A cold war is underway in the Middle East. Although the tensions between the state of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran may not immediately be apparent to casual observers, yet they permeate virtually every facet of politics in the region today. And as this crisis grows more acute, it threatens to drastically alter politics in that part of the world – and even beyond it.
The conflict is not new. It dates back to 1979, when the Shah of Iran was toppled by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution. Practically overnight, Tehran was transformed from a secular monarchy into a radical theocracy, and from an erstwhile ally of the Jewish state into its mortal enemy. More than three decades later, little has changed. Israel should be "wiped off the map," Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, famously intoned in 2005. Back then, Ahmadinejad's statement grabbed international headlines, but it was hardly an anomaly. It reflects a deep-seated animus shared by a broad swath of Iran's ruling clerical elite including the country's Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – a hostility that has led Iran to attempt to systematically subvert and destabilise the Jewish state.
In response, successive Israeli governments have waged a protracted clandestine offensive war against Iran. In its early stages, as Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman outlines in his book 'The Secret War With Iran,' this tacit effort was aimed at blunting the threat posed by Iran's regional adventurism and its sponsorship of terrorist organisations like Lebanon's Hezbollah militia and the Palestinian Hamas movement. Over the past half-decade, however, it has focused overwhelmingly on one goal: derailing, or at least delaying, Iran's burgeoning nuclear capability.
Israeli perceptions of the threat differ. Some leaders, most notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, appear to view the danger as existential, and an Iranian nuclear capability as a mortal threat to the survival of the Jewish state. Others, like Defence Minister Ehud Barak, seem to be more sanguine, seeing the Islamic Republic – even if armed with nuclear weapons – as a state that will ultimately be forced to play by the rules of the nuclear game. Equally divisive is the question of whether Israel should learn to live with a nuclear Iran, or act preemptively to eliminate it.
Here, Washington's opinion matters a great deal. For years, Israeli officials have been sounding the alarm over Iran's nuclear capability. For just as long they have been pressured by U.S. administrations, Democrat and Republican alike, to allow time for the emergence of an international coalition to contain, deter and pressure Iran. Increasingly, however, such a laissez-faire approach is not possible. That's because, over the past year, the Obama administration abandoned serious pressure on Iran in favour of an ambitious diplomatic outreach intended to change the behaviour of its leaders. This effort is now understood to have reaped few dividends; Iran viewed U.S. attempts at "engagement" with skepticism and deftly used the strategic pause afforded by American outreach to forge ahead with its nuclear endeavour. As a result, the policy debate in Washington today has shifted in favour of economic sanctions. But observers in Israel, as elsewhere, seem skeptical that the application of such measures now will have the power to convince Iran's Ayatollahs to give up their nuclear drive.
Relations between Jerusalem and Washington, meanwhile, are on the rocks. Israel's ill-timed announcement this March of future housing construction in East Jerusalem was taken as a personal affront by a White House eager to restart the Middle East peace process. From there, relations between the two countries have deteriorated to depths not seen since the formal inauguration of the "special relationship" in the early 1980s. The current crisis has profoundly upset the political understanding that previously prevailed between Washington and Jerusalem on a range of issues – Iran chief among them.
As a result, whether Israel will act against Iran is now an open – and hotly-debated – question. If it does, the resulting conflict could re-configure the balance of power in the Middle East. If it does not, the results could be equally profound – ranging from a new arms race in the region (as Arab states seek a counterweight to Iran's emerging bomb) to the rise of a nuclear-armed Shi'a hegemon in the Persian Gulf. Either way, the international community could soon see the current cold war between Israel and Iran become a hot one.