Iran is the number one threat to Israel and whole region

No political leadership in Israel will accept an existential threat, writes Seth J Frantzman


2E3NE67 Houthi supporters hold up their weapons during a demonstration against the United States decision to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation, in Sanaa, Yemen January 20, 2021. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

March 04, 2021 15:03

The overwhelming majority of dangers facing Israel emanate from Iran, which also threatens the region, an Israeli defence source has said.

Speaking exclusively to the JC, the senior official gave an overview of Israel’s strategic priorities and how it sees the region. But he began with the fundamental observation that Iranian threats to Israel are existential.

No matter who prevails in this month’s elections, no political leadership in Israel will accept an existential threat.

At the same time Israel also must deal with other regional threats from Iran, including a reported attack on an Israeli-owned ship on 26 February and Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.

Iranian aggression, including attacks on Saudi Arabia by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, threats to US forces in Iraq, and Iranian support for Hezbollah via its network of supports in Syria, is growing in the region and leading to increased tensions. This is an issue that not only affects Israel; it also is part of Iran’s wider attack on the US and allies in the Gulf. The senior official highlighted the importance of US and Western allies having someone to count on in the Middle East, in the context of Iranian entrenchment and aggression from proxies – with Israel filling that role.

At the same time, there is no substitute for the US’s role in the Middle East. The US carried out airstrikes in Syria on 26 February, the same day the Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman reported a mysterious blast that forced it to go to port in the UAE. It’s impossible not to see the wider linkage, a conflict that spans several thousand kilometres and includes wars in Yemen, Iran’s militias in Iraq and Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

Despite the tension, there is also good news in the region. The official pointed to the Abraham Accords and the historic opportunity Israel has for new peace with its neighbours. Israel now has peace with Jordan, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, with renewed ties to Morocco and emerging ties with Sudan. This is a game-changer and Arab leaders such as Mohammed Bin Zayed in the UAE are praised by Israel for their vision in moving towards normalisation.

Relations in the Gulf would not have been possible without support from Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman. Although a recent US report condemned the Crown Prince over his involvement in the 2018 disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, Israel hopes the US will not be too tough on Saudi Arabia for fear it could muddy the waters when it comes to confronting Iran’s destabilising actions.

The current tempo in the region appears to be dictated by Iran. It is Iran that has said it will prevent International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of nuclear facilities as it threatens to enrich uranium to 60 per cent. It demands an end to US sanctions and has told the US it won’t meet in Europe to discuss the matter. The Houthis, a relatively poor and ill-equipped rebel movement, would never have been able to fire ballistic missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia without Iran’s technical expertise. The same expertise has increased the number and accuracy of the precision-guided missiles that Hezbollah wants to use — and aided Hamas’s rocket programmes. Iran today is one of the leading producers of ballistic missiles and it has made them more deadly and precise. Attacks on Saudi Arabia in September 2019 and on a US base in Iraq in January reveal Iran’s capabilities. Now Iran’s militias in Iraq increasingly threaten US troops.

Israel wants a US administration that is committed to the region. That also means the US should remain in Syria and Iraq and use a combination of diplomacy and military deterrence with Iran. Israel has never asked other countries to deal with existential threats on its behalf; Israel can be counted on to manage threats against Israel. It is the wider picture where US involvement is essential.

The last two weeks of February illustrated how rapidly tensions are rising. US Central Command Air Force Lt. Gen. Gregory Guillot came to Israel on 25 February, a week after Israel launched a massive surprise drill that simulated striking 3,000 targets a day in a possible conflict with Hezbollah. Israel praised the strategic cooperation with the US.

“We will continue to work closely with our American allies, in order to continue to learn and improve constantly,” Israeli Air Force commander Amikam Norkin said.

This is important because Israel and the US conducted three joint F-35 drills last year. Compared with the large Israeli drill in last month and reports of continued Israeli airstrikes in Syria, the overall picture is one of excellent cooperation with the US. The joint drills with US and Israeli F-35s were unprecedented –never had the US and Israel practised so frequently with the advanced fifth generation F-35 before. It had added value because the US F-35s flew from an American base in the UAE, potentially bringing together pilots with unique experience in the region.

The large Israeli Air Force drill which followed builds on Israel’s preparations for any future conflict with Hezbollah or pro-Iranian elements in Syria, while the Israeli airstrikes in Syria have been aided by US intelligence and US cooperation. These are all building blocks of Israel-American defence cooperation that are emerging and have increased in scope in the last years.

The concerns in Israel are rather linked to Iran’s attempt to carve out a foothold in Yemen and use that to threaten the Gulf.

In addition, Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium is a serious problem. Iran had done this before to wring concessions from the West, from 2012 to 2015. The US decision then to reset foreign-policy decisions, appearing not to back allies and partners, presaged an era of instability and rising extremism. Now that has been bookended in some ways by the US return to Iraq and its role in Syria.

The question is whether a robust US presence will continue. The Biden administration has said that “America is back” and its policies are designed to cement that. The challenge for the US is that, unlike in previous eras when it had close relationships with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, as well as times when it worked with Iran or Iraq, the US today is critical of human rights issues in the Gulf and Egypt, and Turkey is buying Russia’s S-400 missile system and moving away from the West.

Israel’s new relations with the Gulf are a major change from Israel’s isolation just 40 years ago. How to thread the needle between keeping the US engaged in the region, deterring Iran, growing Gulf alliances and not having escalation to a new conflict in the region, are among the pressing challenges that Israel sees today.


March 04, 2021 15:03

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