- Among the Arab states, there continues to be a growing sense of uncertainty and weakness that is bringing increasing societal fragmentation and sectarianism.
- The primary strategic objective of the Iranian regime is to achieve regional hegemony and the use of proxies will continue to be a key component of that.
- The continued US presence prevents the Iranians from using the land corridor through Iraq and Syria to supply their proxies there and in Lebanon.
- In Iran, given the inability of anti-government protests to acquire greater momentum and the absence of any alternative to the existing regime, the Iran of the near future will be a continuation of what it is now.
- By increasing Beijing’s stake in the region, greater Chinese business activity in the Middle East may have the effect of pushing the Iranian leadership towards taking a more accommodating approach to its dealings with other regional states.
Mr Ehud Ya’ari is an Israel-based commentator and author on Middle Eastern affairs, whose work is published internationally and has received numerous awards. On a visit to Perth in November, he spoke with FDI about the situation confronting some of the key actors in the Middle East – Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the United States – and the implications for them of an evolving and volatile security situation.
FDI: Thank you for talking with us today, Mr Ya’ari. To begin, can you give us an overview of the situation in the Middle East as it now stands?
EY: I think that the single most important element that we are witnessing now – in fact, we have been seeing it for quite some time already and the pace of it is accelerating – is the demise of Arabism. The Arab world has experienced a certain implosion, if not even a collapse, and is suffering from a sense of hopelessness and weakness. It is feeling deserted by almost everybody, certainly by US President Trump, whose lack of a response to the spectacular Iranian cruise missile and drone attack on the Saudi Aramco facility at Abqaiq – probably the most important oil installation in the world – was a shock to the Arab states.
The Arab League, as a regional organisation, has lost its sense of unity, and, perhaps even any aspiration for unity. Most of its member states lack strong central governments, and many are not accepted or liked by their citizens. The leaders of these states feel that they are heading down a slippery slope and are worried by it. As a result, we are seeing the fragmentation of their societies, and the rise of sectarianism and tribalism. It is a situation that has come to affect the majority of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa. For someone like me, who has been watching events in the Arab world my whole life, these events mark a new and uncertain era.
FDI: In comparison to the situation in much of the Arab world, how would you characterise the circumstances of Turkey and Iran, in the regional context?
EY: In that sense, we are seeing the emergence of the two non-Arab powers in the region: Turkey and Iran. They are countries of similar size and both have imperial heritages and differing, but still semi-imperial, aspirations. Iran has been more successful at obtaining influence and strategic footholds, even military bases, in many different parts of the Arab world, whereas Turkey, including President Erdoğan personally, has largely been rejected by the Arabs.
Turkey was offering its own model, in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood: a sort of “neo-Ottomanism” that harkened back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. The Arab states rejected both the model itself and the notion of Turkish leadership. Thus, Erdoğan’s regional leadership project has made little headway and the only ally that Turkey has in the Arab world is Qatar. But, even then, the moves towards reconciliation between the Saudis and the Emiratis on the one side, and Qatar on the other, could call into question the Qatar-Turkey relationship.
In the case of Iran, the Iranian people are suffering enormously under both the American-led sanctions and the repressive clerical regime. My estimate, based on data from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, is that the Iranian economy is shrinking at the rate of ten per cent per year. Nevertheless, the willingness of the regime to continue building a system of proxies across the region has not yet been affected by the shrinking economy. Of course, the general rationale behind that (and the costs that it incurs), is that it is necessary preparation for the extermination of the state of Israel, an objective which is reiterated almost daily by the clerical leadership and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In terms of proxies, Iran has Hezbollah, which has 140,000 missiles. They are now trying to convert the heavy ones, such as the Zelzal-2 and the Fateh-110 into GPS-guided missiles capable of hitting targets to an accuracy of within 50 metres. Iran is sending Hezbollah kits of GPS equipment to be inserted into those missiles.
In Syria, in addition to competing with the Russians for influence, Iran is also trying to build its own military force out of the remains of the Syrian Army. So far, that includes an arsenal of heavy missiles targeted at Israel, squadrons of attack drones, and anywhere between 40,000 and 80,000 militiamen, mostly Shiites – Iraqis, Pakistanis, Afghanis and, more and more now, Syrians – who are being mobilised by the Iranians.
FDI: How do you see the conflicts in Syria and Yemen playing out? What are their most likely future consequences?
EY: The war in Syria and the conflict with the Houthis in Yemen are opportunities that presented themselves to Iran. They were not previously part of the regime’s strategy for regional control, but the Houthis in particular became very useful for assembling and firing missiles, and for deploying fourth-generation attack drones very effectively. The Houthis have also helped Iran to exert control over the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, leading from the western Indian Ocean into the Red Sea and which serves to complement the degree of control that Iran is able to exercise over the Strait of Hormuz, on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula. Iran is deploying heavy missiles – the same types that it has in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, where there is still a battle among different Shiite groups and the Americans to secure the greatest influence over the government in Baghdad. I see the protests there as presenting the Iranians with a significant opportunity to quell that discontent while removing their main Shia opponents and tightening their grip on the Baghdad Government.
As well, they are trying to do as much as they can with the Palestinians in Gaza by transferring their know-how and, when their smuggling attempts succeed – smuggling has become much more difficult since the Egyptians blocked the one thousand-plus tunnels that had previously enabled trafficking between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula – the Iranians supply components for the upgrading of the missile and rocket capabilities of both Islamic Jihad and Hamas. The Turks, by the way, are hosting the military command of Hamas, which is trying to spark another intifada uprising and more terrorist activity in the West Bank.
FDI: What about the Americans and the Russians? What presence do they have in the area? What effect does their presence mean for Iran and Israel?
EY: The Americans are talking very loudly about the need to curb Iran’s influence and its attempts to achieve hegemony over the Levant region. President Trump, for instance, is seen as a good friend of Israel for having moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognised the Israeli control of the Golan Heights, but he basically left Israel on its own to counter President Putin and the Russian Air Force in Syria. The Russians had no more than forty aircraft, while the US has 400 aircraft across their bases in Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. But the US is not involved directly and, in fact, has effectively delegated to Israel, as a sort of proxy, the mission of blocking the Iranians.
Even so, the Americans are still present and, while Trump likes to give the impression that they are pulling out, they are not.
Interestingly, the Americans did not actually abandon the Kurds; they are still there and the Turkish Army will not cross the Euphrates River to the east because of that. The Americans are still present around the oilfields located in the central stretch of the river, and also in the area near where the Iraqi, Jordanian and Syrian borders meet.
Even though the force only numbered between 600 and 800 personnel, the US Marines Special Forces, who were working with the Kurds, were quietly replaced by operational units from the CIA, and it switched from being a military presence to a covert operation. So, the Americans are still there; not attacking or intervening, but it means that the Americans will continue to control, via their proxies – primarily the Kurds – about two-thirds of Syrian territory for a very minimal investment, especially compared to what Putin has invested since he got involved in Syria in 2015.
The US presence there, with their Kurdish militia allies and tribal forces, means that the Iranians are unable to access the land corridors that they would like to and which would give them overland access from Iran, through Shiite-dominated southern Iraq where they have many proxy militias of their own, into Syria where they could link up with the al-Assad forces to reach the Israeli border along the Golan Heights and also the Mediterranean Sea via Hezbollah in Lebanon. The land corridor is important to the Iranians because they are very aware of the vulnerabilities in relying on air links.
The US presence prevents the Iranians from using that land corridor because, once they cross the Syrian border, they encounter the Americans and their allies. That is very important and Israel lobbied the US for a long time to not leave the region because it would be a major, negative, strategic change.
FDI: That’s most interesting. What about the Russians?
EY: Over the last three-and-a-half years, the Israeli Air Force has carried out 1,100 attacks on Iranian targets in Syria. That has been “allowed” by Mr Putin – who would meet frequently with Mr Netanyahu – on the understanding that Israel does not touch Bashar al-Assad or his regime, because it is a client state of theirs. Israel feels that it has managed to frustrate and successfully intercept about 80 per cent of the grand scheme that the Iranians have. They had the late General Soleimani, who commanded the Quds Force, which became a monster – it started as just a small unit operating in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88.
Putin, so far, has allowed it and the system is such that there is a direct telephone line between the Russian base near Latakia, in Syria, and the Israeli Air Force headquarters, in which everyone, including the Israeli interlocutor, speaks in Russian. Although Putin would very much like to know the exact details of the targets in advance, the Israelis will only give, say, three minutes warning, of an imminent operation. During that time, the Russian Air Force will not take to the air – I don’t think that they are particularly keen to get into dogfights with the Israeli pilots – and the very advanced S-300 and S-400 Russian air defence systems will not be activated. The Israelis then launch their attack against the Iranian target or shipment – very often they are the kits that they are trying to transfer to their missile workshops in Syria and Lebanon. These attacks rarely receive publicity of any kind – and certainly not in Israel.
FDI: Given the concern felt about Iran by most of the countries in the region, do you see Iran being able to keep using the same approach that it is taking now into the future?
EY: Yes, I think that will continue to be the case. I think that, in 2009, the repression of the Green Revolution showed the Iranian people that it was very risky to take to the streets and that the chances of any protest succeeding would be very slight indeed. As far as I can see, I don’t see who could possibly topple the clerical regime, or even to get it to reconsider the path that it is taking. Those in power in Tehran are very dedicated to their cause and there is a solid consensus among them as to the need to achieve the strategic objective of gaining hegemony over the Levant – the “fertile crescent” of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel – and, after that, over the Gulf region. What one sees in Iran is that whenever there might be demonstrations, as we have seen recently, the protesters will always be trying to say their government, words to the effect of “we don’t care about Gaza, or Lebanon, or Israel; just do something to help us!” But such protests are prevented from acquiring enough momentum to become something bigger, and I think that the working assumption should be that the Iran of the near future will be a continuation of what it is now.
FDI: Given that, what are the implications for Israel, the Arab Middle East and Russia?
EY: Let’s start with Russia. Russia is trying to step into the chaotic void that has been created by the apparent retreat of the US from the region. But Russia is a superpower only in terms of its military capabilities – and that is primarily its nuclear capabilities – not, for instance, its naval capabilities. We have seen the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov docking at the Syrian port of Tartus, where the Russians have a base, and it was a sad scene; what Russia has is missiles and the bomb. I see Russia as a power in decline and, at the end of the day, the Russian economy is the same size as that of Italy. Consequently, Russia really doesn’t have much to offer the Syrians in terms of reconstructing a country that is completely devastated. But they were trying to fill the void; Putin went to Saudi Arabia and received the red carpet treatment there and in the UAE. But there are economic limits to what he can do.
The Arabs are in a defensive mode and are totally ineffective. The Saudis have an air force, which could have carried out a punitive action against the Iranians in response to the Saudi Aramco attack, but they didn’t even consider it.
Israel has no real choices. I think that Israel is on a collision course with Iran. It may not be imminent, but neither is it in the distant future. Iran does not have an army to speak of; it has missiles and proxies. Iran has a history of not fighting outside its borders and, when the Iranians fight, they fight with proxies: Iraqis, Afghanis and Lebanese, for instance. So, when I refer to an Israeli-Iranian collision, the foremost location of the collision will be in Syria, where the Israelis will want to prevent the Iranians from building a front, but that could extend to Lebanon via Hezbollah, which would be a major event. It could extend to Iraq, where Israel has already had to carry out some air strikes against targets on Iraqi soil. It would be better not to have to do that, but, if it must be done, then it must be done. It could even spread to the Gaza Strip, or to the Houthis in Yemen, blocking shipping in the Red Sea, who have carried out quite a few attacks already. The Iranians are equipping the Houthis, not in big numbers, but with the same kind of ships, the swarms, that they are using to threaten the Americans in the Persian Gulf. So, there is a collision course and I do see a conflict coming.
I think that it would be a conflict that that is conducted not by ground forces, except perhaps in Lebanon, but primarily by air forces, missile strikes and cyber operations. It could get to a point where the Israelis believe that they have to hit Iran substantially. Interestingly, if you happen to be travelling around much of southern or eastern Europe – places like Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, Croatia, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria – you will see squadrons of Israeli Air Force planes conducting various exercises in those places. The reason for that is to get the pilots accustomed to flying distances of between 1,500 to 1,800 kilometres, because that is the distance between Israel and Iran.
FDI: Assuming that such a collision were to eventuate, would it have the effect of pushing the Arab countries – or at least some of them – into also formally confronting Iran?
EY: I believe that they will all be quite happy to quietly applaud whatever action Israel might take under those circumstances, but I don’t see them actually joining in. I’m not sure that Israel would actually want an official alliance with Saudi Arabia, either, for instance; behind-the-scenes co-operation, yes, certainly, but an alliance, no.
FDI: Do you see such a major confrontation occurring without Israel having the support of the United States?
EY: I think that the Americans will continue to support Israel. The US has a lot of prepositioned assets located in Israel, which are nominally there so that they can be drawn upon if the US has to launch another military action in the region, but they would be made available to the Israeli army if Israeli troops had to fight a war. Thus, I think that the Americans – regardless of who might win the vote there in November – will support us, but they themselves will not fight, either on the ground or in the air.
FDI: Turning to the political situation in Israel, if there is a change of government after the election on 2 March, what might be the possible implications of that for Israeli security and foreign policy, if any?
EY: In both of the two elections that were held in 2019, there was no debate or discussion of foreign policy because the parties are essentially all in agreement. Netanyahu’s opponents do not present themselves as left-wing; they present themselves as a “softer right”. What will most likely happen is that, even with all his weaknesses and all the criticism of his personal conduct, Netanyahu is nonetheless an experienced and capable player on the international scene. He is friends with Trump, with Putin, with Modi, with Abe. He has built blocs of support around Israel, from the Jewish-Hellenic bloc of the eastern Mediterranean – Israel, Greece and Cyprus versus Turkey – to the East African bloc and, now, the Muslim Sahel countries. As an international actor, he is in a different league to his rivals.
If his main rival, Benny Gantz, who is an ex-Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, becomes Prime Minister in March, Israel might lose the access enjoyed by Netanyahu on the international scene, but there would be no real change of policy. That is because the main security issue is Iran, and that will continue to be the case after the election.
FDI: Let’s conclude by looking further ahead now. What would cause the Iranian leadership to recognise that it is in its own national interest to coexist peacefully with its neighbours, and to cease its various activities around the region. What would cause it to take that approach?
EY: In a word, China. China has committed itself to US$400 billion worth of projects in Iran, with no time limit to them. But, when one looks at the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one sees that it effectively skips past the Middle East, because the Chinese know exactly how unsettled the region is. Other than the maritime corridor, which goes through the Red Sea, Iran is the only country in the region that is part of the BRI and that is really due to the problems and instability that China has encountered in Pakistan, with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
So, Beijing is increasingly taking the view of Iran that it has a historical relationship with it (from the time of the original Silk Road), that it is an important country with a very capable citizenry, and that it is a country with which China can do business. If China were to join the Europeans, for instance, in calling for an overhaul and an upgrade of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), it could be a crucial step towards change. But, how do we get China to do that? My own sense is that, now that the Saudi Aramco initial public offering to prospective shareholders has finally happened, it will come to attract the attention of Chinese investors and Beijing will become more deeply involved in regional matters.
FDI: Mr Ya’ari, thank you for your time and expertise, and for giving us some very valuable insights into the current circumstances and emerging developments in the Middle East.
About the Interviewee: Ehud Ya’ari is an Israel-based Lafer international fellow of the Washington Institute and author of Toward Israeli-Palestinian Disengagement, Peace by Piece: A Decade of Egyptian Policy and Sinai: The New Front?
A Middle East commentator for Israel’s Channel Two television and former associate editor of Jerusalem Report, Mr Ya’ari has been a Middle East commentator for Israeli television since 1975. Among his numerous awards for journalism are the Israeli Press Editors-in-Chief prize for coverage of the peace process with Egypt, the Sokolov Prize for coverage of the Lebanon War, and the Israel Broadcasting Award for coverage of the Gulf War.
Mr Ya’ari’s articles have appeared in international newspapers and journals such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs and Atlantic Monthly.
He is also the author of eight books on the Arab-Israeli conflict, including Fatah (1971), Egypt’s Policy Towards Israel in the Fifties (1974), A Guide to Egypt (1982), The Year of the Dove, co-authored with Ze’ev Schiff and Eitan Haber (1979), and Israel’s Lebanon War (1984) and Intifada (1990), both co-authored with Ze’ev Schiff.