What motivated the Islamic Republic of Iran to attack Israel on Feb. 10, and do the lessons learned have implications for U.S. policy in the region?
A Washington think tank, The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, reports that, emboldened by a surfeit of cash resulting from sanctions relief, Tehran willfully ignored deterrent threats from Jerusalem by calculating strategic patience was a better hand than prospect of war.
But the miscalculation was decisive and the lessons informative.
If Tehran uses its militias, and other forces drafted to do Iran’s malicious deeds, as well as its own Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to launch drone or other attacks on Israel, there may be war between Israel and Iran before or by 2019.
And by recognizing the legitimacy of the main Iranian dissidents, especially the National Council of Resistance of Iran, (NCRI), per Newsmax, it would result in fewer actions by Tehran that violate human rights and destabilize the region.
The downing of an Israel Air Force (IAF) plane, whether a planned ambush or not, after Israel attacked targets in Syria, suggests the price Israel will pay for aerial freedom of action, while Jerusalem’s tensions with Washington over ‘annexation of the West Bank talks’ only increases the challenge.
Moreover, research reported in Newsmax reveals the signature international initiative of President Obama’s second term — the so-called “success” of negotiations resulting in the July-August 2015 Joint Comprehensive plan of Action (JCPOA) — convinced Iran’s rulers Western powers would cast their lot with diplomacy, tolerate provocation, avoid preemptive strikes, and seek peace at any cost.
The wishful logic underpinning the thesis was hardly illogical. Obama’s estimate of $7 billion in total direct relief notwithstanding, a think tank in Washington, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, concludes on Aug. 2015, that external earnings and assets associated with sanctions relief amounted to about $11 billion during the first six months of the nuclear deal with Iran. This amount included additional petroleum and non-oil export earnings of around $7 billion and access to $4.2 billion in foreign exchange reserves.
Ever the masters of cheat and retreat, the injection of resources stiffened the conviction of the theocratic regime in Tehran they could manipulate and outmaneuver global powers and inch toward nuclear “sneakout” and breakout.
But Tehran failed to account for the dramatic political shifts underway in the American body politic, namely the electoral tidal wave that sent President Trump to the White House but also the bipartisan distrust of the regime by Washington.
Trump first placed Tehran on notice for engaging in regional destabilization shortly after taking office in February 2017 and then he pursued comprehensive sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missile programs in July 2017. The administration’s Oct. 2017 decision formally to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization — effectively blacklisting it and more than forty related entities from the global economy — was necessary to contain the regime’s proxy violence. So too were sanctions by Treasury on Iran in Nov. 2017, for involvement in terrorist activity and large-scale counterfeiting.
The massive internal unrest that appeared in late 2017 and early 2018 admittedly caught the regime’s leaders off guard and consumed their attention but notable today is the absence of a contingency plan outlining scenarios that would precipitate unilateral Israeli action.
The Israel Air Force (IAF) Feb. 10 announcement that it launched a “large-scale attack” inside Syria to target aerial defense batteries and sites it said were linked to Iran, after one of its aircraft crashed under Syria antiaircraft fire, was a reminder of the Islamic Republic’s malign regional activities.
But it was also a wakeup call to the regime that it faces twin threats: Internal dissent orchestrated by a well-organized resistance and the imminent external threat of preemptive strikes designed to diminish the regime’s belligerence.
Our prior research unpacks the likelihood of regime change from within by the Iranian people; less well understood are the scenarios that would precipitate war with Israel.
Another Washington think tank continues the buzz about whether Israel and Iran are going to war. Consider, as but one example: The Woodrow Wilson Center at the Smithsonian. It is having an event on Feb. 21 to address this question: Are Iran and Israel Going to War in Syria and Lebanon?
In this respect, consider that during the week of Feb. 5, 2018, tensions exploded along the Israeli-Syrian border in a sequence of historic firsts: an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace; Israel attacked Iranian-manned sites in Syria; for the first time since 1982, Syria shot down an Israeli fighter jet; and Israel conducted intensive airstrikes against Syrian air defenses.
Are these developments a one-off headline, or do they reflect new trend lines that will continue to generate tensions and perhaps a major Israeli-Iranian conflict or a full-scale confrontation among Israel, Hezbollah, and Syria along an expanded Lebanese front?
When such a prestigious think tank holds events to answer a question whether Iran
and Israel are going to war in Syria and Lebanon, it merits serious analysis of relevance to policymakers in the West, particularly in Washington. This post tackles the issue and provides contingencies and scenarios for doing so. One contingency concerns Iranian-supported groups in Syria.
Bottom Line Scenario
If Iran continues to use its Shia Militias, its Afghans and Pakistanis, as well as its own forces in attacks on Israel, there is likely to be war between Israel and Iran by 2019. And if the United States were to speak out in favor of Iranian oppositionists that reject rule by the Ayatollahs, it would weaken Iran at home and make it unlikely to engage in foreign adventures.
In short, reaching out with rhetoric may be a step in the right direction, but it is not enough: President Trump should direct Secretary Tillerson to go to Jerusalem, and issue a firm condemnation from there. Tillerson softened his statements in Beirut that Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the Government of Lebanon; the original one, however, was not in our interest.
Prof. Raymond Tanter (@AmericanCHR) served as a senior member on the Middle East Desk of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration, Personal Representative of the Secretary of Defense to international security and arms control talks in Europe, and is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. Tanter is on the comprehensive list of conservative writers and columnists who appear in The Wall Street Journal, Townhall.com, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Human Events, The American Spectator, and now in Newsmax. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
Ivan Sascha Sheehan is director of the graduate programs in Global Affairs and Human Security and Negotiations and Conflict Management in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.
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