Iran, Why Netanyahu Now Wants to Raise Tensions

Nathalie Tocci

4 mins - 8 de Abril de 2024, 07:00

The threat of a regional war in the Middle East seemed to have faded. But the death of three members of the Revolutionary Guards at the Iranian consulate in Damascus at the hands of Israel, in the first attack to directly hit an official headquarters of the Islamic Republic, raises the spectre of a regional deflagration once again.

Since 7 October, clashes between Israel and the US on the one hand, and the pro-Iranian militia network in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Red Sea on the other, have led to an escalation of the conflict beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine. However, in recent weeks, following the attack on a US base on the Jordanian-Syrian border, in which three US soldiers were killed, Tehran had lowered its tone with Washington. Iran's strategy has always been long-term, capitalising militarily and politically on the mistakes of others in Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, but unwilling to risk everything in a regional war. So much so that in recent weeks indirect contacts between US and Iranian officials were taking place in an attempt to reduce tensions in the East and the Red Sea, and Tehran had marginally reduced its military presence in Syria.

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The course of de-escalation has now been reversed. Indeed, Israeli attacks have not ceased: since the beginning of the year, this is the fourth Israeli attack in Syria. In the previous three, several Revolutionary Guards, Iranian military advisors, Syrian soldiers, Hezbollah militants and Lebanese and Syrian civilians were killed. In short, while the US and Iran, having come close to provoking a regional deflagration, tried to de-escalate tensions, Israel never did. From the aftermath of 7 October until today, Benjamin Netanyahu's government, both in Gaza and elsewhere in the region, has continued unabashedly on the path of escalation.

The calculation is twofold: strategic and political. Strategically, Israel wants to prevent war from settling both in Gaza and in the region at the status quo ante. Simply put, it wants to use the 7 October catastrophe to eliminate, or at least weaken, the threat posed by both Hamas in Gaza and pro-Iranian militias, starting with Hezbollah on the Lebanese border. This can happen in two ways. First, if Israel continues to attack Lebanon and Syria, re-establishing its deterrence capability, while the militias and especially Iran do not react or react in a contained manner - in short, what has happened so far. Or, it could happen if Tehran decides to react directly, provoked by an Israeli attack like the one on the Iranian consulate in Damascus. This would drag the United States (and who knows, maybe even us Europeans) into a regional confrontation, on Israel's side. In short, strategically, escalation suits the Israeli government regardless of the outcome.

Politically, Netanyahu's government is increasingly cornered. It has internal problems in light of divisions among members of the executive over the thorny issue of military service by ultra-Orthodox Jews. He also has problems with public opinion, which, while massively supportive of the Gaza invasion, is highly critical of the prime minister. And it has problems internationally: in recent days, even Israel's staunchest allies in the US and Europe have begun to express their disagreement, from the unprecedented US abstention in the UN Security Council on the binding resolution (passed) for a ceasefire, to the British Foreign Office report concluding that Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza. With the Rafah attack on the doorstep and the famine in the Strip, caused by Israel's blockade of humanitarian aid, threatening to kill tens if not hundreds of thousands of people by the summer (in addition to the 32,000 who have already died), the war in Gaza is becoming more and more of an uphill struggle for Netanyahu. We are still a long way from seeing the US and Europe turn their backs on him, starting with the suspension of military aid to Israel; but sooner or later this could happen, forcing Israel to change course.

Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin needs the continuation of the war in Ukraine to keep him in the saddle, so does Netanyahu in the Middle East. As long as Israel remains at war, Netanyahu can stay safe. And should the Gaza invasion no longer suffice or prove so inconvenient that it gets in his way, he may well raise the stakes in the region higher and higher. Netanyahu stands to gain, unlike everyone else: The US, Europe, the Palestinians, and Iran, but ultimately also Israel.
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