It is doubtful that officials in Tehran feel like popping open a bottle of champagne following reports the Americans called off a retaliatory military strike at the last minute. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision not to respond to the downing of an American drone last week with military force does not appear to be due to fear of a conflict, but rather as an attempt to offer Iran another opportunity to avoid one.
Iran, whose economy is beginning to feel the pain of economic sanctions, is looking for a way to end the siege. After having its hopes dashed that European countries, together with Russia and China, would save it, Tehran took the familiar route: terrorism. First, in the hope of raising insurance premiums and oil prices, it attacked oil tankers. Later, it aimed to send a clear message to the Americans by way of downing an advanced drone estimated to cost some $120 million.
It seems these moves were less a battle cry and more a cry for help. While Washington, as of Saturday, has chosen not to respond with war, it has also not surrendered on the issue of economic pressure on Iran. Trump has made it clear to Iran that “it’s my way or the highway.” There will be no compromises on the 12 U.S. demands Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said Iran would need to meet in order for sanctions to be lifted.
Iran does not appear poised to give up at this stage. All the experts agree that Tehran will continue with its favorite policy of walking on the razor’s edge, meaning more attempts to attack, more signaling and more action.
It could be that in the next stage, Iran will move from activity in the Persian Gulf against tankers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to acting against additional targets—including Israel.
From Tehran’s standpoint, there are four ways to strike: from Syria, from Lebanon, from the Gaza Strip, against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world, or a combination of these scenarios.
The fourth scenario, which would see Iran strike Israeli or Jewish targets around the world, is the least likely at this stage because it is doubtful Iran wants to start trouble with additional countries. The Syria scenario would be relatively convenient from Israel’s perspective, as the Israel Defense Forces has total aerial superiority in the arena after years of intensive activities against Iranian targets in the north.
The second and third scenarios, however, are more complicated. The more likely option of these two would see Iran act from Gaza. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad has already proven its ability to go wild out of nowhere over the past year.
Although unlikely, the most dangerous option is the Lebanese one. Despite Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s threats, Hezbollah would be less than enthusiastic about getting dragged into conflict—the outcome of which no one could predict.
And yet, this complicated state of affairs obligates Israel to ensure it is prepared for such scenarios. The massive IDF exercise this week, which focused on fighting on several fronts, was aimed at sending exactly that message: Israel is ready. It does not intend to initiate a conflict, but if challenged, it will respond.
The situation will be given even clearer public expression at the unprecedented meeting of American, Russian and Israel national security advisers in Jerusalem this week. A solution to the situation in Syria will not be found there, but the very assembly of Americans and Russians in Jerusalem, under Israeli auspices, is a clear sign to Tehran as to just who the good guys and the bad guys are in this story. With the Bahrain conference in the background, Iran will likely opt to take a deep breath and wait a little longer before taking action once again.
Even those with a wealth of foresight are now finding it difficult to predict how this story will end—whether in dialogue or in an exchange of blows that precedes a dialogue, or in another way entirely. What is certain is that we are not even close to the beginning of the end of tensions in the Gulf. With things as they look right now, we’re not even at the end of the beginning.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This column first appeared in Israel Hayom.