Ahmed Khalfa's Blog

Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Full Confrontation between Iran and Israel Could Turn into Reality

November 28, 2023

The new round of the Palestine-Israel conflict is a deja vue for the people and elites in the Middle East, not only for the level of hatred and bloodshed that the region is witnessing but also for the possible coming not-very-distant future consequences in the Middle East. History often repeats itself when the same objective cause that led to the events in the first place are still present. Therefore, instead of providing ready arguments, it is better to show the bigger picture.


Source: Reuters

The defeat of the five Arab armies against a small but well-equipped and trained Israeli army has changed not only the Middle Eastern map but also the nature of the Middle Eastern regional politics. The Arab armies’ defeat caused a large portion of the Arabs to perceive that the humiliation which the Arab nation was living, from the European domination of the Arabs to the loss of Jerusalem, was due to the corrupted Arab elites who failed to protect the freedom of its people and the past glory of their nation. The loss of Palestine thus led to two opposite reactions: a revolutionary nationalist response led by the pan-Arabists and a pan-Islamist response led by the Islamists. The first explosion was, however, in Egypt. A series of terrorist attacks led by the Muslim Brotherhood1 against the Egyptian elites turned Egypt into the first arena of the clash between the old guards and an Islamist movement. It was muted only after the assassination of the Hasan el Banna (the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood) by the Egyptian government in 1949. In 1952, however, a group of young officers effected a military coup in Egypt and legitimized their rule by adopting a pan-Arabist revolutionary regime and calling for the fight against Zionism and imperialism. Since the consolidation of the Egyptian regime in 1956 and the rise of Nasser as an Arab hero, Palestine turned a pretext to launch offensive propaganda by the Egyptian regime to delegitimize the Arab elites who did not accept that the Egypt of Nasser emerged as a de facto hegemon of the Arab system. Indeed, the Kings of Jordan, Libya, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia and the Tunisian president were labeled by Nasser as traitors; he claimed that they should be overthrown by the Arab masses. Nasser was the first Arab leader who understood how to manipulate Arab public opinion and gain significant influence in the region by using the liberation of Palestine as a political slogan. Nevertheless, legitimizing his domestic regime through the slogan of resistance against Zionism and using Palestine as an instrument to penetrate Arab societies, turned out to be not without costs for the Nasser’s regime. Thus, after the series of limited confrontations between the Arab states and Israelis due to Israeli’s diversion of water from the Jordan River, Nasser—aware of his inability to wage a full military confrontation against Israel—was under deep pressure from the hawkish Syria regime and Arab public opinion. Nasser tried to restrain the Syrians by forming an alliance with the latter in 1966 and save his image, closing the straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba from the Israeli ships and asking the United Nations to remove its troops from the Sinai. Nasser thought that by making these moves he would both save his image and avoid a military confrontation with Israel. Israel, however, launched a preventive war on Nasser and destroyed his army in less than a week, taking Sinai from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Western Bank from Jordan. Indeed, while Nasser thought he would be able to make a limited political confrontation and control the political scene, it turned out to be a disaster not only for Egypt but for the whole Arab nation.

The current situation is quite like that of the period mentioned above. The Palestinians are still living under the oppressive Israeli regime, and Palestine is still enjoying a special place in the collective memory of the Arab societies. By the same token, the Palestinian question is still used as a moral justification by the Middle Eastern regimes to legitimize their foreign policy in the region and penetrate the Arab societies albeit in this era, Iran and its regional allies under the so-called the axis of resistance took the place of Egypt of Nasser. Indeed, since the establishment of the US hegemony in the Middle East in 1991, Iran was under a grave risk of regional isolation. Indeed, the Israel lobby has invested heavily in Washington to manipulate the US foreign policy in the Middle East to isolate and encircle Tehran. Although Iran opened its airspace to the US Air Force in Operation Desert Storm and denied Iraq’s requests for support, the Clinton administration, in order to appease the Israeli lobby in Washington and provide carrots to the Israeli government to make concessions to the Palestinians, ‘thanked’ Iran with economic sanctions and support for the Iranian opposition abroad under the slogan of dual containment.

To break from the isolation, the Iranians have changed their resistance to Israel from rhetoric to action. Indeed, Palestine became for Tehran the main door to penetrate Arab societies and spread its influence in the region by aiding Hamas in Palestine. By the same token, from 2004, the Arab Sunni elites started voicing their fear of a Shia crescent led by Iran in the region and the media controlled by the Sunni Arab regimes raised the alarm of the danger of an encirclement of the Arab regimes especially the Gulf monarchies by Iranian proxies in the region. Iran has adopted the narrative of the axis of resistance and took advantage of its assistance and cooperative relations with the Sunni Palestnian and Hamas to justify its resistance rhetoric in the eyes of the Arab societies. Indeed, Iran with its regional allies in the region from Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, and to a lesser extent the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad legitimized their domestic rule and foreign policy under the slogan of resistance against Zionism and American imperialism in the region.

The barbaric military operation of Israel in Gaza, which led to the death of more than 9000 Palestinian civilians, more than half of them children, could shortly lead to an all-out war in the Middle East between Israel on the one hand and Iran and its militia in Iraq and Syria and its Hezbollah proxy on the other. Of course, the Iranian elites could only strive to avoid being entrapped in a full confrontation with Israel. This could lead to considerable disaster in human and financial costs for the Iranians and maybe even to the fall of its regime. However, Iranian officials have raised fears about the impact of the Israeli operation in Gaza on the Iranian influence in the region if Iran failed to react. Thus, while Iranian officials have claimed that any full military confrontation with Israel would make Iran suffer enormous costs, staying on the sideline, they argued rightly, would delegitimize the Iranian position in the region and its foreign policy in the region By the same token, the Sunni Arab regimes, mainly Saudi Arabia, have waged a sophisticated offensive criticism through its government-controlled media, especially on Hezbollah by criticizing their reactions to the Israelis massacre and, to a lesser extent, on Iran by criticizing the Iranian pragmatism on the ongoing conflict.

This is why Iran adopted a similar strategy to that of Nasser in the period between 1965-1967; making limited political maneuvers to save its image in the region and trying, at the same time, to avoid falling into a full confrontation with Israel. Thus, since the start of the Israeli military operation in Gaza, Iran launched a series of official public warnings to Israel and warned the latter not to cross Iran’s red lines. Tehran also asked the Arab and Islamic governments to cut food, oil, and gas supply to Israel. Even more dangerous, Iran gave the green light to Hezbollah, its more loyal and linked organization in the region to make limited military operations against Israel. Furthermore, Hassan Nasrallah made a public statement to his Lebanon and Arab audience and while he praised the Palestinian resistance and claimed that Hezbollah had entered a “confrontation” with Israel just 24 hours after the Hamas military offensive on 7 October, Iran and its regional allies in the region, he claimed, are not responsible for the Hamas’s military operation into Israel on 7 October. Indeed, Hasan Nasrallah, while he praised Iran for its support for the Palestinian resistance, nevertheless, tried to save the image of his Iranian patrons, by claiming that Iran does not control Hamas and thus tacitly, he is trying to convince the Arab states that Iran is not in full obligation to defend Gaza. Indeed, Hasan Nasrallah’s argument could not be easily negated. Unlike Nassralah who gained his position as a leader of Hezbollah thanks to Iranian support and claimed allegiance to the supreme leader of Iran on several occasions, Hamas’s relations with Tehran are based on their interests in the region. Thus, it was fully understandable that Hamas and Tehran relations reached their lowest level after Hamas sided with Turkey against Bashar Assad in Syria (the close ally of Tehran in the region). Israel and the United States, unlike any military operations launched by Hezbollah, could find the Iranian claims that Iran is not responsible for the Hamas operation on 7 October as sincere. However, the Israeli military and intelligence are still suffering from the heavy shock of the surprising attack of Hamas, and with a high level of deep security concerns of the Israeli elites’ perception, Israel could nevertheless put a full military offensive by Hezbollah on Isreal as a possible scenario. Thus, because prevention/preemption has always been a part of Israel’s military doctrine, a surprise full military operation by Israel to destroy Hezbollah is not a remote possibility. By the same token, Israel could take advantage of the American and European full political and military support and use Hezbollah limited strikes and Iranian offensive statements as a pretext to destroy Hezbollah once and for all as it tried to do in 2006 when the Bush administration gave a green light to Ehud Olmert’s government. Also, by taking advantage of the growing presence of the US military in the region and again using the pretext of the Iranian threat, Israel could be tempted to launch air strike attacks on Iran's nuclear reactors and turn the US into doing the job of deterring Iran from making “any foolish response”. Last but not least, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government could perceive that by fully destroying the Palestinian resistance in Gaza, destroying Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iranian nuclear project could save his image in the Israel public opinion and thus assure the survival of his government.

Thus, although Iran could only strive to limit political maneuvers by limited military offensive operations launched by Hezbollah joined by offensive public statements, Israel's full attack on southern Lebanon is not impossible. Furthermore, unlike Gaza, the destruction of Hezbollah for Iran is a real disaster from the Iranian strategic position in the region and its image in the region. By the same token, Hezbollah is fully integrated into the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and thus the Iranian government could even be unable to restrain the Iranian Revolutionary Guard from reacting even if it was willing to avoid confrontation. Indeed, in the past, the governments of Rafsanjani and Khatami turned unable to restrain the Revolutionary Guard and the hawkish part of the Iranian regime in the Khobar Towers bombing and karine missile scandals, and the position of the Revolutionary Guard is even more powerful today with the Raisi government.

To sum up, the risk of a full military confrontation between Israel and Iran with its proxies in the region is really high especially if the United States would not restrain Israel in Gaza. Even more dangerous would be attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian nuclear reactors. Israel and Iran could see that a full military confrontation must be avoided but wishful thinking, miscalculations, perceptions, and domestic politics could make them nevertheless entrapped in a full-out war.

[1] Designated as terrorist and banned in Russia.
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