It is one of the worst kept secrets of the current hostilities between Israel and Iran, that the former has begun targeting Iranian and Iraqi Shia military bases in Iraq. It has attacked multiple sites using its new F-35 warplanes supplied by the U.S., and long-distance drones flown from Israel. In the most recent attack last Sunday, Israeli drones attacked a military base of an Iraqi Shiite militia a few miles from the Syrian border.
In order to launch an air assault on Iraq, Israel would have had to have flown through Syrian, Jordanian or Saudi airspace. It could only overfly Syria if Russia approved. And there was a recent summit of security officials from Russian, Israel and the U.S. concerning Syria. So this is possible. It’s unlikely Jordan would permit use of its air space for such an operation against a friendly Arab neighbor. But it’s far more likely the Saudis offered to route the flights over their territory, thereby highlighting the growing military alliance between Israel and the Sunni Gulf states arrayed against Shia Iran.
In a separate, related development, Israel attacked an Iranian base in Syria, which it claimed was preparing to launch a flurry of drones against Israeli targets. The Israeli air force also launched its own suicide drone attack against a building in Beirut which housed the Hezbollah press office. Apparently, the drone failed in its mission and did not hit its target. A second Israeli drone did explode in the same area. Hezbollah claimed that the second drone was an Israeli attempt to destroy the first failed drone. Israeli security sources I consulted were tight-lipped and refused to discuss the raid.
This is evidence that the Trump administration’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal, and its increasing alliance with Israel and the Gulf states arrayed against Iran has opened a Pandora’s Box, including tit-for-tat interdiction of shipping on the high seas, and military escalation that threatens to lead to all-out confrontation.
Israeli Minister Threatens Assassination of IRG Commander
Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, ratcheted up the hostility by threatening to assassinate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commander Qasem Soleimani. The Times of Israel reported:
Foreign Minister Israel Katz appeared to threaten top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on Sunday, saying…“Israel is acting to strike the head of the Iranian snake and uproot its teeth. Iran is the head of the snake and Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, is the snake’s teeth.”
Though Katz is known as a relatively powerless stalking horse for his patron, Netanyahu, this is the first time an Israeli minister has issued such a naked threat against the Iranian general. Israel has done this in the past with its most dangerous enemies. An Israeli cabinet once voted to assassinate Yasir Arafat, and Ariel Sharon was rumored by a close confidant to have done so. Thus the threat against Soleimani is not an idle one. If carried out it could let loose the dogs of war.
Israel claims that the targets of its Iraqi bombing assaults are Iranian armaments, especially missiles, being transshiped from Iran to Syria, and possibly intended to end up in Hezbollah’s hands facing Israel. However, it’s worth noting that in the most recent series of attacks, Israel apparently blew up an ammunition depot which rained grenades and other weapons down on the surrounding civilian neighborhoods. It’s unlikely Iran would be shipping such low-tech weaponry to Syria.
Both Israeli Prime Minister and U.S. officials publicly acknowledged that Israel’s role in the attacks. Netanyahu bragged about his country’s efforts:
“I don’t give Iran immunity anywhere,” he said, accusing the Iranians of trying to establish bases “against us everywhere,” including Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
Asked whether that means Israel is operating in Iraq, Netanyahu said: “We act in many arenas against a country that desires to annihilate us. Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and the instruction to do what is needed to thwart these plans of Iran.”
The timing of this new offensive against Iraq is perfect for the next Israeli election in September. Netanyahu regularly uses such military offensives (often against Gaza, but also Lebanon or Syria) to reconfirm his security credentials with his right-wing nationalist base. In this case, Netanyahu is in a desperate battle to retain these voters, who are being wooed by political parties even farther to the right than his own Likud. Attacking Iraq–not to mention Syria and Beirut–offers him the perfect punching bag, since its military is hardly poised to offer any threat to Israel. There is little downside in launching such an assault and a huge upside: it could save his political career, which is under threat both at the ballot box and via four major corruption investigations that are looming against him.
U.S. Officials Urge Caution in Fact of Israeli Attacks in Iraq
But American sources in the NY Times article hardly shared the Israeli leader’s bombast:
Two senior American officials, however, said that Israel had carried out several strikes in recent days on munitions storehouses for Iranian-backed groups in Iraq…
A senior American official said that Israel was pushing the limits with the strikes in Iraq. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss delicate diplomatic matters, the official said the airstrikes could get the United States military removed from Iraq.
U.S. concern is well justified: it has over 5,000 troops remaining in Iraq. In the past, Iran and its Shia proxies have made life miserable for our forces there with roadside IEDs and other lethal assaults. The country is on a razor’s edge over sectarian conflict, political dysfunction, and a continuing fight to eradicate ISIS, which overran much of the country over the past decade. Introducing yet another wild card into this toxic mix is a recipe for disaster.
U.S. hawks like Bolton should ask themselves: are you willing to risk American lives in order to stick an Israeli needle in Iran’s eye?
Speaking of of the U.S. national security advisor, in an almost comical attempt to downplay the Times account, presumably other U.S. officials blamed the “blazing heat” of summertime Iraq for the explosions:
One of the officials said the U.S. disputed the idea that Israel was behind all the attacks, adding that the cause of the explosions could be the “absolutely raging heat in Baghdad over the summer.”
Those same sources then pinned the blame for the attacks not on Israel, but on Iran itself:
The officials said the real culprit was Iran, which they accused of endangering international security by bringing weapons into Iraq and putting them under the control of militias that can’t control them. The officials accused Iran of trying to turn Iraq into a client state like Syria.
Israel too blames Hamas for “forcing” it to respond to rocket threats against Israel, and its standard practice is never to accept responsibility for the mess its military incursions leave behind. The thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza in 2014 were not its fault, but Hamas’. Now, as it brings the region to the brink of widespread conflict, the fault lies with everyone but Israel.
Such apologetics on Israel’s behalf would be the hallmark of John Bolton. His enthusiasm for confronting Iran, and encouraging Israel to take as militant a position as possible, are well-established. In fact, he told a recent joint press conference with Netanyahu following the security summit in Israel:
…Bolton warned Tehran on Sunday not to “mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness,” saying that military action against Iran remained very much an option even though the United States last week called off one military strike.
He appears to share Dick Cheney’s vision of American exceptionalism: an overarching duty to remake the region in America’s image; or perhaps to turn every state there into a handmaiden of U.S. interests. Part of this process seems to involve the overthrow of the Iranian regime. In this, he sees eye-to-eye with Netanyahu. That’s why I imagine Bolton loves the idea of Israeli jets flying sorties over Baghdad.
But clearly, there are others in the administration (perhaps in the Pentagon or State Department), who feel restraint is in order.
Iraq Warns Israel Against Drawing It into Conflict with Iran
For the first time, Iraqi officials have directly blamed Israel for the incursions and warned it that their nation does not want to become a battleground between the two hostile nations. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said:
…If Israel continues to target Iraq, the country “will transform into a battle arena that drags in multiple countries, including Iran.”
After the most recent attack which assassinated an Iraqi Shiite militia commander, the group threatened retaliation against U.S. troops stationed there:
“While we reserve the right to respond to these Zionist attacks, we hold the international coalition, particularly the United States, fully responsible for this aggression which we consider a declaration of war on Iraq and its people.
Even if we consider an element of bombast in such statements made in states of great distress, this should warn Israel, but especially the U.S., which has far more to lose, that permitting the former to drop bombs in the midst of a the sectarian powder keg that is Iraq, is a fool’s errand.