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Iran and Israel edging closer to the abyss

Aftermath of explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. (Reuters via MAXAR)
Aftermath of explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. (Reuters via MAXAR)
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18 Apr 2021 01:04:41 GMT9
Yossi Mekelberg
18 Apr 2021 01:04:41 GMT9

There is no longer anything new or surprising about Israel and Iran engaging in a shadow war, accompanied by constant streams of aggressive rhetoric flowing between them. As a matter of fact, the conflict has escalated in recent months. It is stepping out from the shadows, from covert to overt, abandoning any trace of or room for plausible deniability, and therefore edging closer to the abyss of intensification and a widening of the confrontation to other arenas, and toward a more direct conflict. 

Recent acts of belligerence between Israel and Iran have left an air of inevitability of further and more dangerous escalations. What makes the current relations between the two countries exceptionally dangerous is that, in their different ways, both the Iranian and Israeli political systems are fragile and suffering from chronic internal discord, which makes them more inclined to pursue an aggressive foreign policy, with greater risk of miscalculation. 

Last weekend’s mysterious explosion, which caused a power outage that damaged the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, turned less mysterious when one listened to the response of Israeli officials, while it was described by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and other officials as “nuclear terrorism.” This followed mutual and ongoing attacks on Israeli and Iranian ships in international waters, cyberattacks on major installations, and the assassination of Iranian scientists, culminating in the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was regarded as the country’s top nuclear scientist. What is changing things is the rapid and very public escalation from a war of words to words of war, and the readiness of each side to take responsibility for its aggressive actions in a nonchalant manner.

For more than two decades, Israel adhered to its unending diplomatic and military campaign to stop Iran from developing nuclear military capability, while displaying ambiguity when it came to military operations. Gradually this approach is being abandoned, and it leaves open the question whether this is for strategic reasons or has more to do with the domestic political and legal predicaments currently faced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the intention of Washington to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement.

The rivalry between Iran and Israel has been a permanent feature of Middle Eastern politics since 1979. Acquiring nuclear capability is only one facet of the threat Iran presents, with its considerable and visible presence in Syria in support of the murderous regime of Bashar Assad too close for comfort to Israel’s occupied part of the Golan Heights. And its arming of its Islamist Shiite ally Hezbollah, Israel’s arch-enemy, with an extremely sophisticated arsenal of rockets and missiles, plus its support for radical Palestinian groups, has led to quite a broad consensus within Israel that Iran presents an existential threat, or at least the most severe strategic challenge the country faces. However, this situation requires a measured response that mixes foreign policy tools. Right now, Israel is provoking Iran to retaliate, not only because of last week’s attack itself, but because of the public humiliation it has brought Tehran.

Netanyahu’s legal difficulties have long clouded his political judgment, yet he has also been one of the most ardent and vocal opponents of the JCPOA. And, after four years of a likeminded US administration, the keenness of the Biden administration to revive the Iran nuclear deal has led him to take increasingly aggressive measures to avert this move. It could hardly be a coincidence that the attack on Natanz took place as indirect negotiations between Washington and Tehran over the JCPOA resumed in Vienna. Moreover, the explosion also occurred during a visit to Israel by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Washington has denied any involvement in the attack, but for this to happen during such a high-profile visit implicated the US and also sent the message that, in this close alliance, Israel doesn’t necessarily follow its more powerful ally.

What is changing things is the rapid and very public escalation from a war of words to words of war.

Yossi Mekelberg

It is generally agreed that, from the outset, the 2015 nuclear agreement was far from perfect. However, an improved deal that ensures all sides adhere to its terms is to be preferred over the current rapid deterioration in relations. Iran’s defiant response to last week’s explosion — announcing that it would start enriching uranium at 60 percent purity, higher than ever before and another breach of the JCPOA — is Tehran signaling that it will not cave in easily. It is even less likely to show flexibility under pressure just two months before a presidential election. 

This doesn’t mean that Iran lacks vulnerabilities of its own, but its bravado should be tested around the negotiation table before the international community resorts to other means. Iran’s foreign policy is a mixture of a deep sense of victimhood, paranoia and aggression. However, the ultimate corollary is not that diplomatic efforts cannot yield results or that its government is not conducive to reason when presented with a combination of pressures and incentives.

In the anomalous situation that has overtaken Israeli politics, Netanyahu is blocking the appointment of a justice minister and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has said it will not be possible for the special security Cabinet to convene, unless it is on matters of utmost urgency and on the condition that it is comprised of an equal number of ministers from the two governing parties, Likud and Blue and White. This creates an extremely perilous situation, whereby — at a time when conflict with a major foe is fast brewing — there is no functioning security Cabinet and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, both former heads of the Israel Defense Forces, are sidelined from the decision-making process. 

Instead, a prime minister who is up to his eyeballs in the quagmire of his corruption trial, who has a personal interest in turning an issue of the highest national interest into an emergency, and by that forcing the formation of yet another coalition government led by himself, is virtually the sole decision-maker on the issue, compartmentalizing all the relevant competent bodies and without Knesset supervision.

There is no doubt that Iran should be deterred from developing nuclear military capability. It would further destabilize the region, adding to its subversive conduct in other parts of the Middle East and its sabotage of international navigation routes. However, there is a stark difference between deterring Tehran and humiliating it, and the latter risks pushing it over the edge and handing more power to the more extreme and confrontational elements in its leadership. 

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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