There is considerable confusion about what is occurring in the Middle East, to include much discussion of whether Israel and Saudi Arabia have formally agreed to combine forces to increase both military and economic pressure on Iran, which both of them see as their principal rival in the region. During the past week, a classified message sent by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to all its diplomatic missions worldwide that appears to confirm that possibility was obtained and leaked by senior reporter Barak Ravid of Israel’s highly respected Channel 10 News.
The cable instructs Israeli diplomats to take coordinated steps designed to discredit the activities of the Iranian government. It states, in edited-for-brevity translation, that overseas missions should contact their host countries to emphasize that the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri over Iranian attempts to take over his country “illustrate once again the destructive nature of Iran and Hezbollah and their danger to the stability of Lebanon and the countries of the region;” that the argument that having Hezbollah in the Lebanese government provides stability is false and only serves to “promote the interests of a foreign power – Iran;” and that the launch of a ballistic missile from Yemen against Saudi Arabia confirms the need for “increased pressure on Iran and Hezbollah on a range of issues from the production of ballistic missiles to regional subversion."
The Foreign Ministry message has been interpreted as “proof” that Israel and Saudi Arabia are coordinating to provoke a war against Iran as Israel is taking positions in support of Saudi claims, to include those relating to the confused conflict taking place in Yemen. My own take is, however, somewhat different. Having seen literally hundreds of similar U.S. State Department messages, I would regard the Israeli cable as consisting of specific “talking points” for use with foreign governments. Though it is clear that Tel Aviv and Riyadh have been secretly communicating over the past two years regarding their perception of the Iranian threat, it would be an exaggeration to claim that they have a coordinated position or some kind of alliance since they differ on so many other issues. They do, however, have common interests that are in this case aligned regarding the Iranians since both Israel and Saudi Arabia aspire to dominance in their region and only Iran stands in their way.
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel know they cannot defeat Iran and its proxies without the active participation of the United States. That would require shaping the “threat” narrative to start with a series of relatively minor military actions that appear defensive or non-controversial to draw the United States in without really appearing to do so. American involvement would be against Washington’s own interests in the region but it would serve Saudi and Israeli objectives, particularly if the situation is inherently unstable and is allowed to escalate. Both the Saudis and, more particularly, the Israelis have powerful lobbies in Washington that will push a friendly Congress for increased U.S. involvement and the Iranophobic mainstream media is likely to be similarly positive in helping to shape the arguments for American engagement.
It seems clear that the escalation will be starting in Lebanon, where the resignation of Prime Minister al-Hariri has created a plausible instability that can be exploited by Israel supported by heavy pressure from the Saudis to harden the Lebanese government line against Hezbollah. Hariri headed a coalition pulled together in 2016 that included nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, including Hezbollah. It took office in a political deal that made Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian who has an understanding with Hezbollah, president. The inclusion of Hezbollah and the presence of a friendly Aoun was, at the time, seen as a victory for Iran.
By one account, Hariri has been more-or-less kidnapped by the Saudis because he was regarded as too accommodating to the Shi’ites in Lebanon and, if that is so, he was speaking from Riyadh’s script when he resigned while denouncing Iran and Hezbollah and claiming that he fled because he was about to be assassinated. It suggests that the Saudis and Israelis, who have been hyperbolically claiming that Tehran is about to take control of much of the Middle East, are feeling confident enough to move towards some kind of showdown with Iran. As a first step, expected deteriorating sectarian interaction between Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims in Lebanon to eliminate any possibility of a bipartisan and functioning government will provide a pretext for staged intervention to “stabilize” the situation.
The United States has been largely silent but presumably privately approving the Israeli and Saudi moves, as Washington, Riyadh and Tel Aviv have all adamantly opposed the existence of the Lebanese coalition dominated by Aoun and Hezbollah’s Nasrullah. Israel fighter aircraft will likely increase incursions into Lebanese airspace in light of the alleged instability north of the border, which will provoke a Lebanese response escalating into an incident that will lead to a major attack to bring the Beirut government down, though Israel will have to be careful to avoid a possible mass counter-strike by Hezbollah missiles. The ultimate objective might be to create a Saudi and Israeli inspired grand alliance, which might be a fantasy, to pushback Iranian influence in the entire region. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, opposed by the Saudis because it is Shi’a and by Israel because of its missile arsenal would be conveniently targeted as the first marker to fall.
There is every sign that the White House will go along with Riyadh and Tel Aviv in their attempts to rollback Iranian influence, starting in Lebanon, given the recent failure to certify the nuclear agreement with Iran and the comments of Generals Mattis and McMaster suggesting that war with the Mullahs is likely. It would be a grave misjudgment to think that such a war, once started, will be containable, but it is a mistake that Washington repeats over and over again in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Reprinted with permission from American Herald Tribune.