Looming specter of conflict

Iran is transforming the strategic balance.

iranian missile 311 (photo credit: AP)
iranian missile 311
(photo credit: AP)
It has been another busy week in the ongoing war of words waged by Iran and its allies against Israel.
Last Friday Iranian Vice President Mohammad Rida Rahimi responded to ongoing rumors of an impending attack on Syria and/or Lebanon by swearing that Iran would “cut off Israel’s feet” if it dared strike Syria. Rahimi, who was addressing a press conference in Damascus when he made his threat to Israel’s physiognomy, described Syria as “ready to confront any threat.” He promised that Iran would back Syria with “all its means and strength.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad then took up the theme, at a press conference on the sidelines of the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York. Ahmedinejad said that Israel would be crushed if it attacked Lebanon or Syria, and he vowed that such a war would be the “last war launched by the Zionists.”
What lies behind the flurry of threats and vows emanating from the mouths of senior Iranian officials, and do they presage imminent conflict? The dynamic whereby Iran takes upon itself the role of “big brother” and protector to local enemies of Israel should be noted, as it is evidence of an emerging strategic picture which is transforming the Middle East. Conflict between Israel and the Iran-led regional bloc may not be right around the corner – but past history indicates it is probably eventually inevitable.
The Syrian and Lebanese media and public discussion have been gripped in recent weeks by a fear of an impending Israeli attack. This fear evidently derives from warning messages passed by Israel to Syria regarding the ongoing arming of Hizbullah across the Lebanese-Syrian border.
The Syrian and Lebanese fears are overblown. Israel has no territorial ambitions to its north. For as long as something resembling deterrence appears to pertain, it is highly unlikely that the current quiet will be broken by Israel.
Even with Syria breaking red lines with regards to illegal arms transfers – the evidence, in particular, of the supplying of M-600 missiles to the Shi’ite terror group – are unlikely to provoke Israeli retaliation at the present time. Washington’s still vivid commitment to the idea of diplomatic engagement with regional enemies, and the current American administration’s cool attitude towards Israel makes it unlikely that Israel will ignite the quiet northern border – no matter what future perils may be building up there.
The parallel threat of a Hizbullah or Syrian strike against Israel also deserves close attention. The ideological preferences of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Lebanese Shi’ite allies incline them toward aggression against the Jewish state. But the real balance of power between the sides – and the preference of their Iranian patron for a long-term strategy – may well be sufficient to deter them for now from any imminent reckless adventures.
YET IT would be entirely wrong to be complacent. The emergence of Iran as a powerful state sponsor of forces committed to Israel’s destruction is transforming the region’s strategic balance. As it does so, Israel’s enemies in the Arab world are shifting their sights accordingly. The seeming estrangement of Israel from its US ally is further strengthening the wind in the sails of these regional elements.
An indication of the thinking in such circles was recently offered in an editorial in the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper, which spoke of a “new equation vis-à-vis Israel.” The editorial was written by the paper’s chairman, Ibrahim al-Amin
 Al-Akhbar is pro-Syrian, and Amin himself is reported to have good contacts with the Hizbullah leadership. Some in Lebanon consider Amin’s writings to reflect the thinking at the top of the movement.
Amin described what he referred to as “threats of war” against Syria designed to make it abandon its alliance with Iran. However, Amin continued, ultimately it was “Iran that conveyed a message to the US and the West in general, and to Israel in particular – by means of Ahmadinejad’s visit to Damascus – to the effect that it was willing to supply Syria with all the support it needed to withstand any war against it.”
The effect of the visit, according to the Al-Akhbar chairman, was to “create a new equation vis-à-vis Israel, the essence of which is that the resistance forces will no longer agree to any war waged according to Israel’s perception.”
This means, according to Amin, that goals and notions which had to be abandoned in the mid-1970s by the Arabs, after the strongest Arab country – Egypt – left the arena of conflict, are now once more becoming feasible.
“Iran compensates for Egypt’s absence, both politically and militarily,” he says, and concludes that “the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict thus no longer depends upon one of the dangerous deviations in Arab history, namely the Camp David Accords.”
With this statement, Amin sums up the atmosphere to be found among Iran’s Arab supporters and allies. It is one of great strategic confidence. It is based on a profound lack of knowledge of Israeli society, and it resembles similar moments of hubris familiar to students of the region.
One such hallucinatory moment took place in the months following SaddamHussein’s entry into Kuwait in 1990. Saddam threatened to burn half ofIsrael, and for a moment, he was lauded as the man on horseback thatthe Arab world had been waiting for. In the late 1950s and 1960s, theEgypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser played this role in a far more serious andconsequential way.
In both these historic cases, two things should be borne in mind.Firstly, the man on horseback turned out to be a paper messiah.Secondly, this matter was settled not through debate, but on thebattlefield.
It is not possible, of course, to predict the precise spark which mayeventually set in motion a collision between Israel and the newalliance committed to its demise. But the trajectories of similarphenomena in the region’s past suggest that it would be foolhardy toassume that the laws of deterrence will trump the will to conflictindefinitely.