When US President Donald Trump declared back in early December of last year that the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would move its embassy there, almost immediately the word from Washington was that this step would occur toward the end of 2018. Therefore, the announcement that came in February that the move will take place much earlier, on May 14, caught many of the regional players by surprise, among them the Iranians, Hezbollah and Hamas – all very loud opponents of the move and all of which have sworn to do whatever possible to sabotage its implementation.
On March 4 a rare photo was published in Persian social media: an image of the “almighty” Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) abroad, including in Syria of course, and Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah. This picture was apparently taken in Beirut a week before when the two held secret talks there, as they do from time to time.
The announcement by the American administration of the early embassy move was made on the February 24. The secret meeting in Beirut took place just few days afterward. One must assume that the main topic of the discussions was how to spoil the celebrations of the transfer of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, scheduled for May 14. Soleimani and Nasrallah needed no calendar to figure out that the day after the scheduled inauguration of the embassy is the beginning of the month of Ramadan. Bingo: a Ramadan explosion in Israel’s face.
Perfect timing, if you’re an Islamic fundamentalist. Which both Soleimani and Nasrallah are.
Coincidentally, Hamas in Gaza, great partners of Soleimani, have planned a serious escalation against Israel at the Gaza border and in the territories for mid-May also (the ‘Nakba Day’ protests due on 15/5 are the focus).
This is a potential nightmare scenario for Israel.
Many in the Middle East region wonder why the Iranian military response to the Israeli attack against the T4 airbase in Syria almost three weeks ago, where at least seven, maybe nine IRGC men, including senior officers and experts, were killed, hasn’t come yet, especially after so many loud threats were made by Tehran in recent weeks.
Even Nasrallah made clear statements in the name of Iran, saying that “Israel from now on will have to deal with the Iranians face-to-face.” So, why hasn’t the commander of the Iranian forces in Syria, Qasem Soleimani, who reports directly to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, given the order to his forces to act? Well, a possible answer is that actually there is no delay whatsoever, and the Iranians are operating at this moment. When the Iranian action does come, it will probably be limited and carefully designed to not provoke an allout war Iran is not really interested in at the moment.
One should expect a move that was actually planned and discussed in advance, long before the Israeli attack, though set against the background US embassy move Trump’s decision regarding the future of the nuclear deal with Iran. Revenge and deterrence were also likely added following the latest Israeli attack.
But as painful as they no doubt want it to be, Iran can’t risk stretching the rope too much.
Therefore, while the exact modus operandi remains to be seen, the principle is expected to be tit-fortat – an equivalent retaliation.
A direct military action would mean a direct response, resulting in the death of more IRGC men in Syria. An operation abroad would leave less of a fingerprint and would be more symbolic and aimed to spoil the celebrations over the embassy move.
By the way, as far as the Iranians are concerned, Riyadh is just as much an enemy as Israel; a main partner in the recent “conspiracy” against Jerusalem and a permanent partner in the decadeslong “conspiracy” against Iran.
So the motivation in Tehran to strike the Saudis is extremely high. For the moment it’s being done mostly through the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the ballistic missiles that they get from Soleimani to launch at Saudi Arabia, but the bill between those two is only getting longer by the day.
Back to Israel and to make a long story short, around the month of Ramadan one must expect the window to open for an Iranian move against Israel. If it is up to the Iranians, it is not due much before that for two very important reasons: Hezbollah and the whole of Lebanon are facing general elections on May 6. These are very crucial elections for Hezbollah.
The campaign is now at its peak; Hezbollah is aiming to hit the jackpot, and that means that the chances are low for an action before those elections are over.
Second, of course, is the decision by President Trump, due to be announced by May 12, about the future of the nuclear deal. The Iranian establishment is extremely nervous about it and threatens terrible consequences should the US withdraw. The uncertainty around this issue has caused panic among the Iranian people, and the Iranian rial has lost about 40% of its value compared to the US dollar in recent weeks.
One would thus think that until Trump’s declaration, it would be quite unwise from an Iranian point of view to take any action.
Whatever the chosen response is, the Iranians will feel much more comfortable acting after May 12.
For all these reasons, with regard to a possible confrontation between Iran and Israel, the clock is ticking down toward Ramadan. Israeli attacks against Iranian targets in Syria serve only as a convenient justification for action almost certainly decided long before. For sure, adjustments will made to existing plans to take recent developments into account.
Here it is worth emphasizing that Iran is not homogeneous.
The power struggles within the Iranian establishment are deep and fierce, for example between the government of President Hassan Rouhani and the IRGC. Just recently, IRGC deputy general Hussein Salami said in a speech about the rivals from Rouhani’s camp: “Sometimes some of our friends inside Iran treat us like enemies, but we can cope with it.”
However, Soleimani, Salami and their colleagues take orders directly from supreme leader Khamenei, and he is the one that authorizes non-routine actions like the one we have been discussing here.
Obviously, Israel cannot sit on its hands. Israel should consider sophisticated moves of its own, designed to throw a monkey wrench into the Iranians plans.
Iran and Israel are now neighbors, not only in Lebanon but in Syria. In the past few years Israel has conducted dozens of air strikes in Syria against arms shipments of Iran and Hezbollah, mainly aimed at preventing supplies of advanced missiles and UAVs from reaching Hezbollah.
The approach was modified recently and the Israeli leaderships made it very clear in recent months and weeks that it will not tolerate the threat of Iranian military presence in Syria any longer and is completely ready to act. In the past few weeks not only did we witness the high-profile attack against Iranians forces at the T4 airbase, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have stated very clearly and loudly that Israel “will stop Iran’s expansion in Syria at any cost,” “Israel is ready to pay the price needed,” and “whatever the price, Israel is determined to operate” and “will bomb Tehran if Tel Aviv gets hit.”
At the same time, Hezbollah was given tough warnings by the Israelis not to interfere in any way, because an attack by Hezbollah against Israel will put an end to the quiet and stability in south Lebanon and, in case of a war, might lead to the destruction of Beirut. A reasonable assessment of those statements leads to the conclusion that Israel is really getting ready to take drastic steps against Iran, and that the Israeli clock is now ticking faster than the Iranian one.
While conductor Soleimani and his orchestra in what is called the “Axis of evil” are aiming at mid-May and the Ramadan period, Israel appears to want the seemingly inevitable clash to take place as soon as possible – while Hezbollah is still busy with the election and before Trump’s decision about the nuclear deal is made and announced.
If Trump is indeed going to get off his high horse and stay in the (“horrible”) nuclear deal with Iran, the least he could do is give Israel the green light to act in whichever way it deems necessary to defend itself against Iran – and this approval has been given, for sure. Even more so if Trump intend to pull out of the Iran deal – because in that scenario, the Iranian response in the region and elsewhere may be quite aggressive and aimed directly against Israel. So both ways, whether Trump pulls out of the deal or not, Israel, unlike Iran, doesn’t have to wait for the announcement from Washington to make its moves. Israel represents the strongest voice in the world against the nuclear deal, and Iran is well aware of that.
What about Russia, one has to ask. Well, It seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t want any military escalation in Syria, but probably can’t prevent a clash between Israel and Iran any longer. If the two sides are so eager to fight, then, the Kremlin will probably say, let it be so – as long as you leave Syrian President Bashar Assad out of it. In any case, as mentioned before, a clash between the two sides doesn’t necessary means an allout war.
To conclude, in the battle of minds between Israel and Qasem Soleimani of Iran the only question left now is who is going to strike first and what will happen next. The answer is expected very soon. Ramadan is just around the corner, as is Trump’s decision about the nuclear deal and the move of the American embassy.
Israelis are well known for their dislike of waiting. They should consider shuffling the cards beforehand.
For the past 20 years the author has been a Middle East affairs analyst running a small news agency for the Middle East – a unit under MX1 media company.