Written by Evgeniy Satanovskiy; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
Washington’s declaration of withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which is something that President Trump threatened to do for a fairly long time, and the exchange of strikes between Iran and Israel, have become the focus of attention of the international media.
Incidentally, what’s typical is that in spite of the possibility of escalation, a big Iran-Israel war, and especially a direct clash in Syria between the US and Russia and even US and Iran, are far from inevitable. An analysis of events suggests restraint on part of all concerned. It’s no accident Iran fired not on the internationally recognized territory of Israel but the Golan Heights which nobody in the world officially considers part of Israel. And even then only military facilities were struck.
At the same time, the Tehran-Jerusalem conflict is far from exhausted, and it may evolve in several unpredictable directions. This includes the struggle for power and resources within the Iranian elite, where the military and security officials are openly opposed to President Rouhani’s people. As far as the US violation of the Iran deal is concerned, Trump inflicted severe damage on “Atlantic solidarity.” It can’t be ruled out that his main goal was to subordinate NATO allies to Washington and undermine the EU’s economic potential, both of which are unacceptable to European capitals.
The smoldering Iran-Israel confrontation in the meantime entered an active phase. On early morning of May 10, Al-Quds units launched rockets at military sites on Gola heights. This event followed weeks of gradual escalation of Israeli attacks against Iranian positions in Syria, including the May 9 strike on a supposed IRGC-linked facility in southern suburbs of Damascus. The initial Iranian and Syrian volley which consisted, according to the IDF, of at least 20 rockets, provoked a retaliation against targets in western Syria including around Damascus. IDF press service announced that it struck dozens of Al-Quds sites in Syria. They included Iranian intelligence units controlled by Al-Quds, its headquarters, military and logistical facilities, an Iranian military camp north of Damascus, Al-Quds weapons storage in the Damascus international airport, information systems linked to Al-Quds, outposts and observation points in the buffer zone. An Iranian launcher unleashing rockets against Israel was hit. Israeli aircraft also attacked Syrian air defense units which opened fire in spite of warnings.
US intelligence sources state that Israeli aircraft operated over the Lebanese airspace to minimize losses. IDF announced some Iranian rockets were intercepted by Iron Dome. Iranians delivered a significant response to the constant Iranian attacks, and that fact by itself means a new phase of the Syria war which is now additionally complicated by the Jerusalem-Tehran conflict. Moreover, Israel brought its forces on the Golan into full readiness some three days earlier, and the preparations included restoring bomb shelters there.
Prime Minister’s Reconnaissance
Israel’s PM Netanyahu arrived in Moscow with the clear goal of ascertaining Russia’s position and the degree of its military involvement in the Iran-Israel confrontation in Syria. The main issue were Moscow’s efforts to modernize Syria’s air defenses which would greatly complicate future Israeli airstrikes and Russia’s ability to deter Iran from future rocket strikes. But this kind of mediation is only possible if Israel were to abandon preventive airstrikes, which it’s not about to do. But if Iranian rocket strikes are repeated, it might mean an IDF land operation on Israel’s northern borders, leading to the possibility of a direct clash with Iranians and Lebanese.
On the other hand, Netanyahu’s very visit to Moscow for the Victory Day, him walking by the side of President Vladimir Putin as part of the Immortal Regiment, was supposed to demonstrate the “closeness of positions.” It was a signal to both Iran and the United States. PM’s departure abroad, while his country was in full battle readiness due to the expected Iranian strike would have appeared odd if the Israeli leadership expected a serious war. However, the missile exchange was predictable. Right up until this latest escalation, both Israeli and US sources emphasized the growing likelihood of an Iranian military response. Tehran increased shipments of weapons and equipment to Syria, and warned more than once that Israeli strikes on its positions in Syria would not go unanswered.
Even so, Iran is inclined to avoid a big war with Israel, particularly since it’s trying to strengthen its positions in Syria and preserve the strength of its own forces. Its most important priority is completing the suppression of anti-Assad enclaves in the central and southern parts of Syria which would shift the center of gravity of operations not toward Israel but toward Idlib and the regions east of Euphrates. That’s where the question of Saudi presence in Syria will be decided, which is a more important priority for Iran, given its efforts to establish the “Shia Crescent”, than the Israeli sector. Jerusalem is also not interested in a prolonged armed conflict with Tehran.
The Bomb and Rocket Show
Israel and Iran de-facto enacted an impressive show in the Syrian stage with the aim of communicating their political stances to the world community. The main issues are the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and its US abrogation, followed by political isolation of the US by its allies. This worries Israel. Netanyahu’s demonstration of “intelligence documents” on the eve of Washington’s withdrawal from JCPOA accusing Iran of cheating had no effect on the EU, which may ignore US sanctions. By provoking Iran, Israel sustained a high degree of tension which made defending JCPOA harder for the EU, due to Iran’s “aggressive acts.”
Strikes on Israeli targets were supposed to harden US positions, and provoke the US to enter into a direct confrontation with Syria and Iran. Experts believe that Israel is not prepared for an independent military campaign against Iran, which it demonstrated during the Obama years. That’s what Pentagon counted on, hence the “calm” reaction from Washington. The US did not comment on the Al-Quds strikes on the IDF forward positions on the Golan and referred questions to Israeli government. This means diplomatic support.
Iran demonstrated to Europe possible consequences of the US withdrawal from JCPOA and negatively reacted to Israeli PM’s growing “understanding” with Moscow. Several sources have indicated this action was backed by IRGC “hard-liners”.
US analysts believe Iran and Israel are not about to expand their conflict at beyond the borders of Syria, but there is risk that their clashes may slip from under control. They suppose that the diplomatic approach to Moscow had no result. But it’s extremely important for Israel not to cause a conflict with Russia in Syria, while maintaining close cooperation with the US and adopt a more aggressive stance toward Iran. The last round of strikes and counter-strikes represents a serious danger of escalation, giving Jerusalem an opening to pursue more active measures against Iran’s presence in Syria. There is also a danger that Iran-Israel clashes will spread to Lebanon and potentially draw in Russia and the US.
In Syria’s east, according to the Pentagon, there are more frequent clashes between US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Shia militias. Iranian and Syrian air defenses face the risk of confusing US coalition and Israeli aircraft. Pro-Iranian militants in Syria could strike US targets. Russia’s priority in this situation is undoubtedly the de-escalation of Iran-Israel conflict, in view of the risks it poses to Russian forces and aims in Syria.
The US is also inclined in favor of de-escalation, in order to avoid being drawn into a full-scale combat in Syria, which Washington doesn’t need. It’s aim is to preserve a relative stability zone east of Euphrates, where political alternatives to Damascus may be established among the local Sunnis. This requires time and absence of local fighting. On the other hand, Israel’s strikes draw away pro-Iran forces toward Syria’s south, away from Eurphrates. But Israel is not prepared for a constant conflict on the Golan, in addition to Southern Lebanon and Gaza.
Political scientists’ discussions in international media revolve around the following questions: will the US attack Iran? Will there be a big war? Will US actions lead to IRGC “hawks” coming to power in Iran, causing a resumption of the nuclear program? Will the region collapse into chaos that will be remotely controlled from the US, after it leaves from the Middle East and the Gulf region? Will the US force its will on the EU? What is Russia to do in this situation?
It seems Washington is not about to strike Iranian targets either in Iran or Syria. At least not during the period until November 4, which is the date of reimposition of sanctions on Iran—the US is introducing sanctions so that it doesn’t have to fight. All the more since their strikes don’t solve anything, and can’t influence anything. The center of gravity of US policy toward Iran is not military action, but rather attempts at economic strangulation in order to facilitate social ferment. Without the US, none of its allies will engage in a full-scale war with Iran.
This kind of conflict means that, apart from personnel and economic losses, Saudi Arabia and UAE will not be able to pursue the diversification of economy they proclaimed. This also applies to Israel, which wants to participate in the stand-off with Iran only jointly with the US, by incentivizing the US to exit JCPOA and launch a preventive strike. These steps have thus far been resisted by the Pentagon which is against any military operations until when pro-Iran forces openly attack US military presence in the region. This is the main guarantee that US will not strike Iran in the foreseeable future, in spite of all the rhetoric and prognoses made by Iranian leaders.
Iranians, Europeans, and Americans will seek ways to reach an acceptable compromise before November 4. Tehran will be in a waiting mode, without leaving JCPOA, and sound out EU positions. There are yet no grounds to believe IRGC “hawks” will come to power. Their last attempt to strengthen their positions in Iranian power structure during the recent social unrest was a failure. The ultraconservatives’ leader and former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is still under house arrest. IRGC dissent was crushed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who never allowed the IRGC, rather than the reformers, to seize the role of the dominant competitor to the clerics in the struggle for power in Iran. Instead, the reformers have grown stronger thanks to the clerics’ efforts to use them against the security bloc.
As far as the EU is concerned, Rouhani’s words are quite telling. He said the following in a phone conversation with Angela Merkel: “I call on the EU, in particular France, UK, and Germany, to adopt a firm position to guarantee Iranian interests within the signed agreement.” This concerns the sale of oil, gas, and finance. Merkel confirmed Berlin is sticking to the agreement as long as Iran fulfills its obligations. She also spoke in favor of expanding the list of countries participating in the talks with Iran on its ballistic missile program, and on developments in the region, including in Syria and Yemen.
France’s Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire commented on the US decision to abandon JCPOA and reimpose sanctions on radio station Europe 1: “It’s time to shift from words to action from the point of view of economic sovereignty.” Europe, according to Le Maire, should not be a US vassal. He said that he’ll meet with his British and French counterparts in late May “to see what can be done in response to the US”. He noted that EU already work on endowing Europe with financial instruments that would make it independent of the US. he reminded that in 1996 the Council of Europe adopted a resolution on protecting the union against extraterritorial sanctions. “This turns the US into an economic gendarme of the planet, and think it unacceptable,” said Le Maire.
For Russia, any serious conflict in the Middle East is automatically to its long-term benefit, both economically (because Europe and Asia lose hydrocarbon sources which cannot be compensated by US LNG or fracked oil) and politically. It accentuates Russia’s potential as a military superpower and a guarantor of borders of this or that country, not to mention its prospects for arms conflicts. The conflict moreover does not concern Russia directly, though it does signal the end of the unipolar world order.
This makes clear what Moscow ought to do: nothing other than what it’s been doing so far. Hover above the fray, and bring to a logical conclusion its current policy in Syria. JCPOA is a matter for the US, EU, and the Arab world. Here the main tasks for the Russian diplomats is to say the right things and express concern. Other forms of diplomacy will be more effective, particularly the military-political one, as in Syria or Afghanistan. Russia won’t be able to exploit EU’s unhappiness with the US, or become a bridge between the EU and Iran, which is what some Russian experts are calling for.
In the first of the two, the relations with Russia are not as critical. US remains the key EU partner, in spite of differences on certain trade issues and JCPOA. The biggest factor here is the volume of economic losses caused by loyalty to Washington. Once the losses from Iran sanctions, aluminum, steel, and iron sanctions, the growth of own expenditures on defense, and the rest, start to exceed the volume of bilateral trade with the US, the degree of EU loyalty toward Washington will decline dramatically. Secondly, EU does not need Russia to organize its relations with Iran.
Trump is trying to re-establish Washington’s total dominion over America’s European, Arab allies. It’s a strategy, not a tactic. Therefore it’s pointless to talk about the US leaving the Middle East. They won’t go anywhere as long as Russia is there. It’s a matter of geopolitics. It’s another matter that Trump, as a businessman, is first and foremost trying to finance US presence there at the expense of allies, and much of what he does is driven by that goal. Many experts don’t consider that factor, and instead they try to explain his actions on the basis of political scientists’ and diplomats’ ideas and opinions on how international relations ought to be based, in accordance with “rules of the game” worked out by these same political scientists and diplomats.
Trump is not bound by tradition. He’s an entrepreneur, of the adventurist variety. That’s what brought him to power in spite of all the opposition and predictions to the contrary made even by leaders of the party in whose name he won. This victory convinced him he’s on the right course, since it brings him desired results. He operates internationally as if it were a speculative business: raises and lowers stakes, bluffs, demolishes his partners’ expectations, whenever he considers it beneficial.
Trump pays attention to nothing but the final result, and if it’s something other than expected, he easily claims that’s what he was after, and that’s what the US needs, it’s just that nobody realized it before. It’s enough to remember the Qatar and “Arab Four” confrontation which he provoked, and from which he benefited by signing arms contracts with both sides and obtaining unprecedented financial commitments from them in spite of their sincere belief that each of the sides in the confrontation will get from Trump what they wanted. There is no doubt that even with Iran his goal is not the same as what he’s publicizing.
Evgeniy Satanovskiy (President of the Middle East Institute), with materials from Yu. Shcheglovin