On Sunday, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that Israel will act directly against Iran, a country that he believes is the world’s greatest threat. In what was his first address at the annual Munich Security Conference, which brings together security, defense officials, and diplomats from across Europe and the US, Netanyahu held a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone brought down in Israeli airspace on February 10th of this year. In attendance was Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who watched on as Netanyahu warned that “Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around” its neck, before adding that Israel would “act if necessary, not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.” Using a map of the region during his presentation, Netanyahu also urged his audience to help counter the threat posed by Iran’s growing presence in the Middle East.
Iran, according to Netanyahu, was looking to move into the vacuum created by the ousting of ISIS from its former strongholds in Syria. This is part of an attempt by the Iranians to not only establish a “continuous empire surrounding the Middle East from the south in Yemen, but to also create a land bridge from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza”—something that is “a very dangerous development for our region,” Netanyahu said.
Shortly afterward, Zarif, who also addressed the conference, responded to Netanyahu’s presentation, calling it “a cartoonish circus which does not even deserve a response.” He also accused Washington of using the conference to revive hysteria against Iran—on Saturday H.R. McMaster, the US national security adviser, accused Iran of wanting to increase its regional influence via its proxy armies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon—and denied that Tehran was seeking hegemony in the Middle East. He was not the only attendee to react negatively to the Israeli prime minister’s speech. Lebanon’s defense minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf, who was also in attendance, spoke after Netanyahu and said: “Watch out, we will defend ourselves…we also have friends.” This comment by Sarraf comes amid renewed tensions between Lebanon and Israel in recent times. Israel, which is concerned about Lebanon, where Hezbollah, the heavily armed Shia movement backed by Iran, is part of a coalition government. Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006. Recently, both countries were involved in a maritime border dispute.
Netanyahu also took the opportunity to refer to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement—a deal both US President Donald Trump and Netanyahu view as flawed—as he called for the international community to stop the Iranians, who are “aggressive” and happen to be “developing ballistic missiles” which they are not inspecting, meaning, “they have a free highway to massive enrichment.” France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China, which signed the nuclear deal along with Iran and the US, disagree with that viewpoint and say the accord cannot be renegotiated, that it is working and that Iran is allowing inspections.
In response, Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov said that scrapping the agreement was akin to choosing between war and peace, while John Kerry, the former US secretary of state who helped clinch the deal, said it was wrong to assume that Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as the 15-year scope of the deal ended—something Netanyahu has done repeatedly ever since the deal was agreed to. Kerry dismissed Netanyahu’s contention that Iran would be on its way to having a nuclear arsenal in 10 years, saying it was “fundamentally not accurate.” In the years following the 2015 agreement, Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Iran would be able to resume its nuclear buildup.
Regardless of what happens with the much-maligned Iran nuclear agreement, the February 10th downing of an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria, and the increased tension in the region, highlight the risk that the war in Syria could trigger a wider regional conflict. With Netanyahu’s government warning that it will act if Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement, both try to establish bases in southern Syria, the potential for a miscalculation by either side is only heightened. And that should be seen as a natural outcome to the long-standing rivalry between Israel and Iran, fueled in part by the Israeli government’s perception that Iran is an existential threat to the state of Israel.
Ever since the 2016 US presidential election brought Donald Trump into the Oval Office, Israel has found a reliable partner who shares the same antipathy and hardline approach to the issue of Iran. Furthermore, that shared view has only hardened with each successive military gain by Iran in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen (via proxy groups/armies, of course). Together, with the added layer of once-unlikely alliances forming in the region (i.e. the cozying up of Israel with Sunni Arab states) to counter the growing threat from Tehran, recent events paint a bleak picture for the region, only a few months into 2018. Considering the numerous open fronts that still exist, namely the costly reconstruction of Iraq following the war against Isis, the eight-year-long war in Syria, the blockade of Qatar, and the war in Yemen, the possibility of a new layer that serves to further destabilize the Middle East is distressing, to say the least.
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