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You can't fight alone: The Middle East’s coming proxy war

Will a nuclear-ambitious Iran stand alone against a possible joint US-Israeli strike? The certain answer is no

Bassem Aly , Sunday 5 May 2013
Iran
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, left, chats with the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, before an official dinner in Damascus in 2010 (Photo: Reuters)
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The year 2008 saw the first round of diplomatic talks between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran over the latter’s controversial nuclear activities.

Five years on, the result of the equation remains zero, as Tehran insists on resuming its "peaceful" nuclear programme while world powers demand the total opposite.

At present, the military option remains a last option for the West, though the United States and Israel perceive Iranian ambitions as a threat to peace and stability in the region.

What network of regional alliances could the Islamic republic draw on to play a role if a war scenario were to unfold?

US or Israel: Who defines the 'redline'?

No one doubts that the United States and Israel share agreement on the issue.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that international endeavours to negotiate with Iran have “backfired,” giving it more time to work on building a bomb ahead of an awaited meeting between the European Union and Tehran this month.

Meanwhile, the US claimed Friday that Iranian attempts to obtain high-tech material linked to its nuclear programme are in violation of UN sanctions, Reuters reported.

Whether similar positions exist on the timing of the war decision remains in question. 

“If there is a need to launch a military operation to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, I think it will be the Americans pulling the trigger, not Israel,” Daniel Serwer, a former counselor with the US State Department, told Ahram Online.

Serwer pointed out that Israel does not have, and “will not have,” the capabilities possessed by the United States to destroy nuclear installations in Iran.

Just before the US presidential race last November, Democrats accused Netanyahu of pressing President Barack Obama to set "red lines" and stage a military strike on Iran. Obama stuck to his position of favouring a negotiated solution.

The US position, however, does not mean that Washington is standing silent, as it warned Iran that it could encounter further “international isolation” and economic sanctions in case it failed to address IAEA concerns about its atomic activities.

The American IAEA envoy, Joseph Macmanus, slammed Iran’s “provocative actions” in response to its recent installation of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges.  

For more than a year, the UN nuclear watchdog, located in Vienna, has been calling on Iran to give it access to sites, documents and officials as part of a delayed probe into the nuclear research programme of the oil-rich state.

“Israel is bluffing and I believe the United States knows that,” Ian Lustick, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, argued.

“Netanyahu will not order an attack on Iran unless Iran has nuclear weapons mounted on missiles aimed at Israel — something that I do not believe will actually occur.”

Lustick thought that talking about the red line is “one of many techniques” aimed at distracting international attention from the Palestinian question and encouraging Israelis to believe that the Iran threat is the primary problem in their lives they should be “worrying about.”

Hezbullah, Syria and Gulf States: Proxies on both sides

One thing is clear: a war on Iran would presage long-term instability, if not conflict, in the whole region.

As the US counts on Israel, along with its military bases in Gulf States, Iran is likely drawing its staunchest allies into the confrontation, being mainly Lebanon’s Hezbullah movement and the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad.

Tehran issued a series of warning concerning the closure of the Strait of Hormuz and destroying US bases in the region “within minutes” of an attack.  

“As far as the Gulf States are concerned, while they are ostensibly hostile to Israel, they would be happy to see Iran falling down,” Musa Al-Gharbi, a research fellow at the Arizona-based Southwest Initiative for the Study of Mideast Conflicts, noted.

The US Pentagon said 15 March that an Iranian fighter jet tried to intercept a US Predator drone over the Gulf but backed off after facing two US military aircraft, AFP reported.

In November, an Iranian fighter jet fired at a Predator drone, provoking a strongly-worded protest from the United States.

“Barring a US decision to strike Iran, Israel has raised the prospect of 'going it alone.' But again, such a decision would be predicated on the assumption that a unilateral Israeli attack would invariably suck an unwilling US into a conflict with Iran in the Gulf region and the Strait of Hormuz,” Hugh Lovatt, Middle East researcher at London’s European Council on Foreign Relations, affirmed.

Netanyahu said in October that a drone aircraft that flew some 35 miles (55 kilometres) into Israel before being shot down was sent by Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbullah.

"Great job by Hezbullah," Iranian Defence Minister General Vahidi said, claiming Hezbullah’s right to launch the drone as Israeli warplanes routinely violate Lebanon's airspace.

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shia Hezbullah movement, warned that it would not be the last such operation targeting Israel, which has always expressed readiness to use force to prevent advanced Syrian weapons from reaching Hezbullah’s hands, including, some allege, the regime’s nuclear capacities.

“Israel feels confident that its 'Iron Dome' can handle missile strikes, be they from Iran or Gaza, especially if Turkey deploys its newly-installed Patriot batteries towards that end. For these reasons, they may deem it 'worth it' to strike at Iran,” Al-Gharbi accentuated.

Israel carried out an air strike targeting missiles in Syria bound for Hezbullah, an Israeli official revealed 4 May.

“Given that the current conflict in Syria has weakened the Syrian regime and disrupted Hezbullah’s ability to resupply itself financially and militarily, some in Israel may calculate that now is an opportune moment to strike Iran and in doing so settle old scores with Hezbullah should it be drawn into retaliation,” Lovatt said.

But Lovatt stated that any US action would not be likely until the current round of P5+1 diplomacy with Iran has run its course and the impact of Iranian elections scheduled for June 2013 becomes apparent.

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