According to Hebrew TV news reports on Wednesday night, Iran was literally minutes away from launching a salvo of missiles into northern Israel late Tuesday when an airstrike attributed to Israel eliminated the threat. Eight Iranians were among the 15 reported fatalities in the strike at a base in Kisweh, south of Damascus.
Israel patently does not believe the danger of an Iranian strike has passed — public bomb shelters in the north are being opened, the IDF chief of staff toured the north on Wednesday, Iron Dome rocket defense systems are being deployed and tanks are heading north.
But the Iranians, who launched a drone carrying explosives into Israel from Syria three months ago, are since being battered there by intermittent airstrikes attributed to Israel, which evidently maintains air supremacy and extremely effective intelligence-gathering and is adamant that it will not allow Iran to establish a serious military presence in President Bashar Assad’s bloody, anarchic country.
To date, Iran’s relentless efforts to deepen its military foothold in Syria would appear to have been tolerated by the real powerbroker in that country, Russia.
But there, too, Wednesday brought more negative indications for Tehran: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin with particular pomp and circumstance.
Netanyahu, who was received at a ceremony where Israel’s national anthem was played, spent several hours in Putin’s company and was at the president’s side for Russia’s annual Victory Day Parade, which this year marked 73 years since the Red Army defeat of Nazi Germany.
The prime minister paid respectful tribute to the “tremendous sacrifice by the Russian people and the sacrifice of the Red Army in defeating the Nazi monster” and paralleled that Nazi threat to the danger posed to the Jewish state today by Iran: “We don’t forget the great lesson of the need to face murderous ideology in time,” he told his host. “It is hard to believe, but 73 years after the Holocaust there is a country in the Middle East, Iran, that is calling for the destruction of six million Jews.”
A warm welcome and plenty of Putin time is no guarantee of practical measures on the ground, but as Netanyahu headed home from Russia on Wednesday evening, he was indicating that he did not believe Israel’s air supremacy in the skies over Syria was going to be compromised. Time will tell whether Russia reins in the Iranians in Syria, but Netanyahu evidently believes Putin is not about to stop Israel reining them in.
Putin was hosting Netanyahu hours after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. It’s an agreement Putin emphatically supports, and that Netanyahu emphatically despises. If Iran had hoped that their differences over the deal would prompt Putin to keep Netanyahu at arm’s length, the prime minister’s Moscow visit showed the opposite.
Meanwhile, Trump on Wednesday warned Iran of “very severe consequences” were it to resume its nuclear program. Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was predictably dismissive of the US president, calling the statement in which Trump announced he was withdrawing the US from the nuclear deal on Tuesday full of lies, “silly and superficial,” and warning the US president that he was making a big mistake.
Is Iran about to call Trump’s bluff? President Hassan Rouhani has hinted that Iran may consider resuming uranium enrichment. Is Iran going to keep trying to strike at Israel from Syria, even if Putin is disapproving? The Israeli assessment is almost certainly yes.
But for all its public derision of the Trump administration, its relentless efforts to weaken Israel, and its undimmed strategy of regional expansion, these are challenging days for the ruthless Iranian regime.
Which may well make it all the more dangerous.
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