Risks of wider Middle East confrontation as Iran pursues ambitions

Growing friction between Israel and Iran lies at the core of the problem.
Sunday 27/05/2018
Iranians take part in an anti-US and Israel demonstration in Tehran, on May 18. (AFP)
Looming peril. Iranians take part in an anti-US and Israel demonstration in Tehran, on May 18. (AFP)

BEIRUT - The Middle East is in turmoil and all the signs are that wider conflict is likely but there does not appear to be any significant effort by the major powers — primarily the United States and Russia — to avert calamity.

Growing friction between Israel and Iran, with Tehran’s ambition of becoming the region’s superpower as it exerts growing influence across the unstable region, lies at the core of the problem.

“An all-out war between Iran and Israel is approaching and the Trump administration has no strategy for preventing it,” observed Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in a May 20 analysis.

Consider how, in recent days, the situation has seriously deteriorated with the global states, traditional arbiters of coexistence, seemingly unable — or unwilling — to prevent the region’s various conflicts merging and reaching critical mass.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an anti-Iran hawk, announced a new strategy of confronting Iran that goes beyond the anti-proliferation restrictions to the interdiction of nuclear enrichment, ballistic missiles and Tehran’s regional ambitions through armed proxies.

Washington’s uncompromising position on Tehran appears to have set the United States on a collision course with Iran after Washington unilaterally abrogated the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic.

US President Donald Trump “may prefer to distance us from Middle East conflicts,” Ross noted, “but they have a way of finding us and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal won’t stop Iran’s effort to expand in the region.

“To the contrary, sooner or later, that expansion will trigger a wider war. Engage now or engage later that’s the choice we face.”

The consensus is that Iran defies the Trump administration because it sees the European powers — including Russia, Britain, Germany and France — increasingly alienated by Washington.

In conjunction with that, successive layers of economic sanctions are being imposed on Iran’s key ally, Hezbollah, by the United States while the United Nations urges the Lebanese movement to halt its military operations, a key element of Iran’s regional strategy.

Right now, however, Hezbollah and its allies see themselves on a winning streak and are unlikely to back off.

They control Lebanon’s parliament following May 6 elections and will effectively be in charge of the government for the first time.

Thus legitimised, Iran’s influence in the Levant, a key target in Tehran’s grand design, is expected to intensify, antagonising Israel, already alarmed at Iran’s growing military power in Syria on its northern border.

The Israeli Air Force’s disclosure that it has carried out combat operations with its state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighters from the US, only months after receiving the first of 50 of the most advanced fighter jets in the world, underlines the tension.

Israel has been intensifying its air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. It may be a matter of time before open warfare erupts between them.

While cooler heads on both sides want to avoid war, the hard-line camps in Tehran and Washington wield considerable power.

Trump has made it abundantly clear the United States stands behind Israel, having moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14, bolstering Israel’s claim to sole control of the holy city.

On May 23, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz indicated Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right government expects more major concessions from Trump — such as formal recognition of Syria’s southern Golan Heights as Israeli territory.

Israel seized part of the strategic volcanic plateau in 1967 and unilaterally annexed it in 1981. This has never been internationally recognised.

That standoff could spiral into a new Israeli confrontation with the Arab world, particularly if Netanyahu is emboldened enough to try to annex the West Bank as well, dashing any hopes of a Palestinian state — and thus a peace treaty — emerging.

The long-mooted embassy move triggered major Palestinian protests, with Israeli military gunfire killing more than 60 Gazans and wounding thousands more as they protested on Israel’s southern border.

With Israel facing trouble on two fronts, Channel 10 television reported May 21 that Netanyahu’s cabinet was “strongly considering” a long-term ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza, something it dismissed out of hand only weeks ago.

That suggests that Israel, fearing a serious clash with Iran in Syria, wants to dampen violence on its southern border to avoid a two-front showdown — or at least defray an international outcry over the Gaza slaughter.

Meantime, cracks are appearing in the alliance between Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s key allies that have kept him in power. Russia does not want to use its air defences in Syria to combat Israel’s air strikes, which are primarily targeting Iranian forces. Tehran’s “lack of conviction” in a political solution,” which Moscow favours, is a potentially divisive element that could reshape the geopolitical element” at a crucial juncture.

In Iraq, the United States is reaching out to one-time foe Muqtada al-Sadr to blunt Iran’s efforts to transform the Shia-majority country into a Persian province under a new government.