Earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singled out Iran as the source of most of Israel’s security concerns.
Speaking at a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the bombing of Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires — a terrorist attack which claimed the lives of 29 Israeli diplomats and local workers and which was widely attributed to Iran and its surrogate, Hezbollah — Netanyahu said, “One of our defence officials estimates that more than 80 percent of our security problems emanate from Iran.”
He was not engaging in hyperbole.
Iran, once an ally of Israel, turned against Israel after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Since then, Iran — the preeminent Shiite power in the region — has become an intractable enemy and has strongly aligned itself with Hezbollah and Hamas, which have both waged war against Israel.
Today, Iran is the only Muslim nation that regularly threatens Israel. Iranian political and military leaders constantly call for Israel’s destruction, and Iran provides its surrogates, Hezbollah and Hamas, with substantial financial and military assistance and moral support.
By contrast, Arab states no longer issue threats against Israel, and some Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, exhibit an antipathy toward the Iranian regime. Israel fought its last conventional war against an Arab foe in 1982, when the Israeli and Syrian armed forces clashed following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In 1973, the Israeli army confronted Egypt and Syria, among others, in the Yom Kippur War. Six years later, Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt.
Iran, having denounced this historic treaty, is an ardent champion of the Palestinian cause. Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei and a former Iranian foreign minister, recently praised Hamas for its armed struggle against Israel. As Velayati sang the praises of the Palestinians, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, assured a Hamas delegation that Iran will always back “the Palestinian resistance” movement.
This is not mere rhetoric.
Two months ago, Yehiyeh Sinwar, the top Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, disclosed that Iran is now the largest backer of Hamas’ armed wing, which, he claimed, is preparing for “the liberation of Palestine.”
In Syria, a nation ravaged by a six-year-old civil war, Iran has rallied behind the Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and, with Assad’s cooperation, is currently attempting to establish a new front against Israel on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Hezbollah, which is deeply involved in this relatively new Iranian campaign, has about 10,000 fighters in southern Syria ready to confront Israel should another war break out. The last war between Israel and Hezbollah erupted in the summer of 2006 and essentially ended in a draw.
Analysts believe that a permanent Iranian armed presence on Israel’s border with Syria would violate one of its red lines and could well alter the military balance of power in the Middle East to its disadvantage.
Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad intelligence agency, has said that Iran, through Hezbollah, is operating “closer than ever before” to Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.
Until very recently, Iran’s access to Syrian government territory was blocked by Islamic State-controlled territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria. But now that Islamic State has lost major strongholds in these Arab countries and is on the brink of defeat, the Iranians have embarked on an ambitious project to expand their influence in the region by upgrading their respective bilateral relations with Iraqi and Syria and by building a military supply route from Iran to the Syrian and Lebanese frontier with Israel.
The prospect of an Iranian land corridor stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea worries Israel, as are reports that Iran is constructing weapons factories in Syria and perhaps Lebanon. “Everything will be done to prevent the existence of a Shia corridor from Tehran to Damascus,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigor Liberman said the other day.
Netanyahu, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September, warned, “We will act to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria for its air, sea and ground forces. We will act to prevent Iran from producing deadly weapons in Syria or in Lebanon for use against us.”
He made the same point during a visit to London at the beginning of November. In a reference to Iran, he said, “They want to leave their army, their airbases and fighter aircraft within seconds of Israel, and we are not going to let that happen. We do not say that lightly. We mean what we say and we back it with action.”
Netanyahu was probably referring to a 2015 incident in the Syrian sector of Golan Heights during which an Iranian general, Mohammed Allahdadi, several of his aides and a contingent of Hezbollah operatives led by Jihad Moughniyeh — the son of a fabled Hezbollah commander — were killed by an Israeli air strike.
With this incident doubtless in mind, Netanyahu told Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu last month that Israel would not tolerate an Iranian military buildup on the Golan, which was captured by Israel at the end of the 1967 Six Day War. “Iran needs to understand that Israel will not allow it” to entrench itself militarily in Syria, he declared.
Liberman, in his talks with Shoigu, sounded the same theme: “We will not get involved in internal matters in Syria, but on the other hand, we will not allow Iran and Hezbollah to turn Syrian territory into a forward operating base against Israel.”
Nor will Israel permit Iran to transfer advanced weaponry to Hezbollah through Syria, he said.
In recent months, Israel has resorted to diplomacy to keep Iran and Iranian-supported Shiite militias at bay in Syria. Russia, Syria’s ally, has tried to defuse the Syrian civil war by creating ceasefire zones in Syria.
One of these zones, in southern Syria, abuts the Golan. A few months ago, Israel reportedly demanded that Iranian forces should be kept at least 40 kilometers from its border. The Russians, rebuffing Israel’s request, would only agree to limit the Iranian presence to within 15 to 20 kilometers of its border. According to reports, Russia has assured the Israeli government that it will not permit Iran or Hezbollah to engage in aggression against Israel from Syrian territory.
Amid these developments, Syria and Iran have been tightening their strategic relationship, which goes back to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.
Last month, in Damascus, Iran and Syria signed a memorandum of understanding expanding military cooperation in intelligence, training and technology. General Mohammad Bagheri, the head of Iran’s armed forces, warned that Iran will not tolerate Israeli violations of Syria’s sovereignty. “We cannot accept a situation where the Zionist entity attacks Syria from the ground and the air,” he said.
Israel is not deterred by such threats. When required, Israeli aircraft have bombed Hezbollah weapons convoys in Syria and Lebanon and attacked Syrian military bases. Last week, after Israel shot down a Syrian drone over the Golan, Liberman warned that Israel will respond to any violation of its territory.