Aug 27, 2019

Israel-Iran tensions could threaten prospects for Trump-Rouhani meeting

The Lebanese army and United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon patrolling in the Lebanese village of Aitaroun along the border with Israel. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images.

In the midst of French efforts to de-escalate tensions between Tehran and Washington at the G7 summit in Biarritz, the conflict between Israel and Iran may have entered a dangerous new stage.

Why it matters: French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to ease tensions between the U.S. and Iran and arrange a meeting between President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the coming weeks. But an Israeli-Iranian blow up could tank the prospects for any of this.

Context: Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian and Iran-linked targets in Syria for years, motivated by concerns that Iran-backed forces could set up near the armistice line on the Golan Heights, and that Iran has been transferring high-precision weapons to its local allies, including Hezbollah.

What's happening: In an operation in Aqraba, Syria, last week, Israel destroyed what it called "killer drones" that it said Iran was going to use to attack.

  • In Iraq — which is already caught between competing U.S. and Iranian interests — Israel is suspected of having conducted attacks targeting munitions storage facilities used by Iraqi paramilitary groups, including one last month.
  • Then on Aug. 25, the Lebanese army claimed that an Israeli drone "crashed and [a] second drone exploded in the air" in Beirut. The next day, another suspected Israeli drone hit an Iran-backed militia in the Bekaa Valley.
  • In a speech on Sunday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah warned that a response to the incidents in Lebanon "may take place at any time on the borders and beyond the borders."
  • On Monday, Iraq's political leadership met with senior militia commanders and, without naming names, denounced "blatant, hostile acts." An electoral bloc drawn from the paramilitary forces went further, calling the incidents "a declaration of war" carried out by Israel that the U.S. is "fully responsible" for as well.
  • Israel has only officially acknowledged one set of operations in recent days: the "large-scale attack of multiple killer drones" via airstrikes in Syria.

Between the lines: Previous escalations between Iran and Israel in Syria have been contained. Israeli strikes have rarely elicited significant responses, and if they did, Israel retaliated with major military actions — like Operation House of Cards in May 2018, which swiftly ended that particular episode of escalation.

The bottom line: The current escalation is drawing in a far wider range of actors and is hitting closer to Iran’s core interests, making it that much more difficult to prevent, contain or control.

Robert Malley is president & CEO of the International Crisis Group. Naysan Rafati is Crisis Group's Iran analyst.

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