With Iran flaunting its nuclear progress, allegedly attacking Israeli diplomats and reportedly strengthening ties with Al Qaeda, the possibility that Israel has finally had enough is not exactly far-fetched. This will no doubt prove the ultimate factor in Israel’s decision to attack; yet the wider regional context may also present Israel with compelling strategic incentives to act sooner rather than later.
Assad’s potential impending collapse has placed Iran at its weakest point since the 2009 Green Revolution, as Syria served as Iran’s bridge to a suspicious Sunni Arab world and an entree into the power politics of the Israel-Palestinian dispute. Today, that security is fast disappearing, along with the leverage afforded by having Hamas as a proxy, since ‘pragmatists’ like Khaled Meshaal have been trying to wean the group away from Syria and Iran and solicit new sources of patronage from powers like Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf states. Wary of ceding power to the actors now lining up behind a supposedly-moderating Hamas, Iran is encouraging Hamas hardliners like Ismail Haniyeh to stand fast: at Haniyeh’s visit to Tehran last week, Ayatollah Khamenei warned the group to “always be wary of infiltration by compromisers in a resistance organization, which will gradually weaken it.”
How do these developments herald an escalation between Israel and Iran? Overwhelmingly, Israel has reached the breaking point with Iran and is ready to act – a move Israel’s security apparatus has long indicated they consider inevitable, whatever the costs. Yet Israel may also judge the current regional dynamics as presenting the most propitious opportunity to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Israel may judge that by acting in the coming months, they can take advantage of both Iran’s regional weakness and stoke divisions between and within the Palestinian parties – disrupting the ‘unity deal’ between Fatah and Hamas and causing a potentially fatal split within Hamas by attacking Iran. From Israel’s perspective, this would also have the advantage of disrupting the strong regional bloc which has assembled in support of a unified Palestinian arrangement, and which likely sought to parlay this into extracting significant concessions from Israel in the event of revived peace negotiations.
An imminent attack on Iran would also come at a time of escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran; a country known to be covertly sympathetic to an Israeli strike on its regional rival. Most recently, tensions between Shiite protestors and the Saudi state erupted into gunfights in the oil-rich province of Awwamiya. As with the Shiite-led unrest in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of using Shiite proxies to meddle in its internal affairs and its sphere of influence, and their well-known antipathy makes their covert approval of an Israeli strike all the more plausible.
Make no mistake, the end-game for Israel has always been clear – a disarmed Iran, no matter what the costs. Yet the current strategic context could well furnish Israel with additional powerful incentives to fulfill Leon Panetta’s prediction that we could be seeing an attack as early as this spring.