19 Nov 2012

Why Israel’s Gaza assault is not start of an Iran war

Relations with Iran may sometimes determine the direction of Israel’s foreign policy, but the Gaza conflict is unlikely to be a dry run for an Israeli attack on its Middle Eastern rival.

As the escalation of violence in Gaza continues into a sixth day, what has been noticeable is the relative restraint being exercised by Iran.

Following a meeting with the man who is trying to broker a truce between the warring sides, Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, said: “Our religious and humanitarian duties oblige us to try to prevent the further massacre of defenseless Palestinians, and restore tranquillity and sustainable security in the region and throughout the entire Palestinian territories” while backing international consensus to address the situation in the strip.

There was little of the beligerent anti-Zionist rhetoric for which he is infamous.

More on this story: what is driving the violence in Gaza?

And despite comments from an Israeli Defence Force spokesman that Gaza “has become Iran’s frontline base”, it is not clear whether the hand of Iran is currently steering the actions of its traditional ally Hamas. Professor Anoush Ehteshami from the university of Durham told Channel 4 News why he is unconvinced that Israel‘s actions in Gaza are a sign it is preparing for an attack on Iran: “If Israel wants to pick a fight with Iran, it would do it directly.

“Even if somehow Israel was going to test its Iron Dome missile defence system, it would not do it after a fight against the ‘bows and arrows’ of Hamas. Israel wouldn’t give its population a false sense of security because it would be a facing a much more fearsome adversary in Iran.”

Prof Eteshami’s thoughts are echoed by Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow on Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme. She told Channel 4 News: “The logic used here is that if Israel attacked Iran, it would face retaliation from a number of directions, potentially including Hamas, who have a tactical alliance with Iran. In such an eventuality, Israel’s biggest concern would be Hizbollah in Lebanon, which has a far closer relationship with Iran.

She points out that if anything, Israel’s position on Iran seems to have retreated from the high point reached shortly before the US presidential elections: “If anything, Israel seems to have backed down from threats to attack Iran in the window of opportunity before the US election.

“With elections now coming up in both Israel in January and Iran in June, it seems unlikely there will be an attack in the meantime. Obama is likely to make a renewed push for diplomacy in Iran and will hope that a change of face at the helm of the Iranian regime could boost these efforts.”

Documentary maker David Patrikarakos looks at what could happen if Israel were to attack Iran

And she thinks that internal Iranian dynamics, specifically the relationship between President Ahmedinejad and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini, are hindering diplomatic attempts by the west to engage with Iran.

As Iran’s ability to control of unrest along Israel’s borders, Ms Kinninmont says a more effective move towards controlling the Persian state would be to pursue “jaw-jaw” instead of “war-war”: “If Israel is keen to reduce Iran’s influence on its borders, it would be better served if it allowed Qatar to continue its efforts to bring Hamas into a closer alliance with the Gulf as an alternative to depending economically on Iran.”