PM Netanyahu of Israel is intensifying his campaign of threats against the Iranian’s increasing role in Syria, and after his last failed meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the rhetoric assumes a sense of urgency. Some Netanyahu watchers will dismiss this campaign as a diversionary tactic at a time of huge domestic political pressure in Israel, due to the criminal investigations that he and his family are embroiled in. Some will refer to the deja vu element, as a lot of the rhetoric now sounding so similar to the one used in 2012-15 in an effort to prevent the Iran nuclear deal, which lead to a huge volume of hot air but no action. Some will take it at face value and start the count down to another Middle East war. This time between Israel and Iran , to be fought in Lebanon and Syria, possibly elsewhere, maybe in Israel and Iran themselves. No kidding so far as Israel is concerned, and Iran is taken to be now the enemy. In this first of two pieces, I will analyze the realistic state of affairs with regard to Iran, basically reality versus impressions, perhaps myths.. The second piece will deal directly with the Syrian-Lebanese situation and the Israeli response.
Iran is now involved either directly or indirectly, in actual fighting and in subversive activities in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, making use primarily of the Shi’ite population in these countries, or religious sects close to the Shi’a , such as the Alawites in Syria. Here is a point of strength for Iran-This is the only Shi’ite state in the Middle East, while the Sunni world is split, with various claimants to power and dominance such as Saudi Arabia, and recently also Turkey under President Erdohan. Here is also a point of weakness, as the near total reliance on Shi’ites emphasizes the sectarian nature of the Iranian regime. Speaking about an Islamic revival, meaning a Shi’ite revival. Shi’ite revival in the 21st Century is an historic aberration, as it will the first after many centuries of Sunni domination of the world of Islam in the Middle East. Shi’ism flourished in the region in the 10-11 th Centuries, when even Egypt under the Fatimids was Shi’ite, but then it is the exception, and Sunni Muslims cannot and will not accept a Shi’ite revival now . Yes, this is to emphasize both history and sectarianism, and most Westerners, especially in the Liberal/Left Wing do not like these reminders and terminology, but in the Middle East this is the political discourse and this is what matters . The Iranian regime refers to Israel as the enemy, predicting its annihilation, claiming its collapse within the next 25 years, and here again there is a point of strength and one of weakness. There are still many in the Middle East, surely among the Palestinians, who view Israel as the ultimate ,inevitable nemesis. There are however many Arabs, in the Gulf and elsewhere who view Shi’ite Iran as the bigger problem. and behind close doors, sometimes even in public, view Israel as the solution to the Iran problem. This is a new emerging phenomenon, not one which is irreversible, but one with a potential to move from talked-about to an actual alliance of interests. Then the Iranians have oil, a lot of it, but much to their chagrin, their oil is enough to give a Per Capita income of few thousand dollars only, and Iran is still a poor country, and it is becoming poorer as it invests so much in its expansionist plans. Saudi Arabia can still afford its own military build up and the gigantic arms orders from the US, but Iran cannot. Iran is also stretching its influence in a wide range of areas which are different from each other, and using the Shi’ite card will not prove enough of a unifying force for too many years to come. It is also an ethnic/national problem for the Iranians, as they are extending their influence in Arab territories. An interesting situation is developing in Iraq, one which may signal a future and significant resistance to their plans.The blistering Shi’ite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, an hitherto Iranian ally is starting to play his own game. Yes, he wants a Shi’ite Iraq, but should it be Iranian-dominated? He just completed a visit in Saudi Arabia after which the Saudis asked the Iraqi -Shi’ite government to establish a Consulate in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf. Somewhat surprising and even strange development. Stay tuned to the fall out, but may be an indication of more to come which will not please the Iranians. Ethnic problems can still plague Iran itself, where the Iranian-Farsi population is a little more than half of the entire population. It is ‘’only ‘’ 90% Shi’ite, with 5-6 million Sunni Kurds, 2-3 Million Sunni Baluchis and others, but with a quarter of the population who are Azeris and Shi’ites. When sectarianism and ethnic divisions exist among their neighbors, the Ayatollahs in Tehran need to keep a very watchful eye over their own house. So, Iran is looking as a key player these days, with a growing and seeming unstoppable influence, but in this case , what catches the eye may be the wrong impression. The modern history of the Middle East provides us with examples of an attempt by one actor to become a regional dominant power. Nasser of Egypt comes to mind, and he was a Sunni Arab, representing the force of Arab nationalism. It failed miserably, and the failure started with the Iraqi revolution of 1958 becoming hostile to Nasser, Syria breaking away from the United Arab Republic in 1961 and the Egyptian intervention in the Yemeni civil war. Iran is heavily invested in all these countries right now. The shape of things to come? Time will tell, but coming back to where we started-PM Netanyahu seems to be impatient, and he does not favor waiting for history to repeat itself.