Just 40 years ago, Iran and Israel considered each other to be allies and had good relations. However, this was before the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which led to the two countries becoming mortal enemies.
This long-distance animosity became near-distance when Iran managed to push its influence close to Israel’s borders thanks to its allies in Syria and Lebanon.
The region shivered throughout the Israeli war in Lebanon in 2006 and then the Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2014. Now there are forecasts of more thunder to come, this time between Iran and Israel in a conflict that would be on an entirely different scale were it to come about.
Following the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011 and of the Syrian Revolution, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad found itself in need of allies, and the Iranian regime stepped in to support its Syrian allies.
This led to opportunities for the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to move into bases near the Syrian border with Israel, not only to fight the Islamic State (IS) group that had forces in the area, but also to confront civilians rising up against the dictatorship in Syria.
The war with IS ended, but the Iranian presence along with that of Iran’s associated militias continued in Syria. Israel found itself confronted by Iranian-backed militias across its borders, and, alarmed for its security, it proved willing to take military action to push them back even at the risk of a new regional escalation.
Over the past few months, several members of the IRGC have been killed by Israel military strikes aimed at Iranian bases in Syria.
Some have also seen Israel’s aggression against Iranian forces in Syria as linked to US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal with the West.
This was valuable for Iran, and despite threats made by Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that “if the US tears up the deal, we will also burn it at once,” no harsh reaction to the American withdrawal has yet come from Iran.
Not only has Iran not withdrawn from the deal, but Iranian officials are working hard to find a solution in case they can save the deal between themselves and the Europeans along with Russia and China as parties to this international treaty.
Without the United States as one of the most important partners in the Iran nuclear deal, it could collapse in months no matter how hard the Europeans want it to hold, however.
As major economic partners of the United States, it will be difficult for the UK, Germany and France to continue to do business with Iran if there is any chance of penalties against them from the US treasury or department of justice.
The West cannot force the private sector to engage with Iran if it does not wish to do so, or if it is fearful of US punishment.
Three years after the deal was made, most of the big European banks are still hesitant about working with Iran despite EU encouragement.
China and Russia are a different story as their economies are less related to the US.
There are obvious difficulties in working with Iran when trade in dollars and through the international banking system is forbidden, but these countries could find a way through their own local banks and local currencies of working with Iran.
However, such trade would likely mean Iran having to import goods in exchange for oil rather than paying for them in cash.
Many are asking how Iran has reached this stage after all the hard work done by the international community to reach the nuclear agreement in 2015.
It is possible that pressure from the region and from Israel led to Trump’s abandoning the deal rather than working to try to fix it.
Perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin will now also want to find a new role for the Iran-backed militias in Syria, as he hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a World War Two memorial ceremony last week.
Netanyahu succeeded in changing Putin’s mind about sending an S-300 anti-missile system to Syria, and perhaps the two men also agreed to limit the Iranian presence and Iranian heavy military equipment in Syria, including the ballistic missiles used against Israel.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif is doing his best to save the nuclear deal, of course with the permission of Iran’s supreme leader.
Iran does not object to continuing to abide by the nuclear deal as long as it can sell its oil, even if one of the chair’s legs is missing and it has to sit somewhat uncomfortably in the absence of the US.
If the oil embargo returns, and China as the biggest single buyer of Iran’s oil also hesitates to do business with Tehran, then Iran would be better off leaving the deal and waiting for a new approach from the Trump administration.
Zarif was in Russia on Monday where he met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, and on Tuesday he headed to Brussels to meet EU foreign ministers.
Iran wants to save the nuclear deal even if it means its withdrawal from Syria, explaining its silence over the recent Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in the country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Trying to save the deal