How ISIS And Iran Are Keeping Israel's Borders Quiet

Turns in the war in Syria, as well as shifting resources and alliances across the Muslim world, mean tensions are easing between Israel and both Hamas and Hezbollah.

All quiet on the Rafah crossing too
All quiet on the Rafah crossing too
Daniel Rubinstein

TEL AVIV — Things may become quieter on the Israeli border for some time to come, as the Syrian conflict has sapped and redirected the money, troops and attention of two of Israel's biggest nemeses.

The Islamist terror group Hezbollah has no intention or capacity to start a long-term armed conflict in Israel because the organization's first priority is to bolster President Bashar al-Assad's control over Syria.

For this, Hezbollah receives military and financial supplies from Iran. But Iranian stocks are running low because of the dramatic drop in oil prices and because of the other fronts Iran has in Yemen and at the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Hezbollah's other priority is the war with ISIS, which has sent affiliates to Lebanon and to other Islamic extremist groups that are fighting Assad.

Furthermore, broad changes in American and Western policies towards Assad's regime are changing the landscape. If it was obvious during the past few years that Americans were funding the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, it's not so clear anymore.

This policy shift happened after the beheading executions by so-called Jihadi John of ISIS. Additionally, if the choice were between ISIS and Assad, there is little doubt most everybody would support Assad — and not just Russia, which has supported the Syrian leader from the beginning.

In other words, the deteriorating situation on the northern Israeli border is temporary. Opponents of Hezbollah in Lebanon, such as the Christian and Druze leaders, have already said they will not let the organization drag Lebanon into a war and financial catastrophe as it has in past years. The United States would probably try to block the Israeli government if it struck Hezbollah, Assad's biggest defenders, too hard.

It's quiet, even in Gaza

Gaza's border is also unlikely to become heated militarily, and for the same reasons: the loss of political and financial support for the Hamas regime. In the past, Hamas had a long list of supporters who gave the Islamic regime in Gaza money and weapons.

Among them were Syria, Iran, Egypt (then under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood) and until recently Qatar. All of these have almost completely cut off their support, and Hamas was left with only Turkey, which provides limited aid.

Gaza's restoration is taking time because the money isn't arriving, and bureaucratic blocks from Israel are making progress difficult. According to an Israeli organization, just 4% of the building materials that were supposed to enter Gaza in the last four months have indeed made it.

What also weighs heavily on Gaza's economy is the continuous rivalry between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas leadership in Gaza, since most of the 40,000 Hamas officials haven't received their salaries for the past 10 months. Hamas demands their payments from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who says he has no money because Israel has frozen tax payment transfers collected from Palestinians.

Like in the north, Hamas can't allow itself to reopen an armed conflict with Israel. It has neither money nor political support.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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