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Conflict Between Iran and Israel Works for U.S.

May 02, 2024
  • He Wenping

    Research Fellow, West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

Since early April, the spillover of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has rapidly expanded to Iran by way of the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. On April 1, Israel launched an airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Syria, resulting in the deaths of seven Iranian military personnel, including a senior general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

This was swiftly followed by an Iranian retaliatory strike against Israel late on April 13, marking the first time Iran had launched hundreds of missiles and suicide drones into Israeli territory. Israel claimed that 99 percent of the attacking craft were intercepted, and the attack did not inflict significant casualties or damage to Israeli facilities.

Undoubtedly, this round of mutual hostility between Israel and Iran has crossed the red lines on both sides, leaving Washington restless and with mixed feelings.

First, Israel understands the sensitive points of anxiety held by Iran and the United States, yet it dared to cross the red line and even sought to drag the United States directly into the conflict by striking Iran. Israel and Iran are archenemies in the Middle East, and Israel has a history of targeting senior commanders of the IRGC in assassinations.

Four years ago, during the Donald Trump presidency in the U.S., Trump personally ordered the assassination of senior IRGC general Qassem Soleimani inside Iraq. Israel therefore concluded that targeting senior commanders of the IRGC (which had been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Western countries) would not provoke Washington’s anger. On the contrary, it might even bolster Trump’s campaign for re-election this year.

Israel was also confident that any retaliation by Iran would be measured. Moreover, even if retaliation against Israel escalated and inflicted significant Israeli casualties and property losses, an Israel-Iran war could directly draw the United States into a major Middle East conflict. In that scenario, not only would Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position be unassailable but the campaign to eradicate Hamas would naturally have the direct and strong backing of the United States. This, in turn, would render pressure from international public opinion negligible.

Second, the primary concern of the United States is that an expansion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could lead to an uncontrollable situation in the Middle East, which will then affect the implementation of America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Since President Joe Biden took office, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the negotiations to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, have been aimed at shifting the U.S. strategic focus from the Atlantic and the Middle East to the Pacific, Asia-Pacific and now Indo-Pacific regions, and from the global war on terror — which has been mired in a Middle East quagmire — to a focus on great power competition to contain China.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict, which, erupted two years ago refocused U.S. diplomacy on Europe, and the latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which erupted six months ago — expanding military action by Israel in Gaza — have once again turned the Middle East into the center of international attention.

Washington, however, does not want the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to escalate and undermine the so-called pivot to Asia strategy that the U.S. has painstakingly worked to solidify. It’s no wonder that some scholars in the U.S. strategic community have recently begun to wonder whether Netanyahu is attempting to steer U.S. foreign policy.

Furthermore, in this round of mutual hostility between Israel and Iran, Israel’s airstrike targeted a consulate in a foreign country, which is protected by international law. This clearly violates the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and has no legal or moral standing in the international community. Moreover, before resorting to military retaliation, Iran had already spent a week seeking arbitration on international diplomatic stages such as the UN Security Council.

With no supportive response, Iran decided it had no choice but to take matters into its own hands and vent its anger by striking Israeli territory. In response, the United States had to play the role of mediator between Israel and Iran, urging both sides to exercise restraint and keep retaliation and counter-retaliation in check.

Last, the U.S. is not entirely unhappy that Israel’s airstrike on Iran took out a senior IRGC commander. It’s almost as though the U.S. itself was teaching Iran a lesson. As Israel’s long-term steadfast ally, the United States shares a common adversary in the Middle East: Iran. Since the latest outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Houthi rebels in Yemen have been constantly causing trouble for the U.S., even directly attacking American warships and merchant ships in the Red Sea region. The Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and anti-U.S. militia forces in Iraq and Syria are all Iran’s proxies and allies. Therefore, the U.S. finds it satisfying to see Israel take action against Iran on its behalf. This can also serve as a warning to the Houthi rebels and others.

In conclusion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the overall turmoil in the Middle East are still unfolding. As soon as one crisis subsides, another emerges. With Israel poised to launch a military offensive on Rafah in southern Gaza, U.S. Middle East diplomacy will once again be put to the test.

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