Two developments this week linked to the long-running conflict between Israel and Iran are likely to generate even more violence and uncertainty at a time when threats are already multiplying from Sunni Muslim extremists.
On Sunday, a helicopter gunship operating in Syria near the border with Israel killed the son of Hezbollah’s former military commander, an Iranian general and five other members of Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group long supported by Iran.
Israel neither confirmed nor denied responsibility. But the attack was reminiscent of a half dozen other Israeli strikes within Syria against Hezbollah and Iranian targets since an uprising began against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.
At the same time, thousands of miles away, an Argentine lawyer, Alberto Nisman, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in his Buenos Aires apartment a day before he was to testify about a criminal complaint against Argentine President Cristinia Fernandez de Kirchner and other officials.
The complaint alleged that Kirchner conspired to cover up responsibility for a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center that killed 85 people in return for oil from Iran. Iran, working through Hezbollah agents, is believed to have ordered the bombing in retaliation for Israel’s assassination in Lebanon in 1992 of the then head of Hezbollah, Abbas Musawi.
It was unclear whether Nisman committed suicide or was murdered. Jewish groups in Argentina and around the world called for a thorough investigation of his death and publication of his findings about the 1994 bombing.
Israel and Iran’s covert relationship
Quasi allies before the 1979 Iranian revolution, Israel and Iran retained a covert security relationship throughout the 1980s when Iran was battling for its survival against Iraq. Israel was a prime mover in the so-called Iran-Contra scandal, encouraging the Reagan administration to sell weapons to Iran for proceeds that were then diverted illegally to anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua.
Israel changed its view of Iran, however, after Iraq was decisively defeated in the 1991 Gulf War and no longer threatened the Islamic Republic so effectively. Israel worried that Iran was becoming a greater threat to the Jewish state and also feared the growing power of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The conflict among Israel, Hezbollah and Iran has claimed thousands of lives since then. Several times, hostilities have led to open warfare – most recently in the summer of 2006, when more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed in Israeli strikes and more than 40 Israelis died due to Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s attacks, citizens in both countries braced for renewed hostilities.
The fact that the helicopter strikes killed Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh – who was himself assassinated in 2008, most likely by the Israeli Mossad – could provoke Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to retaliate directly against Israel.
Hezbollah is believed to possess at least 40,000 rockets, including longer-range missiles that could easily hit Tel Aviv.
But Hezbollah may be wary of a massive new war now at a time when it is already stretched bolstering the Assad regime against assorted Sunni rebel groups – a factor that those who carried out the helicopter raid are likely to have considered.
Still, journalists and other analysts struggled to understand why such a dramatic attack was mounted now, given all the other crises roiling the region.
Liz Sly, The Washington Post’s Middle East correspondent, tweeted in reply to a query from VOA: “A mystery. Were they [Hezbollah and Iran] plotting an attack? Or was it just preemptive? Bluff-calling, to make a point?”
An unnamed Israeli security source told reporters Tuesday that Israel was not aware that an Iranian general was a member of the convoy when the strikes took place.
Even if true, that is unlikely to mollify Tehran. On Tuesday, Fars News Agency quoted Revolutionary Guard commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who promised the Guards “will fight to the end of the Zionist regime.” A reformist newspaper, E’temad, predicted that Hezbollah would “use the very first opportunity to retaliate without delay.”
Opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that the fact that Netanyahu is running for an unprecedented fourth term in elections scheduled March 17 was one of the factors behind the strikes.
The liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noting that Israeli leaders from various political groups have mounted major military operations before elections in the past, editorialized on Tuesday that while “it cannot be proven that this week’s military action in Syria stemmed from electoral considerations rather than purely out of an effort to defend the country … the circumstantial evidence of political influence is weighty.”
If those killed in Sunday’s raid were plotting an attack on Israel, then the rules of war could justify their assassination. But if they were actually continuing their efforts to defend the Assad regime against the Islamic State (IS) group and other jihadist groups, the ramifications could be negative.
The Barack Obama administration has made clear in recent months that it sees IS as a greater threat than the Assad regime and is tacitly cooperating with Iran – and its proxies – in Iraq. Iraqi Shiite militias that in the past have targeted Americans are refraining from doing so, at least for now.
The U.S. also is negotiating with Iran as part of a multilateral process including the other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. A new war between Israel and Hezbollah – and by extension, Iran – could jeopardize what are already extremely complicated and delicate negotiations.
It is a law of physics that every action provokes a reaction. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Middle East, violence begets more violence and the victims are often innocents with little or no say in the decisions of their leaders.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.