A long standoff with Iran is in store after the US and Israel took the first punitive steps this week. On Wednesday, May 9, President Donald Trump stated: “I would strongly advise Iran not to restart its nuclear program because there will be very severe consequences.” If Iran refuses to enter nuclear negotiations, “something will happen.”
His security adviser, John Bolton made it clear that the sanctions re-imposed on Iran, when the president withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, would go into effect immediately. Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea, vindicated by Kim Jong-un’s consent to nuclear negotiations, was turned around to squeeze Tehran for talks, reinforced by Israeli military pressure on Iranian forces in Syria.
However, the interim months of waiting for the Iranians to see the light and come to the table are fraught with high risk. What if the Iranians, for instance, do restart enrichment, even on a small scale? Much uncertainty lies ahead both for Trump and his partner in the Iranian offensive, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. They have split the work between them. The US president is taking care of sanctions and blocking Iranian firms’ business ties with foreign companies, especially European, while Netanyahu has undertaken to wage war on the platform for aggression that Iran is installing in Syria and Lebanon.
This waiting period is being exploited by Iran and its proxies – Hizballah and Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias – for expanding their presence in Syria. Israel launched a series of air strikes aimed at catching the Revolutionary Guards Al Qods commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani off-balance and spurring him to a violent response, thus opening the way for Israel to clobber his military assets in Syria.
This ruse began to have a limited effect on Thursday night, May 9. No sooner had Al Qods units launched 20 missiles from their Syrian bases at IDF front-line positions on the Golan border, causing alarm but no casualties, when the Israel Air Force went into action and pummeled 50 Iranian military targets in the Damascus region and points south. Russian military sources estimated that 28 Israeli F-15 and F-16 warplanes took part in the massive Israel air raids on Iranian targets and released 60 missiles.
This round of hostilities marked the onset of a drawn-out military standoff parallel to Washington’s interim tactics against Tehran. It ramped the conflict up to a new level, with neither side willing to give an inch.
If Iranian assaults continue, Israel will escalate its reprisals. The master plan drawn up by the Netanyahu government – which also postulates large-scale IDF ground operations to demolish Iranian bases in Syria – has been okayed by the Trump administration. However, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources point to three hazards inherent in Israel’s tactics:
- Depending on domestic politics in Tehran, Iran’s leaders may go for an all-out missile war on Israel, repeating its missile assault of the eighties on the Saddam Hussein regime in Bagdad. This action would be motivated by the ayatollahs deciding that entering nuclear negotiations with the US from their current position of weakness would be self-defeating, whereas catapulting Israeli and Iranian cities into a reciprocal missile war would strengthen their bargaining hands.
- Iran could send Hizballah and its 120,000-rocket arsenal into war with Israel, which would fight back by invading Lebanon to destroy the Iran’s proxy army and weapons stores. In today’s Lebanon (see a separate article on Lebanon’s post-election power balance), the 25,000-strong national army would fight alongside Hizballah. Israel would then have to contend with two Iranian or pro-Iranian war fronts.
- By moving the bulk of its air defense weapons to the Golan, including Arrows, David’s Wand, Patriots and Iron Dome, Israel leaves the rest of the country, including the southern regions facing the Gaza Strip, exposed to missile attack at a particularly sensitive time. Hamas is building up for a big-time terrorist offensive next week to coincide with the dedication ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, May 14 and the Palestinian Naqba the next day
Iran so far shows no sign of caving in under Trump’s warnings or Israeli military pressure. Iranian cargo planes carrying missiles and fighters touch down daily at Syrian airfields under the eyes of Russian air force officers. Its leaders appear to have taken Israeli air strikes in their stride and are simply replenishing destroyed missile stocks without pause. There is nothing to stop this air corridor running from Tehran, unless Israel turns to downing the Iranian freighters – or unless Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to stop them from landing at the airfields they share with Russian air force contingents. It was precisely this request that Netanyahu quietly put to Putin when they met in Moscow on Wednesday, May 9. There is no word on his answer. Until one of these things happen, Iran is at liberty to keep on deepening its military roots in Syria without interruption.