AnalysisTehran tries to redraw the Mideast map; Israel won't let it

Israel-Iran conflict exposes bleeding edge of a war for the entire Middle East

Jerusalem has taken a leading role in a campaign to halt what Sunnis see as an attempt by Tehran to carve out an empire across the region; expect the fighting to only get worse

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.

In this photo provided by the Iranian Army November 5, 2018, soldiers carry the wreckage of a drone during drills in Semnan, Iran. (Iranian Army via AP)
In this photo provided by the Iranian Army November 5, 2018, soldiers carry the wreckage of a drone during drills in Semnan, Iran. (Iranian Army via AP)

The success of Israel’s security forces, intelligence bodies and air force in thwarting Iran’s plans to carry out a high-profile attack using drones launched from Syria is far from the last we will see of the war that has been raging in the Middle East in recent years.

This is not an Iranian-Israeli clash or war over the future of Syria. The events of the past week only underline the wide-reaching extent of this fight, which is sometimes waged covertly and sometimes breaks into the open: Attacks reportedly carried out by Israel on Shiite militias in Iraq; Iranian plans to launch UAVs from Syria into Israel as revenge; two drones going down in Hezbollah stronghold Dahiyeh in southern Beirut early Sunday; and all the while a surfeit of attacks carried out by the Houthis, Iran’s allies in Yemen, against various Saudi Arabian targets.

In Israel, they refer to all of this as a fight between wars. Sunni Arab states, though, see Iran literally trying to create a modern Persian empire stretching anywhere there are Shiites.

Tehran, under the guidance of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and military leadership of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, is trying to overturn the old and familiar structure of the Middle East and redraw the map of the region.

Lebanese security stand near the site where an Israeli drone was said to have crashed in a stronghold of the Lebanese Hezbollah group, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

The Sunni-Shiite war has brought about a sea change in the way Israel is treated in the region, at least among Sunni rulers. A defense strategy based on the Israeli-Arab conflict has been pushed to the side (at least for now) in favor of one in which Israel has de facto taken on a leading role in a Sunni campaign against Iran as part of a Muslim religious war.

A picture taken during a guided tour with the Saudi military on June 13, 2019, shows the damage on the roof of Abha airport in the popular mountain resort of the same name in southwest Saudi Arabia, a day after a Yemeni rebel missile attack on the civil airport wounded 26 civilians. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

True, the UAE, Saudis and sometimes others take part in the fighting in Yemen against the Houthis, but slowing Iran’s advance in the massive geographical theaters of Iraq and Syria has become mainly an Israeli mission.

But even the string of Israeli successes in these areas is not expected to stop Iran from spreading out. Tehran has been beholden in recent years to a doctrine that focuses on exercising control in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and beyond.

Iran has tough financial problems and hardships faced by the average citizen like rising prices, poverty, drugs and prostitution in large cities, but these all take a backseat to the megalomaniacal games played by Soleimani and his IRGC buddies.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran, September 18, 2016. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Billions of dollars are spent keeping arms flowing to Hezbollah in Lebanon, putting bases in Syria, waging endless war against the Saudis in Yemen and, of course, sending thousands of freelance militiamen, including from Pakistan and Afghanistan, to build up Shiite strongholds in Iraq.

But Israel is not going to just allow the Iranians to put a foothold where they want. And this means that the level of fighting between Iran and Israel will only ratchet higher and higher. Along the way, it may change shape in some ways; it’s eminently possible that, instead of drones, we’ll see an Iranian attempt to take revenge through some other sort of attack.

The contours of Israel’s actions may also shift away from the familiar routine of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq (according to foreign reports, of course; Israel doesn’t admit carrying them out).

Israel has shown more than once that it knows how to take out dominant Shiite-Iranian personalities, like Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh in 2008 and his son Jihad Mughniyeh in 2015.

Supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group hold portraits of its leader Hassan Nasrallah (R) and its former military chief Imad Mughniyeh during a protest in Beirut on December 11, 2017. (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)

According to American reports, while tracking the senior Mughniyeh, an opportunity opened up to assassinate Soleimani, but it was stopped by the US government, then under president George W. Bush.

Should the opportunity to hit Soleimani present itself to the US or Israel now, it’s unlikely there would be anyone in either government to call off the attack again.

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