EXPLAINER: The Stakes Are Bigger Than You Think In A War With Iran

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With more missile strikes overnight, the United States and to a lesser extent Israel are leading the charge against Iran in the Middle East. Michael Brull explains why a war with Iran would be a very bad idea.

At time of writing, it is Thursday. Israel has just bombed targets in Syria – again. It seems things might quieten down for now. However, as the threat of war involving Iran is increasing, it is worth recording what happened, and some of the context.

Israel launched a large-scale attack on targets in Syria early on Thursday morning. According to Ha’aretz, which often serves as stenographer to the Israeli military, “The Israeli military stated that the retaliatory attack it carried out against Iranian forces early Thursday morning was the most extensive one it has set out on in decades.” It reportedly hit targets “deep within Syria”. Israel claimed it targeted Iran’s al Quds force and the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Those Iranian forces are in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Assad has been waging a brutal counter-insurgency against an uprising which originated with Syrian citizens, but later included insurgents who travelled around the world. The insurgency received support from the West, and wealthy Gulf Arab countries, such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Assad’s government was sustained through support from the governments of Iran and Russia. Assad has also received support from the Lebanese Shi’a militia, Hezbollah.

The Israeli army claims that its attack was in response to 20 rockets fired at Israeli forces in the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights are Syrian territory, that Israel conquered and has occupied since the war in 1967. In 1981, the first right-wing Israeli Likud government of Menachem Begin purportedly annexed the Golan Heights. The rest of the world rejected this annexation, and this position was upheld in the unanimously adopted United Nations Security Council Resolution 497. That is, the rockets were fired at Israeli forces in Syrian territory.

Ha’aretz reported that according to the Israeli army, “none of the rockets fired at Israel actually hit Israeli territory: four were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system and the rest landed in Syrian territory.” This is misleading – even if they had landed in the Golan, that too would be Syrian territory. However, it should be noted that there is limited evidence at this point that rockets actually were fired at Israeli forces, let alone that Iranian forces were responsible for those rockets. It is also not clear what kind of targets Israel struck in Syria at this point. Whilst Israel is currently claiming it hit Iranian targets, this might also be false.

Israeli forces pictured in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights in 2012. (Israel Defense Forces, Flickr)

That is, at this point in time, the sequence of events is something like this. Israel bombed Syria on Tuesday, and again on Thursday. Syria or Iran retaliated, by firing at Israeli forces in the occupied Golan Heights. Israel responded by striking Syria again.

The Syrian government claimed that Israel struck a radar system, a weapons storage facility, and other targets connected to its military, such as a military base south of Damascus. Leith Aboufadel, a Syrian journalist sympathetic to the Syrian government, has said that Syria retaliated against Israeli bombing. He has also claimed that Iran participated in these “retaliatory” strikes.

 

Israel’s history of bullying

Israel has openly postured as the bully it wishes to be. The army’s spokesperson for Arabic media said “the Israeli air force is currently attacking Iranian targets in Syria. Any Syrian attempt to respond will be met with a tough Israeli reaction.” As the Spectator put it (this was not intended as satire): “BREAKING: Israeli military says Syrian regime will face dire consequences if it responds to Israeli attacks”.

Israel’s relations with the Ba’athist Syrian government have been complex. In 1976, Syria (under Hafez al-Assad, the father of the present dictator) invaded Lebanon, to prevent the civil war being won by the leftist-Palestinian coalition. It did so with the blessing of Israel, though it insisted that Syria could not travel south of a particular line in Syria. However, Syria did not support the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel, and went on to support Hezbollah, which drove Israel out of Lebanon (except for the Sheb’a Farms, which Israel claims are Syrian).

Hezbollah was founded in response to the Israeli 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Hezbollah’s guerrilla warfare successfully drove Israel out of South Lebanon in 2000. Israel then launched a brutal war in 2006 to try to teach Hezbollah a lesson. Alas, Israel’s military gains were negligible, and the military costs were strangely equitable (about 120 dead Israeli soldiers, as opposed to some 250 Hezbollah fighters). This embarrassing result for Israel, which has prided itself on its military being mighty, led to a commission of inquiry (the Winograd Commission), and within a few years the government of Ehud Olmert fell.

Since then, Israel has generally limited displays of military strength to bombing Gaza, whose population is comparatively defenceless.

Israel thus resents Syria for supporting its nemesis in Lebanon, and likewise resents Iran. This is not to say that Israel wants to overthrow Assad. However, it seems clear that Israel wanted the civil war in Syria to drag on, so that the government could be weakened. There have been various media reports of Israel supporting Syrian insurgents, such as by treating them in hospitals. Israel has also repeatedly bombed Syria, targeting the military forces of the Syrian government.

For example, in February, Israel bombed Syria. It claimed an Iranian drone had entered Israeli airspace, and this was retaliation. Israel sent in 8 Israeli planes, and one of them, an F-16 was shot down. To punish Syria for defending its airspace, Israel launched a second air raid. It claimed to hit 12 Iranian and Syrian government linked targets.

Israeli fighters training in the occupied Golan Heights in 2015. (IMAGE: Israel Defense Forces, Flickr)

Nevertheless, from Israel’s perspective, even one fighter jet being shot down came as a shock. This sparked what was – until today – the biggest Israeli bombing raid on Syria in decades. Like any country, Syria harboured serious resentment for the country that had once again bombed it, violating its airspace with impunity, and the continued military support of much of the West.

It is not clear how many times Israel has violated Syrian air-space since the 2011 uprising began. We know how often Israel violates Lebanese air space, because UNIFIL has monitored the border since 2006. According to David Morrison, they found that “in the four-month period from 1 July to 30 October 2017, Israel violated Lebanon’s airspace 758 times for a total of 3,188 hours.” This is a more or less typical sample of Israeli behaviour.

 

Iran and Israel

In March, Syria complained to the UN about more Israeli airstrikes. Particularly ominously, Israel bombed Syria again in April. On that occasion, it struck the T4 air base, connected to Iranian forces. Israel allegedly killed 14 people, including Iranians. Israel at the time refused to comment, though Russia blamed Israel, claiming it fired eight missiles. T4 is not close to the border – Israel had to penetrate deeply into Syrian airspace to bomb it.

On 13 April, the Secretary General of Hezbollah gave a speech responding to the airstrike. Hassan Nasrallah blamed Israel for killing seven Iranians, stressing that this was the first time Israel admitted to deliberately targeting and killing Iranians. Nasrallah said this was a “historic turning point”, which would bring Israel directly into conflict with Iran. Nasrallah, unlike most political leaders in the region and elsewhere, is not known for empty bluffs.

Aside from the major strikes on Syria on Thursday, Israel also bombed Syria on Tuesday. Israel reportedly killed 15 people, including another eight Iranians. As reported in Ha’aretz, the Israeli military “said any Iranian strike against Israel will be met with a severe response, even as the working assumption is that Iran is has limited capabilities to engage in conflict with Israel.” That is: Israel is determined to regularly bomb Syrian and Iranian forces, and has also threatened severe retaliation against both if they retaliate. It has also launched a major bombing raid to punish Syria for shooting down planes that were bombing it.

Israel’s relations with Iran are complex, and are well summarised in the excellent book Treacherous Alliance by Trita Parsi. In 1953, the popular secular nationalist government of Iran was overthrown in a joint coup backed by the US and the UK. They installed a repressive autocrat, the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He was groomed to be one of the US’s cops in the region to police oppositional elements, who were then typically secular and leftist.

The secret police of the Shah, SAVAK, were trained by the US and Israel. When the repressive dictatorship was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the US and Israel quickly featured as popular demons of the new government. They were respectively identified as the Big Satan and Little Satan.

Upset at losing control over Iran’s rich oil resources, the US backed the war on Iran by a little known Ba’athist dictator at the time called Saddam Hussein. Donald Rumsfeld was pictured on a friendly visit with Saddam in 1982. Cooperation with the Iraqi war effort was extensive, including covering for Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran. This did not endear the US to Iran, given that they lost hundreds of thousands of people in the war.

Former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, moments before his execution in December 2006.

Nevertheless, in addition to the war, Iran faced isolation for decades, at the hands of the West and its client states in the region. Interestingly, when Iran’s rhetoric was most hostile to Israel in the 1980s, Israel was covertly selling its military arms under what was called the Iran-Contra scandal.

Due to this isolation, Iran responded by developing supportive relations with a few allies. These were the Syrian government, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a few Palestinian groups, such as Hamas. Ties with Hamas were strained with the governments of Syria and Iran once the uprising began in 2011, but Hamas has at least restored its ties with Iran in the last few years.

Iran’s greatest achievement in ending its diplomatic isolation came with the agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, reached with the European Union, China, France, Russia, the US, the UK and Germany. This effectively introduced the chance of normalising and legitimising the Iranian government internationally, and restoring ordinary trade and other ties with countries around the world.

 

Why would Syria or Iran attack Israeli forces now

The complex web of relations of these countries and Hezbollah is important to stress, because when Israel bombed Syria, each has its own interests, backers, and reasons to react in a particular way.

The Syrian government has been beleaguered fighting the civil war since 2011. Syria specialists argued that once it successfully conquered Aleppo in 2016, Assad’s rule was secured. Supporters of the insurgents began to back off, and no longer expected to overthrow his government. When Assad’s reign was imperilled, the Syrian military let Israeli strikes slide by, with the government issuing vague rhetoric about one day striking back. Israel correctly interpreted this as the empty bluff of a government in no position to defend its sovereign territory.

Now, the Syrian government is in a stronger position. If Syria was the party that fired rockets at Israeli forces, that is not the whole story of why it did so. It still depends on its major backers, and their roles and interests must also be considered.

One explanation would relate to Trump this week tearing up JCPOA, the international agreement with Iran struck by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Iran is a weaker country, which cannot dominate international affairs in the ways that Trump can. However, it does have many options for striking back, which the US government has been considering since the election of Trump.

For example, Iran has played a crucial role in the defeat of ISIS, and is a major ally of the Iraqi government. Iran has mostly cooperated with the US in Iraq, but it is conceivable that it could pressure the Iraqi government to turn on US interests.

Iran is also a supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah. When the US was signed up to JCPOA, Iran had every reason to safeguard regional security, and not give its enemies the slightest pretext to rip up the deal. Now, it could extend its support for these groups, and even encourage them to engage in military confrontations with Israel. Such actions on the part of Hamas would be extremely counter-productive – even suicidal – given current conditions in Gaza, and the success of the mass non-violent demonstrations. Indeed, this may be one of the major motivations of the Israeli action. Israel has said that it doesn’t “do Gandhi very well”. If it can force the Palestinians to abandon non-violent resistance, it will be far more comfortable confronting Hamas on the military battleground.

Thus, Israeli attacks on Syria can be viewed as provocations, to cause a conflagration that can distract from the situation in Gaza. On 6 May, Israel bombed Gaza, killing 6 Palestinians, linked to Hamas. Norman Finkelstein argued the provocation was intended to cause a violent act, that could be used to justify large-scale Israeli “retaliation”.

new matilda, syria
A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo August 7, 2012. (IMAGE: GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS, Flickr.)

The bombing of Syria on Tuesday, 8 May, was linked to the US ripping up JCPOA. As Time Magazine reported in its headline, “Israel Attacked Syria an Hour After the Iran Deal Was Ended”. Again, as Finkelstein argued, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has traditionally argued that Israel should capitalise on world events to inflict military assaults on the Palestinians. He supported expelling the Palestinians during the Tiananmen Square massacres in China, and invaded Gaza in 2014 when the Malaysian airliner was shot down.

On the night Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, Israel launched a military raid on Gaza, causing a breakdown of the ceasefire, leading to the war of 2008-9. Thus, there is good reason to think that Israel is intentionally trying to cause and escalate military conflict around the breakdown of JCPOA, for the at least partial reason of sabotaging non-violent demonstrations in Gaza.

Iran could also encourage Syria to retaliate against Israel, which may be what happened. Assad isn’t in a position to engage in all-out war with Israel, given that he is still doing his best to reconquer the remaining pockets of Syria in insurgent hands. However, it may be that it shores up his supposed credentials as a “resistance” leader to Israel if he fired a few rockets at the Golan Heights. He would be determined to prevent this kind of thing escalating too far. However, it would also signal from Iran’s part that if the US abandons its obligations, Iran can retaliate through various regional actors.

Interestingly, shortly before the attack, Israel met with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. It seems that Putin gave Israel a green light for its actions. Netanyahu has publicly claimed that he told Putin of his intent to “defend” itself from Iranian aggression in Syria.

Putin has defended the Syrian government against insurgents for years, particularly in the form of direct military intervention in 2015. Thus, if Putin did green light an attack, it would have been on the understanding that it was to be a limited attack, rather than a prelude to a large-scale conflagration.

It is hard to imagine that Netanyahu would have met with Putin, discussed bombing Syria, and then defied Putin, given the stakes involved.

In the short term, it seems likely that Israel’s attacks themselves won’t escalate to a larger war. But it can serve as justification for that in the future. In particular, arguing that Iran is an aggressor, that it attacked Israel, and that its forces being based in Syria is unacceptable may serve as a justification for confronting Iran, that it is a rogue actor, and so on.

If Syria fired rockets at Israel at Iran’s behest, that would be a relatively mild form of retaliation from Iran, given its options. And if Iran was responsible, it would be in response to numerous attacks on its forces by Israel, including strikes that have killed Iranians. Firing rockets that harmed no one, into occupied Syrian territory might be considered a somewhat restrained response. It gives a sense of international order, and the kind of standards that are applied to Iran that this is an international crisis, but routine Israeli aggression is not.

 

War with Iran is an extremely bad idea

This is important to stress, because Iran has other ways to retaliate. Ways that could cause significant international repercussions. I will simply make two points here: Hormuz, and the Millennium Challenge 2002.

The US Energy Information Administration observed that “The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important chokepoint”.

“The Strait of Hormuz connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, and in 2015 its daily flow of oil accounted for 30% of all seaborne-traded crude oil and other liquids. More than 30% of global liquefied natural gas trade also transited the Strait of Hormuz in 2016. At its narrowest point, the Strait of Hormuz is 21 miles wide, but the width of the shipping lane in either direction is only two miles wide, separated by a two-mile buffer zone.”

As noted in Forbes, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates “ship their oil to external markets” through the Straits of Hormuz. Iran and Saudi Arabia have other options. That means almost a third of the world’s oil supply would be shut down if it was closed or blocked by Iran. The shipping lane is only two miles wide.

Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, and has various means to do this, such as mines and submarines. Such threats have been unenforced, because the retaliation against Iran would be massive. The US Navy said openly that closing the strait is unacceptable, and “vital to regional and global prosperity… any disruption will not be tolerated”. Given the scale of the oil flow involved, even if Iran claimed it had mined the strait, the global economic repercussions would be significant. Con Coughlin notes that, “Any hint of military confrontation could see oil prices soar by 50 per cent within the space of a few days, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the world’s leading developed economies”.

Let me stress this: if the West goes to war with Iran, the economic repercussions alone will be enormous. We are already seeing increased dissatisfaction with the status quo and the rise of extremists in countries like Greece, France, and Hungary. A worldwide recession, caused by Trump, eagerly backed by the Israeli government could destabilise Western democracies in ways we haven’t seen for almost a hundred years.

In 2002, the US military launched a war game called Millennium Challenge 2002. This was no small thing – it cost $250 million to simulate what would happen if there was a military conflict pitting the US military (“Blue Team”) against an unnamed military adversary in the Persian Gulf in 2007, an adversary that Nicholas Kristof observed was Iran.

Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper commanded the Red Team. Using unconventional war tactics, he almost instantly “sunk my damn navy”, as the commander of the Blue Team complained. Riper noted that, “The whole thing was over in 5, maybe 10 minutes.” As the simulation had become such a humiliation, it was rigged. The ships that had sunk were refloated, Red Team was forbidden from shooting down transport aircraft, its air defence assets had to be positioned in the open, and so on. The point of the exercise was now for the Blue Team to win. Riper stepped down from his role.

A 752-page report on what happened was classified for 10 years, presumably to avoid the humiliation of the US military in the simulation at the hands of Iran.

It turned out, war with Iran wasn’t such a good idea. That was before the US got bogged down in its disastrous war in Iraq, which destabilised the region. That was before the US spent some 17 years trying unsuccessfully to defeat an insurgency in Afghanistan.

Thus, though the US has threatened Iran with war in various ways for the last 15 years, it has also known that such a war would not be the “cakewalk” sober US experts claimed Iraq would be. If war with Iran is a stupid idea for the US, it is even less of an option for Israel.

 

Israel vs Iran

Israel has the option of bombing Iranian targets in Syria, though it has to be careful not to target Russians, and can only act in coordination with Russia, and no further than the US permits. But it mostly has the power to stir, rather than a direct military option against Iran.

Israel’s army has mostly engaged in oppressing and bombing besieged populations under occupation. It hasn’t fought a conventional war in decades. The last time it fought a well-trained militia, it was humiliated. The danger of a war fought in Syria is that Israel would be prevented from the kind of large-scale destruction it has relied on, in lieu of engaging its incompetent and cowardly ground forces. Hence, Israel’s threats and autonomy to act in Syria should not be overstated.

If war with Iran will come, it will come from the US. By a government stupid enough to forget Millennium Challenge 2002, too arrogant to realise the many risks and complexities such a war would entail, led by sociopaths indifferent to the death and destruction such a war would unleash.

In October, a five-minute conversation with a right-wing Republican Senator was all it took to convince Trump not to recertify JCPOA. As British journalist Mehdi Hasan wrote, the US government is “overflowing with Iran hawks”. He wrote that in March 2017, saying that in February that year, the US had already almost gone to war with Iran. And that US cabinet was relatively moderate, compared to the gang in place now.

In late March this year, Trump appointed John Bolton as his National Security Advisor. Iran specialist Trita Parsi spoke for many when he observed that, “Donald Trump may have just effectively declared war on Iran. With the appointment of John Bolton, and nomination of Mike Pompeo at State, Trump is clearly putting together a war cabinet”. He explained that, “Bolton is an unhinged advocate for waging World War III. He has explicitly called for bombing Iran for the past 10 years and has suggested the US engage in nuclear first strikes in North Korea. Bolton’s first order of business will be to convince Trump to exit the Iran nuclear deal and lay the groundwork for the war he has urged over the past decade.”

US president Donald Trump. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

Then there’s Sheldon Adelson, the deranged billionaire mega-donor to the Republicans, who was Trump’s biggest donor. In 2013, he explained to an audience that the US should abandon negotiations with Iran, and nuke its desert. The US should then threaten to nuke Tehran unless Iran surrendered entirely to the US. Between Israel’s two bombing runs on Syria, and shortly after the US exited JCPOA, Adelson had a “friendly” meeting set with Trump. It was allegedly not about Iran. Funnily enough, ripping up JCPOA was what Trump promised to three of his biggest financial supporters.

That is, the people who will make a decision whether to go to war with Iran are awful human beings, with terrible judgment, led by an unbalanced narcissist who a team of psychiatrists think is too mentally unstable to be president.

In 2002, there were military figures who wanted to manipulate the Millennium Challenge war game so that the US military would come out looking better. That’s the kind of stupidity required for the US to launch a war that will be disastrous even from the view of its own self-interest. And that’s if one puts aside the innocent people who will suffer and die, and one assumes that that won’t factor into the considerations of the US, or its reactionary Arab dictator allies.

Incredibly, an interview on the ABC with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop didn’t include any discussion of the US abandoning JCPOA. However, it is positive that she was “disappointed” at the US withdrawing from it.

It is possible that war on Iran is such a bad idea even Australia won’t get involved. It is a desperate shame that Australia doesn’t have an anti-war movement to have intervened by now.

Shadow Foreign Affairs spokesperson Penny Wong has also expressed disappointment. But it’s unclear how staunch this disappointment will be from Wong or Bishop as tensions with Iran ramp up.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).

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