(February 12, 2020 / JNS) The next Israeli government should aim to bring the United States and Russia together to decrease Iran’s destructive influence in the region, a former senior Israeli defense official has told JNS.
Professor Rear Admiral (Ret.) Shaul Chorev, head of the Haifa Research Center for Maritime and Policy Strategy at the University of Haifa, and the former director-general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, said Israel’s actions so far to battle Iranian entrenchment in places like Syria must continue.
But new types of diplomatic action could also compliment the efforts to prevent Iran from turning Syria into a new battle front against Israel and expanding its influence across the region.
“I think when there is combined action between the U.S. and Russia, the achievements are greater. When they came together to disband Syria from chemical weapons, they succeeded,” stated Chorev, a former Israel Navy Submarine Flotilla commander.
Noting that the European countries “are not with us” in the campaign to roll back Iran, Chorev said it was vital to try and recruit other powers to that mission, adding that the “the solution to the problem is not only a military one.”
Despite acting together to save the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, there have been tensions between Iran and Russia, with each side attempting to pull the Assad regime into its own orbit.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserves credit for maintaining essential ties with Russia and not neglecting such relations, Chorev said, arguing that this is a key Israeli interest as long as Russia maintains a military presence in the area. “This [maintaining ties] has to be done.”
At the same time, joint naval drills between Iran, Russia and China—held during December and January in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean—sent a troubling signal about a potential coalition forming, said Chorev.
“The joint maneuvers were held ostensibly to secure waterways against piracy and terrorism, but it can also be seen as a coalition-forming activity in the sea arena,” he cautioned. “This diplomacy of maneuvers sends a political statement, which is not in America’s favor.”
Russia described the exercise as unprecedented naval cooperation.
China, for its part, is investing some $280 billion in Iran’s oil and gas infrastructure, according to international media reports—a development Chorev said meant that Beijing has a way to access Iranian energy sources, despite U.S. sanctions.
Earlier this month, Iranian media reports cited Chinese customs data as saying that Beijing imported 295,400 barrels per day of Iranian crude oil in 2019.
‘Assassination does not mean activities stop’
The assassination of Iranian Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3 by U.S. forces represented a certain restoration of American deterrence after a period in which such deterrence was eroded, explained Chorev.
Still, Iran will likely continue to arm its proxies, he said, adding that “the assassination does not mean that activities stop.”
Soleimani pioneered multiple arms-smuggling routes via the sea. He also helped arm the Lebanese Hezbollah with advanced shore-to-sea guided missiles, said Chorev.
In Gaza, home to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the primary weapons smuggling route is via the sea since Egypt blocked off nearly all of the underground smuggling tunnels linking Sinai to Gaza.
In the event of a future American withdrawal from Iraq, cautioned Chorev, the Iranian axis will also be able to create new land trafficking routes. “Iran’s axis will open up to include Iran, Iraq, Syria and ending [on the Lebanese] Mediterranean coastline. If the U.S. leaves Iraq, it will be easier for Iran to do this.”
“We are also seeing Iranian support for the Houthis in Yemen,” who are threatening sensitive shipping routes in the Bab El-Mandeb choke point, he noted.
Such developments do nothing to improve the strategic situation in the region and represent ongoing threats to Sunni-Arab states that are allied to Washington.
‘We must not only look at military-security solutions’
Iran’s frequent threats to attack the Strait of Hormuz, if the Islamic Republic is itself attacked, have led the U.S. Navy to step up patrols of the area, which is vital for international shipping lanes.
The goal going forward should be to make the Iranian regime understand that it cannot continue to act as it has been, pointed out Chorev.
“The Iranian public has a certain level of dissatisfaction with the regime’s conduct,” said Chorev, arguing that unlike former U.S. President Barack Obama’s failure to support the Green Movement protest movement of 2009, the West should be supportive of the new wave of protests. Internal dissention can pressure the regime and be part of an improvement in the region.
“We must not only look at military-security solutions,” he stressed.
Chorev said that concerns remain about the future of the battle against Iranian threats to security, despite the Soleimani assassination. He particularly underlined the lack of an international coalition against Iran, saying that the regime remains in a partnership with Russia and has even cooperated with Turkey.
In recent months, a number of Sunni-Arab governments have signaled their concern that they may end up having to deal with Iran on their own and have reached out independently to Tehran for attempts at dialogue, he reported.
On the regional level, Chorev said that while Israel has benefited to a certain degree by the renewed American deterrence, Jerusalem’s strategic situation remains basically the same “with Greece and Cyprus,” and “with Egypt to a certain extent, but Saudi Arabia has weakened.”