The Gaza Operation’s Effect on Iran

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

How effectively Israel’s recent Gaza operation will deter Palestinian rocket fire remains to be seen. Israelis are skeptical: One poll found that a whopping 88 percent think the truce will not last long. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t sound too confident: Visiting an airbase shortly after the cease-fire took effect, he warned pilots they should already start preparing for the next campaign.

Regardless of what happens in Gaza, however, Operation Pillar of Defense clearly enhanced Israel’s deterrence against a much more important enemy – Iran. The operation demonstrated two important things, neither of which was self-evident beforehand. One is that even in the post-Arab Spring world, Israel can conduct military operations without igniting its southern front or shattering its peace with Egypt. The other is that for all the disagreements between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama on other issues, America’s traditional support for Israel’s right to defend itself takes precedence.

Both of these are crucial to maintaining a credible Israeli military option against Iran – which is important not only in case it’s actually needed, but also to bolster the chances of ending Iran’s nuclear program by nonmilitary means. That latter point, incidentally, recently received confirmation from no less a source than Iran’s own Intelligence Ministry: In a report that Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, regarded highly enough to post on his own website, the ministry advocated negotiating with the West not to relieve economic sanctions, but to avert an attack by “the Zionist regime.”

Yet the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascension to power in Egypt seemed to cast a serious shadow over Israel’s ability to strike Iran. The Brotherhood doesn’t recognize Israel and continues to call for jihad to eradicate it; Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi can barely bring himself to say Israel’s name and still refuses to meet with Israeli officials. Thus Israel cannot discount the possibility that any offensive against another Muslim country might be seized on as an excuse to scrap the peace treaty, or even declare war. And since an attack on Iran’s nuclear program would already leave Israel facing counterstrikes from Iran, Lebanon, Gaza and maybe Syria, the risk of Egypt piling on had to give Israeli decision-makers pause.

During Operation Pillar of Defense, however, Morsi flatly refused either to scrap the treaty or to join the fighting. Indeed, according to the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, Egyptian officials even asked the terrorist group Egyptian Islamic Jihad to persuade Sinai’s Salafis not to open a second front against Israel. The very fact that such a report could be deemed credible speaks volumes. And EIJ’s denial offered Iran scant comfort: It said the Sinai Salafis sat out the war not at Cairo’s request, but because they themselves understood the folly of joining it.

Clearly, Morsi and the Brotherhood haven’t suddenly become Israel-lovers, and there’s no guarantee they will not scrap the treaty someday. But for now, they need Western aid to rebuild Egypt’s economy and consolidate their grip on power, and they know this aid depends on upholding the treaty. And if that consideration prevailed in the face of airstrikes on Hamas, a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, it seems certain that it would prevail in the face of airstrikes on Shi’ite Iran, or of subsequent Israeli counterstrikes on Iran’s Shi’ite and Alawite allies in Lebanon and Syria.

The other question mark hanging over Israel’s ability to strike Iran is related to American support. In the aftermath of a strike, Israel would need Washington’s diplomatic clout to ensure that Iran remained under tough sanctions that could prevent its nuclear program from being rebuilt; Israel might also need emergency military resupply. Hence the conventional wisdom has been that Israel would not attack unless it were confident of getting such support – and until now, Iran might well have hoped it would not be forthcoming.

Previous Israeli operations offered no clues to how President Obama might react, since Israel had not conducted any during his tenure. But Tehran did know Washington had frequently voiced reservations about military action against Iran, and it also presumably knew (since its Intelligence Ministry report quoted Haaretz) that many Israeli pundits expected the president’s disagreements with Netanyahu over Iran (as well as the Palestinian issue) to intensify once he was free of the constraints of running for reelection. But it turned out that these disagreements did not stop the White House from offering unstinting support for Israel’s response to escalating Hamas rocket fire. Nor, according to Israeli media reports, did Israel act only after obtaining a “green light” from Washington: Though Jerusalem informed the White House in general terms of its intent to respond, it reportedly revealed its specific plans for the campaign’s opening move (assassinating senior Hamas terrorist Ahmed Jabari) only after the fact. Thus Tehran now has to wonder whether President Obama might not respond similarly to an Israeli strike on Iran.

Attacking Iran obviously is not the same as attacking Gaza. For starters, Iran has far more power to retaliate against U.S. interests than either Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Second, Washington has made its opposition to such a strike far clearer. Finally, while the Gaza operation was patently defensive, much of the world would probably view Israel as the aggressor against Iran, despite the fact that Iran has been attacking Israel for years via its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, and that given Iran’s repeated threats to annihilate the “Zionist entity,” denying Tehran the means to do so is an existential matter of self-defense for Israel.

For all these reasons, Israel cannot be certain that Washington would support a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the same way it supported Pillar of Defense. But at the same time, Tehran cannot be certain that it would not: If America’s tradition of supporting Israel’s right to defend itself can trump policy disagreements in one case, there is always a chance it could do so in another. Moreover, Iran now has to consider the possibility that massive counterstrikes on Israel might provoke American support even if it were not initially forthcoming. These considerations have to worry Tehran.

Thus regardless of its achievements on the Gaza front, Pillar of Defense clearly bolstered Israel’s ability to mount a credible military threat against Iran. That is good news for anyone hoping to halt Iran’s nuclear program without military action. And it also explains why Netanyahu moved to end the operation so quickly, and then voiced satisfaction with its results, despite his uncertainty that the truce will hold: Gaza is not his chief concern right now.

As the prime minister himself said the day after the cease-fire took effect, “We have more important and less important enemies; we deal with them in order of importance.” And no one doubts which enemy tops the list.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.