Israeli leaders have made it clear that they consider Iran to be the country’s top strategic threat, with Tehran posing a greater danger than any Palestinian armed faction or even ISIS.
During a talk at the Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC on January 11, Israeli diplomat Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the UN and the current director-general of Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs, singled out Iran’s allegedly unique ability to threaten Israel’s existence, describing it as “a country of 80 million seeking to get nuclear weapons.”
This anxiety — or at least this cultivation of a perception that Israel believes Iran to be an existential threat — isn’t solely rooted in the anticipation of an Iranian nuclear strike, so much as a fear of what Iran might be able to accomplish using an implicit threat of nuclear war.
In the course of a nearly hour-long discussion moderated by former State Department senior Middle East advisor Aaron David Miller, Gold explained what he believes one of Iran’s more dangerous mid-term regional goals may be.
Gold said that he “firmly believes Iran wants to turn Syria into a province of Iran.” Citing Iranian promotion of Shi’ite Islam in the country, Gold claimed Iran is “involved in creating a social and political change that incorporates Syria into the Iranian state.”
Such a development would give the Iranian regime a strategic foothold along Israel’s northern border — a particularly worrying prospect for an Israeli leadership that is less than optimistic about the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal’s ability to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Gold said that Iranian religious outreach in Syria wasn’t just “a question of building Shi’ite mosques. It’s a question of a permanent deployment against Israel from the north. That’s something we cannot accept.”
Gold is a shrewd career diplomat and scholar and one of the most respected members of Israel’s diplomatic corps. It’s possible that his portrayal of Iran’s end-game in Syria isn’t intended as an actual analysis, but as a way of suggesting a distinction between Israeli perceptions of Iranian and Russian activities in the war-torn country.
At the same time, Russia and Israel have entered into an agreement to “de-conflict” their combat aircraft over Syria, a move that gives Israel a certain degree of freedom in targeting assets belonging to Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported militia group, inside of the country.
Russia has also hinted that it is more interested in stabilizing the Syrian state than in preserving Assad’s rule specifically, a possible point of divergence between the two ostensible allies.
The transformation of Syria into an Iranian satrap would undercut Russia’s interests in the country, especially in light of Russian security understandings with Israel.
Gold may have been hinting at differences between Israeli perceptions of the two countries’ Syria policies, even if both governments are committing soldiers and diplomatic capital to keeping Assad in power — or he at least might have been trying to create a distinction in the minds of a potentially influential DC audience.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that Tehran really does want to transform Syria into into a more or less formal satrap of the Iranian state. Philip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and a leading expert on Shi’ite militia movements, doesn’t reject the possibility out of hand.
“The revolutionary ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran has a very long term goal to incorporate many states/groups into a broader political project,” Smyth told Business Insider by email.
He noted that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution and the regime’s chief ideologist, “was not a supporter of Iranian nationalism (unless he needed to use it to rally fighters/build support) and wanted a true and total pan-Islamic government under his religious guidelines/ideology.”
Iran’s actions in Syria have been consistent with the regime’s broader revolutionary goals. “Gold makes a valid point,” writes Smyth. “There have been Iranian moves to convert people, build Syrian versions of Hizballah, and to place more forces within Syria.”
At the same time, Iran recognises that there are limits to what it can accomplish in Syria, and it’s unlikely they could pull off the kind of strategy Gold envisions.
“The international system would have some serious problems with Syria becoming Iran’s newest de jure province,” writes Smyth. “Even in terms of de facto control, it’s not as if Iran has a completely free hand to do as it pleases.”
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