With Trump’s Term Nearing Conclusion, Mideast Tensions Reach New Highs
Iran, Israel, US exchange threats, deploy warships
Israel’s normally tense relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran has grown more taught in recent days, as mutual threats and promises of retaliation have been lobbed by both governments while the sides await the entrance of a new administration to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
On Sunday, the spokesman for the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian Parliament reacted harshly to last week’s news that an Israeli submarine had crossed the Suez Canal on its way to the Persian Gulf.
Israel must know that our response to aggression against our national security will be strong and massive
“Israel must know that our response to aggression against our national security will be strong and massive,” Abu al-Fadl Amoui, told reporters, accusing the Jewish state of dragging the region “into a tension that creates chaos in the last days of the Trump presidency.”
Last week, a surfaced Israeli Dolphin AIP class submarine was spotted crossing the canal separating Israel and Egypt. According to several news outlets citing multiple sources, the rare – but not unprecedented – occasion was carried out with the approval of Cairo’s government and was meant to send a message to Tehran.
A few days later, Israeli military spokesperson Hidai Zilberman addressed the naval maneuver in an interview to a Saudi news site, noting that “Israeli submarines can sail everywhere” and urging Iran not to escalate the volatile situation.
“This isn’t the first time the navy has crossed the canal, so let’s not make too much of this. But yes, this was definitely meant for Iranian consumption,” a former commander within the Israeli submarine unit told The Media Line.
On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump joined the fray himself, responding to a reported Iranian attack on the American diplomatic compound in Iraq with a series of direct threats at the ayatollah regime.
“Our embassy in Baghdad got hit… by several rockets… guess where they were from: IRAN,” Trump tweeted. “Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq. Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”
Precisely one month ago, Iran’s top nuclear official Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated on the outskirts of Tehran, in an ambush blamed by Iranian security authorities on Israel. In recent years, top officials within the Republic’s nuclear program, as well as its most senior military commanders, have been the target of successful strikes by Israel and the US.
The most noticeable of these was the January killing of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds force, in an American drone attack in a Baghdad airport.
I would give a very low probability to an initiated American or Israeli attack [in Iran]. But with Trump – you never know. A small incident can develop into war
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“The main reason for the current tension between the US and Iran is the remaining time [President] Trump has in the White House,” Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US policy in the Middle East at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line.
“There are three more weeks, and Trump is known for his unexpected nature of decisions,” Gilboa notes, adding: “I would give a very low probability to an initiated American or Israeli attack [in Iran]. But with Trump – you never know. A small incident can develop into war.”
President-elect Joe Biden has in recent months stated he plans on rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was reached between Iran, the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany in 2015.
The deal called for the winding down of Iran’s nuclear aspirations and efforts in return for a lifting of sanctions by Europe and Washington.
In May 2018, President Trump pulled out of the pact and embarked on his ‘maximum pressure’ strategy of imposing crippling economic sanctions on Iranian individuals and institutions. Tehran responded by restarting its uranium enrichment program several months after Trump’s announcement.
Following Biden’s victory in the November presidential elections, Iran’s top officials have repeatedly insisted they will refuse to renegotiate the JCPOA and will not consider reducing the Republic’s military involvement in other arenas in the Middle East, two demands Biden’s incoming team has hinted it will present in future talks.
“What we have now is psychological warfare and an exchange of messages, both for immediate military purposes and for the post-Trump diplomacy,” says Gilboa, who in the past has served as senior adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry and prime minister.
“Biden will eventually have to articulate a policy and decide which, if any, of the Iranian preconditions – removal of sanctions, the return to the unchanged 2015 deal, the freezing of the Gulf normalization process with Israel – he’ll accept.”
Another factor that may directly affect the Tehran-Washington-Jerusalem relationship in the coming months is the 2021 presidential election in Iran.
“Those are critical,” Gilboa stresses. “We’ve seen in the past how domestic events influenced Iran’s foreign policy,” he says.