Israel is increasingly obsessed with a new strategic threat—the possibility that eventually it may have to fight a two-front, and even three-front, war against Iran and its proxies. According to Chagai Tzuriel, director general of Israel’s intelligence ministry, Iran is now negotiating with Damascus to build a base on the Mediterranean. He called Iran’s effort to build a land corridor and establish a permanent forward operating presence on the sea the “most important strategic development in the region.” All the rest, he said, was “noise.”
A corridor through Iraq that allows the Iranian regime to ship weapons and soldiers directly from Iran to proxies in Syria and Lebanon would be a strategic gain that puts Iran directly on two of Israel’s four borders. The most promising route for such a corridor, experts say, is from Iran’s border through southeastern Syria near Jordan’s border at a town called At-Tanf, where Iranian-backed Shiite forces and the Syrian army have been battling American-trained and -supported Syrian rebels.
“A corridor is more than a road,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, an Israeli national-security expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who knows both countries’ politics and vulnerabilities well. “It is shorthand for Iran’s success in changing disputed territories’ demography by pushing out Sunnis and replacing them with Shiite and other friendly minorities. It is Iran’s effort to develop energy, economic, and military ties with the local population, particularly along heavily disputed borders, and other means of establishing a permanent presence and Shiite dominance in the region.”
The potential peril of Iran’s ambitious, persistent effort to build a so-called land corridor between Tehran and its satellite Hezbollah in Lebanon is the paradoxical result of the impending victory of an improbable American-led coalition—which includes Shiite Iran and Russia—against the Islamic State, the Sunni extremists who once controlled territory the size of Britain in Iraq and Syria. Although the radical Sunnis face expulsion from the “caliphate” they declared two years ago, Iran has filled the vacuum, gaining political and military ground and invaluable operational experience that Israelis fear may enable the Islamic state to soon surround the Jewish state with hostile proxies. Heavily armed Hezbollah has long dominated Lebanon’s security establishment, and increasingly, its politics, to the point where it now seems fair to talk about state institutions like the Lebanese Armed Forces as operating under Hezbollah’s supervision, if not outright control.
Alarm about Iran’s growing influence and ability to project power, directly and indirectly, through its regional proxies was a persistent theme last week at the Herzliya Conference, an annual gathering of Israeli and foreign national-security experts in the eponymous Israeli city by the sea. While most analysts agreed that President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran has deferred the threat of an Iranian bomb by a decade, Iran’s desire to become the region’s superpower and project influence in the region through such a corridor has only grown stronger, they said.
At the conference and in interviews, veteran Israeli military and intelligence analysts agreed that Israel had not adequately dealt with the strategic threat posed by Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. In particular, Israel needed to do more to prevent Iran from creating such a corridor, or what King Abdullah of Jordan once called a Shiite “crescent” from Tehran to Beirut through Iraq and Syria. To do so, Israel needs to join forces with another improbable Saudi-promoted Sunni Arab coalition and rely on the United States to counter what several Israeli analysts described as Iran’s patient, coherent strategy to advance its interests in what was once seen as a vital part of the Sunni Arab heartland.
Iran’s goals in the region, said Shmuel Bar, a former intelligence analyst who now heads IntuView, an artificial-intelligence company that monitors the region’s media and provides strategic predictions, many of which have proved accurate, says that Tehran’s goals in the region are to solidify political control in Damascus, establish a permanent military presence in Syria, and build a strategic corridor from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, where Hezbollah holds sway. If successful, Iran will have its own “Proxystan” on the Israeli and Jordanian borders. An Iranian presence so close to Israel’s borders with Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, he said, could easily trigger a conflict in which Israel would be pounded simultaneously by artillery and rockets across two of its borders. “Israel can handle a two-front war,” said a senior official of Israel’s ministry of intelligence. “But at what cost?”
At the conference and in interviews, Israeli officials debated other indications that despite the restrictions fastened on the country’s nuclear program by the Iran Deal, the regime remains committed to becoming the region’s Islamic superpower and to weakening if not eradicating Israel. Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, director of Israeli military intelligence, confirmed a report in a Kuwaiti newspaper that the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps was establishing an indigenous weapons-production industry in Lebanon. Halevi disclosed that the IRGC had already opened several arms factories for Hezbollah, a development that senior Israeli officials called “unacceptable.”
Former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Hezbollah had already reinstalled as many as 150,000 rockets and missiles near Lebanon’s border, quantities that would overwhelm Israel’s sophisticated missile defenses. Faced with such a potential barrage, he said in an interview, Israel’s deterrence strategy needed to be changed, or “a clash is inevitable.” Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, said Iran has invested $800 million in supporting Hezbollah and provided $17 million to Hamas to help the Sunni militants who rule there maintain control. While Hezbollah had lost 1,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria and suffered some 800 wounded, its fighters and the IRGC had gained invaluable operational experience, he said.
A rare voice of strident dissent at the conference came from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who savagely criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his own speech to the conference. In a subsequent interview, he blasted the notion that Israel faced a strategic threat from Iran, which he called “ridiculous.”
“We are the strongest nation by far, militarily, in this region,” Barak said. “What Iran is doing is not good, but it’s not a strategic threat to us. Bibi,” he said, referring to the prime minister, “is simply inventing threats” to prevent Israel from being pressured into peace talks with the Palestinians and “to ensure that we are headed toward one state.”
It is far from clear that Iran’s alleged grand strategy to become the region’s Muslim superpower and demoralize Israel will succeed. “While this Humpty Dumpty of a Middle East cannot be put together again,” Bar said, a variety of geopolitical factors might prevent Iran from filling the vacuum left by the Islamic state. Russia, for one, which provides vital air support to President Bashar al-Assad’s army and the far-more-effective allied Shiite militias, is said to oppose Iran’s quest for a military base on the sea near its own facilities at Tartus and Latakia. The Saudis, who lead the new anti-Iranian coalition of Sunni Arab states, may be able to impede Iran’s expansion by wooing local players away from Iran and its proxies through financial and other incentives.
While Israel’s official policy toward the six-year war still raging in Syria remains one of nonintervention, Israel has stepped up its military and political responses to Iran’s perceived effort at encirclement. Diplomatically, it has embraced the U.S.-encouraged Sunni Arab coalition promoted by Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s newly designated crown prince. It has also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into fortifying border defenses with Lebanon and adopted more assertive military tactics. It has warned Lebanon that should rockets against Israel be launched, all of the country’s infrastructure, and not just Hezbollah’s military installations in the south, would be targeted in retaliatory raids.
At the border between Israel and Gaza, Israel has invested hundreds of millions of dollars burying sensors and deploying underground barriers down to the subterranean water level to prevent Iranian-supported Hamas from building new tunnels into Israel. At its Golan Heights border, it has launched strikes that have killed IRGC soldiers, said Ariel Levite, a former director general for policy of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission now with the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear-policy program.
Israel’s more assertive posture is aimed at signaling to Iran and its proxies that the Jewish state will do “whatever is necessary,” said Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, to prevent “special” weapons, or sophisticated, highly accurate arms that can change the strategic balance between Israel and its neighbors, from reaching Hezbollah or Hamas. It would also act assertively, he added, to prevent Iran and its proxies from encircling Israel with hostile forces—Hezbollah to its north in Lebanon, the IRGC and its allied Shiite militias to its east in Syria, and Hamas from the south in Gaza.
While intensifying its military operations and diplomatic efforts to thwart potential strategic peril, Netanyahu has concentrated on enforcing his administration’s so-called red lines against spillover from the conflict in Syria. In the past year, Israel has stepped up bombing of arms depots and convoys in Syria that are believed to be transporting to Hezbollah “special” weapons. On Saturday, two Syrian Army soldiers were killed when Israeli Air Force jets struck Syrian tank and missile sites after 10 rockets and missiles landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Netanyahu said the strike reiterated Israel’s unwillingness to accept intentional or accidental “drizzle” of fire or “spillover” from the Syrian war on any front.
But Netanyahu has resisted calls for even more aggressive military action—for instance, a call by some analysts at the Herzliya Conference for Israel to attack Hezbollah rocket and missile sites at the Lebanese border now, while its fighters are mired in Syria. But most analysts argued that Israel was incapable of confronting Iran’s expanding writ alone, and must rely on stronger powers—the U.S. and Russia—to counter Iranian aggression, “Israel understands the strategic threat posed by Iran,” said Brig. Gen. Herzog. “But Israelis also know that it needs the United States to counter Iran.”
But America’s likely response under President Donald Trump is most uncertain, said several Israelis who asked not to be quoted given the sensitive nature of U.S.-Israeli relations. They said that concerns about Iran had triggered a struggle within the Trump administration over whether American policy has been too narrowly focused on defeating the Islamic State.
Israelis have been pressing Trump to distance his administration from Russia, which provides vital air support to Syrian President Assad and to prevent Iran from establishing roads and other links that would enable the IRGC to move men, weapons, and material to Lebanon from Iran with less risk, greater speed, and ease. While American planes have struck Syrian army and even Iranian targets near At-Tanf, for example, U.S. military officials say they have done so in “self-defense” to protect the American forces advising Syrian rebels. Speaking in private, many Israeli officials and experts doubt their country can rely on Trump to contain Iran.
Russia is no more likely an address for Israel’s complaints, said several high-ranking Israeli officials I spoke to during and after the conference. On one hand, Israel and Russia have worked out understandings about air “de-confliction” zones and coordinating military activities in Syria. Israel, with almost 1 million Israelis of Russian origin, has a special relationship with Moscow and with Vladimir Putin, with whom Netanyahu has frequent contact. But many Israelis do not trust Russia or Putin’s willingness to protect Israel from Iran. Because the Russians also rely on Iran and Iranian-sponsored militias for the protection of their own forces and bases in Syria, so it is unclear how, exactly, they would separate themselves from Iran and still retain control of the territory that they now dominate—even if that were, in fact, Russia’s goal.
Read more from Tablet’s special Iran Week.
Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief and investigative reporter. She is also the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.