How Israel, the US combined media, military power to prevent war

US President Trump tweeted threats against Iran and US and Israeli submarines were reported to be on their way towards Iran.

US AIR FORCE maintainers prepare a US military drone RQ-4A Global Hawk for takeoff at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, earlier this month. (photo credit: ERIC HARRIS/US AIR FORCE/REUTERS)
US AIR FORCE maintainers prepare a US military drone RQ-4A Global Hawk for takeoff at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, earlier this month.
The third week of December 2020 should go down in history as a lesson in how countries attempted to combine military power, technology and messaging through media to prevent conflict.
On the surface, this appears counterintuitive.
Over the last week US President Donald Trump has tweeted threats against Iran, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi has also warned Iran, and US and Israeli submarines were reported to be on their way to the vicinity of Iran.
For the average person watching the region, the conclusion is obvious: We are on the brink of war. However, the opposite may also be true: The actions taken in Washington and Jerusalem are meant to prevent conflict.
How all this came about is complex.
Iran-US relations have been marked by rising tensions over the last several years. Iran continues to try to challenge the US and seeks to remove US forces from Iraq. The Trump administration walked away from the Iran Deal in 2018 and has sought to use sanctions to isolate and impoverish the regime. It sought also to sanction Iranian allies and raise awareness about Iran’s trafficking of weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen and to Hezbollah in Lebanon. That has meant the US Navy intercepted several ships moving weapons to the Houthis, and the US even established the “petting zoo” in Washington to show off Iranian weapons such as ballistic missiles and drones that were used to attack Saudi Arabia.
Tensions grew in May 2019. Iranian-backed Iraqi militias began to fire rockets at US forces in Iraq and also at Saudi Arabia. Iran mined ships in the Gulf of Oman. It threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, and has continued to show off new missiles, a military satellite, drones and naval weapons. It also keeps “sinking” a mock-up of a US carrier and harassing US ships in the Persian Gulf. In September 2019 Iran used drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq, Iran empowered the Hashd al-Shaabi, mostly Shia militias that are part of the Iraqi security forces, to strike at US facilities. A US contractor was killed in December 2019, and three US-led coalition members in March 2020.
The US carried out airstrikes in response. The Trump doctrine has stressed that the US will strike back if US soldiers are harmed. The US also killed IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Iran has vowed revenge. Iran fired ballistic missiles at the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq and at Erbil in January 2020. It also had its militias fire dozens of 107-mm. Katyushas at US facilities in Iraq, particularly the embassy in Baghdad.
The US has now twice warned it will close the embassy as a prelude to airstrikes.
All of this brings us to December 23, 2020. “Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets. Three rockets failed to launch. Guess where they were from: IRAN. Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq,” Trump wrote. “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”
The US has said this before, in 2018, after harassment of the US Consulate in Basra, and in 2019 and earlier in 2020. Trump has warned Iranian IRGC fast boats in the Persian Gulf that they will be sunk if they attack US ships.
After the US Global Hawk $180 million drone was shot down by Iran’s 3rd Khordad air defense in June 2020, Trump came close to striking Iran. He stopped at the last minute because no Americans had been killed. He opposes war with Iran and mocked former national security advisor John Bolton for being a hawk on Iran.
Trump’s warning on December 23 was to keep Iran from striking at Americans as the anniversary of Soleimani’s death arrives. Iran has plastered Iraq with martyr posters of Soleimani. Tensions are high. The US has sent the USS Georgia, a large guided-missile submarine, to the region. In November the US sent B-52s back to the Middle East as well.
“WE ARE hearing more and more threats against Israel coming from Iran,” Kochavi said on December 21. He said Iran would pay a heavy price for any attack. Reports said that an Israeli submarine was also on the way toward Iran, through the Suez Canal, as a kind of warning.
Tensions between Israel and Iran are similar to the US-Iran tensions.
Israel had carried out 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets, according to a January 2019 interview. That was a lot more than in 2016. In 2017 Israel used its Arrow system for the first time to stop an Iranian S-200 missile. In 2018 the David’s Sling was used for the first time.
Iran has fired salvos from Syria. Iran tried to move the 3rd Khordad system to Syria in April 2018 and flew a drone into Israeli airspace in February 2018. It has trafficked arms through Iraq to Syria, including ballistic missiles. It has built tunnels at the Imam Ali base in Albukamal.
In addition tensions with Hezbollah have risen. In the fall of 2019, Israel uncovered Hezbollah tunnels, and tensions rose again in July 2020 when Hezbollah claimed Israel killed one of its members in Syria.
Israel has warned Iran, increasingly since December 2018, not to entrench in Syria. Iran hasn’t listened, but it did withdraw dozens of IRGC members from Syria. When Iranian nuclear engineer Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in November, Iran vowed revenge. It also vowed to track down those responsible for July 2020 sabotage in its Natanz nuclear facility.
THIS IS what built up to this week’s messaging from Israel and the US.
Iran doesn’t want a conflict on the eve of the Biden administration. It knows the new US administration has hinted at a return to the Iran deal and engagement with Iran. Tehran has no reason to burn those bridges.
It does want to show it can strike at the US in Iraq. But its foreign ministry and leaders of Iraqi militias, such as Qais Khazali, claim they didn’t attack the US Embassy on Sunday.
This is the dance of messages between Washington, Tehran and Jerusalem. The question is when the music will stop.