In his speech last week at the Munich Security Conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that the risk of war with Israel was greater than ever.
This remark shouldn’t be taken lightly, even when it comes from a position of weakness and distress. After all, Zarif launched his warning, or threat rather, amid the backdrop of Iran’s severe economic crisis, and it is part of Tehran’s efforts to exacerbate the growing rift between Europe and the Trump administration over the international community’s approach to the Iranian threat.
Europe, as we know, believes in conciliation (of course, only when it comes to international dictators), while the Americans want to amplify the pressure—strictly economic for now—on Iran.
Furthermore, we should note that Zarif, along with his boss, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, are not in the inner circle of Iran’s true decision makers when it comes to the country’s national security, foreign subversion and terrorist efforts. These questions are discussed and answered by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, together with the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who do as they please without heeding Rouhani or his foreign minister. It could very well be that Zarif, perhaps fearing the direction things are going, is actually warning the international community about the intentions of his superiors.
Either way, it appears that Washington’s pressure on Iran is working, to the chagrin of Europe. In Syria, the Iranians are temporarily pulling their forces away from the Israeli border, although they have not conceded their strategic goal of establishing a foothold there and turning the war-torn country into a forward base of operations against Israel.
In Lebanon, too, Iran’s local client, Hezbollah, has seen better days. The economic crisis in Iran is eroding support for the organization even among Shi’ites. Regardless, they don’t want another war with Israel that is sure to be just as devastating, or even more so, than the previous one. In his recent speeches, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has looked like someone whose prime has passed. It isn’t surprising that Israeli journalists are the only one paying attention to him anymore, and even they are dubious about his performances. Indeed, even Nasrallah can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but he cannot fool all of the people all the time.
The only arena where there is a real concern of violence or even conflagration is the Gaza frontier. The Israel Defense Forces, it was reported last week, believes that Hamas could ignite the flames along the border and beyond, in an effort to improve its negotiating position and perhaps spur international intervention forcing Israel to allow money and other aid into Gaza. The resurgence of border riots and the recent trickle of rockets from Gaza into Israel are a testament to this assessment.
It appears that the understandings, reached on the basis of allowing Qatari cash into Gaza, have rather crumbled and failed to facilitate peace and quiet. While protection money can buy temporary quiet, it always awakens the appetite for more money.
In this case, too, Hamas is speaking but Iran is pulling the strings. Hamas has good reasons to spark flames, even at a low intensity, because it wants to improve its negotiating position. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, on the other hand, is fanning the flames under the encouragement and perhaps even orders of Tehran. This terrorist organization has chosen to put its fate in Iran’s hands, which isn’t only uncustomary in the Palestinian arena but the entire Sunni world.
The Palestinian Authority feared confronting Hamas back in the day, for which it lost control of Gaza. Hamas, too, could come to learn that its attempts to dance at two weddings—on the one hand to reach understandings with Israel and on the other to escalate tensions along the border, either on its own or through Islamic Jihad—will only strengthen the rival group and make it a far more significant force; perhaps one that could even compete with Hamas.
Consequently, it appears that we will not have peace and quiet on the Gaza border. The coming months, before Israel’s general election in early April and after, will continue to see rising tensions, outbreaks of violence and concerns of an impending all-out conflagration.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.