By John R Bradley,
The Daily Mail, 1 May 2018
TRUMP ON TRIAL:
Will he play fair to Iran or suck up to Netanyahu, giving Israel the war it wants?
Tensions between arch-enemies Israel and Iran once again threaten to plunge the two countries into direct military conflict – one that could all too easily lead to a new and terrifyingly unpredictable regional war.
In a flash, such a conflict could drag in other major regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and the Lebanese-based Shia militia Hezbollah, which are aligned militarily with the Middle East’s two main opposing power brokers, the United States and Russia.
On Sunday, a ferocious Israeli missile strike on alleged Iranian military bases in Syria reportedly killed dozens of soldiers.
It is true that Israel has launched more than 100 such strikes inside Syria since the barbaric civil war broke out in that country seven years ago, targeting both Iranian and Hezbollah forces sent to the country to help prop up President Assad’s regime, which is still technically at war with the Jewish state.
However, the latest attack was the most brazen and deadly yet.
It was followed yesterday by a dramatic claim from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he has proof the mullahs in Tehran have been secretly developing nuclear weapons, in blatant contravention of an internationally brokered deal – sealed by Barack Obama in 2015 – aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
It saw the lifting of crippling economic sanctions on Iran, in return for limitations to the country’s controversial nuclear energy programme.
Mr Netanyahu accused Iran of having a secret plan called ‘Project Amad’, whose goal is to produce five ten-kiloton nuclear weapons.
This unverified claim will of course have been music to the ears of Donald Trump and the anti-Iran hawks the President has surrounded himself with in the White House.
Even before this dramatically theatrical display from Israel, Mr Trump appeared determined to scrap the controversial nuclear deal next month, because he sees it as being fatally flawed. The deal is still strongly backed by Britain, the EU, Russia, China and the UN-sponsored watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency. All remain adamant that inspections show Iran has and continues to abide by its principles.
Indeed, during a visit to the White House last week, French president Emmanuel Macron urged Mr Trump to stick to the agreement – echoing similar pleas by Theresa May and Angela Merkel.
But is Mr Trump listening more closely to his old friend Mr Netanyahu?
What we do know is that, as the deadline nears for Mr Trump’s decision on whether to re-ratify the nuclear deal, unprecedented threats and counter-threats of death and destruction are being hurled between Tehran and Tel Aviv.
In the past few weeks, each has promised to destroy the other’s major cities if threatened, raising fears that the proxy war they have been waging in Syria may soon explode into a direct military confrontation.
We should remember that over the past few decades Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly, but erroneously, suggested that Iran is just months away from declaring it has developed a nuclear weapon. Still, it is easy to see why he is so paranoid. Since the revolution in 1979 brought the Shia Islam mullahs to power, the Tehran regime has proudly promoted the destruction of Israel as its top foreign policy objective.
Worse for Israel, the civil war in Syria has resulted in thousands of Iranian fighters joining thousands more militia men from Hezbollah, Iran’s main regional Shia ally, which has already fought numerous wars with Israel.
Their ostensible aim was to help Assad fight Islamic State and other Islamist rebel groups, but that brutal experience means they are now battle-hardened, armed to the hilt and entrenched right on the Jewish state’s border.
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Until now, Russia – which is allied with Assad, Iran and Hezbollah, but also has warm relations with Israel – has played a delicate diplomatic balancing act, backing Israel’s enemies while turning a blind eye to the Jewish state attacks against them in Syria.
But Russian leader Vladimir Putin recently signalled his patience with Mr Netanyahu had run out, and he has promised to deliver the advanced S-300 air defence missile system to Assad to help him defend against such aerial attacks. Israel responded by saying that any such system would be destroyed before it could become operational.
PUTIN’S PATIENCE WITH NETANYAHU IS RUNNING OUT
It is easy to see, then, why the price of oil is soaring on the back of Mr Netanyahu’s claims yesterday. It’s a sign that the international markets are afraid supply will be disrupted by strife and conflict in the region.
The great fear for diplomats around the world is that, if Mr Trump does decide to withdraw from the nuclear deal and reimposes sanctions, Israel will launch unilateral strikes against what it says are Iran’s nuclear facilities. That would almost certainly provoke a devastating military response – not just from Tehran, but also its allies in Syria and Lebanon.
And if that happens, it will take a massive effort of will to stop America and Russia coming to the aid of their allies – at which point the risks of a global conflict will rise sharply. Once again, the tinder box Middle East threatens to drag two of the world’s great powers to the edge of the abyss.
John R. Bradley has written four books on the Middle East.