The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 drastically changed the configuration of power in the Middle East. Since then, Iran, in particular, has increasingly been able to assert itself as a regional hegemon, through trade and energy exports, infrastructural projects, military interventions, and the development of strategic political partnerships with state and non-state actors, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. The extension of Iran’s reach is part of an effort to create systemic dependencies and resist attempts by its adversaries, notably the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, at isolating the country and shaping the regional order to their own advantage.
Iran’s growing power has led to tensions with its adversaries, Israel in particular. One major factor in this development has been the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the multilateral nuclear agreement between Iran, the European Union, and the permanent members of the UN Security Council in 2015. The much-hailed deal restricts Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from devastating sanctions. In the eyes of Israeli leaders, however, the agreement has worked to legitimize and rehabilitate Iran. What is more, amidst the carnage wrecked upon Syria since the outbreak of popular, anti-regime protests in 2011, Iran’s military and economic intervention in support of Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, has enabled it to establish a stronger presence on Israel’s doorstep.
As a result of these developments, Israel is looking to encourage the United States to kill the JCPOA and provoke a shift from an Iranian-Israeli “hit and run” shadow war to a devastating, all-out military conflict. The current American administration could not be more inclined to turn these dreams into reality for its Israeli friends. U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to turn back on the JCPOA and re-instate U.S. economic sanctions on Iran, and has set a deadline of May 12 to “fix” the terms of the agreement or withdraw. Hoping to ensure that Trump follows through on this threat, on Monday April 3o, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on Israeli television claiming to have groundbreaking information exposing Iranian deception leading up to the 2015 deal. The presentation has since been widely dismissed as theatrical and simply rehashing dated, already known information. Nevertheless, the move represents a desperate attempt to kill the JCPOA and drum up support for military escalation.
Arms depots in Syria were also hit this week, reportedly killing Iranian consultants stationed there. The attack is believed to have been launched by Israel in order to undermine, if not uproot, the Iranian military presence in the country. While Israel has conducted more than 100 cross-border strikes in Syria since 2011, its involvement has intensified over the past few months, hitting targets deep inside the country with increasing frequency. Just three weeks ago, Israel hit the T-4 Syrian airfield in Homs desert, which also reportedly resulted in Iranian casualties.
Perhaps most significantly, on Monday, while all eyes were on Netanyahu’s widely dismissed presentation, the Israeli Knesset voted in favor of amending an existing bill (62 to 41) in order to give the prime minister greater authority to declare war “under extenuating circumstances,” with the sole approval of the defense minister. Prior to the amendment, the prime minister was required to obtain consent from the entire Israeli cabinet. While the increased power applies only where “necessary due to urgency,” the bill does not make clear what would qualify as such an emergency scenario. According to critics, the amendment effectively removes “all oversight of the prime minister’s actions,” giving both Netanyahu and Lieberman the green light to launch a war with Iran.
There is currently no indication that opposition parties in Israel will make a petition against the bill to the High Court. In the meantime, Iran continues to consolidate its presence in Syria to protect the regime (and its own interests). If the United States decides to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal in the coming weeks, the momentum towards catastrophic war will only accelerate.