Sensing a shift in power dynamic, Iran steps up shadow war with Israel

A seemingly emboldened Tehran may be upping its aggressive posture in the region in order to press its nuke talks position and test new leaders in Washington and Jerusalem

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Lebanese soldiers stand next to a truck carrying a multiple rocket launcher after confiscating it, in the southern village of Shouayya, on August 6, 2021 (Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)
Lebanese soldiers stand next to a truck carrying a multiple rocket launcher after confiscating it, in the southern village of Shouayya, on August 6, 2021 (Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

As the Middle East sweats through an August heatwave, temperatures are rising rapidly in the long-running conflict between Israel and Iran.

A decade of shadowboxing between the two, marked by mysterious acts of suspected sabotage and attacks by proxy groups, has intensified in recent months, threatening to bring the regional rivals to the brink of direct warfare.

The ratcheted up conflict has been the result of a seemingly emboldened Iran stepping up actions against Israel or Israeli linked assets, such as a deadly drone strike on the Mercer Street tanker, managed by a company owned by an Israeli, near Oman late last month.

On Friday, hostilities appeared to reach a new peak when Iranian proxy Hezbollah fired 19 rockets into northern Israel, the heaviest such barrage since the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

The increasingly hot war comes at a conspicuous time for Iran: Tehran swore in new hardline president Ebrahim Raisi on Thursday, and talks with Western powers on resuming the 2015 nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which appeared to be steaming ahead earlier this summer, suddenly appear stalled.

To some, Iran’s actions appear designed to maximize its negotiating position and tell the world it won’t be pushed over or forced into curtailing its proxies abroad.

“I think Iran wants to show it’s not going to talk about its regional presence,” said Ori Goldberg of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya’s Lauder School of Government. “The Iranians want a clear separation of the nuclear issue.”

Israel, which is also under relatively new management, has seemingly also attempted to maximize its bid to either torpedo the JCPOA or expand it to also curtail Iranian missile development and proxy activity. This has meant letting loose with bellicose rhetoric overtly threatening Iran with all out war, and letting the US know it is doing so, while also redoubling efforts to enlist the international community to its cause, a quest some see as quixotic.

“A new international coalition against Iran is not in the offing,” said Henry Rome, senior analyst at the Eurasia Group. “The US and UK may bolster naval forces that patrol the region through the International Maritime Security Construct. British press reporting has also indicated London may conduct a cyber operation in response, which would probably be designed to have limited spillover or escalatory effects. The US will also likely accelerate pre-existing plans to levy new sanctions related to Iran’s drone and missile program.”

“Ultimately, though, this will likely prove too little for Israel, which will find its own way to retaliate,” he predicted.

An opportunity for Iran

Not all observers believe the regional escalation is directly tied to the nuclear talks.

“Iran manages several campaigns in parallel,” said Raz Zimmt, an Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Though there are some influences between the campaigns, not everything is tied into the nuclear issue.”

The Iranian escalation comes as Tehran sense an opportunity to assert their dominance in the Gulf, while also testing new administrations in Jerusalem and Washington.

“I think they feel that they have sort of control right now,” said Moran Zaga, an expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

Saudi Arabia, long a regional rival, is in talks with Iran over a way out of the Yemen civil war and has little interest in rocking the boat by responding to Tehran’s aggression. The UAE, meanwhile, would rather ignore the hubbub and maintain a façade of stability to continue to attract investment and diversify their economy.

In this Aug. 22, 2020 file photo, tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels raise their weapons during a protest against the agreement to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP/Hani Mohammed, File)

“Today, none of the Gulf countries are in a position where they can respond directly to the attacks,” said Zaga.

Israel’s clear preference is that the international community — specifically the US, France and the UK — lead the effort against Iran’s nuclear program and its support for armed proxy groups in the region.

Last week, Foreign Minister Yair  Lapid  said he had ordered Israeli diplomats to push for UN action against “Iranian terrorism.”

“What is the international community going to do about it?” he asked ambassadors from countries on the UN Security Council Wednesday. “Is there still such a thing as international law? And does the world have the ability and willpower to enforce the law? If the answer is yes, the world should act now.”

But Israel shouldn’t expect anyone else to take the lead.

The British are not about to strike Iran militarily for attacks on shipping, and certainly not to stop Iran’s nuclear program. After Iranian seizures of a British oil tanker in 2019 and even Navy personnel in 2007, the UK opted not to respond militarily at all.

If the British do act, it will likely be in the diplomatic or economic spheres.

“In the UK’s case, there is a preference to say that if you cause the UK problems in one area, we will demonstrate a capacity to cause you problems in a seemingly unrelated area,” explained Jack Watling, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the United Kingdom.

US President Joe Biden holds up a face mask as he delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House on July 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

The Biden administration also has no appetite for a military strike, which could kill the JCPOA talks and could add another headache for a White House already dealing with a resurgent pandemic and other pressing domestic issues that could hurt Democrats in next year’s mid-term election.

“The shadow of November 2022 hangs over this issue,” explained Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and past deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council. “As much as the American public is averse to entanglements in the Middle East, it is also to averse to abject surrender.”

Anticipating the possibility of Israel being on its own, some believe that Tehran and Hezbollah are trying to get a read on Israel’s new leadership.

“If they want to put an end to the rocket fire they could,” said Lerman. “Bennett and Lapid are being tested.”

Hezbollah fires rockets toward Israel on July 8, 2021 (Screencapture)

But this is a recipe for an explosion. The last time Hezbollah thought it could push what it thought of as an untested leadership, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and then-defense minster Amir Peretz surprised Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah by choosing war in 2006.

“Unless the Iranians come to their senses, we are getting closer to the point where the military option in some variation, could become very real,” said Lerman.

Why compromise?

Biden and his top aides have repeatedly expressed their desire to find a way back to the 2015 JCPOA deal with Iran. The Biden administration has even shown itself willing to allow Iran access to frozen assets abroad, which Iran has dismissed as an empty gesture.

But Iran’s aggressive and often ham-fisted negotiating has driven the sides apart, and it is not at all clear the gaps can still be bridged.

The equation for a deal seems straightforward: Iran rolls back its nuclear program to the terms laid out in great detail by the JCPOA, while the US rolls back most Trump-era sanctions.

But Iran — or at least the hardline elements around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — is demanding more. Tehran wants all the sanctions removed, including those dealing with terrorism and other non-nuclear issues.

Left to right: Kazem Gharib Abadi, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); Abbas Araghchi, Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran; and Enrique Mora, Deputy Secretary-General and Political Director of the European External Action Service (EEAS), at the Grand Hotel where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (AP/Lisa Leutner)

The lack of response from the West might make Tehran dig in its heels even deeper.

“It matters in Vienna,” said Jon Ruhe, Director of Foreign Policy at The Jewish Institute for National Security of America.  “If Washington and London simply keep trying to avoid pushing back against Iran’s regional aggression – even as that aggression picks up pace, and even as the Biden administration says those attacks threaten US interests – why should Tehran ever compromise its maximalist demands at the nuclear talks?”

“The White House, in suggesting after Mercer Street that it’s still as ready as ever to resume diplomacy, is precisely the wrong message on this score,” he said. “Deterrence is fungible, but the administration seemingly has yet to internalize the connection between how it responds to Iranian aggression and how Tehran behaves at the negotiating table.”

With Raisi taking over for Rouhani, seen as a relative moderate, Iran’s negotiating position is likely to harden, though the direction Raisi wants to take the country will likely only start to crystalize once he presents his cabinet, which will happen in the next two weeks.

“There is a sense that Iran hasn’t made up its mind yet,” said Goldberg. “There is no master plan. The Iranians are being as reactive as they usually are.”

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