What a difference two years make in the Middle East — and it affects US security
I recently traveled with unfettered access to Israel and the Palestinian territories for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In some ways, the adage applies: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Meeting with Fatah and Palestinian Authority leaders, I found their talking points have not changed to accommodate new realities. Their people still consider them sclerotic and corrupt, and their popularity plummeted after the Gaza War in May. Their archenemy Hamas has risen in popularity, to become perceived as the true defenders of Jerusalem.
During the war called “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” Hamas’s defeat was underappreciated among American analysts. Israeli smart bombs devastated Hamas’s underground tunnel network that crisscrossed Gaza. Considering how Hamas had intertwined missiles and tunnels, the loss of civilian life was dramatically below what other armies have accomplished in urban warfare. The U.S. and its allies should analyze this war to find ways to achieve results while minimizing civilian casualties.
Two years ago, Iran was not as physically entrenched in Syria as it is today. Iran’s hegemonic expansion was to surround Israel with proxies, to make Israel think twice before contemplating a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Iran’s primary arm is Hezbollah in Lebanon, but Hezbollah’s mismanagement as the de facto master of the Lebanese state has caused a near economic collapse; the country may be on the verge of civil war. This is a significant difference in two years.
And two years ago, the Trump administration believed that turning Syria over to Russia would lure Russia into a quagmire. But the Russians are too wise to be trapped. They have gained what they wanted from the Syrian civil war. They have become the go-to power in the Middle East, to manage all the players while balancing Russian interests. Since the war essentially ended a couple of years ago, their significant accomplishment is an expanded port in Tartus on the Mediterranean and an advanced airbase in Latakia.
Russia’s new power base threatens American allies in the ever-important Mediterranean basin with its massive fossil fuel potential. Now Russia needs stability to solidify its gains, but it won’t put boots on the ground to remove Iran. Russia will coordinate with Israel, allowing it to strike Iranian proxies, but will remind Israel not to cross any “red lines” that undermine its interests.
The elephant in the room is the upcoming seventh round of nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. A couple of years ago, Iran’s uranium enrichment was under 20 percent but today it is close to weapons-grade, 90 percent-enriched. Iran’s clandestine nuclear developments are profoundly different from just two years ago.
On the political front, Iran’s leadership has become even more hardline. Its new president, Ebrahim Raisi, may be more to the right than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and he is the leading candidate to replace the ailing ayatollah. Raisi is in lockstep with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Iranian stormtroopers operating at home and abroad.
This means the time may be coming for Israel to put up or shut up, regarding a strike on Iran — and that’s something that could set the region on fire. Publicly, the Israeli government speaks with one voice that Iran is “an existential threat” that cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons. However, the Israelis lament their missed opportunities to act, in 2007 and 2012, when success was much more attainable but was thwarted by a manipulated American national security estimate and a contentious Israeli security council.
Could Israel effectively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities? Most experts with whom I spoke say “Yes,” but they believe Israel needs at least six more months to prepare.
Americans and Israelis define success from different perspectives. Americans want solutions, but there are no final resolutions with the Iranian nuclear program. Nobody should have the illusion that this will solve the Iran problem. There is no key to unlocking stability in the Middle East. Our goal is to lower the heat and look for opportunities to ally with new friends. That has not changed in two years.
Surprisingly, some experts today believe Israel can live in mutually assured destruction (MAD) with Iran, as long as Iran believes Israel would not hesitate to tap its nuclear arsenal. These experts do not say the revolutionary Shiism that motivates Iran is analogous to the atheist Soviet Union, but that the tactic of MAD can work if Israel is perceived as being strong.
Israel is planning a massive investment to make a nuclear strike possible. Real or perceived, a potential strike is a necessary part of a strategy to limit Iran’s aggressive behavior throughout the region. Israel’s security and intelligence experts with whom I spoke say the small U.S. base in Al-Tanf, Syria, which houses 400 to 1,000 American service members, remains important — not just for its tactical value but also for what it represents to America’s allies, especially after the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The U.S. base blocks an essential access road for Iran to deliver weapons to our enemies. And although we have not suffered significant casualties there, an Iranian-directed attack last month could have killed U.S. soldiers if not for an Israeli intelligence warning to our troops just hours before the attack.
Now that the U.S. has retreated from Afghanistan to defensive bases in Iraq, Israel’s unique intelligence sources have become much more critical to American security than they were just two years ago. With Israel’s incorporation into U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), its information helps to keep our troops safer and improves our strategic and tactical decision-making.
Two years in the Middle East can seem like a lifetime and the patience of America’s enemies in the region can last for decades — even centuries. We must adapt our strategy to the timetable our enemies use.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides and is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post.