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.

Trump on Jerusalem: What Happened, and Why It Matters

Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War

When Israel was founded, in 1948, Jerusalem was intended to be an international city. Yet, thanks to an invasion by five of the new country’s neighbors, by the time the dust settled, Jerusalem was a divided city. The eastern portion had come under Jordanian control, and the western portion was firmly in Israeli hands. Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared that he would not permit the “forced separation of Jerusalem” and that it was Israel’s “Eternal” capital. Meanwhile, East Jerusalem became the “alternative capital of the Hashemite Kingdom” (Jordan). However, after another war and six days later, East Jerusalem came under Israeli control. Israel wasted no time integrating the two halves of the city. The municipal boundaries of Jerusalem were extended to the eastern sector, which was also placed under Israeli law and administration. In addition, freedom of religion was established, reversing the Islamization policies put in place by Jordan.

However, all was not as it seemed. Not a single country recognized Israel’s annexation, or any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Most countries maintained the idea that Jerusalem should be treated as an international city, regardless of the reality on the ground. In addition, East Jerusalem’s Arab residents, although having found themselves in Israel after the Six-Day War, were not given citizenship automatically. Instead, they are given Israeli permanent residence and an option to apply for citizenship. However, few do, since it is seen as a denial of their Palestinian identity. In addition, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), established in 1964 to replace Israel with a Palestinian state, claimed Jerusalem (and continues to claim the eastern portion) as the capital of Palestine.

Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem

This tenuous political situation is further complicated by the status of Jerusalem (especially the Old City, located in the east) as a holy city in Judaism (the majority religion in Israel), Islam (the majority religion in the Palestinian territories) and Christianity. For religious Jews, Jerusalem is at the center of their religion. In ancient times, Judaism was centered in one of the two temples (Beit HaMikdash, “the house of holiness”) on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jewish texts and blessings contain numerous references to Jerusalem, and “next year in [a rebuilt] Jerusalem” has been repeated as a mantra for some two thousand years. Meanwhile, Jerusalem (Al-Quds, “the Holy”) is the third holiest city in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven from Jerusalem, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built on the Temple Mount soon after his death. Finally, many of the key events in the life of Jesus occurred in Jerusalem, making it an important city for Christians as well.

Although the Jerusalem Law of 1980 further cemented the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, yet again, it remained unrecognized. In order to make a point, Israeli funds were allocated to Jerusalem’s development, and the Law prohibited the transfer of Jerusalem’s sovereignty to any other country. However, the Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed by the US Congress in 1995, was a game changer. It stipulated that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and move its embassy there (from Tel Aviv, where the US, along with other countries, maintain an embassy to Israel, despite Tel Aviv not being Israel’s capital). It also stipulated that the President would be permitted to sign a waiver every six months, delaying the implementation of the Act. Since then, four presidents dutifully reissued this waiver twice a year, on grounds of national security concerns.

During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly promised to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. This in itself was not particularly unusual, given the fact that most presidential candidates have made similar statements. However, on December 6th, now-President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and stipulated that the embassy was to be moved. Israeli reactions, were, for the most part, positive. Likud (the ruling right-wing party) and Labor (left-wing, the largest opposition party), and most other Israeli political parties strongly supported the proclamation. However, Meretz, a far-left party, condemned it, along with the Arab “Joint List”. Despite the fanfare, President Trump also signed the waiver immediately afterwards, delaying the embassy move for at least another six months. In addition, the statement issued did not specify what the borders of Jerusalem are, meaning that they could be changed as a result of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. The State Department clarified this, and pointed out that even if everything was to occur on schedule, the embassy move will take at least two years.

Regardless, the world reacted with disapproval when the decision was announced. The European Union reaffirmed the position of its member states, that the status of Jerusalem will be settled through negotiations. China, too, issued a similar statement, however, stipulated that it calls for East Jerusalem to be the Palestinian capital. Interestingly enough, Russia already unelaborately recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and, as such, simply expressed “concern” over the announcement. Arab and Muslim states, however, did not hold back their rage. The King of Saudi Arabia called the announcement “a dangerous step of relocation or recognition of Al-Quds as the capital of Israel would constitute a flagrant provocation of Muslims, all over the world.” Turkey’s Erdoğan called it a “red line” for Muslims. Iran also lashed out at Israel and the US, while recognizing Jerusalem as the “capital of Palestine”. Other Arab and Muslim countries followed suit, along with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Even more, Malaysia threatened to declare war on Israel and send soldiers to Jerusalem. The United Nations also held an emergency session, criticizing the United States for the announcement.

Palestinian leadership, too, was unimpressed with the announcement. Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president, called it “deplorable and unacceptable” and said that it serves to “deliberately undermine all peace efforts”. Hamas, a radical group in opposition to the Palestinian Authority, called for another intifada, or Palestinian uprising. In response, the Palestinian street exploded. Around 5,000 Palestinian protesters participated in riots and clashed with Israeli security forces across the West Bank and Gaza on the Friday after the announcement. The protests continued over the next few days. According to Palestinian officials, two protesters were killed in the area near the Gaza border. Israel confirmed that soldiers fired on two “inciters”. Meanwhile, the Red Cross noted that 15 people were injured by tear gas and rubber bullets. In numerous locations across the West Bank, riots occurred, involving rock throwing, and the use of Molotov cocktails, by demonstrators. They also lit tires on fire, and rolled them towards Israeli soldiers. The soldiers used typical riot control, such as tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. However, live fire was also occasionally used.

Map of East and West Jerusalem, showing important Israeli government sites

This move represents a break from decades of American foreign policy. President after president made it clear that the status of Jerusalem was to be decided only by negotiations. Certainly, President Trump did not say explicitly that East Jerusalem is part of Israel (or Israel’s capital), but many see this as implied. After all, Israeli policy is that Jerusalem is a single united city, and on the ground, this is the case in many ways. Also on the ground, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. All the important Israeli government buildings, such as the Knesset (parliament), Supreme Court, main military cemetery (Mount Herzl), as well as the headquarters of all the cabinet ministries. Interestingly, these are all located in West Jerusalem, although this is more a function of the fact that East Jerusalem was Jordanian for the first nineteen years of Israel’s existence than a statement on how Jerusalem should be split.

It is also important to note that Israel itself accepted the principle of Jerusalem’s borders being up for negotiation. In the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it was stated that “it is understood that these [later] negotiations shall cover remaining issues, including: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and co-operation with other neighbours, and other issues of common interest.” Of course, more than two decades of conflict rendered much of the Oslo Accords obsolete, but this rather explicit acceptance still very much exists. Meanwhile, the official Palestinian position is that Jerusalem should be divided as well. However, there is a deep distrust of Israel, and a widespread belief that Israel is looking to keep all of Jerusalem for itself. This belief is not particularly unfounded, given Israeli statements on the topic (in which Jerusalem is repeatedly described as in the divisible capital).

The announcement is likely to have a significant impact on Middle Eastern geopolitics, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Although it does not change the reality on the ground, or benefit any party in any way (aside from a symbolic benefit to Israel), Palestinians and other Muslim leaders began to question America’s commitment to the peace process. For example, Mahmoud Abbas said that he believes that the US is “abdicating its role as a peace mediator”. In addition, Israel is currently in the process normalizing relations with several Arab and Muslim states. However, they all condemned the move and Turkey, one of the few Muslim states with full diplomatic relations with Israel, threatened to cut them off.