Venti di Guerra tra Iran e Israele? (Winds of War between Iran and Israel?)

Iran-Israel Relations

Iran-Israel Relations – “Iran’s Weapons Shipment: The Full Disclosure” by Israel Defense Forces is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Guarini Institute for Public Affairs hosted an online event called “Venti di Guerra tra Iran e Israele?” on August 4, 2021. Moderated by Guarini Institute Director Federigo Argentieri, the event tackled the difficult relations between Iran and Israel.

Professor Argentieri kicked off the event by asking what the July 29 Iranian attack on the oil tanker MT Mercer Street, which is under Israeli management, would mean for relations between Israel and Iran. He believes that Iran remains committed to the destruction of Israel and to acquiring a military nuclear capability. The West, along with most of the Sunni world, cannot help but position itself among Iran’s adversaries. Although the Iranian regime has gone through significant changes over three generations, it remains a dictatorship. Professor Argentieri wondered whether a sustained clash with Israel or with the United States could ever put the Iranian regime at risk.

In his presentation, Guarini Institute Advisory Council member Lucio Martino underlined that the MT Mercer Street episode was only the latest in a long series. There is a discrepancy between Iranian ambitions and the capabilities of its under-equipped and poorly trained navy, which can lead to serious miscalculations. Martino noted how Iran’s maritime exuberance has in fact consolidated a robust anti-Iranian front, exemplified by the recently established International Maritime Security Construct. He argued that Iran is responsible for the international sanctions against its economy, due to the country’s refusal to moderate its regional activism and ballistic missile program. Martino contends that the prospects of the Iranian nuclear program have been exaggerated, and that actual operational deployment of its nuclear weapons is technically not in the cards. Iran and Israel are largely engaged in a regional role-playing game. Finally, he drew an analogy between today’s Iran and the Soviet Union of the 1970s, saying that current circumstances herald nothing more than a different dictatorship.

Farian Sabahi of the Guarini Institute Advisory Council argued that, while Israel and Iran keep fighting in various ways, the main problem for the Iranian leadership is the coronavirus pandemic, closely followed by water shortages. The pandemic seems out of control in Iran, which faces a severe vaccine shortfall. Iran is suffering under US-imposed sanctions, and the consequent economic crisis helped the ultra conservatives politically. But new president Ibrahim Raisi will not have much influence. All important decisions will remain in the hands of supreme leader Ali Khamenei. The removal of Javad Zarif as foreign minister, however, will cast a shadow on Iranian international relations, on the fate of the many foreigners detained in Iran, and on the new nuclear negotiations. Nothing suggests that Iran will abandon its strategic depth doctrine, entailing active engagement in all neighbouring theaters to break an oppressive sense of encirclement. Sabahi argued that the international community’s great mistake is to exaggerate the importance of old, menacing proclamations by the Ayatollah Khomeini, underestimating instead the force of nationalism, which promotes social cohesion in times of crisis. Under pressure, Iran could evolve into a different dictatorship, but nothing suggests that an Iran under Pasdaran control would be a better country.

Andrew Spannaus, journalist and strategic analyst, agreed that Iran was under siege and needed nuclear weapons as a deterrent. That said, US intelligence services see Iran as far from consistent in its search for nuclear weapons. Now more than ever, Tehran uses the nuclear issue as a bargaining chip in the international arena. The Trump Administration policy of restoring the sanctions set aside by the Obama Administration was, in Spannaus’ view, a failure. Iran is strengthening its relations with Russia and China, and a new nuclear deal is still in the best interest of the new Iranian leadership.

Critic Maurizio De Bonis argued that neither Iran nor Israel has an interest in waging war, which would be too destructive for both countries and the broader region. The Israeli retaliation for an Iranian nuclear missile launch would be devastating, leading to destruction of the entire region. Iran has other tools for keeping pressure on Israel, e.g. providing support to Palestinians in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and to Shiites in Syria. The Iranian ship attack, far from being random, is just the latest move in a game where the whole regional balance is at stake.

Margherita Saltini of the Democratic Youth Community of Europe, wondered how it was possible for the European Union to legitimize the new Iranian leadership, when many of its member states had strongly criticized the election. Journalist Claudia Stamerra underlined prospects for quick conclusion of a new international agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, leading to an end of the sanctions against Iran.

(Lucio Martino and Eric Terzuolo)