By Majid Rafizadeh
August 30, 2019
While the crisis in the Strait of Hormuz has grabbed the media spotlight lately, less attention has been given to the heightenedtensions between two old foes: Iran and Israel.
Israel has been steadily expandingits military campaign against Iranian-linked targets in the region. This included carrying out a series of airstrikes in northern Baghdad last month, which was considered to be the first time in almost four decades that Israel had engaged in military operations against Iraq.
But why are the Israeli leaders targeting Iranian-linked targets in Iraq at this turbulent time? The first of three key reasons is related to the Iran-Iraq-Syria nexus. The Iranian regime has been attempting to strengthen its military bases and increase its capabilities in Syria. Since Iran does not share a border with Syria, one of the most common methods it has used to transferweapons to Syria has been via commercial airlines. But, due to the latest sanctions and pressure imposed on Iran, Tehran has found it extremely difficult to rely on this approach.
Sanctions imposed on Syria by both the US and EU have also complicated Tehran’s efforts to assist the Damascus government militarily and economically. For example, the oil tanker clash between the UK and Iran was initiated because Tehran was allegedly trying to send oil to Syria in violationof EU sanctions.
Since Iran cannot utilize commercial airlines to transfer weapons to Syria as frequently as it would like, the alternative is to movethem to Iraq by land, establish a depot, and then deploy Iraqi militia groups to ship the weapons to Damascus. Iran’s most prominent proxy group in Iraq is the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The Islamic Republic exerts significant influence in Iraq, both directly and indirectly, through the PMF, which is a conglomerate of more than 40 militia groups. The Quds Force, the elite branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which operates in foreign countries to advance Iran’s geopolitical and revolutionary ideals, is also a major player in this arrangement.
Some of Iran’s weapons bases are stationedin Iraqi cities in order to make it more difficult for foreign powers to carry out airstrikes on them due to the high risk of causing civilian casualties. That is why Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has ordered all paramilitary groups’ ammunition dumps be removed from cities.
The second reason for Israel’s increasing airstrikes against Iran-linked targets is Tehran’s weakened status both geopolitically and economically. The US’ primary and secondary sanctions against Iran’s financial systems and shipping and energy sectors have had a significant negative impact on the Iranian regime.
Iran’s revenues have declined considerably as oil exports have fallen. The sanctions have imposed so much pressure on the Iranian government that its leaders have even been forced to cut funding to its allies, militias and terror groups. Iran’s militantsare reportedly not getting their salaries and benefits, making it extremely difficult for them to continue fighting on behalf of Tehran. One fighter with an Iranian-backed militia in Syria told the New York Times: “The golden days are gone and will never return. Iran does not have enough money to give us.”
Also feeling the pressure of sanctions on Iran, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Tehran proxy Hezbollah, has called on his group’s fundraising arm “to provide the opportunity for jihad with money and also to help with this ongoing battle.”
The Iranian regime has another major obstacle to deal with: Domestic pressure. Protests and demonstrations against the political and economic systems are continuing. Inflation and the unemployment rate have reached record highs and many people are living below the poverty line. That is why the Iranian regime has been surprisingly silent in the face of Israel’s airstrikes in Iraq.
Third is the fact that the Israeli leaders believe they enjoy the full support of the Trump administration. The US has invited Israel to join an international naval coalition to protect commercial shipping in the Gulf, and Tel Aviv has agreed. In other words, if Israel’s actions lead to war with Iran, it will rely on the US’ military assistance.
As the pressure against Iran mounts, Israel will likely continue to expand its military campaign against the theocratic establishment. In an interview with Russian-language Israeli television Channel 9, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu saidlast week: “We are operating in many areas against a state that wants to annihilate us. Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and instructed them to do anything necessary to thwart Iran’s plans.”
The balance of power between Iran and Israel has tipped in favor of Tel Aviv, which is why Israel is increasing its military campaign against Iran-linked targets and proxies. The Iranian regime cannot afford to respond as it faces pressure from almost every corner.