Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has portrayed the specter of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as the biggest threat Israel faces.
But what really disturbs experts in and out of the Israeli government is a far more conventional threat: Iranian forces and those of its close ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, arrayed along Israel’s border with Syria.
The Nusra Front, the official al Qaida affiliate in Syria, now controls 80 percent of Syria’s side of the Golan Heights, the sensitive high ground that Israel and Syria have split since Israel captured much of it in the 1967 Six-Day War. And that means that with the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad weakened by four years of civil war, Iranian and Hezbollah forces have arrived in southern Lebanon to confront Nusra, which not only opposes Assad but whose virulent brand of Sunni Islam also sees Iran and Hezbollah’s Shiite Muslim faith as apostasy.
“Which is worse: Nusra or Hezbollah?” an Israeli Foreign Ministry official asked rhetorically, insisting on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “In the immediate run, Hezbollah is the bigger threat.” The militia has fought three wars with Israel.
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“This is a consequence of Iran having a bigger say in Syrian decision-making,” the official said.
Throughout the Middle East, governments are confronting a new reality: In country after country, Iranian forces or Iranian allies are prospering in the chaos of the collapse of the Arab Spring.
“Iran is an imminent danger to the region, not only to Israel,” an Israeli army intelligence officer recently told visiting foreign reporters.
Interviews with dozens of experts and officials in Israel and Jordan reveal a deep concern about the increasing Iranian influence. More disturbing, these experts said, is a perception that the Obama administration is doing little to counter that growing presence.
Many say they fear that the U.S. administration places more importance on reaching a deal with Iran on its nuclear program than on checking Iran’s influence in the region, an allegation the Obama administration rejects. Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, that the United States wasn’t seeking a “grand bargain” with Iran and “will not take our eyes off Iran’s other destabilizing actions.”
No one among the academics or current and former government officials interviewed would predict where the region is heading as the tectonic shifts unleashed in the region by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 continue. There are fears of a broad Sunni-Shiite war.
“We are on a journey to an unknown chapter in the Middle East,” said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. “In the 20th century, each state had its ‘one-man show.’ ”
Now, with no single group in control, there’s an ongoing bloody struggle for Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
Iran has played a vital role in Syria and Iraq, two Arab nations where the Islamic State has declared a caliphate in a vast territory that straddles the century-old colonial border, and where Iran has sent troops and advisers to help the local governments combat the terrorist group.
In Yemen, a rebel group led by Houthis, a tribal group whose Zaidi brand of Islam is closely linked to Shiite Islam and that’s allied with Iran, has controlled Sanaa, the capital, for months and is marching on Aden, the southern city where the displaced president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has taken refuge.
In Syria and Iraq, the Iranian presence includes both troops and commanders. Iranian influence in Lebanon – through Hezbollah, that country’s most powerful political group – has long been a given.
If anyone is in the driver’s seat regionally, it’s Iran, the experts agreed.
“It is a very sophisticated player,” said Rabi. “They have their revolutionary guards. They stick to their revolutionary zeal. They understand what is going on, that the Arab states are being dismantled, and they know that the U.S. is a giant in retreat.”
That’s evoked fears among the Sunni-ruled moderate Arab countries, which feel they’re increasingly surrounded by Shiite Iran, an ancient rival. Iran’s gains have come about through its willingness to train and equip proxies and to send its officer corps into the field in Iraq and Syria.
There’s no better example of Iran’s growing influence than Syria, where Assad’s forces have lost control over 650 square miles of territory in the south, primarily to al Qaida’s Nusra Front.
To protect Damascus, Assad has had to rely on Iran and the militia it created and supports, Hezbollah, to mount a major military offensive. If it succeeds, Israel might face a new Hezbollah outpost along its border with Syria.
More importantly, in the Israeli estimation, Iran will be calling the shots, with Assad hardly in a position to object because of his dependence on Iranian forces.
“He’s managed to survive thanks to the deployment of Hezbollah and the Iranians,” said Eyal Zisser, dean of the school of humanities at Tel Aviv University, and Israel’s leading scholar on Syria. “He is more and more depending on them.” Eventually, he said, Iran will have “more power and control over some regions of Syria than Bashar himself.”
The U.S. view is more sanguine. “The Syrian regime’s military capabilities have been buttressed by outside support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, but it is still Assad’s war,” a U.S. intelligence official told McClatchy, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “He is in control, is making key decisions and is responsible for the actions of pro-regime forces in the conflict.”
Still, there can be little doubt that Iran has taken a major position in Syria. At least 100 Iranians were reported killed in Syria in the first 11 months of last year, according to an Israeli government paper obtained by McClatchy.
At least three Iranian generals have died so far this year in southern Syria, near the Israeli border – an extraordinary set of losses. One, Mohammad Ali Allah-Dadi, died in an Israeli air attack on a Hezbollah convoy in the Golan on Jan. 18. The other two, Ali Sultan Muradi and Abbas Abdullah, were killed Feb. 14 in a clash with rebel forces.
Iran also has helped recruit Shiite militias from other countries to fight in Syria on the government’s behalf, including hundreds of Hazaras from Afghanistan – refugees who fled Taliban rule in the 1990s. Israel estimates that they number in the hundreds.
In Yemen, Israeli officials and academics say, Iran has stepped in to replace Saudi Arabia, whose financial support for the impoverished country ended with the Houthis’ rise in December.
Not only is Iran the only country to have recognized the Houthis’ regime, but it’s also signed a transport agreement that opened the way for 14 flights a week from Tehran, an agreement to improve Yemen’s power grid and a deal to expand the country’s al Hudayah seaport.
Adding to Arab concerns about Iranian expansion – Iranians are ethnically distinct from Arabs, and Iran’s Persian empire predecessor once controlled major portions of the Arab world – is Iran’s close military cooperation with Sudan, an authoritarian regime of Sunni Arab military figures who nevertheless speak openly of a strategic relationship with Tehran.
“Iran is our biggest ally in the region, in terms of cooperation in the areas of intelligence and military industrial production,” Gen. Siddiq Amer, Sudan’s director general of intelligence and security, told his military colleagues at a meeting last August, according to minutes that were translated and published by U.S. Sudan expert Eric Reeves.
According to the minutes, another general at the meeting, Abd al Qadir Mohammed Zeen, said Sudan consulted with Iran before making any adjustments in its relations with the Sunni-ruled Persian Gulf nations.
Weighing on it all, the experts said, is a worry that the United States will see Iran as an ally in trying to counteract the Islamic State and the Nusra Front in the region.
“The Arabs are freaking on this one,” said the Israeli official. “They fear a ‘new counterterrorism’ approach” by the Americans, centering on collaboration with the Iranian regime.
Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, said such a new relationship would be likely to prove unsatisfying for the United States.
“They want to replace the Americans, not be on their side,” he said. “Their view is still ‘death to America.’ ”