Israel and Iran: Enemies on the Brink of War

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Iranian missiles shot down over Israel

On the night of May 9th, the blows traded between Iran and Israel brought the immediate possibility of a full scale war to the world’s attention. Since Iran’s revolution in 1979, the two previous aligned countries fought each other indirectly, through proxy groups and states friendly to either side. Mysterious assassinations, malicious hacking, and covert operations added to these tactics. However, not until this year did they attack directly. These attacks took place near the Israeli-Syrian border, which, thanks to Iranian presence on the Syrian side, will most likely be the location of a direct war.

Until less than four decades ago, Iran and Israel were allies. The pro-West Pahlavi dynasty pursued good relations with the United States, and other pro-West countries. However, all this changed in 1979, when a violent revolution engulfed the country. The United States, and, by extension, Israel, were blamed for all of Iran’s woes. As a result, Iran, now an Islamic republic, was transformed into one of the most virulently anti-Israel states in the Middle East (which isn’t a very pro-Israel region to begin with). Since then, Iran has been busy funding proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and, in recent years, working on a nuclear weapons program (presumably to counter Israel’s). Meanwhile, Israel fought these proxies several times, and through clandestine methods, attempted to slow Iran’s nuclear development.

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IRGC troops on parade

After the revolution, Iran developed a unique military system. The conventional Iranian Army, “Artesh”, defends Iran internally. However, the IRGC, the revolutionary guards (“Sepah”), is tasked with exporting the ideals of the revolution. It is fanatically loyal to the ideals of the 1979 revolution (as its leaders interpret them), and frequently works with the Iranian religious leadership. That being said, it is completely unaccountable to the civilian government. It has been steadily increasing its presence in Syria, seemingly looking to use Syria as a forward operating base in a war with Israel. However, the IRGC is not designed to fight against an actual military, but to help proxies attack civilians. This means it has a hard time defending itself from air strikes or military incursions.

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Hezbollah fighting position deep inside Lebanon

As part of its mission to “export the revolution”, the IRGC has been busy setting up shop in countries across the Middle East, either on its own, or through proxies. In Lebanon, Hezbollah acts as an extension of the IRGC in politics, and maintains a formidable military force more powerful than that of the national government. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the IRGC supports the Houthis (a militant group that espouses a similar brand of Islam to that of the Iranian government) in their effort to control the entire country. And while Iraq has a central government installed by the United States, the IRGC has made headway into Baghdad as well, through the support of proxy (pro-Iraqi government) militias and taking advantage of religious similarities yet again. Finally, the IRGC’s Syrian campaign, supposedly designed only to support the Syrian government, gave the IRGC unprecedented leeway there.

Syria is already home to a civil war between the Syrian government (backed by Iran and Russia), rebel groups (backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia), and the Kurds (backed by the United States). The IRGC took advantage of this instability to build bases in Syria (although Iran denies that these bases exist). While the Iranian government is mostly looking to set up Syria as a stable puppet state, the IRGC, and the commander of the elite Quds (“Jerusalem”) Force, Qasem Soleimani, in particular, is happy to keep the war going in order to attack Israel.

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IRGC drone shot down over Israel

The recent conflict began when a drone launched from an IRGC base was shot down over Israel on February 10th. Originally, it was assumed that the drone was on an espionage mission. However, Israeli military intelligence later revealed that it was carrying explosives. Assuming that this is true, it would be the first time Iran even attempted to attack Israel openly and directly. To counter this apparent attack, on April 9th, Israeli Air Force (IAF) jets bombed T4, the IRGC base in Syria where the drone originated from. At T4, seven members of the Quds Force were killed in the attack (including Col. Mehdi Dehghan, commander of the drone unit). Soleimani didn’t wait long to make his feelings about this bombing known. Beginning on May 9th, the Quds Force launched rockets at Israeli military bases near Syria. In response, Israel (apparently) bombed every single IRGC base in Syria. The threat of a full war became ever more real.

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Locations of IRGC bases in Syria

Of course, it is often noted that a war, whether in Syria or elsewhere, is entirely not in the geopolitical interest of either Iran or Israel. However, IRGC ideology and Israeli security concerns appear to be making a clash in Syria inevitable. During said war, Israel would take advantage of its geographic proximity to Syria to launch its famed precision airstrikes against IRGC bases. This would severely hinder the IRGC’s ability to wage war. In addition, closer relations with Russia could mean that the Syrian government (supported by Russia as well as Iran) would be encouraged not to intervene. Overall, this would mean that Israel would at least attempt to ensure that Syria doesn’t become the rocket threat that it allowed Hezbollah in Lebanon to become. However, regarding Hezbollah, it would likely attack Israel simultaneously with the IRGC. In addition, Hamas in Gaza could do the same, if the IRGC would offer a generous enough military aid offer (relations between Hamas and the IRGC were strained since Hamas refused to support the Syrian government, however, military aid could change this). As such, Israel would be facing a threat on three fronts.

One thing is clear: this won’t be a traditional war. Territory will not be exchanged (Syria doesn’t belong to the IRGC in the first place, while the IRGC has no capabilities to mount a land invasion of Israel). Instead, there are only two possible outcomes: either the IRGC will be able to make its presence in Syria permanent, or it will be driven out by Israeli bombing. Of course, there is no telling how this will go down. Now, more than ever, does the situation in the region depend on Israel’s and the IRGC’s next moves. The future of the Middle East in general, and Iran in particular, is uncertain, but a war between Iran and Israel can only contribute to this instability.

On May 19th, Iranians Head to the Polls

The Islamic Republic of Iran is certainly no democracy, at least in the Western sense. It consistently ranks as an authoritarian regime on the Democracy Index and as “Not Free” by Freedom in the World. Yet, on May 19th, Iranian citizens will exercise their democratic right to choose their next leader (from a slate of six candidates chosen by the Guardian Council). This will be the first presidential election in Iran since the much-discussed nuclear deal was signed. The aftereffects of the deal are a contentious issue in this election, since the current president, Hassan Rouhani is running for reelection. Rouhani promoted the deal domestically as a way to improve the standard of living for ordinary Iranians though the lifting of international sanctions. However, 72 percent of Iranians don’t believe the deal improved their standard of living.

Aside from Rouhani, five other candidates are participating: Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, Astan Quds Razavi chairman Ebrahim Raisi, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Mostafa Mir-Salim and Mostafa Hashemitaba. Raisi, Ghalibaf, and Mir-Salim are regarded as conservatives, or hardliners, Jahangiri and Rouhani are moderates, and Hashemitaba is a reformist. In recent years, however, Iranian moderates and reformists have become closer in their views, especially with the death of Rafsanjani, one of the moderate leaders. Among the rejected candidates was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative former president known for his colorful statements on Israel. Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad’s populism remains popular among rural Iranians.

While polls do show Rouhani as being comfortably in the lead, polling in Iran has been historically unreliable. In addition, 56% of Iranians believe that Rouhani is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to lose the election. Ghalibaf, who came in second last time around, is the primary alternative. Ultimately, this election will come down to one this: the economy. If voters are satisfied with Rouhani’s economic program, he is likely to win. If not, he will quite possibly face defeat. Reducing corruption is also an important (albeit secondary) issue, especially when Iran’s high levels of corruption are taken into account. In addition, the previously mentioned nuclear deal will be high on voters’ minds, at least when it comes to how it will affect the economy.

The results of this election will also have a significant impact on the rest of the world, especially the Middle East. If Rouhani wins and the moderates gain traction, Iranian intervention in Syria in support of the al-Assad government will achieve additional international legitimacy. In addition, a conservative victory could mean that Iran will cease complying the nuclear deal. The new president will also no doubt be influenced by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power (although he rarely uses it) and has extremely conservative views, as well as his close ally, Ahmad Jannati.

Iran Tests Ballistic Missile, Controversy Ensues

According to reports from two US defense officials, Iran recently test-fired a single Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile. This represents the first of this type of launch since President Trump ascended to the presidency. The launch took place on Sunday at a test site outside Semnan, which is about 140 miles east of Tehran. The US officials stated that the missile flew 600 miles before exploding, which represents a failed test of a reentry vehicle.

The Foreign Minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, did not confirm or deny whether the test actually took place. However, he used the opportunity to reiterate that Iran would “never use ballistic missiles to attack another country.”

The test brought predicable reactions from around the world. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (a fierce opponent of the Iranian nuclear program) called it a “flagrant violation” of the Security Council resolution which ratified the Iran nuclear deal that “must not go unanswered.” He also stated that he will bring up the possibility of bringing back sanctions on Iran when he meets with President Trump next month.

However, it also brought on a debate as to whether the test violates the resolution at all. Of course, Israeli officiated say yes, but the rest of the world is a little more hesitant. As the resolution only “call upon” Iran to cease testing ballistic missiles, this provision is seen as a suggestion rather than a mandate. Meanwhile, President Trump is yet to make an official statement on the test.

Rafsanjani Dies, Iranian Moderates Loose an Important Figure

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an Iranian ayatollah and former president of the Islamic republic died on January 8th. He was an important figure in the establishment of the current government. Rafsanjani helped Ruhollah Khomeini seize power in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and has been involved in the government ever since.

He held office from 1989 to 1997, from immediately after the Iran-Iraq War until when he was replaced by the reformist Mohammad Khatami. Although Rafsanjani was touted in the Western media as a reformist himself, his many conservative positions (especially hardline statements on Israel) made many consider him to be a moderate at best. As an example, the AMIA bombing, a terror attack in Argentina, was done under his rule, and was quite possibly directed by his government. Later, he considered himself to be the moderate alternative to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the previous president and a well-known right-wing populist. Rafsanjani took left-wing positions on social and economic issues, and he was willing to engage in dialogue with the West.

In recent years, Rafsanjani stayed in positions of power by allying himself with the hardline Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran. As such, his recent funeral was attended by reformist protesters who want Iran to return to the governing style of the Khatami government.

Rafsanjani was one of the last surviving major personality of the Iranian Revolution, and certainly the last surviving moderate. Because of this, he was long viewed as a source of legitimacy for the pragmatic moderates. With his death, the moderates will likely be weakened without this figure to represent them. However, it could also signal a shift in the internal politics of the moderates, possibly bringing them closer to the reformists. This is especially true because the reformists are in power right now.