(March 27, 2018 / JNS) For years, Israel has been grappling with a new reality in the Middle East, whereby Iran has increasingly emerged as an ambitious and aggressive force to be reckoned with. This development follows on the heels of the war in Iraq, the collapse of regimes during an extended Arab Spring and the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that gave Iran more than $150 billion in exchange for loose nuclear restrictions by the international community.
Iran now has a military presence throughout much of the region—either via its own troops or terror proxies, including Hezbollah and Hamas, that it has funded for years. In particular, Iran has significantly expanded its presence in southern Syria, opening up another front against Israel.
Yet according to Yoav Galant—Israel’s Minister of Construction and Housing, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet and a former commander of the Southern Command in the Israel Defense Forces—the Jewish state has little choice but to prepare for a situation in which Iran further expands its destabilizing influence along Israel’s borders.
Next target in the ‘Shiite Crescent’: Jordan
“Iranians are using the so-called vacuum that was created in the Middle East because of the collapse of regimes, and they are trying to create a Shiite arc from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea,” Galant said at a meeting of reporters at an event prepared by the Israel Project in Jerusalem.
“All of a sudden, we can find ourselves in a situation where Israel and Jordan are surrounded by Iranian supporters, Shiite militias and many others, yet this will only be the first phase,” he said. “In the second phase, they will create a war of attrition against Israel and create a second Lebanon on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights; meaning, we will have one front from the Mediterranean to the Jordanian border.”
Galant suggested that these phases are only the beginning; Iranian intentions may put Israel in an even more compromising position along its longest, eastern border. “I am sure they are thinking about the next phase, which will be how to collapse Jordan and create another front of 400 kilometers against Israel,” he said.
Nevertheless, he affirmed, “Israel will not allow the creation of an Iranian Shiite military in Syria,” noting that it “cannot accept a second front in the Golan Heights, and we cannot allow the Iranians to have a launch pad in Syria so they can transfer weapons of mass destruction and ruin the equilibrium we have in the Middle East between us and our neighbors.”
‘Russian is not the enemy of Israel’
Galant also noted that the presence of Russia in Syria presents delicate contradictions for Israel.
“For now, the Russians are using the Iranians and militias, including Hezbollah, as boots on the ground,” he said, explaining that Russia seeks an increased presence along the Mediterranean for shipping and its navy. “Yet when the [Syrian civil] war will be over, they will be competitors. Therefore, I believe the Russians don’t want the Iranians to be part of the control of Syria” after the civil war.
Despite the fact that Russia is seemingly working with Iran in Syria, Galant said Israel does not consider Russia to be an enemy, like many other members of the international community.
“There is an independent Russian interest to secure the western side of Syria. We understand it. We talk to the Russians; they talk to us,” Galant told JNS. “We respect the Russians. We believe that Russia is not the enemy of Israel. We are close allies. We should use the upsides of their presence and try to avoid the downsides of their presence.
“When a superpower is here, it gives a dimension of stabilization to the situation,” he continued, noting that Russia can help keep Israel out of the Syrian conflict by preventing escalations. “War between Israel and Hezbollah does not serve Russia’s interests, and they can use their influence.”
Galant explained that while Russia is involved and Israel “is on the frontlines,” the problem of Iranian aggression does not belong only to Israel. “This is a problem of the free world,” he said.
“No one would like the Iranians to stay permanently in Syria,” said Galant. “The Sunni world is very worried about this situation. The Europeans don’t like the idea of 2 million Allawites and Shiites pushing Sunni [refugees] towards Europe. That is what will happen if there will be Allawite/Shiite control” at the end of Syria’s brutal civil war.
“Israel and the United States understand the situation very well,” though Galant noted that this wasn’t always the case. He called the previous administration of President Barack Obama “a deviation in the traditional American course.”
“But I believe that right now, under the current administration, common sense has brought America back on course,” Galant said, adding that his message for the international community as the United States reconsiders its participation in the Iran nuclear deal is that “Iran is not the solution, Iran is the problem.”
“There should be a major diplomatic effort,” aid Galant, “to push the Iranians back to Iran and to stabilize the region.”
Iranian drone: ‘The tip of the iceberg’
He said the first step towards turning back Iranian aggressions is to cancel the deal, breaking course from Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz, who recently stated that it could be repaired. Then, he said, sanctions should be imposed.
He cautiously acknowledged that the cancelation of the deal could lead to confrontation between Iran and the United States, and that Israel recognizes that it may stand in the crosshairs.
“We remember what happened here in 1991,” he said. “[U.S. Gen. Norman] Schwarzkopf is taking Iraq, and Iraq is shooting 40 missiles at Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. They look at us as part of the USA, the 51st state. The Israeli imperative is to be ready to deter our enemies.”
Galant insisted that no matter what’s coming, Israel will be ready, noting that “the penetration a few weeks ago of an Iranian drone into Israel is only the tip of the iceberg.”
“We are a very powerful country—economically, technologically, militarily, and on the intelligence and cyber side,” he stated. “We don’t like to demonstrate our capabilities, but we cannot allow the Iranians to get to a superior position in Syria and to gain a position during the coming events.”