As ever in the Middle East, it would be overly simplistic to assert that any power, including the regime in Iran, is purely on the rise or on the wane. But the radical, adventurist theocrats in Tehran have recently been feeling the proverbial heat. While allies of Iran’s especially lethal proxy, Hezbollah, gained strength at the expense of relative moderates in last week’s Lebanese election, the so-called “Party of God” remained roughly unchanged in its own share of officeholders. While Syria’s Assad regime now seems entrenched in power, its Sunni resisters scattered and ravaged, that country’s civil strife appears fated to persist indefinitely and Hezbollah’s centrality to the bloodletting has sapped the “resistance movement” of its inter-sectarian appeal. While the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers was ostensibly never popular with Iran’s powerful revolutionaries, who balk at any restriction on military endeavors and detest any accommodation with Western countries, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the compact has embarrassed the Iranian ruling class, as did Israel’s earlier disclosure of extensive intelligence proving Tehran’s nuclear duplicity.
Fear of the nuclear deal’s substantial weaknesses – and of Iranian-sponsored terrorism, weapons accumulation and mischief-making more generally – has united Israeli and key Arab leaders in remarkable, and increasingly unsubtle, ways. Meanwhile, the Iranian state’s continuing oppressiveness, corruption and failure to achieve economic growth have again spurred open domestic discontent to an extent not seen in almost a decade.
Faced with this pressure from within and without, Iranian leaders have felt compelled to project strength and extract a cost for recent setbacks. Iranian missiles and a drone from Syria were launched at Israel, prompting a furious Israeli counterattack aimed at thoroughly degrading a menacing Iranian military infrastructure being erected in Syria to mimic that which has been amassed in Lebanon. Analysts believe that Iran has also stoked and escalated support for the deliberately provoking Palestinian rioting on Gaza’s border with Israel. Although Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is Sunni, it remains estranged from the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah, and has sought to direct Gazans’ frustrations at Israel, not itself, particularly as wider Arab attention has shifted elsewhere and the Trump administration took the occasion of Israel’s 70th anniversary to relocate the United States Embassy to Jerusalem.
Undoubtedly, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah badly now want to be seen as scoring some victories, without going so far as to prompt a devastating, all-out Israeli or U.S. counteroffensive. But this dangerous “dance” remains unpredictable and of grave concern. Iran is expected by many to increase cyber-attacks, like a series of those recently aimed at Saudi Arabia, which have potential to sabotage varied forms of critical infrastructure in adversary countries. No less, terrorism abroad has long been a favored tool in Tehran, giving it the possibility of concealing its fingerprints from such violence but inflicting death and panic among targeted populations, including non-Israeli diaspora Jews. And if Iranian decision-makers, egged on by the ideologues of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, soon conclude that the benefits to Iran of the nuclear deal without U.S. inclusion are too limited – especially since European companies, prioritizing their access to American markets, want to avoid running afoul of sanctions imposed on Iran by Washington – Tehran could again make a mad dash for nuclear weaponry, prompting acute alarm and counter-measures across the region.
Finally, although Hezbollah knows that any massive attack, of which it is now capable, against Israelis would result in a fiery response from Israel unlikely to please the people of Lebanon, Hezbollah remains answerable chiefly to its patrons in Iran and is also desperate to reclaim Arab “legitimacy” as the leading non-state threat to Israel. Accordingly, especially if direct Israeli-Iranian skirmishing (with little precedent) continues in Syria, the potential for Hezbollah to be activated against Israel – and thus for outright war – is real. Add acute tension between the U.S. and Iran, and red-hot recrimination (over rivalry in Syria, Qatar, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere) between Gulf Arabs and Iran, and the possibility exists for regional conflict unlike that experienced in the past.
To make matters worse, those jihadist groups more focused on destroying Israel than on containing Iran will want to force Sunni leaders away from a tacit alliance with Jerusalem by stage-managing a propaganda spectacle whose primary victims are ultimately Palestinian.
In this – and, most recklessly, in turning a blind eye to the looming danger posed by a foremost terrorist army, Hezbollah, just subjected to intensified U.S. sanctions – the United Nations and other willfully oblivious members of the global community can sadly be expected to play right along.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
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