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Iran, not Israel, is escalating this war

Tehran thinks it has a right to attack Israel with impunity.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Politics World

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Iran was struck last night by an Israeli aerial attack, according to US officials. There have been unconfirmed reports of explosions in the central province of Isfahan, home to a large Iranian air base, a major missile production complex and nuclear facilities. The strike came in response to last week’s Iranian air assault on Israel.

What we know about that earlier Iranian strike has changed significantly over the past week. Immediately after Iran launched hundreds of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones towards Israel, there was a lot of celebratory talk about how high-tech collaboration between Israel and the West had quickly thwarted the attack. Since then, it has become clear that things were not so simple. Indeed, it is now widely accepted that Iran notified America, Europe and several Arab states about its plans. According to Chatham House, Britain’s leading foreign-policy think-tank, Iran also ‘assured them that its strike would be relatively limited’.

This raises the question of why Iran, a country that publicly pledges to obliterate Israel, would want to undermine the chances of its attack succeeding. There are many things that could be said about the Islamic Republic of Iran, but it is not irrational. When it acts in a certain way, it is usually carefully thought through.

The telegraphed nature of the attack also raises questions about the West. Why would it go along with such a performative and dangerous game?

Iran’s main achievement last week was that it established that it could attack Israel directly without Western retaliation. Until last weekend, Iran had only been attacking Israel through a range of proxies including Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

Although the West came to Israel’s aid, it also tried – unsuccessfully – to restrain Israel from responding. In the reported words of President Biden, after it became clear there were no Israeli casualties from the Iranian strike: ‘You got a win. Take the win.’ It is not yet clear how the West will respond to last night’s Israeli reaction.

These developments can be seen in the context of a long-term shift in American policy: it has become a more reluctant supporter of Israel while trying to repair relations with Iran.

The current flare-up between Iran and Israel arguably started on 1 April, when Israel launched an airstrike that killed two commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and five other members of the IRGC at the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria. Although Israel has a policy of not claiming responsibility for such actions, there is little doubt it was behind it. Iran claimed the strike was an assault on its sovereign territory.

But the Damascus strike did not come out of nowhere. The main target was brigadier general Mohammad Reza Zahedi. He was particularly important to Israel as he was the man connecting the Iranian regime and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. Zahedi was the only non-Lebanese member of Hezbollah’s Shura Council, its top decision-making body. Hezbollah has 150,000 missiles aimed at Israel. In other words, Iran is heavily backing a massively armed Islamist group that has pledged to eliminate the Jewish State.

After the assassination of Zahedi, Iran clearly decided it could no longer rely solely on its proxies. It resolved, for the first time, to attack Israel directly, despite the substantial escalation that this represented.

As far as it is possible to tell, after the consulate attack, Iran spent a couple of weeks negotiating with the Western powers and the surrounding states. They seem to have come up with an implicit agreement that Iran would not face military retribution as long as it kept its assault on Israel relatively limited. In contrast, Western leaders, including UK foreign secretary David Cameron, made it clear that Israel could face diplomatic isolation and other punitive measures should it retaliate against Iran.

So why has the West reacted in this way? On the face of it, you might expect Western powers to want to unequivocally support Israel, as a Western-style democracy, against the Islamist dictatorship of Iran. But that is not what has happened here.

The West’s admonishments of Israel certainly cannot be put down to simple wavering on Joe Biden’s part. Despite his oft-professed claim to be a staunch supporter of Israel, he has been equivocal in backing Israel in its war against Hamas. Crucially, he has also avoided discussing the Hamas-Iran connection despite it being transparently clear. As Gadi Taub, a veteran Israeli journalist, noted last year: ‘From the get-go, the US denied Iran’s fingerprints on the Hamas attack. National-security adviser Jake Sullivan said there was no “direct” evidence of Iranian involvement.’ That was despite the fact there was ample evidence, including public statements by Hamas leaders thanking Iran for its support.

Last month, the Biden administration approved a sanctions waiver worth $10 billion to Iran – a nation it has publicly declared to be a state sponsor of terrorism. America could have chosen to suspend or discontinue this waiver in the wake of Iran’s assault on Israel, but it has not done so. That it remains in place is all the more remarkable given that a drone attack by an Iranian-backed group recently killed three American soldiers and injured 30 others in Jordan. You don’t have to support the sanctions to notice the wide gap between America’s words and its deeds when it comes to Iran.

Biden’s relatively soft stance on Iran is actually in line with a political realignment among Democrats dating back to the Obama administration, when Biden was vice-president. As Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, has noted:

‘Those policies began in the week after President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. In one of the 44th president’s first acts of foreign diplomacy, Obama sent an offer of reconciliation to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That June, in his historic Cairo speech, Obama became the first president to refer to Tehran’s regime as the Islamic Republic of Iran – legitimising the oppressive theocracy – and stood aside while that republic’s thugs beat and shot hundreds of Iranian citizens protesting for their freedom.’

There are two distinct motivations for America’s long-term attempt to tilt away from Israel and towards Iran. The first is geopolitical and the second lies in the sphere of domestic politics.

Where geopolitics is concerned, the Democrats are keen to draw the Islamic Republic, a regime that has condemned America as the ‘Great Satan’, closer into the US’s orbit. Officially, the US has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980, the year after the Islamists took power in the Iranian Revolution. They have instead tried to maintain relations by other means. These have included the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), unofficially known as the Iran nuclear deal, promoted by Obama and later by Biden.

This is all part of a broader US strategy known as the pivot to Asia. The aim is to reorient American foreign policy away from the Middle East and towards East Asia. Its priority is to contain China.

The Biden administration’s hope is that defusing tensions with the hostile forces in the Middle East will make its pivot to Asia easier. Yet since the pivot was announced, the US has found itself dragged into further conflicts in the Middle East, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. America has also found itself reluctantly drawn into the periodic conflicts between Israel and Hamas. Biden wants to untangle America from this bitter strife as much as he possibly can. This means downgrading its commitments to Israel.

What’s more, the Biden administration, like Obama before it, is increasingly influenced by domestic identity politics. Many grassroots US Democrats see the conflicts involving Israel in simplistic black and white terms. Israel is today portrayed as a regional bastion of privilege – supposedly akin to those who enjoy privilege at home in America – with the Palestinians representing the oppressed. The involvement of Islamist movements in the region, which have pledged to destroy Israel, is ignored or at least downplayed. The activists who hold this view have placed considerable pressure on Biden to withdraw support for Israel.

There are also notable overlaps between the Islamist worldview and the woke worldview. Both tend to see Israel representing the side of evil. Both fail to distinguish between the Palestinian people and Hamas, with its goal of an international Islamic order. And both also tend to downplay or even dismiss the role of anti-Semitism as a key motivating force in the current conflict.

Today, Israel faces not just the wrath of its genocidal enemies – from Hamas to Iran and its other proxies. It also has to contend with its increasing isolation from the West. This is a dangerous moment.

Daniel Ben-Ami is an author and journalist. He runs the website Radicalism of Fools, dedicated to rethinking anti-Semitism. Follow him on Twitter: @danielbenami

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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