Iran’s chess board
Strategic thinking has always been Israel’s Achilles’ heel. As a small state bereft of regional ambitions, so long as regional realities remained more or less static, Israel had little reason to be concerned about the great game of the Middle East.
But the ground is shifting in the lands around us. The Arab state system, which ensured the strategic status quo for decades, has collapsed.
So for the first time in four generations, strategy is again the dominant force shaping events that will impact Israel for generations to come.
To understand why, consider two events of the past week.
Early this week it was reported that after a two-year hiatus, Iran is restoring its financial support for Islamic Jihad. Iran will give the group, which is largely a creation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, $70 million.
On Wednesday Iranian media were the first to report on the arrest of a “reporter” for Iran’s Al-Alam news service. Bassam Safadi was arrested by Israel police in his home in Majdal Shams, the Druse village closest to the border with Syria on the Golan Heights. Safadi is suspected of inciting terrorism.
That is, he is suspected of being an Iranian agent.
There is nothing new about Iranian efforts to raise and run fronts against Israel within its territory and along its borders. Iran poses a strategic threat to Israel through its Hezbollah surrogate in Lebanon, which now reportedly controls the Lebanese Armed Forces.
In Gaza, Iran controls a vast assortment of terrorist groups, including Hamas.
In Judea and Samaria, seemingly on a weekly basis we hear about another Iranian cell whose members were arrested by the Shin Bet or the IDF.
But while we are well aware of the efforts Iran is making along our borders and even within them to threaten Israel, we have not connected these efforts to Iran’s actions in Iraq and Syria. Only when we connect Iran’s actions here with its actions in those theaters do we understand what is now happening, and how it will influence Israel’s long-term strategic environment.
The big question today is what will replace the Arab state system.
Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya no longer exist. On their detritus we see the fight whose results will likely determine the fates of the surviving Arab states, as well as of much of Europe and the rest of the world.
Israel’s strategic environment will be determined in great part by the results of Iran’s actions in Iraq and Syria. While Israel can do little to affect the shape of events in these areas, it must understand what they mean for us. Only by doing so, will we be able to develop the tools to secure our future in this new strategic arena.
Until 2003, Saddam Hussein was the chief obstacle to Iran’s rise as the regional hegemon.
US forces in Iraq replaced Hussein until they left the country in 2011. In the meantime, by installing a Shi’ite government in Baghdad, the US set the conditions for the rise of Islamic State in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province on the one hand, and for Iran’s control over Iraq’s Shi’ite-controlled government and armed forces on the other.
Today, ISIS is the only thing checking Iran’s westward advance. Ironically, the monstrous group also facilitates it. ISIS is so demonic that for Americans and other Westerners, empowering Iranian-controlled forces that fight ISIS seems a small price to pay to rid the world of the fanatical scourge.
As former US naval intelligence analyst J.E. Dyer explained this week in an alarming analysis of Iran’s recent moves in Iraq published on the Liberty Unyielding website, once Iranian- controlled forces defeat ISIS in Anbar province, they will be well placed to threaten Jordan and Israel from the east. This is particularly the case given that ISIS is serving inadvertently as an advance guard for Iran.
In Syria, Iran already controls wide swaths of the country directly and through its surrogates, the Syrian army, Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias it has fielded in the country.
Since the start of the war in Syria, Israel has repeatedly taken action to block those forces from gaining and holding control over the border zone on the Golan Heights.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising recent announcement that Israel will never relinquish control over the Golan came in response to his concern that in exchange for a cease-fire in Syria, the US would place that control on the international diplomatic chopping block.
A week and a half ago, Iran began its move on Anbar province.
On May 22, Iraqi forces trained by the US military led Iraq’s offensive to wrest control over Fallujah and Mosul from ISIS, which has controlled the Sunni cities since 2014. Despite the fact that the lead forces are US-trained, the main forces involved in the offensive are trained, equipped and directed by Iran.
As Iraqi forces surrounded Fallujah in the weeks before the offensive began, Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds forces, paid a public visit to the troops to demonstrate Iran’s dominant role.
The battle for Fallujah is a clear indication that Iran, rather than the US, is calling the shots in Iraq. According to media reports, the Pentagon wanted and expected for the forces to be concentrated in Mosul. But at the last minute, due to Soleimani’s intervention, the Iraqi government decided to make Fallujah the offensive’s center of gravity.
The Americans had no choice but to go along with the Iranian plan because, as Dyer noted, Iran is increasingly outflanking the US in Iraq. If things follow their current course, in the near future, Iran is liable to be in a position to force the US to choose between going to war or ceasing all air operations in Iraq.
On May 7, Asharq al-Awsat reported that the Revolutionary Guards is building a missile base in Suleimaniyah province, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
A senior IRGC general has made repeated visits to the area in recent weeks, signaling that the regime views this as an important project. The report further stated that Iran is renewing tunnel networks in the region, built during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
Dyer warned that depending on the type of missiles Iran deploys – or has deployed – to the base, it may threaten all US air operations in Iraq. And the US has no easy means to block Iran’s actions.
To date, commentators have more or less agreed that US operations in Iraq and Syria make no sense. They are significant enough to endanger US forces, but they aren’t significant enough to determine the outcome of the war in either territory.
But there may be logic to this seemingly irrational deployment that is concealed from view. A close reading of David Samuels’s profile of President Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes published last month in The New York Times, points to such a conclusion.
Samuels described Rhodes as second only to Obama in his influence over US foreign and defense policy. Rhodes boasted to Samuels that Obama’s moves toward Iran were determined by a strategic course he embraced before he entered office.
A fiction writer by training, Rhodes’s first “national security” job was as the chief note taker for the Iraq Study Group.
Then-president George W. Bush appointed the group, jointly chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, in 2006, to advise him on how to extricate the US from the war in Iraq.
In late 2006, the ISG published its recommendations.
Among other things, the ISG recommended withdrawing US forces from Iraq as quickly as possible. The retreat was to be enacted in cooperation with Iran and Syria – the principle sponsors of the insurgency.
The ISG argued that if given the proper incentives, Syria and Iran would fight al-Qaida in Iraq in place of the US. For such action, the ISG recommended that the US end its attempts to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
Responsibility for handling the threat, the ISG recommended, should be transferred to the US Security Council.
So, too, the ISG recommended that Bush pressure Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria in the framework of a “peace process.”
Such action too would serve to convince Iran and Syria that they could trust the US and agree to serve as its heirs in Iraq.
Bush of course, rejected the ISG’s recommendations. He decided instead to sue for victory in Iraq. Bush announced the surge in US forces shortly after the ISG published its report.
But now we see, that through Rhodes the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation became the blueprint for a new US strategy of retreat and Iranian ascendance in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
The chief components of that strategy have already been implemented. The US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 left Iran as the new power broker in the country. The nuclear pact with Iran facilitated Iran’s transformation into the regional hegemon.
Against this strategic shift, the US’s minimalist campaigns in Iraq and Syria against ISIS make sense.
The US forces aren’t there to defeat ISIS, but to conceal Iran’s rise.
When ISIS is defeated in Anbar and in Raqqa in Syria, its forces are liable to turn west, to Jordan.
The US is currently helping Jordan to complete a border fence along its border with Iraq. But then ISIS is already active in Jordan.
And if events in Iraq and Syria are any guide, where ISIS leads, Iran will follow.
Iran’s strategic game, as well as America’s, requires Israel to become a strategic player.
We must recognize that what is happening in Iraq is connected to what is happening here.
We need to understand the implications of the working alliance Obama has built with Iran.
Even if Obama’s successor disavows his actions, by the time Obama leaves office, America’s options will be more limited than ever before. Without war, his successor will likely be unable to stem Iran’s rise on the ruins of the Arab state system.
In this new strategic environment, Israel must stop viewing Gaza, Judea and Samaria, the Golan Heights and Lebanon as standalone battlefields. We must not be taken in by “regional peace plans” that would curtail our maneuver room. And we must bear in mind these new conditions as we negotiate a new US military assistance package.
The name of the game today is chess. The entire Middle East is one great board. When a pawn moves in Gaza, it affects the queen in Tehran.
And when a knight moves in Fallujah, it threatens the queen in Jerusalem.