A decade of shadowboxing between the two, marked by mysterious acts of alleged sabotage and attacks by proxy groups, has intensified in recent months, threatening to bring regional rivals to the brink of direct war.
The escalating conflict is the result of a seemingly emboldened Iran that has stepped up its actions against Israel or assets linked to Israel, such as a deadly drone strike on the oil tanker Mercer Street, run by an Israeli-owned company, near Oman at the end of last month.
Hostilities appeared to peak on Friday when Iranian proxy Hezbollah fired 19 rockets at northern Israel, the heaviest such barrage since the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
The escalating war comes at a remarkable time for Iran: Tehran was sworn in on Thursday to new extremist president Ebrahim Raisi, and talks with Western powers over resuming the 2015 nuclear deal, or plan to joint global action, which appeared to be moving forward earlier this year. summer, suddenly appear at a standstill.
To some, Iran’s actions appear designed to maximize its negotiating position and tell the world that it will not be rushed or forced to reduce its proxies abroad.
“I think Iran wants to show that it won’t talk about its regional presence,” said Ori Goldberg of the Lauder School of Government at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. “The Iranians want a clear separation of the nuclear issue. “
Israel, which is also under relatively new leadership, has apparently also tried to maximize its bid to either torpedo the JCPOA or expand it to also curtail Iranian missile development and proxy activity. It means going on a rampage with belligerent rhetoric openly threatening Iran with all-out war, and letting the United States know it is doing so, while redoubling its efforts to rally the international community to its cause, a quest that some consider it pipe dream.
“A new international coalition against Iran is not in sight,” said Henry Rome, senior analyst at the Eurasia Group. “The United States and the United Kingdom could strengthen the naval forces patrolling the region through the International Maritime Security Construct. The British press also indicated that London could conduct a cyberoperation in response, which would likely be designed to have limited spillover or escalation effects. The United States will also likely accelerate pre-existing plans to impose new sanctions related to Iran’s drone and missile program. “
“Ultimately, however, this will probably prove to be too little for Israel, which will find its own way to retaliate,” he predicted.
An opportunity for Iran
Not all observers believe the regional escalation is directly linked to the nuclear talks.
“Iran is running several campaigns in parallel,” said Raz Zimmt, an Iranian researcher at the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies. “Although there are influences between the campaigns, not everything is linked to the nuclear issue. “
The Iranian escalation comes as Tehran senses an opportunity to assert its dominance in the Gulf, while also testing new administrations in Jerusalem and Washington.
“I think they feel like they have some sort of control right now,” Moran Zaga, a Gulf region expert at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policy said.
Saudi Arabia, a long-time regional rival, is in talks with Iran over a way out of Yemen’s civil war and has little interest in rocking the boat in responding to Tehran’s aggression. The UAE, on the other hand, would rather ignore the hubbub and maintain a facade of stability to continue to attract investment and diversify its economy.
In this August 22, 2020 file photo, members of a tribe loyal to the Houthi rebels raise their arms during a demonstration against the agreement to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in Sana’a, in Yemen. (AP / Hani Mohammed, file)
“Today, none of the Gulf countries is in a position to respond directly to the attacks,” Zaga said.
Israel’s clear preference is for the international community – especially the United States, France, and the United Kingdom – to lead the effort against Iran’s nuclear program and its support for proxy armed groups in the region.
Last week, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said he had ordered Israeli diplomats to push for UN action against “Iranian terrorism.”
“What will the international community do about it? “He asked the ambassadors of the member countries of the UN Security Council on Wednesday. “Is there still international law? And does the world have the capacity and the will to uphold the law? If the answer is yes, the world should act now.
But Israel shouldn’t expect someone else to take the lead.
The British are not about to strike Iran militarily for attacks on ships, and certainly not to stop Iran’s nuclear program. After Iranian seizures of a British oil tanker in 2019 and even Navy personnel in 2007, the UK has chosen not to respond militarily at all.
If the British act, it will probably be in the diplomatic or economic sphere.
“In the case of the UK, it is better to say that if you cause problems in the UK in one area, we will demonstrate our ability to cause you problems in a seemingly unrelated area,” explained Jack Watling, researcher at Royal United. Institute of Services in the United Kingdom.
The Biden administration also has no appetite for a military strike, which could kill the JCPOA talks and could add another headache for a White House already grappling with a resurgent pandemic and other pressing national issues that could hurt Democrats in next year’s midterm elections.
“The shadow of November 2022 hangs over this issue,” said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council. “As much as the American public is opposed to entanglements in the Middle East, it is also opposed to abject surrender. “
Anticipating the possibility that Israel is alone, some believe that Tehran and Hezbollah are trying to get a feel for Israel’s new leadership.
“If they want to stop the rocket fire, they could,” Lerman said. “Bennett and Lapid are tested. “
But that’s a recipe for a blast. The last time Hezbollah thought it could push what it saw as unproven leadership, then prime minister Ehud Olmert and then defense minister Amir Peretz surprised Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah by choosing war in 2006.
“Unless the Iranians come to their senses, we are getting closer to the point where the military option, in some variations, could become very real,” Lerman said.
Biden and his key aides have repeatedly expressed their desire to find a way back to the 2015 JCPOA deal with Iran. The Biden administration has even shown a willingness to allow Iran access to frozen assets abroad, which Iran has dismissed as an empty move.
But Iran’s aggressive and often clumsy negotiations have separated the two sides, and it is not at all clear that the gaps can still be bridged.
The equation for a deal seems simple: Iran is reducing its nuclear program to the terms detailed by the JCPOA, while the United States is waiving most of the Trump-era sanctions.
But Iran – or at least the hard-line elements around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – demands more. Tehran wants all sanctions lifted, including those on terrorism and other non-nuclear issues.
The West’s lack of response could push Tehran to sink even deeper.
“It’s important in Vienna,” said Jon Ruhe, director of foreign policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security in America. “If Washington and London just continue to try to avoid repelling Iran’s regional aggression – even as that aggression accelerates, and even though the Biden administration says these attacks threaten US interests – why Should Tehran ever compromise its maximalist demands in nuclear talks? “
“The White House, in suggesting after Mercer Street that it is as ready as ever to resume diplomacy, is precisely the wrong message on this point,” he said. “Deterrence is fungible, but the administration has apparently not yet internalized the connection between how it responds to Iranian aggression and how Tehran behaves at the negotiating table. “
With Raisi taking over from Rouhani, seen as a relatively moderate one, Iran’s negotiating position is likely to harden, although the direction Raisi wants the country to take will likely only start to crystallize after he will present his cabinet, which will happen in the next two weeks. .
“There is a feeling that Iran has not yet made its decision,” Goldberg said. “There is no master plan. The Iranians are as responsive as they usually are.