With Middle East on edge, miscalculation could trigger conflagration

Few are paying attention to some very dramatic developments taking place in the Middle East involving Israel, the US, Iran and its proxies. But they should.

IRGC siezes ship near Bu Musa Island, Iran (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
IRGC siezes ship near Bu Musa Island, Iran
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With the world’s attention focused on COVID-19 and the staggering sequence of events in Washington – the mob invasion of the Capitol and the impeachment proceedings in Congress – few are paying attention to some very dramatic developments taking place in the Middle East involving Israel, the US, Iran and its proxies. But they should.
Consider the following:
On Tuesday night, 18 airstrikes took place deep inside Syria, near the Syrian-Iraqi border – which foreign reports attributed to Israel, and which reportedly killed more than two dozen Syrian soldiers and foreign fighters. The area serves as a key transit point from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This was the fourth attack on Syria in two weeks that has been attributed to the Jewish state. Jerusalem has remained mum.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who will be leaving office in a week, delivered a speech in Washington Tuesday night describing what he said was an Iran/al-Qaeda axis. He said that, contrary to popular opinion that Shi’ite Iran and the Sunni al-Qaeda do not get along and cooperate, they do work together – and do so closely.
“Al-Qaeda has a new home base: it is the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo said. “As a result, bin Laden’s wicked creation is poised to gain strength and capabilities. We ignore this Iran/al-Qaeda nexus at our own peril. We need to acknowledge it; we must confront it. Indeed, we must defeat it.”
What is worth remembering is that al-Qaeda remains a red flag for many Americans. By laying this out there now, Pompeo – a former CIA director – may be trying to make it more difficult for the incoming Biden administration to engage with the Iranians over re-entering the Iranian nuclear deal. But it is also worth remembering that a major pretext for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was its ties to al-Qaeda, and some are hearing echoes of the same in Pompeo’s words.
Within days of 9/11 in 2001, Congress passed the first of two Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that allow the White House to take military action against any entity that aided or harbored al-Qaeda terrorists. This could conceivably be the legal basis for an attack on Iran, if a link was proven between them.
CONSIDER THIS as well: Israel recently stationed Iron Dome batteries in Eilat to protect the city from possible missiles coming from the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.
The US has on three occasions over the last few weeks dispatched B-52 bombers to fly near the Iranian coast. It ordered a submarine outfitted with Tomahawk missiles to the Persian Gulf, and dispatched the aircraft carrier Nimitz to the Middle East, only to abruptly send it back home last week.
These moves were all interpreted as attempts to prevent the Iranians from attacking the US, Israel or other targets to avenge last January’s killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Gen. Qasem Soleimani, and the assassination in November of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Iran’s nuclear program.
Add into the mix recent Iranian announcements that they have stepped up uranium enrichment, as well as a report that Mossad head Yossi Cohen was spotted in Washington on Monday, and this accounts for a lot of dots that might be connected.
Some are looking at those dots, and wondering if when connected they may reveal the outline of a possible US strike on Iran before Trump formally leaves office at noon next Wednesday.
“Is there a chance that there will be an attack on Iran before the end of the Trump tenure?” Defense Minister Benny Gantz was asked during an interview on Channel 13 on Tuesday night.
“I can’t tell you whether there will be an American attack on Iran, and if I had concrete information I would not reveal it here, but I am saying something very simple: the Iranians are continuing to act throughout the Middle East, and we need to continue to wage a diplomatic, economic, intelligence and security campaign against them. And it is very possible that if there is an occurrence, things can develop,” he said.
“We are in a very critical period, and I don’t recommend that anyone test [the] IDF, or the capabilities of Israel or the US.”
In other words, things are tense, a lot is happening, and a miscalculation could set off a chain of events that could lead to a major conflagration.
ALREADY IN November, The New York Times reported that Trump had asked senior advisers what options existed for use against Iran’s nuclear sites in the coming weeks. According to the paper, the advisers, including Pompeo and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – dissuaded Trump from such a move.
But that was then, before last Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol and the impeachment vote in Congress – and the likelihood that these events will now be Trump’s enduring legacy. An attack now on the Islamic Republic, however, could dramatically change that conversation.
Which is why some are hinting at the possibility, even as they agree that the chances of this happening are very slim. If Pompeo, Milley and Vice President Mike Pence and others dissuaded Trump from military action against Iran two months ago before last week’s toxic events in Washington, then it is likely they would oppose or try to thwart such a move even more so now.
As Trump’s tenure comes to a close, both the Israelis and Americans are on edge over a possible Iranian attack to avenge the deaths of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh; the Iranians are on edge that Trump may strike in his waning days in office; and Israel – if the foreign reports are to be believed – is sending clear messages to the American through attacks on Iranian assets in Syria that regardless of who sits in the White House, Jerusalem will not let Tehran entrench itself in Syria.
Those are a lot of moving parts in a very volatile region, all of which increase the possibility of a misread or miscalculation by one side or the other that, as Gantz intimated, could lead to a dramatic chain of events.