By Jack Norton, The Strategist: Israel is on a collision course with Iran as it accelerates its nuclear development and increases its activities in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, experts have warned.
The potential for an escalation of tensions between two of the Middle East's big players was the subject of a lengthy discussion at this year's Beersheba Dialogue, the annual conference held between ASPI and the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
There's also uncertainty over Israel's ability to rely on its major ally, the US, after President Donald Trump pulled out troops from northern Syria and failed to retaliate for the downing of a US drone and what are thought to have been Iranian strikes on Saudi Arabian oil facilities in September.
Speaking to The Strategist, the former head of Mossad's intelligence, counterterrorism and international divisions, Haim Tomer, said US policy in the region had changed ‘pretty dramatically' in a short space of time.
‘The world has been witnessing some sort of dramatic change in American foreign policy, which at least means … that Israel should consider very carefully what would be the US role in future frictions and confrontations within this neighbourhood', he said.
Discussions during the dialogue in Tel Aviv centred on whether the US under Trump could still be relied upon as an ally—something of major importance to both Israel and Australia—and how the perception of a weaker US had strengthened Russia's position in the Middle East and could further embolden Iran.
Tomer described the ‘balance of deterrence' in the region as having shifted and said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been quick to move to fill the vacuum left by the US.
‘Russia understands that Trump is not any more a player in the Middle East. They're going to increase their efforts to put their stronghold in Syria.'
Russia, though, is not seen as a direct threat to Israel even as it extends its influence in the region.
‘Putin is a very cold-blooded player' whose aim is to ‘get Russia in a position that it's the number one foreign player in the region', Tomer said. ‘And he's very near to that, he's very near to achieving that.'
He added that Israel's reliance on the US's joining it in retaliatory strikes if it were attacked by Iran is now under question.
‘Israel could not take for granted anymore that the Iranians would be deterred by the fact that if they attack Israel, the US will do something to them as well—not only that Israel will retaliate, but Israel and the US.'
Iran's influence on Hezbollah and the possibility it might attack Israel through that group was ever-present. But the biggest issue for Israel's security is still Iran's desire to develop a nuclear capability.
The Iranian government has now decided to resume enriching uranium, something that might support Tomer's claim that concern about how the US and Israel would react to its development of a nuclear capability had so far held Tehran back.
That development is another crack in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal agreed to in 2015 for Iran to cut its stocks of enriched uranium.
Emily Landau, the head of arms control and regional security at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, told The Strategist that despite the latest developments from Iran and criticism of Trump for withdrawing from the deal, the JCPOA was ‘very flawed' from the start.
‘It has serious flaws that have serious implications and it certainly will not stop Iran from becoming a nuclear state; in the best-case scenario it will delay that prospect', Landau said.
She said that Iran hadn't upheld its part of the deal at any rate and the reason it hasn't so far sought to leave it is because it was the best arrangement it was likely to get. More negotiations would likely involve Iran having to make concessions it would rather avoid.
These factors mean a new deal is needed, Landau said. And while Trump's so-called maximum pressure strategy was the only real way to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, she said, he had undermined that plan by showing an eagerness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN and indicating that he might support a French plan to offer US$15 billion in credit to get Iran back to the JCPOA.
‘[It's] indicating to the Iranians that Trump is blinking first, that Trump needs this win, this foreign policy win, maybe for elections purposes to show that he's a great negotiator … But that's not the way to handle this kind of bargain', she said.
Landau said a couple of key ingredients are needed that would help ensure Iran could be prevented from developing a nuclear capability.
The first was to recognise that it's a hard bargain that's being talked about.
‘There's really no win–win solution here. Either the Iranians are going to come out on top or the other side is going to come out on top.'
The other missing links are a ‘credible military threat' to impose a cost on Iran for continuing along the path of nuclear development, and a renewed commitment to unity among the P5+1 powers (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) that negotiated the JCPOA.
And if Iran does continue enriching uranium and develop what former Mossad chief Tomer describes as a military nuclear capability?
Estimates for that range from two to five years, but it's an outcome that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel will not accept.
‘If there are clear indications that Iran is really close to a nuclear weapons capability, Israel will have to take things into its own hands', Landau says.
That's even with the knowledge that without US or other allied help, Israel would probably be unable to take out an Iranian nuclear capability on its own.
That Israel won't tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, along with Tehran's decision to start enriching uranium again, indicates that the two countries could be on a path to confrontation.
Landau believes that neither country wants that clash to happen, adding that it's not an Israel–Iran problem but an international one that global powers need to help tackle.
‘There was talk in the conference about the new world order, or a new world disorder maybe, and there's a real question whether in this world there's political will to do what needs to be done and Israel will have to deal with the implications of that.'
First published in The Strategist. Cartoon by .
Jack Norton is an editor of The Strategist. Image: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.