by Michael Curtis
Perhaps it was Heraclitus around 500 B.C. who first expressed the idea, but it was Oscar Wilde who has a character in his play An Ideal Husband say, “to expect the unexpected shows a throughly modern intellect.” Those with such an intellect, or even more those with a more outmoded one, will therefore not be surprised that the foreign minister of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, should on May 10, 2018 have expressed the view that “Israel has the right to defend itself.”
Western countries, the EU, and Russia, have long held the view that Israel has the right to defend itself. What is new is that the Arab dignitary recognised that 75 years after the Holocaust, a non-Arab country, Iran, was seeking the destruction of a country with six million Jews. Even more strongly, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) refers to the Iran President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the “new Hitler.” These statements reflect the present situation in which two conflicts have come together: Iran trying to destroy Israel, and Shiites, led by Iran, clashing against Sunni Muslims, led by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.
Hostilities are continuing, and Israel and Iran have traded blows, recently directly rather than through proxies, but fears are unwarranted of an all out war which neither side wants, or of a nuclear Armageddon. It is one thing for legitimate differences to be voiced over the unilateral decision by President Donald Trump on May 8, 2018 to withdaw from the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA, and what he called its “decaying and rotten structure,” and to impose new sanctions. It is quite another thing to argue, as did former President Barack Obama, that as a result the U.S. could face another war in the Middle East.
Countries may disagree with Trump’s decision on what he called “the worst deal ever,” and the imposition of sanctions. But he has not abandoned U.S. allies, or created a diplomatic rift, nor opened an irreparable wound in the heart of Europe, nor, as Chancellor Angela Merkel feared, “throwing the multilateral global order into real crisis.” Rather Trump has inadvertently opened a helpful debate on the threat of Iran to peace in the world.
The decision by Trump may cause problems: possible rise in oil prices; international banks less willing to finance trading; tension with allies who were signatories to the Iran deal, especially those who, like France, want to be exempted from sanctions. But it does not constitute a threat to peace in the Middle East, nor any break with EU countries, nor intention to provoke change of regime in Iran. Even if it does not deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear program, Trump’s decision and imposition of sanctions to prevent its connection with the global economy, currency exchange network, and access to dollars will result in burdens on its economy, now the world’s fifth oil producer, including its export of carpets and food, precious metals, software, shipping.oil, petrochemicals, insurance, energy and banking.
According to JCPOA, Iran would reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98% for 15 years. Iran dismantled 13,000 of its centrifuges, leaving 5,000 in place, and allowing gradual restoration to start after ten years. Iran promised not to produce weapons grade plutonium at its Arak facility, and not to build new heavy water reactors for 15 years. Yet, in April 2017 it made a deal with China to reconstruct its heavy water reactor there. Iran also promised to stopped enrichment at its underground facility at Fordow, long kept secret from the world including the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA. Fordaw is supposedly no longer to produce fuel for a nuclear reactor, but is a research center.
As a result of Trump’s decision, Iran may be free to start thousands of centrifuges, and to increase its uranium fuel supply. It has threatened to enrich uranium in the short run, and it is probable it will be able to produce a nuclear bomb in the near future.
Yet irrespective of the nuclear issue, the problem of Iran has been there since 1979 when Shiite Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became Supreme Leader and founded the Islamic Repubic of Iran, with ideologuy of antagonism towards the “Great Satan,” the U.S. and the “Lesser Satan,” Israel and Zionism. Iran has been a threat by itself, by its formidable military arsenal, by its ballistic missile program, by its territorial ambitions and desire to establish hegemony in the Middle East, by its help for terrorist groups, Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis in Yemen, especially its support of arms and finance for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its determination to eliminate the State of Israel. It can now be seen as the world’s most important state sponsor of terror.
Trump’s decision by coincidence coincides with a more aggressive and belligerent posture by Iran. On the evening of May 9, 2018 Iranian forces, primarily the Quds Force, a wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards under the control of General Qassem Suleimani, fired 20 Grad, Russian designed multiple rocket launch system, and Fajr- 5 long range multiple rocket system based on a Chinese design, artillery missiles and rockets from the suburbs of Damascus against Israeli military in the Golan Heights. Sixteen of them landed in Syria, and four were shot down by the Israeli Iron Dome system.
If it rains in Israel, it will pour in Iran. Israel replied immediately using 28 planes and firing 70 missiles aimed at Iranian facilities in Syria. Included were intelligence centers, radar station, weapons depots, anti-aircraft weaponry, storage facilities, observation posts, and operations headquarters.
These hostilities were a contination of earlier encounters. It is Iran not the U.S. whose actions risk a broader conflict. Its senior military commander General Hossein Salami has bragged that Iran has become deeply influential in Syria, and participates in strikes against Israel. Iran on February 10, 2018 had fired an unmanned drone armed with explosives at Israel, but was shot down by Israeli helicopters. Israel responded with strikes against Syrian air defenses and Iranian targets, containing both personnel and weapons. The large scale response included an attack on the T4 air base, near the city of Homs, from which the drone had been launched. The raid led to the loss, as a result of Syrian anti-aircraft, of a F16 fighter jet, the first time since 1982 that Israel had lost a warplane.
Iran now has a well equipped arsenal, with offensive and defensive rockets and missiles, including SA-22 (Pantsir-S1) aerial interception system, a Russian made tank with short to medium range surface to air missile, and an anti-aircraft weapons system. It has five airfields in Syria, used as bases for sending drones, or from which weapons are sent to Hezbollah, and a military command center at Aleppo Airport. Iran also plans an overland route, from Teheran to Damacus, virtually up to Israeli territory. That particular ambition also may bring clashes with U.S. forces and its proxies presently in the areas.
An immediate danger is from Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy. which has recruited thousands to fight as an ally in Syria, where 1,200 of its forces have been killed. Hezbollah since 2016 has been part of the Lebanese government. It is more formidable as the result of Lebanon’s parliamentary election in May 2018 in which Hezbollah won the majority of seats. Its danger to Israel has grown as Iran has been sending advanced weapons and convoys to it. Estimates suggest that Hezbollah has at least 65,000 rockets and missiles. the most important of which is the Tishreen missle with a control and guidance system.
A significant factor in all this is the refusal of Russia to condemn Israel’s strikes. It has called for restraint on both sides. By coincidence Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow on May 9, attending the 73rd anniversary of “Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany.” Russia has several bases in Syria, including Hmeymim airbase and Tartus air base, as well as servicemen in the country. Netanyahu notified Russia ahead of Israeli airstrikes.
A crucial question is whether Russia has the interest or the ability to restrain Iran, with which it does not have identical interests. Russian behavior may be a reflection of the recent attitude towards Jews as more synagues have opened in Moscow and a new yeshiva in the Moscow suburb of Malakhovka. Also, Israel did not subscribe to western sanctions against Russia because of Crimea or the murders of Russians in Britain.
De-escalation of hostilities and of tensions in the Middle East, particularly between Iran and Israel is wholly desirable. Whether this occurs depends not on Trump’s withdrawal decision but on Iranian intentions and actions. It was expected that demonstrations throughout Iran would take place in protest against Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. More ominous is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s declaration that Israel will not exist in 25 years, and that the “holy system of the Islamic Republic” will increase its missile capabilities and that Israel will become “sleepless.” He forgot two things. Israel is not a country with two sleepy people with nothing to say. And perhaps it is the Supreme Leader who will lose sleep now that Saudi Arabia has made clear it will develop its own nuclear weapons if Iran does.