Given their mutual resolve in meeting their completely contradictory objectives – Iran’s resolve to turn Syria into a forward base of direct Iranian operations and Israel’s resolve to prevent it – the prospects of a war breaking out between Iran and its proxies and Israel are high. The war will be mutually destructive but Israel has one advantage – a public that will be firmly behind its democratically elected government.
Both in word and deed, Israel is firmly committed to its red lines, the reddest being that Israel will not permit Syria to be turned into an Iranian forward base and a manufacturing center for precision-guided missiles.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is equally committed to its objectives – turning Syria into a forward based of direct Iranian operations and a manufacturing center for precision-guided missiles.
The prospects of a war breaking out are thus high, certainly high enough to consider how such a war might play out and the ramifications of such a deadly conflict.
If such a war breaks out, it will signal the end of the era ushered in by the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and formalized in the peace treaty with Egypt, the most powerful enemy state in the Middle East at the time, that spelled the end of the wars between Arab states and Israel.
Most of the conflicts in the four-and-a-half decades since took place between Israel and nonstate actors, including the long, low-intensity conflict between Iran’s proxy Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon and then the larger conflagration in 2006.
The prospects that Iran will directly attack Israel or alternatively activate its proxy Hezbollah is the first scenario that must be addressed. (One can safely assume that the Syrian army has its hands full completing the defeat of the Sunni opposition forces in northeastern Syria in the Idlib area and preventing their resurgence).
Iran might decide to attack directly for two major reasons. One is the Iranian perception that the activation of a Hezbollah-directed missile war might not be sufficiently costly to Israel to deter it from continuing to attack Iranian infrastructure in Syria, especially since it brings it its wake the danger that Israel might decide to retaliate directly against Iran.
Hezbollah’s war-weariness might be another factor in an Iranian decision to either attack directly alone or at least share the pain of war-making with its proxy.
Hezbollah draws its ranks from a small community of less than two million people and is responsible for the blood-letting of its youth continuously from 1982 to 2000, primarily against Israel but also against the Sunnis in Tripoli and the Palestinians in the “war of the camps” in 1985, as well.
The blood-letting came to a temporary end with the Israeli withdrawal/hurried retreat from southern Lebanon in 2000 and the disintegration of its Maronite-supported militia, only to re-emerge six years later as Hezbollah suffered hundreds of deaths in the 2006 confrontation with Israel.
That war, however, proved to be only another brief respite. Six years later, Hezbollah was once again bleeding the community’s youth in the bloody civil war in Syria, which continues to this day. The lack of popularity of what is probably the deadliest of Hezbollah’s wars to date can be seen in the major media sites linked to the organization.
These sites hardly report on Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian fighting, and the sophisticated videos the organization produces to immortalize the fighters (“martyrs,” as it perceives them) are ensconced in the sites in a way that makes them difficult to access. Obviously, they are intended for the families alone, not the general Shi’ite public, which seems opposed to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, not least because the Shi’ites do not want to antagonize their Sunni neighbors in Lebanon and risk once again a deadly civil war.
Demographic data also shows that the birth rate of the Shi’ites in Lebanon (as indeed in Iran itself) has plummeted, reaching in 2004 a “European” fertility rate – that is, below replacement rate. This means that new recruits will be increasingly coming from four-member families, for which loss of life is particularly harsh.
Iran, then, will probably attack directly.
Since it has no air force and very little capacity to dispatch troops from Iran (they would be prey to Israel’s air force en route), the war on its part will be a missile war, in which Hezbollah will probably take part.
Such a missile war and the subsequent massive use of Israeli air power will demonstrate the mutual vulnerabilities of the two countries, despite the massive difference in terms of population (80 million for Iran as opposed to 8.5 million for Israel) and even more substantially in size (1.65 million sq.km. for Iran compared to only 21,000 sq.km.
That Iran is as vulnerable as Israel despite these differences can be attributed to three existential vulnerabilities. The first is that Iran exports 90% of its oil and gas from one port (essentially an island), Kharg, 160 km. southeast from the tip of the Iraq-Iran border, on the Persian/Arab Gulf.
The revenues Iran derives from that oil and gas amount to at least 40% of government expenditures and around half of Iran’s foreign reserves.
Meanwhile, the port of Bandar Abbas (“bandar” is “port” in Farsi) on Iran’s southern tip is responsible for 90% of its container trade. The goods brought in by container represent only 15% to 20% of total trade, but they are the goods that make the difference between the 21st and 19th centuries as far as most Iranians are concerned.
One can safely assume that the Israeli air force has given much consideration to addressing these two major points of Iranian vulnerability.
The war, then, will be very destructive and very disruptive not only for Israel and Iran but for neighboring states as well. Israel might feel compelled to attack airports in Lebanon, Syria and even Iraq to prevent the movement of Iranian troops and equipment.
Israel shares Iran’s vulnerability, due to its small size and dense population, especially in its coastal areas, but it has one advantage – Israel’s citizens will be firmly behind its democratically-elected government.
This might not be the case for the fundamentalist regime of Iran, whose population has been paying dearly for the regime’s imperialist ambitions and will be paying a hundred times dearer if a war breaks out.
Who knows? To stave off its downfall, this leadership might even decide to avert a war with Israel, which never wanted a conflict with Iran in the first place.
The author is a professor in the departments of political studies and Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University.
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