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Iran-Israel restraint may hinge on nuclear deal

As tensions between Iran and Israel reach new highs, saving the nuclear deal could be the only path to containing further dangerous escalation in the region.

Hostility between Iran and Israel is nothing new, but May 10 marked a high point. Israel reportedly launched a limited missile strike targeting Syria’s Quneitra district. The attack was followed by a series of rockets fired from Syria toward the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Tel Aviv immediately charged Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani with having orchestrated the attack, and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said May 10 that Israel had hit almost all of Iran’s infrastructure in Syria in response.

Iran has for the most part remained silent. On May 10, two Iranian lawmakers denied that Iran had any role in the rocket attack, saying that it had nothing to gain by attacking the Golan Heights. They added that if Iran had carried out the attack, it would not hesitate to claim responsibility for it, just as it did after its ballistic missile attack on Islamic State bases in eastern Syria last year. While it is unclear whether Iran was behind the rocket attack, it can be safely assumed that it would not have happened without Tehran’s backing, given Iranian officials’ repeated warnings to Israel that it would receive a response for its provocative and sporadic attacks on sites in Syria.

The timing of the exchange of fire was significant: It came only two days after President Donald Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name for the nuclear deal with Iran. Did the rocket attack and its aftermath have anything to do with Trump’s decision? The answer is probably yes, particularly considering Israel’s increased attacks on Syria in recent weeks.

Nosratollah Tajik, Iran's former ambassador to Jordan, told Al-Monitor, “Even before Trump’s decision, Israel was trying to, with its confrontational measures, provoke Iran into taking reciprocal actions in order to change the psychological atmosphere against Iran. This is especially since Tel Aviv sees Europe backing Iran on the nuclear deal and is not pleased with that. Therefore, after Trump officially announced his decision to pull out, they stepped up their provocations in Syria.”

May 10 was perhaps a warning shot to Europe that if the nuclear deal is not saved, there will be future clashes that may not be containable — especially since, for the first time in many years, a consensus has been formed among Israeli officers on directly countering Iran.

In his May 8 address following the US announcement, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran will remain committed to the deal if European signatories guarantee that it will receive the promised economic incentives. The Iranian Foreign Ministry is also engaged with its European counterparts and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, meeting with them in Brussels on May 15 and again in Vienna May 25 to find practical ways to keep the deal alive.

There are many doubts in Iran about whether the deal will survive. For instance, on May 9, shortly after Trump’s announcement, Iranian military commanders welcomed Trump’s decision and expressed their lack of trust in Europe. They stressed the need to expand Iran’s defensive capabilities, including the ballistic missile program.

With the future of the nuclear deal in limbo, the potential for a clash between Tehran and Tel Aviv seems greater than ever. Tension is likely to increase as Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have both insisted that Iran won’t negotiate further over its missile program or regional influence.

If Iran has so far refrained from responding to Israel’s provocations in Syria, it is perhaps because of the nuclear deal as well as Rouhani still having the upper hand in domestic Iranian politics. It is evident that the potential collapse of the JCPOA will eliminate both inhibiting factors from Iran's regional policy and pave the way for potential future clashes with Israel.

If Europe fails to keep the JCPOA alive, it is not only Rouhani who will lose one of his biggest achievements and source of political capital; Reformists and moderates will take a hit, too. Should the deal collapse, Rouhani and other pro-reform voices need to change their discourse and adopt a more hard-line strategy on regional policy or can expect defeat in the next elections. The implications are wide: A collapse of the JCPOA will mean a collapse of diplomacy and Rouhani’s doctrine of constructive engagement with the world.

And these gloomy scenarios ignore what would happen if Iran were to exit the JCPOA. On May 15, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that if the deal’s remaining signatories cannot make up for the US withdrawal, “We are ready to take our nuclear program to a level stronger than before the JCPOA."

With the escalating war of words between Israel and Iran, even a small spark could ignite an inferno in the Middle East, the ripple effects of which will surely reach Europe. Only Europe can prevent such a crisis first and foremost by endeavoring to keep the JCPOA alive. If it fails to do so, the prospect of full-scale war in the region will no doubt significantly increase.

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