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What prevents Iran-Israel war?

Understanding the uneasy balance of power and fear between the two bitter rivals is critical for the furture of world peace.

Iran and Israel are the two key players in the Middle East who have been bitter rivals for decades. The two countries established relations after Israel attained independence in 1948 for both strategic and economic reasons.

Iran became one of the biggest importers of Israeli arms and exports oil to Israel. The bilateral cooperation between the two countries was commendable in the early three decades of Israel’s independence from 1948 to 1978. However, the relations were decoupled in 1979, when the secular monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was replaced with a theocracy led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; all of a sudden the country was governed by religious laws.

Major General Hossein Salami, head of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), boasted in September 2019, “We have managed to obtain the capacity to destroy the impostor Zionist regime.” Destroying Israel was now an ‘achievable goal’. Iran sees itself to be one of the safe guarders of the Islamic world especially of Palestine, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran provides aid to its allies that border Israel territory, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. Keeping in view the Iranian deployment, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared it a great danger to Israel’s security. By 2020, the IDF’s (Israel Defence Forces) top three objectives revolve around the Islamic Republic.

  1. Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

  2. Interrupting Hezbollah's project to develop precision missiles.

  3. Preventing Iranian encroachment across the region.

History of Enmity

The history of hostile relations will be discussed in the following segments:

Iran diplomatically disassociated itself from Israel when revolutionary government appeared in the power in Tehran in 1979. The relations tightened further when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Iran did not confront Israel directly, but rather used the tactic of proxies. It sends off some 1,500 IRGC personnel to Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley. They trained an underground militia that emerged as Hezbollah. Hezbollah slowly took over as the main force of resistance against Israel after the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) was forced to leave Beirut in 1982. Hezbollah under the guardianship of IRGC started a guerrilla war, including suicide bombings against the Israeli forces. The suicide bombing continued at Israeli bases and in 1985, Israeli put down their weapons in a large chunk of Lebanon. It kept a military presence in a "security zone" that was under the control of the South Lebanon Army, one of its allies.

Hezbollah increased the pace of its assaults after Israel withdrew. At least twelve suicide bombings were carried out by Hezbollah in the second half of 1985. According to a U.S. Army assessment, "These attacks were clear political and military statements that Israeli soldiers would keep dying until their withdrawal from Lebanon was complete." But when it was advantageous for both sides, Iran and Israel continued their covert communications. After Iraq attacked Iran in the 1980s, Tehran obtained weaponry and military equipment from Israel in clandestine operations that eventually led to the Iran-Contra Affair in 1986, which ensnared the Reagan government. The transfers were discovered and stopped, in part because Iran didn't make its payments on time.

Hezbollah, the Shia-Islamist political party and militant group based out of Lebanon and supported by Iran, making its foot strong in Lebanon from continued funding from Iran by moving beyond its military role to a political party. In 1992, they took part in the first parliamentary elections and won eight seats. The engagement between IDF and the Hezbollah did not stop throughout the 1990s but was of low intensity.

With the continued funding from Iran, Hezbollah built up its military arsenals and dug tunnels for the clandestine movement of personnel and armaments. They, on one hand, continued to make their military capabilities strong but on the other continued efforts to make their political influence strong in the area. In the 2005 elections, they won 35 seats and were appointed to the government cabinet for the first time. Both the opponents came face to face again in 2006 and marked Second Lebanon War. The war ended in a military stalemate.

Khamenei presented Iran's plan for resolving the Arab-Israeli issue in 2011 by suggesting that he does not advocate starting a traditional war between Muslim nations, deporting immigrants who are Jews, or having the United Nations and other international organizations mediate. He said at that time, "We suggest conducting a poll of the Palestinian people. Like every other nation, the Palestinian people have the right to choose their own leaders and form their own government".

In the same year, Tehran diverted its focus from Lebanon and Palestine to Syria because the civil war erupted. Syria was an important destination for Iran because they hold their military operation from there to run in Lebanon. By 2019 Iran was able to have control over dozens of Syrian bases. Iran found Syria a new destination to directly attack. The exchange of fires continued till now. Iran somehow had the lower hand in Syria against Israel. "The more Iran tries to establish itself on Syrian soil, the deeper it will sink in the Syrian sands,” Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in December 2019.

Israel considers Iran’s Nuclear Program a Threat to Its Existence; will it attack Iran?

The United States' closest Middle Eastern allies are directly threatened by Iran’s nuclear weapons. The country most at risk is Israel since Iran officials have frequently urged for Israel to "be wiped off the map." Israel considers nuclear Iran a threat to its existence, as Iran has the conventional weapon capability to even hit the United States. As Iran and Israel have had hostile relations for decades. Iran-backed Hezbollah and Hamas are engaged with IDF (Israel Defense Forces) for a long time, and Israelis know very well about the consequences of nuclear Iran. Israel’s intelligence Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, has continously worked to prevent Iran's nuclear programme via a series of secret operations including eliminating key nuclear scientists and revealing details of Iran's nuclear plans. Nuclear Iran is not only a threat to Israel but a cause of the destabilization of the Middle Eastern region throwing it into a no-hold's-barred arms race.

Israel views the development of nuclear weapons by Iran as a threat to its existence, hence with American aid, Israel seeks to dissuade Iran and normalize relations with Arab nations. Iran's nuclear program poses a serious threat to the entire region, according to the two close allies. Therefore, there is substantial military and economic collaboration between the two adversaries to tackle the challenges posed by Iran. Iran's uranium is currently 60 per cent enriched, to limit Iran’s nuclear progress US signed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. But pulled its leg from JCPOA in 2018. Since the country’s nuclear activity increases and each day that the negotiations drag on brings Iran one step closer to developing a nuclear weapon. Iran and the US are negotiating, but not a single session has resulted in a productive outcome. Additionally, Israel is attempting to mend fences with the Arab world. Two of Israel's Arab neighbours retain full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Egypt and Jordan, following the signing of respective peace treaties in 1979 and 1994. Israel established diplomatic ties with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Morocco in 2020 through the signing of accords called Abraham Accords. Israel is doing everything it can to dissuade Iran. Israeli authorities issued a warning that if negotiations fail, Jerusalem would attack Iran first to stop it from developing nuclear weapons.

Considering how unlikely it is that the nuclear agreement between Tehran and the West will be revived, more escalation between Iran and Israel is a possibility. It’s no secret that Israel always opposed the JCPOA. In Israel’s eyes, representatives of Iran often openly express intentions to annihilate the Jewish state, while the financial support of Israel’s enemies, the Palestinian Sunni Islamic militant group Hamas or Hezbollah, which regularly attack Israel, furthers the distrust. Above all, the political situation in the US has exacerbated the status quo. Israel has never acknowledged any assaults, but for years, it has been charged of waging a covert conflict with Iran, mostly to impede Iran's nuclear development. The recurrent destruction of digital infrastructure in recent years, as well as the deaths of an Iranian engineer, a military officer, and an aeronautical scientist are being linked to Israel. Israel has also hinted that if the nuclear advances is not halted, the Octopus Doctrine will continue. This doctrine seeks to encircle and choke Iran's nuclear programme through any means possible and unceasingly. The US promised in the Jerusalem Declaration that Iran would never get nuclear weapons and that both states would use every means at their disposal to halt Iran. This indicates, in plain terms, that the intensity of the shadow war may increase. The two have been at secret war for many years, discreetly assaulting one another at sea, in the air, on land, and even through proxies. They have generally tried to avoid open conflicts that may escalate to full-scale war, choosing instead to behave with plausible denial; although, recently, the conflicts have become more conspicuous.

Why is Iran concerned about the peace agreement between the Arab countries and Israel?

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan are among the Arab nations with which Israel has signed landmark peace agreements. As some sources suggest that Saudi Arabia and Israel have worked together against Iran covertly, Saudi Arabia is among the prospective possibilities to recognize Israel. Iran views this new coalition as a danger to its security and a shift in the regional dynamic. The main areas of collaboration between Israel and the Arab world are the economy and the military. Long-term harm to Iran's national interests has resulted from Tehran's flawed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and aggressive rhetoric toward Israel. It is somewhat puzzling that Iran has long maintained cordial connections with China and India, both of whom have troubled history with Muslims in their own country, and at the same time, Iran claims to be the defender of the Palestinian cause. These contradictions heighten Iran's sense of ideological uneasiness (even though they make geopolitical sense), and its ill-defined strategy could lead it to behave more aggressively in the Persian Gulf. This can then start a cycle of security competition that is very unstable

The conflict between Iran and Israel grew more intense and took on new shape with each passing decade. Iran gathered an increasing number of allies and proxies with ever-more-advanced weapons. The flashpoints also increased in size and number. One of the most complicated and dynamic relationships in the area has been between Israel and Iran (which went from tight, multifaceted cooperation to open support for the abolition of the Jewish State). As a result, Tehran has developed a 'ring of fire strategy' that aims to surround Israel with massive missile and UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) bases - not only from Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Syria but also from Iraq and Yemen. As a result, there is an uneasy 'balance of terror' in which Israel's strategic prowess, including its powerful air force and sophisticated anti-missile air defence system, serves to discourage Iran.

This is the delicate balance of fear has thus far kept the two states from igniting a full-scale frontal conflict.

(Aimen Jamil is youth diplomacy activist and columnist. Her research interests are focussed on the Middle East and West Asia.)


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