Two major developments this year were milestones with regard to the challenge Iran poses to Israel: the U.S. pullout from the Iran nuclear deal, and the onset of direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu warns that Israel will not allow a nuclear Iran to emerge and will not accept the deployment of Iranian forces in any of its neighboring countries. Against this background, the potential for a violent escalation between Israel and Iran is growing. An initial indication of this turnaround was the downing of an Iranian explosives-bearing UAV on its way to a strike Israel (February 10, 2018). Israel responded by destroying the Iranian command-and-control trailer that had operated the UAV from Syria. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference after the incident, Netanyahu warned (February 18, 2018): “[W]e will act, if necessary, not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.” The direct military confrontation with Iran significantly escalated when Iran responded to several strikes attributed to Israel, including an attack on the T-4 air base where several Revolutionary Guard members were killed (April 9, 2018). The Iranian reprisal – a rocket attack on Israeli positions on the Golan Heights – failed but led to an extensive Israeli strike that destroyed dozens of Iranian targets in Syrian territory (May 9, 2018). Israel’s retaliatory actions enjoyed unreserved U.S. support. As far as Iran is concerned, accounts with Israel have not been settled, making it necessary to prepare for Iranian counterstrikes against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad.
In Iran’s view, vengeance should also be exacted upon Israel for influencing Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA. Just prior to the decision, Netanyahu unveiled documents at a press conference (April 30, 2018) that had been obtained via a secret Mossad operation, indicating that, contrary to its public statements, Iran had been developing nuclear weapons before it signed the nuclear deal, meaning that the deal was built on a foundation of false assumptions.
Intensification of American sanctions against Iran, including secondary sanctions (i.e., against those who trade with Iran) is also deterring non-American businesses from interacting with Iran and is deepening the country’s economic crisis. This crisis is, in turn, fomenting domestic agitation against the regime, highlighting what many regard as a promising path of action – regime change – for thwarting Iran’s nuclear aspirations and regional subversion. Many of the country’s significant young adult population are less than enchanted with the official religious-revolutionary ideology, though the Iranian armed forces stand behind a resolute regime willing to shed blood in order to preserve its rule. Trump’s advisers are divided on this issue: some want to make Iranian regime change an unequivocal goal, while others would rather exert pressure on Teheran to leverage an improved nuclear deal and curb Iran’s regional subversion. U.S. sanctions are severely harming Iran’s economy. Sanctions declared in early August 2018 are due to intensify in November. Trump added to that an explicit threat (August 7, 2018): “Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the United States…” Parallel to the tough steps Trump is taking toward Iran, in a surprise move, he stated his willingness (July 21, 2018) to meet Iran’s Leaders (who have rejected his initiative).
Trump’s pullout from the JCPOA has drawn harsh criticism from the other parties to the agreement, who have united in an effort to ensure continued trade with Iran and to save the deal. Alas, it looks that these steps taken to persuade European companies not to abandon the Iranian market, have been unsuccessful. In any case, the compensation package offered to counterbalance the economic damage caused by American sanctions has been declared insufficient by Iran.6 Iran’s response to the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal remains an open question: Will Tehran declare itself no longer bound by the agreement, or will it prefer to remain loyal to it? One should consider that in the absence of Europe’s ability to compensate for the economic damage caused by the American sanctions, Iran will decide, at some point, to deviate from the JCPOA’s provisions limiting uranium enrichment. Once this threshold is crossed, the potential for escalation ripens.
Teheran’s regional subversion has not been curtailed by the nuclear deal. On the contrary, the JCPOA seems to have given Iran legitimacy and encouraged its efforts to establish regional hegemony while taking advantage of the chaos sparked by the Arab Spring in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. The unfreezing of Iranian assets in the wake of the deal allowed Iran to increase its investment in Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias under its control.
Although Netanyahu welcomed Trump’s decision to abandon the JCPOA, contrary views were heard from within Israel’s security establishment, to the effect that the move would not cause the other parties to withdraw from the deal or obligate them to renew sanctions against Iran (China, for example, is Iran’s biggest trade partner). Those espousing this approach would therefore argue that, rather than isolating Iran, the decision will split the international community and make it harder to maintain a united and determined front capable of strictly supervising Iran’s compliance with the agreement. In the coming months we will be seeing Iran’s response to the measures taken by Trump, and the degree to which Trump himself will continue to insist on the 12 demands made by Secretary of State Pompeo as conditions for a new deal (May 21, 2018), the most notable of which are that Iran halt uranium enrichment, allow the IAEA unconditional access to the relevant sites, desist from developing missiles capable of bearing nuclear warheads, end its support of militant organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, withdraw its forces from Syria, and cease its threats to annihilate Israel.7
Iran, of course, has rejected those demands. It cannot be expected to readily relinquish its achievements in the nuclear sphere or abandon its drive for regional hegemony. After long years of investment, Iran has attained substantial influence in four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and San’a. Iran’s ally Assad has remained in power. Hezbollah’s combat capabilities have improved as a result of its experience in Syria, and its political influence in Lebanon has grown stronger. ISIS, Iran’s sworn enemy, has been largely defeated, having lost most of the territory it controlled. Saudi Arabia is not winning its ongoing war with the Houthis (Iranian allies), in Yemen. Although Iran does face growing pressure on both the international and the domestic levels, no time frame for a regime change can be predicted. The conflict with Iran will thus continue to pose a significant challenge to Israel.