The situation along the Gaza Strip border is all about containment. It appears that every time some kind of truce deal is about to be finalized, things abruptly escalate and both sides suddenly find themselves on the verge of a large confrontation, with Israeli troops entering the Gaza Strip and rockets hitting central Israel.
Israel and Hamas are not the only players that are bracing for a possible conflagration. Over in Tehran, the ayatollahs know that renewed hostilities would help distract the world’s (and Israel’s) attention from their regional aggression.
Things are not easy for Iran as of late. Renewed U.S. sanctions have crippled the economy and led to unprecedented discontent. The Iranian people want their rulers to use the country’s wealth domestically rather than let the Iranian Revolutionary Guards squander it on misadventures in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. The regime is particularly concerned that Washington would join Israel in attacking its regional assets, particularly in Syria.
Over the past several days, Iranian officials have been upbeat because of signs that the regional coalition built by Jerusalem and Washington may be unraveling.
Just over a year ago, U.S. President Donald Trump made a historic visit in Saudi Arabia, during which he announced the creation of a pan-Arab Sunni alliance against Iran. Israel was to play a behind-the-scenes role in this coalition, with Riyadh being its linchpin.
But the Sunni Arab pact has fallen apart quickly. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have caused regional turbulence in the Gulf by picking a fight over regional prestige. This has spiraled out of control and has effectively undone the united front against the Iranians. Turkey, who was to play a role in this alliance, has found itself trading barbs with Saudi Arabia over the latter’s involvement in the death (and likely execution) of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s anti-Saudi rhetoric cannot be attributed to his commitment to a free press (a concept that has long been discarded under his regime). It is his way of expressing outrage over having Turkish sovereignty infringed, and could be a way to do some score-settling with Riyadh for being cozy with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, who are not his cup of tea.
Israel, which is an important actor in any anti-Iranian front, has found itself busy with its own crisis vis-à-vis Hamas and has been dragged into an unwanted conflagration because of intra-Palestinian strife.
No wonder, then, that the Iranians feel giddy now. But they are more than just giddy. Just last week it was reported that Iran has increased its weapons shipments to Hezbollah, which include guidance components to upgrade the organization’s rockets.
Iran has also taken advantage of the constraints on Israel in the wake of Russia’s decision to bolster Syria’s air defense. Russia has supplied Syria with advanced S-300 air-defense systems and has recently handed over other sophisticated systems. Russian President Vladimir Putin has even said that Iran’s future in Syria was none of his concern. Perhaps Israel’s window of opportunity in Syria is about to close.
The only positive development is that Washington has recently announced a new strategy aimed at driving Iran out of Iraq and Syria. This is a welcome change in U.S. policy, but it appears that the strategy is based on economic warfare, which has a very limited effect with concrete measures on the ground.
The United States must put out the fire that has spread in the region and engulfed its regional allies, it must save Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from himself and make the Khashoggi affair go away, lest the kingdom lose its regional and international stature. On top of that, America must also take action on the ground rather than just talk about Iran’s presence in the region.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.