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Which way will the volatile US-Iran wind blow?

  • Paula
Almost immediately after the United States assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on Friday, 3 January, the Israeli army went on high alert along the country’s northern and southern borders. The concern was that Iran would respond – which it did five days later – by activating its proxies in the region: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria; and Hamas in Gaza. Israeli diplomatic missions around the world also braced themselves for a possible revenge attack.
by PAULA SLIER | Jan 16, 2020

The Iranian response, when it came, took the form of a volley of ballistic missiles fired at two military bases in Iraq last Wednesday. Damage was minimal, and none of the American troops stationed there were killed.

The accompanying threat warned that should Israel, or any other American ally in the region respond, Tehran would retaliate in full. So far, the proxies have remained quiet.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly briefed about the US strike on Soleimani in advance. He went on record as saying that Trump was “worthy of full appreciation”, but later tried to distance himself calling it “an American event”.

So who was Soleimani, and why was his death so significant?

Soleimani was a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces founded after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 by order of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. From 1998 until his death, Soleimani commanded the Quds Force, a division of the Guard Corps primarily responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations. Soleimani was thus the main executor of the Iranian effort to build its so-called Shia crescent and “export the revolution”, a rallying call for the Iranian government. Soleimani helped to grow Iranian proxies stretching from Iran to Iraq through Syria into southern Lebanon.

From an Israeli security point of view, his elimination slows down Iran’s growing influence in the region. At least in the short term. But in the mid-to-long term, there are some who are concerned that it plays into the hands of Iran’s extremists while silencing the country’s moderates who’ve been calling for reform.

Over the weekend, a vigil in Iran for 176 victims of a Ukrainian plane turned violent. The plane was shot down by Tehran which mistook it for an American missile. For three days, anti-government protestors faced water cannons and tear gas amidst reports of riot police using live ammunition. Demonstrators called on Khomeini to leave office with some even chanting, “Death to the dictator!” The protestors were, however, mostly middle class and students, and posed no existential threat to the regime.

Last November, the largest demonstrations in Iran’s history were crushed by government forces. They started after Tehran imposed a hike in gas prices, and finished with at least 208 protestors killed in 21 cities. The government shut down the internet and Amnesty International accused it of unleashing a “bloody clampdown”. This latest round of protests, too, has proven unsuccessful.

It’s not clear if American President Donald Trump is pushing for regime change in Iran or not. He was quick to support the protestors on Twitter, but he’s also imposed crippling sanctions that have affected ordinary Iranians and left the economy bankrupt. Trump announced sanctions again last week after the latest flare up. But it’s hard to believe that the Tehran government will change its position if earlier sanctions didn’t already convince it to.

Most analysts remain convinced that neither the US nor Iran wants a war. In spite of the latter threatening a “broad-based attack” against thirty-two sites, including Tel Aviv, the Iranians are wary of a powerful American response. They also know that their nuclear sites are vulnerable to attack from the air.

They’re certainly cognisant that Trump is running for re-election. This has prompted some to suggest that he’s lashing out at Tehran to satisfy his supporters when he needs their vote. But the opposite could also be true – that as unpredictable as he is, Trump wouldn’t risk a military campaign in the Middle East when he’s embarking on a re-election campaign.

The Europeans are still desperately trying to salvage the nuclear deal that Trump withdraw from in May 2018. But this month, Tehran threatened to enrich uranium to levels the agreement forbids.

The latest reports suggest that Iran could now be as little as six to 10 months away from having enough fuel to create its first nuclear device. For all of its flaws, the deal, according to experts, would have brought Israel – and the rest of the world – a hiatus of about 10 years from confronting the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

This has left some asking whether Washington could be pressured into returning to the original nuclear agreement, or signing another one with Tehran. It’s almost impossible to say in light of Trump being as unpredictable as he is.

Netanyahu would naturally be against either option. He fought against the deal louder than anyone else, and even boasted that he’d convinced Trump to withdraw from it. But he may no longer be in office. His main contender, former army chief Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party, earlier said that while a better deal could have been achieved, he sees “half the glass full and the success of distancing Iran from nuclear capabilities for 10-15 years”.

If there is one thing Israelis are particularly pleased about it’s that the events this month have shown that Trump is willing to be drawn into a Middle East war. Ever since October when he abandoned the Kurds in Syria, there’s been concern in Israel (and among Trump’s other Middle Eastern allies) that he cannot necessarily be relied on in the long run. Iranian attacks in the Gulf didn’t provoke the American administration into action. Neither did attacks on Saudi oil fields. But Trump acted now, and Netanyahu and others are breathing a sigh of relief that this means there’s a better chance he’ll come to their defence in the future should they need him.

For now, it seems that Israel prefers to keep a low profile and leave it to Trump to take initiatives concerning Iran. But, if the escalation continues and miscalculations mount, one never knows – especially with Trump – how things might change.

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