Israel, Syria, Iran: Mounting Tensions and Threats

War with Assad and Hezbollah imminent?

n_40384_4Two top Israeli officials made particularly alarming statements this week. Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and holds foreign relations, strategic, and intelligence responsibilities, said Iran was not just looking to produce a few “bombs in the basement” but dozens of nuclear bombs each year.

Steinitz said Iran’s nuclear industry was “many times larger than that of either North Korea or Pakistan” and that Iran is not just seeking to become a nuclear state but a “nuclear superpower.”

And regarding Israel’s northern front, air force chief Tamir Eshel said war with Syria and Hizballah could be imminent. Or as he put it: “It’s not as if we can say we have two weeks to prepare [for war]. I am not sure we have two weeks to prepare.”

Eshel also said the powerful Russian S-300 anti-aircraft system was on its way to Syria despite U.S. and Israeli attempts to talk Russian president Vladimir Putin out of it.

Eshel made his statement during a week when Syria, for the first time since its civil war broke out, took credit for incidents of firing into Israeli territory on the Golan Heights.

Steinitz’s words about Iran seemed borne out by the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which says that: Iran has now added 700 high-tech centrifuges that can enrich uranium two to five times faster than its older centrifuges; has also added hundreds of the older ones to bring the total to over 13,000; and keeps developing its heavy water reactor at Arak that will be able to produce several plutonium bombs a year.

And while it is difficult, from the welter of reports and assessments, to make out just how imminent the Iranian threat is—with some claiming Iran is still avoiding crossing Netanyahu’s red line of enriching enough uranium for a bomb—an assessment last month by the U.S. intelligence community tended more to the pessimistic side.

As it stated: “Teheran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons. So, the central issue is its political will to do so.”

National Intelligence Director James Clapper said such a decision would be made by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—who, it should be noted, is a deeply ideological leader who has called Israel “a cancerous tumor [that] must be uprooted from the region” and just this month predicted the collapse of the West.

The Syrian alarmism, too, seemed borne out as two top-level visitors—U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and British foreign secretary William Hague—came to Israel on Thursday to discuss the crisis. Kerry, who has appeared obsessed with the relatively minor Palestinian issue in recent months, was reportedly—along with Hague—actually much more focused on the Syrian arena.

There too assessments differ, with some in Israel claiming the last thing embattled president Bashar al-Assad needs is to open a front with Israel, while others—as the New York Times put it on Wednesday—say that for Assad “engagement with Israel could distract attention from his massacre of his own people and win him support at home and across the Arab world.”

To sum up, the situation is unstable. The fact that Putin—after delaying delivery for a couple of years—is now sending the S-300s to Syria does not indicate much concern about President Barack Obama as a strategic actor and could reflect Putin’s perception that Obama is all the more weakened by his current troubles at home.

The administration’s descent into a whirlpool of scandals could also make it more difficult for it to act against Iran—if it has ever really seriously intended to do so. Apart from being distressed and preoccupied, scandal-ridden administrations that launch military actions are automatically accused of doing so to divert attention and save themselves.

In that regard the Senate’s passing this week of a unanimous resolution, calling to support Israel if it finds itself compelled to attack Iran, may be even more timely than it means to be. Israel may have to deal with the crises on its own, and it will not live with a nuclear-superpower Iran.

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