Analysis: Increased Israel-Iran confrontations risk war

US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed an agreement reiterating their opposition to Iranian nuclear weapons (Evelyn Hockstein - Reuters)

Thomas O. Falk

Al-Jazeera  /  July 26, 2022

Regional tensions will continue even if the nuclear deal between Iran and the West is restored.

The tension between Iran and Israel continues to grow, and with the nuclear deal between Tehran and the West looking increasingly unlikely to be restored, further escalation might be a possibility.

Events last month in Turkey highlight the seriousness of the situation.

Five Iranians, who were reportedly tasked with assassinating a former Israeli diplomat and other Israeli citizens in Turkey, were arrested by a Turkish special unit in Istanbul, although Iran denied any involvement.

And last week, Iran arrested what it said was a Mossad cell suspected of attempting to carry out attacks on sensitive sites in the country.

Meanwhile, Iran and the United States continue to trade accusations about who is to blame for the deadlock in nuclear deal negotiations.

In Tehran, the position towards the nuclear deal is largely the same as before, Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said.

“The overall position has not changed, but in the Doha round [of negotiations in June], Iran did drop the demand to have the IRGC delisted from the US terror list,” Parsi told Al-Jazeera, referring to the elite Iranian military unit. “But this was insufficient to generate a breakthrough as the Iranians still insist on mechanisms to make a second US exit [from the deal] more difficult.”

The US had unilaterally withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under former President Donald Trump in 2018.

“It’s no secret that Israel always opposed the JCPOA. In Israel’s eyes, representatives of Iran often openly express intentions to annihilate the Jewish state, while the financial support of Israel’s enemies, Hamas or Hezbollah, which regularly attack Israel, furthers the distrust. Above all, the political situation in the US has exacerbated the status quo,” Parsi said.

“We are, in many ways, in a worse situation than in 2015. Even if the JCPOA is revived, the manner in which [US President Joe] Biden has fumbled diplomacy leaves us in a position where neither side believes the deal will last longer than two years.”

That is because the element of the nuclear deal that allows for international oversight over Iran’s nuclear-related imports will end in 2025, meaning that even if the two sides agree to restore the deal now, tensions are likely to ramp up again as 2025 approaches.

“As a result, the risk of a full-scale war between Israel and Iran will be much higher than in 2015, even if Biden returns the US to the agreement,” said Parsi.

Shadow war

Although Israel has never admitted to any attacks, it has been accused of engaging in a shadow war with Iran for years, mainly to slow down Iran’s nuclear program.

“Recent cyberattacks on Iranian infrastructure and air attacks on Iranian bases in Iraq and Syria have been attributed to Israel,” said Yaniv Voller, a senior lecturer in the politics of the Middle East at the University of Kent. “Behind the scenes, Israel has been striving to form a coalition with other regional powers to counter the Iranian threat.”

In 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian nuclear physicist, whom observers call the father of the nuclear program, was assassinated.

Others, including an engineer, a military officer, and an aeronautical scientist, have also died in recent month, with rumours abound that Israel has been involved.

Digital infrastructure has also broken down repeatedly.

A few weeks ago, the head of Tehran City Council blamed Israel for a cyberattack on the city government. A few days later, the passport control system at Tehran International Airport failed. In April last year, the electricity at the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant went out.

Despite all that, experts have doubts as to whether Israel’s alleged involvement has done anything to stop Iran’s efforts.

“None of these attacks have changed the trajectory of the Iranian program. It may have delayed certain aspects in the short term, but more often than not, Tehran has responded to these attacks by escalating its nuclear activities. So if the true goal has been to set back the program, the attacks have been utterly unsuccessful,” Parsi noted.

Indeed, Iran has been escalating the situation by shutting down cameras monitoring uranium enrichment at the Isfahan and Natanz nuclear plants.

Increase in attacks?

With the nuclear deal on the verge of failing, Tehran must expect further action.

The Israeli government openly talks about the implementation of the Octopus Doctrine, which stipulates that Israel will no longer only attack its enemy’s allies, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah or the Palestinian group Hamas but also representatives of the Iranian power apparatus itself.

It is hard to predict whether the complicated situation will lead the Iranian leadership to be more cooperative in negotiations for a nuclear deal or to block it. Information about meaningful processes of the JCPOAs status quo is not available.

However, Biden’s recent visit to Israel has likely added a new level of complexity.

Via the Jerusalem Declaration, the US pledged that Iran would never possess nuclear weapons and that both states would use all available means to stop Iran.

In plain language, this means that the shadow war could become even more intense.

“Israeli officials have declared that Israel will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapon capabilities,” Voller said. “They have not specified the means but have emphasized that Israel can stop the Iranians from achieving nuclear weapons. These officials have stopped short of threatening a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities but have signaled that all options are on the table if the JCPOA negotiations fail.”

What measures Israel is inclined to take moving forward is anyone’s guess.

However, the effect of such action will likely determine Iran’s response, which, in the worst case, could have dire implications for the whole region, Parsi believes.

“If the Israeli attack causes limited damage, it is plausible that Tehran will play the victim card, escalate its program further, and potentially withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty rather than retaliate militarily,” Parsi said. “If the attack is more successful, then the risk of a wider war is quite likely with numerous partners of Iran participating in the retaliatory attack against Israel, and potentially other countries in the region if they played a role in the Israeli attack.”

Thomas O. Falk is a journalist and political commentator