by Charles D. Smith
A drumbeat of warnings about an Iranian threat to Israel specifically, and American interests collaterally, has intensified in recent months. Alarmist articles by former and current New York Times reporters have hyped the threat of Tehran supplying Iranian-backed militias on Israel’s northern borders.
Former Times reporter Dexter Filkins, in a New Yorker article in early June, declared that “Iranian-backed militias appear to have secured a road link from the Iranian border all the way to Syria’s Mediterranean coast. This new land route will allow the Iranian regime to resupply its allies in Syria by land instead of air, which both easier and cheaper.” Filkins admitted, however, that “no Iranian trucks or vehicles have apparently used the route yet.” Filkins’s sources were Kurdish officials and an anonymous “expert” in Washington. These Kurdish officials “have briefed the Trump administration on developments.”
Filkins provides little evidence for his claims but they seem to have provided the basis for a barrage of articles and op-eds warning of this new threat to Israel. Although Filkins qualifies his thesis by saying that it “appears” that this link has been established and that Iran has “not yet” used this supposed link to supply Hezbollah, numerous Israeli reports that their aircraft have successfully destroyed supplies of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah contradict his claims.
According to Filkins and similar analyses, an Iranian-controlled route would enable Hezbollah to threaten Israel from both Lebanon and southern Syria. In August, Times reporter Ben Hubbard published an article titled “Iran Out to Make Middle East with Arab Enforcer: Hezbollah,” arguing without specific evidence that not only Iran but Hezbollah has had a role in Yemen and Afghanistan. Moreover, both Filkins and Hubbard misrepresent the reasons for Hezbollah’s existence. Iran did not, as Filkins suggests, create Hezbollah in 1988 following the Iran-Iraq war to counter Israel and to attack American troops in Iraq, nor did Iran create Hezbollah “in the 1980s,” as Hubbard argues vaguely, to pressure Israel in southern Lebanon. Rather, Iran helped create Hezbollah in 1982-83 as a reaction to the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon when Israeli troops surround and shelled Beirut without regard for civilian sectors of the city. They both miss the reasons for Hezbollah’s formation: as a reaction to the Israeli invasion, not a unilateral effort to threaten Israel.
Since Hubbard’s article, numerous pieces have linked Hezbollah to the Assad regime in Syria and the potential threat to Israel’s northern border with that country. Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, published an op-ed with Mike Gallagher in The Wall Street Journal stressing the Iranian threat to US interests in Syria and to Israel. Then Newsweek reported that Henry Kissinger visited the White House to advise President Trump that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) was preferable to Syrian forces in southern Syria, a view stated explicitly by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. In the face of what Kissinger described as “a radical Iranian Empire” across the Middle East, Israeli officials deemed IS “useful to keep Iran in check” north of the Golan Heights.
Similarly, Israel justified an air strike on a Syrian chemical plant because Syria was supposedly about to hand it over to Hezbollah, and that the plant was adjacent to a military base with a factory capable of producing advanced missiles. Israeli officials acknowledged that they had known about the plant since 2011 and never attacked it despite its presumed role in Syria’s use of chemicals after the Arab Spring erupted in that country. Its timing, during a 10-day Israeli war game exercise that simulated a Hezbollah attack on Israel, suggests that Israel would welcome a military response by Hezbollah—if only as a distraction from ongoing reports of corruption involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife.
In Washington, the Israeli-linked Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) has produced several Iran-related op-eds and policy alerts, two by Dennis Ross in one week. Ross first criticized Trump for his focus on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal with Iran, arguing correctly that such a focus will isolate Washington from its European allies who back the arrangement. Ross suggested that more sanctions were the answer. But Ross’s second piece, co-authored with former ambassador James Jeffrey, more closely matched previous alarmist rhetoric. The threat of Iran and Shia militias loyal to it, not to their own states of origin, undermines “the regional security system maintained by the United States.” Thus the challenge of a “hegemonic Iran” in the Arab heartland, threatening the region’s stability means that Iran, for Ross, is far more dangerous than IS..
Nonetheless, Ross is cautious, advising Trump not to “overreach” and demand too much; coordination with allies is essential. This cautionary tone indicates that Washington no longer maintains a regional security system in the Middle East, contrary to Ross’s basic thesis. It has been forced to share such concerns with Russia, as WINEP’s Andrew Tabler has warned. For Tabler, the fact that Assad’s forces have crossed the Euphrates into northeastern Syria with Russian aid has suddenly created a drastic situation that, once again, could help link Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria along with possibly creating a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.
President Trump has not yet exploited these journalistic efforts. He has focused more on attacking the JCPOA than on the threat of a “hegemonic Iran” in the central Middle East. And although recent pieces have stressed the need for a clear American policy, possibly calibrated to coincide with Netanyahu’s meeting at the UN with Trump, the Times reported that Trump did not follow the script. Instead of discussing Iran with Mr. Netanyahu, he spoke only about the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
American and Israeli officials were agreed that the Trump-Netanyahu meeting would focus on Iran, adhering to the arguments provided in the press and by think tanks during the summer. In turn, the emphasis placed on the value of the JCPOA by all other signatories during the UN meeting suggests that Trump attacks on the JCPOA were more bluster than intent and that he might well turn to the supposed impending Iranian empire stretching from Tehran to Beirut if only because he can think of nothing else to stress with respect to the looming threat Iran supposedly poses. Here the U.S. would stand alone against its allies, united only with Israel, to face a regional reality where the Russian presence, the chaos of alignments and the fluidity of developments prove that Washington can influence but is no longer in control of what transpires.
Charles D. Smith is professor emeritus of Middle East History at the School of Middle East & North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Photo: Henry Kissinger meets with Donald Trump (Wikimedia Commons).