The Gaza Strip, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt and the State of Israel, is 25 miles long. At its narrowest point it is less than 4 miles wide, and at its maximum width, it’s 7.5 miles wide — a total area of 141 square miles. With a population of 1.7 million people, Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth.
Iran, whose borders include the Arabian Sea to the south, Iraq to the east, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the west, and the Caspian Sea and post-Soviet Muslim states of Central Asia to the north, has a total land mass of 636,000 square miles — about the same as Alaska or Mexico — and a population of 70 million. Yet Foreign Policy CEO and editor at large David Rothkopf recently quoted an Israeli “source close to the discussions” who claimed that an Israeli surgical strike Iranian on enrichment facilities conducted by air, utilizing bombers and drone support “might take only ‘a couple of hours’ in the best case and only would involve a ‘day or two’ overall.”
Is it possible that Israeli efforts to crush Gaza — a small fraction of the size of Iran and adjacent to Israel — are being viewed by some in Israel as a foreshadowing of an Israeli war with Iran, and that success in Gaza seems to be a necessary, even a sufficient prerequisite to a military strike on the Islamic Republic itself?
In the six days between Nov. 14 and Nov. 19, Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF) reported that Israel had launched 1,350 strikes against “terror sites” in Gaza. As this is being written, not only is there dwindling hope of a truce, which Israel denied was in the works, but Amos Harel and Avi Isaacharoff point out that “No one thinks a truce would last forever.” A bus bombing took place today, a grim reminder that before there were rockets being launched from Gaza, suicide bombings were Palestinian militants’ response to targeted assassinations.
Israeli President Shimon Peres is holding Iran responsible for the violence in Gaza, despite Iranian assertions that Gaza does not need Iranian arms. Also in Israeli headlines are Iranian promises to rearm Gaza, replacing the rockets used thus far and those destroyed in Israeli strikes, and Iranian calls for neighboring Muslim states to come to the aid of Gaza. The claim that Gaza is little more than a front base for Iran, implying that Gazans have no grievances or goals of their own, is not new. Fox News considers it “conventional wisdom.” And yet, efforts to reach a negotiated agreement that will halt, if not end, the violence in Gaza do not include Iran at all, but rather are directed at Egypt, whose new president, Mohammed Morsi, has more than his share of challenges to deal with.
One of the arguments that’s being advanced in Israel for a full-scale, no holds barred assault against Islamic militants in Gaza (not all of whom are under the control of Hamas), is that subduing Gaza once and for all would not only eliminate the physical and psychological threats from rockets launched against Israeli towns and cities, but would render Hamas incapable of retaliating as a local surrogate on Iran’s behalf were Israel to militarily attack Iranian nuclear facilities.
Salman Masalha has suggested in a Haaretz op ed that “one could view the attack on Gaza as part of a new plan, a master plan that turns its eyes east to Iran’s nuclear program,” with Gaza the first phase of an attack on Iran that will be followed by another war against Hezbollah in Lebanon:
…the current operation can be called “the little southern Iranian operation,” since it’s designed to paralyze Iran’s southern wing. The next operation will be “the little northern Iranian operation “: It will try to destroy Iran’s Lebanon wing.
In this way, we reach Netanyahu’s red line, the stage of a decision on “the big Iranian operation” – when Israel is free of the missile threat from the wings. That’s apparently the plan of the Netanyahu-Barak duo.
Such promises by Israeli politicians to once and for all remove the threat to Israeli lives and property emanating from Gaza have been made before — such as when Operation Cast Lead was launched — yet in each showdown, Hamas appears to have gained strength and determination, emerging better armed and posing an even greater threat to Israeli civilians during the next confrontation. As a New York Times editorial notes:
Israel’s last major military campaign in Gaza was a three-week blitz in 2008-09 that killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians, and it was widely condemned internationally. It did not solve the problem. Hamas remains in control in Gaza and has amassed even more missiles.
Nonetheless, another argument is that Israel’s military forces, in demonstrating that they can conduct targeted assassinations in Gaza and in the words of one Israeli politician, “bomb them back to the Middle Ages,” will demonstrate that Israel can do the same thing in Iran. Amir Oren, writing in Haaretz, predicts that Israel may try to use its show of strength in Gaza to pave the way for a strike again Iran:
In theory, a force which is able to strike against Ahmed Jabari would be able to pinpoint the location of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And a force that destroyed Fajr rockets would be able to reach their bigger siblings, the Shihabs, as well as Iran’s nuclear installations. So as not to leave a shred of doubt, the IDF Spokesman emphasized that “the Gaza Strip has become Iran’s frontline base.” At first glance, Operation Pillar of Defense seems to be aimed at the Palestinian arena, but in reality it is geared toward Iranian hostility against Israel.
Even in theory, such inferences that victory in Gaza would mean triumph over Tehran strain credulity. Iran has at least seven known nuclear research sites. Esfahan; Bushehr; Arak; Natanz; Parchin; Lashkar Abad and Darkhovin, some of which are located in or near large cities whose size is many times that of the entire Gaza Strip. The metropolitan area of Isfahan, where Iran’s Nuclear Technology and Research Center (NTRC) is located, spans an area of 41,000 square miles. The site of Isfahan’s Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) alone spans 150 acres. Not surprisingly, Isfahan’s nuclear facilities — 962 air miles from Jerusalem — are protected by anti-aircraft missile systems. While the weaponry brought to bear would be far greater in impact than in Gaza, so would the scale of destruction.
The danger, according to Amir Oren, is that Israel’s political leadership — buoyed by strong performances from the intelligence services and military in Gaza — might try to extrapolate from this operation and transpose it to other places. In other words, whether Operation Pillar of Defense succeeds or not in crushing Gaza into abject submission, the outcome will nonetheless point to escalation with Iran. If Gaza is “flattened,” as Gilad Sharon, son of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has recommended, the victorious Israeli outcry could be “Yes, we can!” and their sights would be set on Iran. And if Gaza militants somehow manage to keep reaching Israel with rockets, the frustrated war cry from Israel’s leadership may be “Yes, we must.”
In either case, an Israeli assault on Iran in the wake of Gaza may indeed be lurching toward the inevitable, and the US could easily find itself drawn into the disastrous debacle that would follow.
– Dr. Marsha B. Cohen is an independent scholar, news analyst, writer and lecturer in Miami, FL specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations. An Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Florida International University for over a decade, she now writes and lectures in a variety of venues on the role of religion in politics and world affairs.