Almost a week ago, Israel and Iran clashed in Syria. Iran lost some bases and a drone, Israel lost an F-16, and Syria lost nearly half of its air defense systems, in addition to other military infrastructure. Russia intervened before the situation could escalate into a full-blown war on Israel’s northern front, but make no mistake: war is coming.
In the event of a war with Hezbollah, Israel would likely also be facing off against the Lebanese military, the Syrian regime, a host of Shiite militias in Syria by Tehran’s orders, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Iran would mobilize its entire “axis of resistance” to try and “wipe out the Zionist entity” in order to distract from its failing economy, brutal oppression, and the suffering of innocent civilians in areas it de facto controls (most notably, Syria and Gaza). Israel would win such a war with its massive military might, but it could come at a tremendous cost in terms of blood, treasure, and international reputation. Iran might be blamed for casualties throughout the Arab World, but would suffer comparatively less unless it sent its own troops into battle.
In this growing conflict, Israel needs to learn from the examples of the United States and the Soviet Union during the latter days of the Cold War. Neither country wanted to risk a ground war that could escalate into nuclear Armageddon. Instead, they used proxies to weaken each other. The Soviets, with help from China, bolstered the Viet Cong and eventually forced a war-weary America to retreat from Vietnam. However, the US eventually recovered from this loss and prospered at home. By contrast, the USSR overextended itself. As its economy began to fail, it became entrenched in Afghanistan fighting against Mujahideen. Washington DC, wanting revenge for Vietnam, backed the rebels and forced Moscow to leave Afghanistan humiliated. Just a few years later, the “evil empire” collapsed, broken by internal dissatisfaction with communism and dictatorship and economically unviable. Around the same time, many of Moscow’s “pets” or proxies had also collapsed or surrendered to the Western-led international liberal order.
Late last year leading into this past January, Iran saw waves of protests against the regime by working-class people living in smaller cities and rural areas. Despite the fact that President Hassan Rouhani was “elected” by the people to reform the country’s economy in light of the 2015 nuclear deal, he has largely failed. The price of food has gone through the roof. Pollution in Iran is causing schools to shut down and thousands to die from smog-related illnesses. Drug addiction is also rising in the country, partially due to the despair from a ruined economy and oppression. While some have stated that Iran’s position has never been better, this appears to be nothing but a mirage—one that Israel can and should quickly take advantage of.
A multi-pronged campaign must be waged by Israel and its allies on a number of fronts–militarily, diplomatically, and covertly as well. Just as in the Obama years, Israel must work with the United States to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program and severely damage nuclear infrastructure. Using viruses and assassinating nuclear scientists, as allegedly occurred in the past, should continue, particularly at a time when Iran appears to be testing Israel’s deterrence and security as it did this past weekend. The mullahs in Tehran should understand that when they violate the Jewish state’s sovereignty, their sovereignty, too, will be violated. More can and should be done to determine if there are any additional existing nuclear sites in Iran that are unknown–and, if so, where they are, how vulnerable they are, and how advanced their nuclear infrastructure is. In case of an open war with Iran, Israel and the United States must be sure where all of its nuclear sites are so they can be hit and completely destroyed, as happened in 1981 Iraq and 2007 Syria.
Meanwhile, Israel should take advantage of Iran’s deteriorating image in international eyes. While a few years ago, the relatively new Hassan Rouhani and his close cohorts were seen as charismatic “reformists,” their brutal aggression in Arab lands, intrusion into Israeli airspace, and repression of protestors has allowed for even the most weak-minded and naive Europeans to see the truth about the Iranian regime. Russia is seeing Iran as a potential destabilizing factor that could be a future competitor in the region, rather than the useful ally it once was. China could view it as a poor investment. Israel must focus on getting the European Union to join the United States in recognizing both the military and political wings of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and tighten sanctions on it. These sanctions can be broadened to include the IRGC and other Shiite militias in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria that have committed human rights violations against Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations in particular. Already, there are good signs that this is possible. Great Britain may soon recognize–in its entirety–Hezbollah as a terror group. Although the country will soon leave the EU, it is currently one of its most influential members. And to appease US President Donald Trump and persuade him to remain in the Iran nuclear deal, some European countries are considering taking a harder line on Iran with sanctions for its human rights abuses and ballistic missile program. Israel and the United States are already pressuring Europe on this front; it’s imperative that stable Sunni countries, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, also get on board with lobbying the EU to take a harder line on Iran. In light of the aggression on Israel’s northern borders as well as Iranian missiles fired towards Riyadh from Yemen, it’s in Europe’s best interests to maintain stability in the Middle East and prevent an escalation of war that could threaten trade and shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
The military option is also critical. It is imperative for Israel’s security–indeed, that of the whole region–that anytime Iran or its proxies attack Israel or violate its sovereignty, they suffer a heavy price. Iran has invested billions of dollars into its project in Syria as well as to proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories. Therefore, it is imperative that Israel act to eliminate whichever proxy next attacks it in its entirety, for a few reasons. One is simply to secure Israel. The second reason is deterrence: it’s doubtful that the weakened Assad regime or Hezbollah would challenge Israel if, say, it completely destroyed Hamas’ capabilities and overthrew its rule in Gaza. Third, this would deter Iran, which is still psychologically scarred from its 1980s war with Iraq. Israel is a much more fierce opponent than Saddam Hussein ever was, and thirty years have passed, meaning that militaries have become more powerful. By some estimates, 30% of Tehran’s population evacuated after Saddam Hussein showered the city with missiles. In the event of a full-blown war between Israel and Iran, the possibility or probability of large Iranian cities coming under Israeli firepower is no doubt a terrifying prospect for the regime and civilians alike. If Israel eliminates one of Iran’s proxies with massive force, this is also likely to deter Iran from taking risks that could lead to a formal war between the sides in order to preserve the survival of the regime or the well-being of the country at large. And the final, and perhaps most important, reason is to stir protests within Iran.
Already last month and in December, many protesters were crying out against the government’s massive spending on military adventurism in the Middle East for its proxy network. If Israel and its allies were to severely weaken or destroy this proxy network, such protests against the regime’s fiscal profligacy on a lost cause would only strengthen and weaken the country internally. Even if Iran decided to commit more resources to bolstering the Syrian regime, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, or Shiite militias in the face of their deterioration, this would only further hollow out the country’s economy and likely lead to more sanctions against it for “regional aggression,” thus hastening its demise. Of course, Iran is not the only country that can have proxies on its enemies’ borders–or even within them. Iran is a mostly-Persian country, yet there are ethnic minorities (Kurds, Balochis, Arabs, and Azeris) that have been oppressed by the regime and its predecessors. Some of these groups have taken up arms against the regime or otherwise tried their hands at resistance. Israel and its allies must do the utmost to support their struggle against the tyranny and racism spread by the ayatollah.
While Iran is presenting itself as a clear danger to Israel and the Arab Sunni countries, along with US interests in the Middle East, it’s clear that at the same time it is overextending itself and leaving it vulnerable in the long run. A host of social and environmental issues back at home is leaving the country in a state of disarray. The cost in blood and treasure–particularly at a time of sanctions, which may soon be tightened even more–due to Iran’s imperialism is straining an economy and strangling the people. While Israel should use its military might to weaken its adversaries on its borders–and destroy them if need be–an all-out war with Iran may not even be necessary to loosen the chokehold the regime has on its people and on the Near East at large. Israel, in conjunction with its tacit Arab allies, should take diplomatic steps with its Western partners to make Iran pay the price of its aggression economically, while also continuing its sabotage of its nuclear program and building alliances with neglected and oppressed groups within Iran’s borders. To defeat an overextended enemy, one must rot it from within even as it strains it from the outside. This is the valuable lesson Israel and its allies should learn from the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s demise.