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Middle East teetering on the edge of a volcano: Would Israel give it the final push?

Riad Kahwaji

Published: Updated:

As of late, the level of tension in the region has increased following statements by Iranian, Israeli, and US officials that concurred with suspicious military movements by the three countries. These also coincided with tensions generated by talks and analyses of an upcoming war currently being prepared for.

However, at the rate things are going, a war can only break out if both sides of the conflict wanted it, or if one of them deliberately crossed a line with the full knowledge that their adversary must retaliate as crossing the line would constitute a grave insult for the country and its people.

One of these lines for Iran is attacking its nuclear installations, while for Lebanon, a country that is ruled nominally by a government and actually by Hezbollah, which is the authority that decides if the country is at war or at peace.

Only Hezbollah can drag Lebanon to a war in the region. We must, however, ask this: will there really be a war and what are the chances of it breaking out?

A supporter of Lebanon's Hezbollah gestures as he holds a Hezbollah flag in Marjayoun, Lebanon, May 7, 2018. (File photo: Reuters)
A supporter of Lebanon's Hezbollah gestures as he holds a Hezbollah flag in Marjayoun, Lebanon, May 7, 2018. (File photo: Reuters)

We are currently in the last two months of the presidency of Donald Trump, who was the one to adopt a very hardline policy towards Iran and its allies.

The Trump administration’s recent decisions regarding ramping up sanctions suggest that the current direction of the US government is aimed at rapidly increasing the pace at which things are going. This will complicate the mission of President-elect Joe Biden to reopen negotiations with Tehran in order to reach a new agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Read more: Trump’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran ‘creates leverage’ for Biden admin: Experts

The difference between the current president and the president-elect, however, is that each one has his own impression about Iran and a different interpretation of its actions.

US President Donald Trump, left, Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, center, and US President-elect Joe Biden, right. (AP)
US President Donald Trump, left, Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, center, and US President-elect Joe Biden, right. (AP)

Team Biden believes that Iran’s policy of dialing up uranium enrichment and increasing its volume of enriched uranium are merely steps to have more bargaining chips, while Team Trump sees this as a firm step for Iran to reach its goal and create nuclear weapons. Indeed, Israel wastes no chance to entrench this conviction in US politicians.

Citing sources in the White House, the New York Times reported that Trump, after being informed of Iran’s doubling of its volume of enriched uranium, asked his generals for an evaluation regarding bombing Iranian nuclear installations.

A picture taken on November 10, 2019, shows an Iranian flag in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant. (AFP)
A picture taken on November 10, 2019, shows an Iranian flag in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant. (AFP)

However, the US newspaper added that President Trump was dissuaded from taking this action by his secretaries and generals, which led the president to fire his secretary of defense and several of secretary’s senior officials before replacing them with individuals known for their unswerving loyalty to him and for their readiness to carry out his orders, no questions asked.

The acting minister of defense later stated that the US intended to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq despite the fierce opposition from US agencies, including Team Biden.

The latest development was sending a fleet of B-52 strategic bombers to the Arabian Gulf as part of an airstrike simulation exercise. It should be noted that, at that time, the US did not announce that would be military maneuvers in the region.

The questions we must ask here are: why would the White House leak information from an important security meeting that discussed an attack on Iran to a globally credible US newspaper? Why have we not heard any denial, affirmation, or anything really related to this topic from the US government?

US media outlets are preoccupied with covering the results of the US presidential election and Trump’s refusal to accept the win of his opponent. The media agencies only superficially inquired into these questions and did not provide clear analyses regarding the dismissal of several of the Pentagon’s senior officials.

Moreover, the news about the fleet of B-52s flying to our region was handled on a come-and-go basis as the US media did not really examine it.

Only the news regarding the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq received real media attention.

US President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field, on November 28, 2019 in Afghanistan. (File photo: AFP)
US President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field, on November 28, 2019 in Afghanistan. (File photo: AFP)

It is quite evident that the US government is waging an information war on Iran, along with cyberattacks and sanctions, with the aim of rattling the Iranian leadership’s cage and seeing what might come out. There is a possibility that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq is a step to decrease the number of sites Iran can target if attacked.

However, it can also be Trump’s fulfilling the promise he made to his electors to return a considerable proportion of US troops back home in order to preserve his popularity and prepare for the possibility to run for reelection in 2024.

In that case, sending a fleet of B-52 bombers to the region is how the Pentagon chose to send a message to Iran and all other regional powers stating that the US is still very much capable of dealing long-range heavy blows, all the way from its territories, should the need arise.

The developments and movements in the US are coinciding with heavy Israeli airstrikes on outposts for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its allies in Syria. Despite the severity of the airstrikes, there was no retaliation against Israel.

Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade. (File photo: AFP)
Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade. (File photo: AFP)

As a matter of fact, Brigade General Esmail Ghaani, the commander of the Quds Force, visited his forces and Iran-backed militias in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq to emphasize the need not to respond to Israel’s provocations or launch any attacks on American interests at this stage. This denotes Tehran’s realization of the gravity of this transitional period that will last until President Trump leaves office.

Iranian officials received warnings from US and European actors not to provoke the US or Israel until the end of this year. It seems that the Iranian government took these warnings very seriously and is heeding them as it knows quite well the consequences that would ensue from a war with the US and the large-scale destruction it will suffer, which might jeopardize the Iranian regime itself.

Iran, however, still has other options to respond to any Israeli or US attack; retaliation through its militias that are located on the northern borders of Israel, in Lebanon and Syria. Iran-backed Iraqi militias might target US military bases in Iraq and supply the Syrian and Lebanese fronts with combatants and weaponry, especially through al-Bukamal border crossing, where IRGC’s major bases are located, the same ones that have been suffering recurrent Israeli airstrikes recently.

To return to my previous point regarding the possible intentions of the US and Israel, Trump and Israeli leaders have emphasized that they will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons and expressed their fears about the Biden administration making concessions that would allow Tehran to maintain capabilities that would one day enable it to produce nuclear weapons.

Both parties have ceased all communications with Iran, whether through direct or indirect channels, which increases the possibility of a military clash.

Trump frequently promised his electors that he would not engage in wars in the Middle East and that he would withdraw US troops from there. However, he also realizes that Israel is of great significance for his base, which considers protecting Israel a sacred duty.

Thus, he will not hesitate to provide Israel with military support if Israel decides to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations.

Is Israel capable of destroying Iran’s well-fortified nuclear installations that are located in various parts of the country? Are the Israeli military capabilities enough to target these installations? It is still uncertain whether Israel attacks on Iran’s nuclear installations will cause enough damage to shut down the Iranian nuclear program like it did to the nuclear programs in Iraq and Syria.

A part of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant is seen, some 750 miles (1,245 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran.  (File: AP)
A part of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant is seen, some 750 miles (1,245 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (File: AP)

Israel needs the military capabilities of a country as big as the United States to achieve that. If President Trump gave the Israeli government the green light to do that, Israel will probably attempt it knowing that Tehran would not be able to avoid responding directly to Israel, which will allow Trump to launch a military intervention since a US president can order military action until their last day in office.

President Trump does not need to deploy any ground troops as strategic aerial bombardments and naval attacks to destroy Iran’s vital facilities and curtail its military capabilities would serve the purpose. Naturally, any military conflict would greatly complicate matters for the Biden administration, which realizes that Iran will not sit at the negotiation table until such conflict is resolved.

Would Israel wage a preemptive war against Iran during the Covid-19 pandemic? How could Israel send its citizens to shelters or its soldiers to war fronts amid a global pandemic with social distancing procedures? This will not be possible until the vaccine reaches all Israeli citizens.

Based on all of these factors, the possibility of a war is present and its causes are numerous, but Israel is still uncertain if it can achieve its goals despite the Covid-19 hurdle.

The Middle East will remain in a state of great and keen anticipation until the presidential transfer of power in the United States takes place on January 20th, 2021. The region may even experience dramatic developments during this period, so, is it ready?

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Lebanese news outlet Annahar al-Arabi.

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