We know roughly where we are now. It’s not a good place. Pres. Trump has thrown the Middle East into complete turmoil. A precarious status quo has prevailed since the JCPOA agreement was signed in 2015. While there were hostilities that broke out periodically with over 100 Israeli attacks inside Syria mostly on Hezbollah and Iranian positions, none of them seriously threatened to topple the precarious détente.
But now Trump has let loose the Furies and anything can happen. We saw that, only an hour after Trump rejected the nuclear deal, when Iran launched 20 surface-to-surface missiles from Syrian bases targeting Israeli military bases. The Iranian attack had been in revenge for an earlier Israeli attack which had killed 9 Iranian soldiers and an IRG commander. In retaliation, Israel launched a massive attack against every Iranian position it could find in Syria. 27 U.S.-supplied F-16s criss-crossed the country seeking their entrenched targets. Though Avigdor Lieberman said that all of “nearly all” of Iran’s infrastructure was wiped out, this is a ridiculous claim.
Remember the claims the IDF made before and during its invasions of Lebanon and Gaza? That it would send both places back to the Stone Age? Never happened. In fact, Hezbollah has double the number of missiles it had during the 2006 War. Hamas has been somewhat more restrained due to Israel’s illegal siege. But it too has wrought serious damage on Israel troops who last invaded the enclave in 2014.
In short, there is no hope whatsoever that Israel can end Iran’s presence in Syria. The former is there to stay. The question is whether the two states can develop a modus vivendi that tacitly accepts the presence and interest of the other. Bibi Netanyahu appears unwilling to do so. In fact, I would say that we are closer than we’ve ever been to an outright Israeli military assault on Iran itself.
In 2009, I joined with whistleblower Shamai Leibowitz, to try to expose Israel’s plot to normalize the concept of a military attack on Iran. Unfortunately, Obama and Holder determined to punish all such whistleblowers and Shamai went to prison for leaking classified transcripts of Israeli embassy conversations about Iran and related subjects. But our crusade against an Iran attack remains valid to this day. Perhaps even more so than in 2009.
It is unclear whether the U.S. itself would join such an Israeli military assault. Clearly, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, the new tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum of Trump’s security apparatus, support such a prospect. Even more, they support regime change in Iran. They may believe that instituting punishing sanctions will do the trick of weakening an already battered economy and moderate political ruling class. But the only thing this will do is bring the hardliners to power. And they will maintain an even harsher, firmer grip on power than Pres. Rouhani’s pragmatic moderates. Perhaps this is something the DC dudes hope for: that when the world sees the Iranian hardliners bare their fangs and expose their true brutal nature, that the world will endorse draconian measures like a full-scale attack or even invasion to topple the regime.
What follows such an outcome? A return to a shah-like figure? Imposing the cult terrorist MeK, the darling of Israel’s Mossad and Trump’s Iranophobes? Where will you find any Iranian with any following who’d be willing to follow the Ayatollahs to power? Any such figure would require a foreign military occupation to bolster his rule. Does anyone recall the foreign expeditionary force mounted by anti-Communist western nations which attempted to stave off a Bolshevik victory in the Russian civil war. Remember how that ended?
Such outside interventions almost always end badly. You kill your enemy, only to find that 20 other enemies, younger and more able, arise to take his place. That happened in Lebanon when Israel assassination Abbas Mussawi and Hassan Nasrallah followed him. It happened in Gaza when Israel assassinated Sheikh Yassine and tried to murder Khaled Meshal. Scores of other talented leaders succeeded them. The U.S. toppled Saddam and look what followed. We also forced the Taliban from power and a new Pharaoh named Bin Laden arose to take his place. We never fully vanquished the Taliban, as they continue to menace the country. Not to mention that it morphed from a relatively contained mujahadeen movement in Afghanistan in the 1970s to a new environment in which there are multiple Islamist terror groups including al Qaeda, ISIS, and scores of affiliates around the Muslim and Arab world. All this because we had the hubris to believe that a simple invasion could end a threat.
Israel can never fully rid itself of Iran as a regional rival. It can try to use military force. But this outcome will fail, even if it has certain short-term successes (which is by no means guaranteed).
Another question is how will Russia respond? It has tied itself tightly to Assad’s regime and will maintain its stability at all costs. But so far, Russia has been willing to stand by as Israel attacks Iranian assets inside Syria. Will it continue to do so? Will it continue to withhold the S-300 anti-aircraft systems from the Iranians and Syrians, whose installation would render air attacks much more costly to the Israelis? And how would Russia react if the U.S. and Israel attacked, or even invaded Iran? This too is a wildcard. Just as wild as Trump himself. And this is where we come to the brink of not just regional war, but possibly world war, in the sense that many powers outside the region could possibly enter the conflict and transform it into a far more lethal one.