Iranians at the gates
AnalysisSanctions relief helps finance Tehran's empire building

Iranians at the gates

With Russia happy to see Assad bolstered and the US uninterested, Tehran is free to pump cash, troops and missiles into areas bordering Israel, which Jerusalem will not abide

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Two members of Iranian Revolutionary Guard stand next to a representation of Israeli flag prepared to set on fire during the funeral ceremony of a Revolutionary Guard Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi outside the Guard compound in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, January 21, 2015. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
Two members of Iranian Revolutionary Guard stand next to a representation of Israeli flag prepared to set on fire during the funeral ceremony of a Revolutionary Guard Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi outside the Guard compound in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, January 21, 2015. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Unless something changes, Israel is sprinting headlong into another violent confrontation along its northern border, this time against either Iranian troops or Iranian backed fighters with missiles made to order from Tehran.

The disappearance of the Islamic State from wide swaths of Syria, together with the superpowers’ lack of interest (or desire) in removing Syrian President Bashar Assad from power, are paving the way for an Iranian takeover of the territories until recently held by the jihadist group.

A Hezbollah observation post on the Israeli-Lebanese border, according to the IDF. Photo released on June 22, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

At the same time, massive numbers of Hezbollah troops loyal to Iran have entrenched themselves in southern Lebanon, whether in visible lookout points or “environmental protection” posts, according to Israeli military officials.

Israel won’t abide by this. The presence of Shi’ite forces on the border, be they Hezbollah or other Iran-backed militias, together with Iran’s efforts to bring in game-changing weapons, signal that the era of calm that Israel has enjoyed since the summer of 2006 is coming to an end.

On Saturday, Iran’s new defense minister said the country was prioritizing boosting the country’s missile program and export weapons to shore up neighboring allies.

Iranian military trucks carry surface-to-air missiles during a parade on the occasion of the country’s Army Day, on April 18, 2017, in Tehran. (AFP Photo/Atta Kenare)

“Wherever a country becomes weak, others become encouraged to raid it… Wherever necessary, we will export weapons to increase the security of the region and countries, to prevent wars,” General Amir Hatami said, without naming the countries.

Jerusalem has warned against Iranian efforts to set up missile production facilities in Lebanon, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman telling United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a meeting in Israel last week that Iran is “working to set up factories to manufacture accurate weapons within Lebanon itself.”

Liberman did not explicitly threaten to attack the Iranian missile factories in Lebanon, but he said that “the Lebanese government and the citizens of southern Lebanon should know” that Israel will be forceful in future conflicts.

The presence of at least two Iranian missile manufacturing facilities was revealed by Israel earlier this summer. On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Guterres that Iran was also involved in the construction of another missile base in Syria.

A site near the northern Syrian city of Banias where Iran is reportedly constructing a missile factory. (Screen capture: Google Maps)

Yet no need to enter the bomb shelter yet. Despite media reports, by all accounts, Iran has not yet begun production at its missile plants — which will purportedly produce rockets that have a greater accuracy than Hezbollah’s current arsenal. However, it won’t be long. Contracts between Syria and Lebanon on one side and Iran on the other to establish the factories are nearly complete, as is a deal for Iran to build a seaport in Syria, giving it access to the Mediterranean.

The Russian model

Israeli officials say that Iran is trying to adopt the model Russia used in getting permission to put a seaport in Tartus, which was reached with the approval of both houses of parliament and is acceptable in any international court.

These contracts can be cancelled only with the agreement of both parties, not just one. The Iranians want to make sure that they, too, will have their Syrian seaport, which is why they are taking such meticulous care regarding the legalities.

Iran’s investment is more than just a seaport and a rocket-production plant. Tehran has also been pumping money and resources into various economic projects such as a cellular network and quarries.

This photo released on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, meeting with Iranian minister of economy and financial affairs, Ali Tayebnia, left, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, March 16, 2015. (Photo credit: AP)

Assad, knowing that this is the only way to ensure the survival of his Alawite dynasty, has given the set-up his blessing.

For now, the Iranian presence in Syria is actually limited officially to Revolutionary Guard advisers. But it cuts a wider swath once taking into account all the thousands of Shiites in Tehran’s pay who are deployed throughout Syria.

Hezbollah, the militia most loyal to Iran, has already placed one-third of its available combat troops in Syria on a permanent basis, and despite the severe losses that it has suffered there, it seems to have no plans to leave the country anytime soon.

In Lebanon, where the money is in the hands of large and well-known Sunni and Christian businessmen and families, the Iranians are less interested in investing in infrastructure and wish only to build a plant to produce precise rockets.

America the silent

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose government includes Hezbollah despite the fact that he blamed Syria for the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005, is too weak to confront Hezbollah and its supporters.

Tehran is investing enormous resources in order to transform Syria into an Iranian province, while the United States and Russia have decided to disregard this region-altering drama.

The Russians are really the only ones who can make a difference. But they have no intention of doing so. The opposite is true: For them, the presence of thousands of Shi’ites will shore up Assad’s regime.

A pro-regime fighter flashes the sign of victory on August 21, 2016 as he drives a tank in the southern district of Ghweiran in the Syrian northeastern city of Hasakeh, where Kurdish forces were advancing (AFP/STR)

Last month’s meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi is not expected to change that calculus. Russia wants to see Assad bolstered, even if it means allowing Tehran to do the bolstering.

Washington, together with Netanyahu’s close ally, President Donald Trump, could have put pressure on Russia. But Trump, who is busy with his own affairs, has chosen to ignore what is happening in Syria — a dangerous thing to do.

On Thursday, the Asharq al-Awsat daily reported that the US conceded to Russia on several issues during talks in Amman over a cease-fire in southern Syria and the Golan Heights.

First, the Americans agreed that Russian inspectors would keep track of the implementation of the cease-fire, in essence letting the cat guard the cream and be the “judges” in conflicts between the pro-Assad/Iran forces and their opponents.

A tank flying the Hezbollah terror group’s flag is seen in the Qara area in Syria’s Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017.(AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)

Second, the Americans agreed that Shiite (pro-Iranian) militias would have to stay 10 miles from the border with the Israeli Golan and Jordan, and not the 20 miles buffer Washington and Amman had initially sought.

According to the report, the buffer zone in some places will be only five miles.

If the report is true, once can’t help but feel that the Trump administration has turned its back on Israel’s security.

But it’s not only Trump who should be blamed. Iran’s massive investments are likely an outgrowth of increased financial stability thanks to the Iran nuclear deal, reached under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama.

The Iranian army’s budget is now $23 billion and the Revolutionary Guards have seen an approximately 40 percent bump in their budget compared to last year.

Without sanctions relief, could Tehran have even dreamed of building a new Persian Empire, stretching from Yemen to Lebanon, via Iraq and Syria?

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