
20 Mohammad Homaeefar, "Iran's Soleimani Declares Promised Fall of ISIS," Tehran Times, November 21, 2017, http://www.tehrantimes.com/news/418677/iran-s-Soleimani-declares-promis….
21 Ben Hubbard and David M. Halbfinger, "Iran-Israel Conflict Escalates in Shadow of Syrian Civil War," New York Times, April 9, 2018,https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/09/world/middleeast/syria-russia-israel….
22 Dalia Dassa Kaye, Israel's Iran Policies after the Nuclear Deal (RAND Corporation, 2016), https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE207.html.
23 Max Boot, "Trump Is Doing Long-Term Damage to Israel," Washington Post,May 23, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/trump-is-inflic….
24 Moshe Yaalon and Leehe Friedman, "Israel and the Arab States," Foreign Affairs, January 26, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/Israel/2018-01-26/Israel-and-ar….
25 David D. Kirkpatrick, "Secret Alliance: Israel Carries Out Airstrikes in Egypt, With Cairo's O.K.," New York Times, February 3, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/03/world/middleeast/israel-airstrikes-s….
26 Eric Sumner, "Report: Saudi Crown Prince Said Palestinians Should Shut up or Make Peace," Jerusalem Post, May 1,2018, https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-conflict/report-saudi-crown-prince-s….
27 Aya Batrawy and Jon Gambrell, "Gulf Arab States Rebuke Israel, but Alliances Inch Closer," Associated Press, May 16, 2018.
28 Gallia Lindenstrauss, "Old and New Dynamics: What Has Changed in Turkey-Israel Relations?" INSS Insight No. 1061 (May 24, 2018): http://www.inss.org.il/publication/old-new-dynamics-changed-turkey-isra….
29 "Russian Military Deploys Latest Batch of S-499 Air Defense System to Syria," Russia Today, January 23, 2018, https://www.rt.com/news/416738-s-400-syria-russia.
30 Dmitri Trenin, "Russia and Iran: Historic Mistrust and Contemporary Partnership," Carnegie Moscow Center, August 18, 2016, https://carnegie.ru/2016/08/18/russia-and-iran-historic-mistrust-and-co….
31 Sue Surkes and Raphael Ahren, "Russia Urges Restraint after Israel-Iran Exchanges Says Israel Used 28 Jets," Times of Israel , May 10, 2018, https://www.timesofisrael.com/russia-urges-restraint-after-israel-and-i….
32 Yury Barmin, "Putin Considers Options as Israel and Iran Face Off in Syria," Middle East Eye, May 23, 2018, http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/how-russia-can-balance-iran-israel….
33 Herb Keinon, "Disagreements Begin to Emerge between Moscow, Tehran Regarding Syria," Jerusalem Post, May 22, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/printarticle.aspx?id=558091.
34 "Putin Meets Assad, Says Foreign Armed Forces Will Start Leaving Syria," Haaretz , May 17, 2018, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/syria/putin-meets-assad-says-f….
35 Raf Sanchez, "Israel Sees an Opportunity to Drive Iran Out of Syria as Russia Looks to Its Own Interests," Telegraph, May 29, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/05/28/israel-sees-opportunity-dri….
36 Tovah Lazaroff and Michael Wilner, "Israel Prefers Assad over Iran at Its Border," Jerusalem Post, June 1, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Israel-prefers-Assad-over-Iran-at-its….
37 Julie Hirschfeld Davis, "Trump Drops Push for Immediate Withdrawal of Troops from Syria," New York Times, April 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/04/world/middleeast/trump-syria-troops….
38 Tamara Cofman Wittes, "Elections in Lebanon and Iraq Offer a Glimmer of Hope — How the U.S Should Prepare for the Long Term," Brookings Institution, May 23, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/05/23/elections-in….
39 Mike Pompeo, "After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy," Remarks by the Secretary of State to the Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018, https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2018/05/282301.htm.
40 Rebecca Kheel, "Top General : Countering Iran Is not a U.S. Military Mission," The Hill, February 27, 2018, http://thehill.com/policy/defense/375789-top-general-countering-iran-in….
41 Tovah Lazaroff, "We'll Hit Iran Anywhere in Syria, Netanyahu Says," Jerusalem Post, May 30, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Netanyahu-Well-strike-at-Iran-anywher….
42 Noa Landau, "Russia Says Only Syrian Army Should Be on Country's Southern Border with Israel," Haaretz , May 28, 2018, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/syria/russia-says-only-syrian-….
43 Jonathan Spyer, "Game On: The New Strategy of the U.S. and Its Allies in the Middle East," Jerusalem Post, May 24, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/printarticleaspx?id=558338.
44 Pompeo, "After the Deal."
45 Katrina Manson, "Washington's Iran Wish List Lacks Support from Allies," Financial Times, May 21, 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/2b97380a-5d63-11e8-9334-2218e7146b04.
46 For more details, see Gawdat Bahgat, "The War on Terrorism: The Mujahedeen e-Khalk Saga," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 27, no. 5 (October 2004): 377-85.
47 Stephen M. Walt, "Regime Change for Dummies," Foreign Policy, May 14, 2018, http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/05/14/regime-change-for-dummies.
48 "Leader: U.S. Plots Doomed to Fail," Iran Daily, May 23, 2018, http://iran-daily.com/News/215611.html.
49 "U.S. Stance against JCPOA not Permanent: President Rouhani," Mehr News, May 26, 2018, http://en.mehrnews.com/print/134358/us-stance-against-JCPOA-not-permane….
50 Julien Barnes-Dacey, Ellie Geranmayeh and Hugh Lovatt, "The Middle East's New Battle Lines," European Council on Foreign Relations, May 17, 2018, http://www.ecfr.eu/mena/battle_lines.
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