The Iranian regime, it seems, isn’t taking the public warnings issued by the Israeli defense establishment heads seriously and is hectically pursuing its talks with the Syrian regime, as well as patrols in search of a military airport near Damascus which would serve as a base for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ combat squadrons.
At the same time, the Iranians and the Syrians are making progress in the talks for an autonomic Iranian military pier in the Tartus port and the creation of an Iranian division on Syrian soil.
Israel, however, has made it clear both to the Iranians and the Syrians, as well as to the Russians, that it will not allow any Iranian presence in Syria, especially war planes or an Iranian pier in the Tartus port.
According to the Israeli policy in the current crisis, there is no diplomatic way of bringing about a significant change in Iran’s regional conduct. Thus the only way to deal with it is by stepping up the sanctions—in other words, punitive measures—or through “a different crisis” in the form of a military threat against Iran, in Syria or in any other arena in the region. The atmosphere created by the Trump administration against the nuclear agreement is contributing to the approaching hurricane.
The effort to prevent a deterioration will resume immediately after the High Holy Days. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu will arrive in Israel in nine days for a meeting with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and with the defense establishment’s top brass. The next day, the defense minister will leave for the United States for a meeting with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. All these meetings will focus on the Iranian issue, both on the regional level and on the global level, as President Donald Trump keeps alluding to a possible change in the US Policy toward the nuclear agreement with Tehran.
In a Congressional hearing last week, General Mattis voiced his objection to any change in the sanction regime against Iran. In his meeting with Lieberman in Washington, the defense minister is expected to present the Israeli evaluation of the situation, which supports Trump’s stance and points to the three weak links in the nuclear agreement: One, when the agreement expires in 10 years there will be no system for restraining the renewal of the Iranian nuclear race; two, the current agreement allows Iran to pursue the research and development of a nuclear weapon, preventing supervisors from entering dozens of military facilities which are not mentioned in the agreement as sites that must be supervised; and three, the agreement includes no international restraint of the missile development area.
In spite of these arguments, it’s unlikely that Israel will be able to change the American defense establishment’s stance on the nuclear issue. It will be more successful in enlisting the Pentagon’s support for stepping up the war on Iran’s subversive expansion in the Middle East, from Yemen to Gaza and Lebanon. A hint of this war was provided Saturday in The Times’ report on an American plan against Hezbollah as part of the war on Iran and its satellites. This war fits very well into the alleged Israeli secret measures against the Iranian expansion in the region and against the arms smuggling.
Unlike his American colleague, the Russian defense minister’s influence on the policy against Iran is marginal, or even nonexistent. Shoygu will simply finalize and execute what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on in their meeting a month and a half ago. When it comes to renewing the sanctions against Iran, however, Israel and the Russians won’t see eye to eye.
Israel will ask the Russians to prevent the establishment of Iranian bases in Syria and the renewed activity of a missile production facility in Syria that was hit in a mysterious bombing several weeks ago. Israel will also ask the Russians to ensure that the permanent agreement in Syria would include a return of the Golan Heights to the 1974 disengagement agreements, which require full demilitarization on a five-kilometer strip from the borderline and a dilution of forces inside Syria. Israel will even ask to set the Daraa-Damascus road as the line which no Iranian would be allowed to cross toward the west.
So far, the Russians have rejected the Israeli requests on all issues related to the Iranian deployment in Syria. In recent months, however, Israel has been detecting quite a few fundamental differences of opinion between the Iranian and the Russians interests which may benefit Israel. Moreover, the Russians need Israel in several areas, primarily in the intelligence field. While the Russians have already declared victory in Syria twice in the past year, they are still engaged in a daily battle against Islamic State and al-Nusra Front forces resulting in casualties and damage. In this state of affairs, the last thing the Russians need is another front on Syrian soil between Israel, Iran and Hezbollah, which will make it difficult for them to implement the reconciliation policy.
And on the sidelines, in light of the perceived Israeli support for an independent Kurdish state, the Russians will likely ask Israel to keep an even lower profile. If the Israeli diplomatic move fails to bear fruit, we are headed toward a conflict with the Iranians.