Tehran (AFP) – Analysts fear a wider Middle Eastern war is brewing between Iran and its rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, warning that their failure to understand each other’s intentions threatens to tear the region apart.
“We will not allow Iranian entrenchment in Syria, no matter the price to pay,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared this month.
His comments followed air strikes on Syria’s T-4 airbase, which killed seven Iranian personnel.
Israel did not claim responsibility, but the raid was widely seen as its first direct attack on Iranian assets and a worrying sign of how Syria’s seven-year conflict could escalate into a wider regional war.
The Middle East is mired in what the International Crisis Group calls a dangerous “gap in perceptions that has locked Iran and its rivals in an escalatory spiral of proxy fights that is destroying the region”.
With Iranian-backed militias entrenched in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Iran’s rivals worry it is seeking to dominate the region and gather forces for an attack on Israel.
But the ICG said Iran sees quite the opposite, “a region dominated by powers with superior military capabilities”, and only supported the Syrian government because it feared losing one of its few allies and being encircled by jihadist forces.
Many Iranians find the idea they are the destabilising force in the region hard to stomach, given recent actions by Saudi Arabia.
“It’s not Iran who imprisons foreign prime ministers like Saudi Arabia does,” University of Tehran professor Mohammad Marandi told AFP, referring to Lebanese premier Saad Hariri who announced his resignation from Riyadh last year, followed by a lengthy stay in the Saudi capital.
“And in Yemen, despite three years of imposing starvation and war with Western help, the Saudis have failed to gain any significant victory,” Marandi added.
“They engage in war, they kidnap prime ministers and they spread Wahhabi extremism… and somehow Iran is the one portrayed as pursuing some sort of expansionist policy.”
– Contradictions –
The Saudi position on Iran can appear contradictory.
Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman told CBS News last month that Iran’s army and economy were greatly inferior to those of the Sunni kingdom, but he also presents Shiite-dominated Iran as seeking control of the whole region.
“Critics may downplay Saudi concerns about Iranian expansionism, accusing Riyadh of ‘seeing an Iranian behind every tree’,” said Ali Shihabi, director of the pro-Saudi, Washington-based think tank, Arabia Foundation.
“But… one by one the Saudis watched as (Iran’s) proxy forces captured their neighbours: Lebanon, Iraq, Syria,” he told AFP.
Iran’s position has its own contradictions.
It says it will never initiate conflict with Israel, but its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned the “Zionist regime” will not exist in 25 years.
Marandi, at the University of Tehran, says this is not a threat of military action.
“Iran has never, despite all the Western media misinformation, threatened to initiate conflict with the Israeli regime, despite the fact it sees it as illegitimate in the same way as apartheid South Africa,” said Marandi.
“The threat to Israel has nothing to do with Iranian military might. It has to do with increasingly being seen as illegitimate by many of its international friends.”
That was rejected by Dore Gold, Israel’s former United Nations ambassador, who said Iran’s leaders amounted to a “really aggressive ideological movement” with a “very difficult attitude when it comes to Jews”.
Iran has “been building bases in Syria for ground troops,” he said. Combined with Tehran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah, that represents “a permanent direct threat to Israel”.
– Military balance –
Adding to uncertainty over each player’s intentions are their vastly different military capabilities.
Saudi Arabia has the latest Western hardware and spent five times more than Iran on defence in 2016, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Israel also has the ultimate deterrent: nuclear weapons.
That has forced Iran to use proxy forces in the hope that they can attack its opponents without triggering a direct conflict. But this has only added to the perception that it is quietly destabilising its neighbours from within.
Finding a way to rebuild trust looks near-impossible when the key players lack any forum for discussions or even basic diplomatic relations.
On a trip to Washington this week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called for a “regional dialogue forum… so we can talk to each other, not about each other”.
But Iran’s opponents dismiss him as the friendly face of a regime that is complicit in mass slaughter in Syria and is masking its true intentions.
Nonetheless, many feel that continuing to exclude Iran from regional decision-making is unsustainable.
“Iran should recognise that the more its military doctrine promotes expeditionary warfighting, the more it will prompt aggressive pushback by its adversaries,” the ICG report said.
But “Iran is an integral part of the region and cannot be excised from it.
“Iran will need to be more systematically engaged by its neighbours (and by the US) on regional issues such as the future of Yemen, Syria or Iraq.”