The cold war between Israel and both Iran and Hezbollah
Israel and Iran have been opponents since the 1979 Iranian revolution. The conflict between them has been handled indirectly through clashes between Israel and Iranian proxies such as the Hezbollah.
Israel and Iran
Charles Freilich claimed in June 2014 that “Iran faces a large, young and impoverished population, an opposition that has been suppressed (but is waiting to erupt again) and a deep economic crisis. Therefore, the long-term future of the regime is uncertain.”1 The Iranian economy during “eight years of populist and misguided economic policies under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have landed the Iranian economy in a very deep economic crisis.” The new government has been trying to reform and solve economic problems.2 In August 2014, according to Suzanne Maloney, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani
has lived up to his billing in his first year in office, on the domestic front as well as on foreign policy. He has returned Iran’s political dynamic to a steadier equilibrium and restored some confidence in the competence of the central government.3
Nevertheless Yossi Kuperwasser, former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, claimed in June 2015 that Israel’s perspective in regard to Iran “is that ideological dictatorships are eventually bound to fall, as a result of domestic pressures.”4
Iran is a major power in the Middle East.5 Yet its “hegemonic aspirations and millennia-long conflict with the Sunni majority in the region’ make it ‘a source of great instability for years to come.’ ”6
“Iran’s foreign policy is a product of the ideology of Iran’s Islamic revolution, blended with longstanding national interests.”7 It might be that
the radical anti-Semitism voiced by Iranian leaders is a worldview so delusional, so removed from actual realities, that those who advocate it will almost certainly not operate according to the customary norms of what constitutes reasonable behavior in international affairs.8
Many in the Iranian leadership did not recognize Israel’s right to exist.9 Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, called on 8 November 2014 for the annihilation of Israel.10
Posing as the sworn and most stalwart enemy of the common enemy - Israel - Iran strives to leapfrog over the Arab governments in order to curry favor with Arab public opinion. The oft-promised destruction of Israel is not Iran’s real political goal, even though it would view such a development with genuine satisfaction.11
On 5 March 2015 Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, claimed that Iran was not against the Jews. He mentioned that in the Iranian parliament, while every 150,000 Muslims get a representative, less than 20,000 Iranian Jews have one too. He emphasized the “history of tolerance and cooperation” between Iranian Muslims and Jews who live in Iran and those who reside outside that country as well.12 Iran might allow Israeli Jews to stay in the Middle East maybe even where there is now the state of Israel but not as rulers of their own independent country. Instead of an Israeli government, Iran wants in Israel an Arab, pro-Iranian government.
In July 2014 almost no one in Israel assumed there could be reconciliation with Iran.13 “Both sides need to keep the vitriolic and threatening rhetoric under control in order to avoid an unintended escalation and even war.”14 Such a confrontation would be a tragedy because both sides do not have fundamental reasons for a conflict between them, like disputes about borders. No wonder they have never clashed with each other directly, and actually until the late 1970s, they were kind of allies.
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in June 2016 that in the coming years, the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is
likely to be a force in both Iranian as well as regional politics. The Guards and the hardline clerics have a relationship of mutual dependence. As deeply pious men, the Guards need the approbation of the priestly class. And as politicians seeking power and regional preeminence, the clerics need the reliable muscle of the Guards. The region’s future may yet be defined by the compact between these two forces.15
This alliance would have a strong influence on Iran’s approach toward Israel. Iran’s nuclear project
“Israel is widely assumed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power.”16 Israel would like to maintain this status quo, if necessary by force, as it did in destroying the Iraqi reactor in 1981 and the Syrian one in 2007. A casus belli for Israel might be Iran approaching the production of a bomb, and then it might strike Iran.
In late February 2015 Mojtaba Zolnour, who represents Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei in the IRGC, claimed, “If the Zionists were certain that they could win a war against us, they’d have initiated one by now, but since they don’t have the strength to do so, they do nothing but threaten.”17 Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Amos Yad- lin is a former head of the IDF intelligence directorate. He argued in March 2015 that Israel has a military option against Iran.18 On 14 July that year, following the agreement with Iran (the JCPOA),19 former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel should keep the military option.20 The IDF was better ready “than it ever has been to carry out a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities should it be instructed to do so,” a senior Israeli security official said on 24 August 2015.21 On 22 September 2016 the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel would not allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon.22 In that year the IAF continued to prepare for a possible raid in Iran such as by starting to assimilate the F-35A.
After the retreat from Lebanon in 2000 and from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel publicly warned that in case of hostilities from Lebanon or the Gaza Strip against Israel, the IDF would strike back hard. When assaults occurred from those territories, Israel hesitated, did nothing or acted quite moderately for a long period. Yet eventually, in Lebanon in July-August 2006 and in the Gaza Strip in December 2008-January 2009, Israel launched a major offensive. The production of an Iranian nuclear weapon is not equivalent to an actual attack on Israel, similar to those launched from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. However, an Iranian nuclear bomb might be much more intimidating for Israel than any Arab assault against it since 1948. Therefore Israel might attack to prevent a possible existential threat.
In recent years Israel launched several air strikes inside Syria, aiming to destroy advanced weapons before they would have been transferred from Syria to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. An Israeli air raid in Iran would be immeasurably more important and much more complicated. Israel’s targets in Syria were fewer and more exposed compared with Israel’s objectives in Iran. The flight to Iran from Israel is much longer than in a strike in nearby Syria. Israel’s fighters could reach Iran and overcome Iranian air defense and fighters. However Israeli planes might not be able to carry sufficient amounts of bombs and/or bombs that would be effective enough to crack the thick protection of some Iranian nuclear sites. Furthermore there are possible ramifications such as collateral damage and harsh international criticism Israel would absorb.
Gathering data for bombing Iran is a challenge for Israeli intelligence, like estimating for how long an attack could delay the Iranian nuclear program.23 Furthermore if Israel does attack Iran, there could be an exchange of punches between them without any land maneuvers due to the distance between the two rivals, which is more than 1,000 kilometers. Israel would rely on the IAF, whereas Iran would bash Israel with long-range surface-to-surface missiles like the Shahab-3. But Iran has only several hundred of them, they are not that accurate and at least some of them might be intercepted by Israel’s Arrow antimissile system. Iran also does not have a powerful air force.24
In an attempt to deter Israel, Iran revealed all kinds of new weapon systems. Yet some of them were fake, like its stealth fighter,25 and with the real ones their actual potential might have been exaggerated. However Iran assimilated the S-300, an advanced antiaircraft system and upgraded its cyber capabilities.