Storm Clouds on the Horizon — Iranian Aggression in the Middle East

A Saudi-led coalition has reportedly carried out air strikes against residents in Sanaa, Yemen, possibly in retaliation for Iran using Houthi rebels in Yemen to attack Saudi oil facilities and oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

Tensions remain high in the region as Iranian war mongering with the United States has put Middle East countries on high alert. The Iranians triggered alarms when American intelligence reports claimed that Iranian proxies not only sabotaged Saudi oil tankers, but also a United Arab Emirates (UAE) fuel barge, and a Norwegian tanker in the coastal waters near the Straits of Hormuz.  This threatens the security of global energy supplies and the global economy, as reflected by a jittery oil and stock market.

The Iranians have accused the U.S. of being the ones to attack the ships, and the war on words continue.

While some reports suggest that U.S. President Donald Trump would rather sit down and re-negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran than go to war, his broadcast statements and that of his National Security Advisor John Bolton, indicate the U.S. will retaliate strongly if any U.S. forces in the Middle East are harmed by Iran or its proxies. Iranian leaders say they are not interested in talking with Trump or his administration.

The U.S. State Department removed non-essential personnel from U.S. diplomatic facilities in Iraq on Wednesday because of threats that Iran might attack diplomatic or military personnel in the region. For its part, Iran claims it is the U.S that is escalating tensions in its continued war rhetoric.

During the past several weeks, the U.S. has deployed the USS Arlington and other ships to the Gulf, including thousands of American sailors and marines. U.S. destroyers, ammunition ships, helicopter and tactical air squadrons, and additional U.S. naval forces are currently in Gulf waters. In Qatar, the U.S. brought in two B-52 bombers a week ago, which now brings the total to four bombers in the region. Direct strike forces like the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier are now in the Persian Gulf, as are other destroyers. And, a U.S. Patriot missile battery has been sent in to provide additional support. The most advanced fighter jets to-date, the F-35’s, were sent by the U.S. to the UAE in mid-April.

It seems that the Trump Administration has been sensing for awhile that Iran might try to divert attention away from the failing JCPOA nuclear deal, as well as from Iran’s continued economic hardships due to U.S. pressure.

The Iranians may have already crossed the first threshold towards war in disrupting shipping traffic in the Straits of Hormuz. Now, their proxies are not only escalating tensions in the Gulf, Iran is looking to use other proxies to stir more trouble because of the increasingly effective American economic sanctions against Iran. Furthermore, the U.S. designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. This ended the exemptions of the American sanction system that have already been effective for a year.  As a result, few countries in the world will risk breaking with the United States in order to continue buying oil from Iran.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, told this writer in a recent interview that these American actions could bring the Iranian economy to its knees during this White House Administration. The Iranians would then be unable to wait to see if a friendlier U.S. president would be elected in 2020.

According to Lerman, who is a lecturer at Shalem College, and a former Israeli Deputy National Security Advisor, “So, if they had been counting on surviving or somehow managing until then, they may have changed their minds. And, I have a sense that events in the last two or three weeks reflect a strategic re-thinking of the Iranian position.”

Until now, Lerman claims the Iranians played a game with the Europeans in which Iran would stick to the JCPOA, and the Europeans would do their best to circumvent American sanctions. But, at the highest levels in Tehran, the conclusion must now be that this is not going to be enough to sustain Iran for the period until the American elections; until a possible change of administration in Washington. Basically, the Iranian economy cannot last that long under the current crippling sanctions.

“It is fast creating a set of tensions that could lead to very serious consequences.”

The on-going saber-rattling could create a miscalculation on the ground by both the U.S. and Iran, dragging both nations into an unwanted conflict. The recent action by Iran’s proxy in Yemen, that has caused retaliation by Saudi Arabia, contributes to an already unstable Middle East region.

In Israel, the concern is further actions in Gaza by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). It is this Iranian terrorist proxy that launched 700 rockets on Israel’s southern cities during a 48 hour period earlier in May. The PIJ could be encouraged by Iran to strike Israel, again, in just a few weeks. Killing four Israelis and injuring 234 more in the recent conflagration, resulted in a quick cease-fire. However, the PIJ has already threatened to go to war with Israel, again, in June. This threat comes at a time when Hamas seems unable to reign in the PIJ in Gaza.

Lerman sees a connection between what’s happening now in the Persian Gulf, and what Israel is facing on its southern border. “What Islamic Jihad apparently did, provoking the last round, increasingly looks connected to a broader pattern of Iranian escalation — Iranian activity designed to basically mark the price tag for the sharply increased level of American pressure.”

In addition, Lerman explained, that despite recent polls suggesting a large majority of Israelis are frustrated with the Israeli government constraining the IDF from all-out war, Israel had to quickly terminate the recent battle with Gaza terrorists. He admits that a lot of people across the political spectrum did not see the larger picture, and were angry with the way Israel handled the conflict. But, Lerman states, it is the duty of the government to look at the larger picture.

“Because, we need to keep our minds very focused, and we need to deny the Iranians the opportunity to divert attention from the pressure on Iran… over into the Israeli-Palestinian situation… the Gaza situation.”

To those in Israel who think that the IDF’s deterrence is no longer effective in the south, Lerman is adamant that Hamas or even PIJ would be foolish to not understand what would happen in an all-out confrontation with Israel.

“Our deterrence is there, but they are looking for actions that would come just below the level of a full-scale Israeli response.”

According to Lerman, because these terrorist entities are so much weaker than Israel’s defense capabilities overall, there is no need for Israel to use its full military might.

“We would never be in mortal danger from these people because they can kill; they can maim; they can cause damage; they can irritate; they can disrupt; but they are not a threat in the traditional sense of the word. Therefore, the IDF can do to Gaza what needs to be done to Gaza, if we have no better choice. But, to equate this with the loss of deterrence, is to lose sight of the extreme complexity of the concept of deterrence.”

Meanwhile, the new PIJ leader in Gaza has provoked some very nervous reactions in Israel about a new war coming. It seems that PIJ, a terrorist group not easily controlled by Hamas when it wants to strike Israel, is trying to prove its worth to its Iranian masters.

Lerman says that Iran is wondering what will happen if it pricks Israel or pricks the Americans, just below the level that will justify an all-out escalation.

“This could easily lead to a miscalculation, so we are sailing into very choppy waters.”

Lerman insists that Hamas must exert greater control over the PIJ. Otherwise, Hamas forfeits its claim to be the de-facto or legitimate government in Gaza.

“I think we are in a position to pressure, to demand, that the de-facto government in Gaza makes sure that the smaller partner doesn’t drag them by the nose into another round.”

Hamas has received enough military support and aid from Iran to be wary of the consequences if it takes firm action against the PIJ. And, Hamas cracking down on the terrorist group may have serious consequences in its relationship with Iran. The assessment by Lerman is that Hamas is not working for the Iranians, but Hamas doesn’t want to come to the point where it can no longer work with the Iranians.

“The difference between Hamas and PIJ, vis-à-vis Iran, is literally a question of a different proposition. Hamas works with the Iranians here and there. But, PIJ works for the Iranians, full stop… its proxy.”

And, what about the threat to Israel in the north by Iran’s proxy there?

“Hezbollah, that’s the ultimate weapon, and I think the Iranians would keep it cocked and loaded, but will not press the trigger unless they face very serious consequences.”

According to Lerman, if the U.S. and Iran come to blows, possibly over a rapid bid by Iran to resume uranium enrichment, or to re-open its Arak nuclear reactor, then all bets are off.

“Hezbollah is precisely there for this purpose; to be the first responder for Iran… This is why they have built this organization.”

Recently, Amit Hatami, Iran’s Defense Minister reportedly said that Tehran will defeat the American-Zionist front. Here it is important to see the link Iran makes between the U.S. and Israel.

Lerman thinks that a potential conflict in the Middle East between Iran and the U.S. might escalate into a wider conflict with Iran using its proxies against Israel. Some other analysts see an escalation on Israel’s southern border first, that would unleash a larger war in the Middle East.

Either way, the hope is that Israel won’t have to focus on another round of fire with PIJ and Hamas in Gaza, while Israel’s ally, America, becomes more embroiled in a fast developing, fast escalating crisis with Iran in the Persian Gulf.

About the Author
Carrie Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, military and social issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.
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