Tension is mounting between Israel and Iran in Syria. On Thursday, Israel bombed dozens of Iranian targets inside Syria in the largest attack by Israel since fighting began in Syria in 2011. Israeli authorities said the attack was in response to Iranian forces firing 20 rockets at Israeli forces in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran had “crossed a red line,” though Israel has offered no evidence the rocket attacks were carried out by Iran. Earlier today, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Israel’s claim about an Iranian rocket attack is “freely invented and baseless.” Meanwhile, more evidence is emerging that it was Israel—not Iran—that began the escalation this week. The New York Times reports an Israeli missile strike on Wednesday hit a village in the Syrian Golan Heights. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reports Israel carried out a missile strike on Tuesday near Damascus, killing at least 15 people, including eight Iranians. That strike occurred just hours after President Trump announced the United States would pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement. To talk more about the rising tension between Israel and Iran, we go to London, where we are joined by the Iranian-American professor Laleh Khalili. She is a professor at SOAS University of London. She’s the author of a number of books, including “Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies.”
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AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Syria, where tension is mounting between Israel and Iran. On Thursday, Israel bombed dozens of Iranian targets inside Syria in the largest attack by Israel since fighting began in Syria in 2011. Israeli authorities said the attack was in response to Iranian forces firing 20 rockets at Israeli forces in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Iran had crossed a red line, though Israel has offered no evidence the rocket attacks were carried out by Iran.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] The international community must prevent the entrenchment of Iran’s Quds force in Syria. We must unite so that we may sever the spreading limbs of its evil there and in every place. I repeat: Whoever hits us, we will hit back sevenfold. And whoever prepares to strike at us, we will act to strike at them beforehand. This is what we have done, and this is what we will continue to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier today, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Israel’s claim about an Iranian rocket attack is, quote, “freely invented and baseless.”
Meanwhile, more evidence is emerging that it was Israel, not Iran, that began the escalation this week. The New York Times reports an Israeli missile strike on Wednesday hit a village in the Syrian Golan Heights. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reports Israel carried out a missile strike Tuesday near Damascus, killing at least 15 people, including eight Iranians. That strike occurred just hours after President Trump announced the United States would pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement.
To talk more about the rising tension between Israel and Iran, and what’s happening in Syria, as well as Israel and Gaza, we go to London, where we’re joined by the Iranian-American professor Laleh Khalili. She is a professor at SOAS University of London. She’s the author of a number of books, including Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Laleh Khalili. Can you start off by talking about these latest developments between Israel and Iran in Syria?
LALEH KHALILI: Yes. Thank you very much for having me.
I think it’s really important to note two things about this, that there’s one element of this that has directly to do with the Trump announcement about the U.S. pulling out of the nuclear deal. But before I get to that, I want to mention that what Israel has done over the course of the last few days—and as you mentioned just in your preceding introductory remarks to this—is that Israel’s modus operandi is to try to generate conflict by provoking, by acting very provocatively. This is a long-standing activity, a standard activity, of Israel. In fact, it’s part of what Moshe Dayan boasted about, about their ability to actually get the Syrians to shoot at them, between 1948 and 1967, when Golan was a demilitarized zone. He famously talked about how the Israelis would send tractors into the demilitarized zone, and if the Syrians wouldn’t shoot back at them, they would send them in further in order to provoke conflict, in order to provoke an encounter. So, this is actually quite a familiar activity of the Israeli military. It’s not something that they have just started doing.
Having said that, it’s really important to note also that this is actually, in this particular moment, a very dangerous outcome of Trump, President Trump, pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran. In effect, what his pulling out of the deal has done has given a green light to Israel to do as it wishes. And, in fact, as you mentioned, just hours after Trump announced this withdrawal from the deal, the Israelis started attacking.
Now, we have no idea whether the 20 rockets that were fired into the occupied Golan were actually Iranian rockets or Syrian rockets. If they are Iranian rockets, then they are probably, more than anything else, a kind of a symbolic activity by the hard-line military advisers, Iranian military advisers, that are in Syria. But there’s really no telling that this is an Iranian activity, especially given also the weakness of the firing. I mean, if really they wanted to attack, they probably could have done a lot more damage than just a bunch of rockets, and it would have probably gone further than occupied Golan.
Now, having said that, it’s also interesting, because I was just reading this morning that, in fact, before attacking Syria so extensively with a number of airplanes and hitting something like 50 military bases and depots, that the Netanyahu government—and, in fact, Netanyahu himself—specifically warned the Russians about what was coming. And apparently the Russians then flew to Iran and warned the Iranians about what was going to be happening after their firing of those rockets. And so, part of the reason that we see so few casualties on these military hits—the numbers range between—well, three Syrians have been killed, and then some number between 10 to 20 Iranians apparently have been killed, as well, but we don’t actually know the exact numbers, and the Iranians have not acknowledged any kind of casualties in this. So, but there is a lot of stuff going on in the background that we don’t hear about. So, what we see, actually, on the stage is a lot of posturing by all the different active parties in this quite sordid drama, really.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking yesterday.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] Iran crossed a red line. Our response was appropriate. The IDF carried out a broad strike, a very broad strike, against the Iranian targets in Syria. Thanks to correct preparedness of our forces both in attack and in defense, the Iranian action failed. No rockets landed in Israeli areas. The people of Israel are proud of the IDF, and the people of Israel trust the IDF. We are in the midst of a protracted battle, and our policy is clear: We will not allow Iran to entrench itself in Syria. Yesterday, I sent a clear message to the Assad regime: Our action is aimed at Iranian targets in Syria, but if Syrian Army will act against us, we will act against it. This is exactly what happened yesterday. Batteries of the Syrian Army fired ground-to-air missiles against us, and we hit them.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Khalili, your response?
LALEH KHALILI: Yes, well, it’s quite interesting, because, on the one hand, this is actually quite frank on his behalf. The Israeli military very often attacks at a moment when internally, domestically, there’s some sort of a dispute or there’s some sort of conflict. As we know, Netanyahu has been under investigation, etc. And so, the military often attacks in order to make some domestic gains.
But I also think that there’s something else at work here. That is that there is increasing unhappiness with the ways in which Israel conducts itself, both internally and in the region. And we see a lot of that with what’s going on in Gaza. And so, I think this kind of a militant, praetorian activity by the Israeli security establishment, again, is standard modus operandi in the sense that the Israelis keep the population on side by engaging in acts of war.
Now, having said that, I also have to say that Israel, the state of Israel, is not exactly worried about all those millions of Syrians that have been attacked by the Syrian regime, supported by Iranians and Russians. They are not—they don’t care about the displaced. They don’t care about the internal repression in Syria. What they’re really worried about is the balance of—the geostrategic balance of power in the region. Syria, as we know, has been a long-standing ally of Iran, since the revolution, in fact. And it was, for a time, the only Arab ally Iran had in the region. And it has acted as a kind of a land supply bridge to Hezbollah, which also happens to be the only Arab force that has actually ever defeated Israel in face-to-face battle. Now, Hezbollah has lost an enormous amount of credibility in Lebanon and in other places because of the ways in which it has supported the Syrian regime, but nevertheless it does pose as a threat to Israel. And part of the activity that Israel has undertaken is precisely this.
But there is also another element of this that does have to do with the Trump announcement of withdrawal. As your viewers know very well, after H.R. McMaster stepped down or was fired as the national security adviser to President Trump, President Trump’s choice of national security adviser has been John Bolton, who’s been one of the most long-standing neoconservative proponents of some sort of a head-on confrontation with Iran.
Now, given that a head-on confrontation with Iran is actually not on the books right now—certainly, I don’t think that the U.S. military would support any such a thing—what we see is a kind of a two-pronged action by the Trump regime, the Trump administration. And that is, putting economic pressure on Iran via the sanctions, which are going to be reinstated now or strengthened now, because a lot of the sanctions weren’t removed yet—I mean, it’s important to note that, as well. And the second is to actually use their very good and pliant client in the region, which is the Israeli state, to conduct military activities against Iran. It’s not like Israel has started conducting military activities against Iran. There has been a long period of Israeli assassination, for example, of nuclear scientists, inside Iran and elsewhere. And there has been proxy wars between Iran and Israel, again, primarily via Hezbollah in Lebanon. But I think that this is also part of a longer-range strategy of people like John Bolton and his allies and supporters within the U.S. in order to sort of generate a degree of instability for Iran, both economically and militarily.
What would be interesting is the extent to which Iran would be willing to take the bait on this. I mean, there is—there has been some interesting responses, very divided responses, official responses, from Iran. I was looking at some of the Iranian newspapers, and it seems that some of the Revolutionary Guard commanders in Iran have been quite celebratory, whether facetiously or genuinely, about Trump pulling out of the nuclear deal, because they feel that this essentially lays out clearly where the U.S. stands, whereas, of course, President Rouhani and others who support him have been conciliatory and have tried, in some ways, to maintain the nuclear deal with the other five signatories—the three European states plus China and Russia.
And so, what is interesting is, in some ways, this is 11-dimensional chess. There’s all sorts of calculations and calculuses going on by all sorts of actors. And, actually, to be totally honest, none of the actors, whether they’re states or governments, are acting as unitary, cohesive unit. In the U.S., there’s going to be some pushback. If, for example, Trump wants to start a full-on war, there’s going to be pushback from the military. The same is true in—I think, in Israel. And, of course, Syria doesn’t act with one voice. And Iran is divided. So, there is quite a lot of politicking that is going on behind the scenes, which is at the moment quite murky to actually cut through, and things might become a little bit clearer in the future.
I think it’s really important to note at this point, though, that the Europeans are also playing a very interesting role in this. I have been reading that the Germans have spoken about extending lines of credit to the businesses that might be hurt by the new sanctions regime. There has been a list drawn up of what sorts of support or protection can be put up against extraterritorial sanctions that the Trump administration may be enforcing against European powers. There’s been some attempt to get a waiver for European firms engaging in business in Iran. And there is some very clear—
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is extremely significant, when you talk about for people to understand about European businesses.
LALEH KHALILI: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, the European countries who are part of the Iran nuclear deal say they are wholeheartedly behind it. You know, they came to the U.S. to lobby Trump not to pull out. He did. But this means that those European companies that are doing business in Iran, because they can and it’s legal, well, now are afraid of being sanctioned by the U.S. for doing this.
LALEH KHALILI: Yes. Yes, that is correct. I mean, at the moment, the only sanction that has been reinvoked, in some senses, put in place, has been a sanction against, ostensibly, a number of businesses that are, in some way, the Trump administration claims, tied to the Revolutionary Guard. But there has been very big concern on the European side about what might happen to companies like, for example, Total, the French petroleum company, that has deals in Iran, or with Renault or Audi or other companies, Airbus, that might be engaging in business in Iran.
It is really important to note, though, that although some of the sanctions had been softened up after the JCPOA went into effect in 2015, not all of them had been removed. A lot of Iranians that you would talk to would talk about how difficult it was to still get any money transferred to Iran, for example. And so, in some ways, what the Trump administration is doing is ensuring that no more of softening up of these sanctions happening. And, of course, the Europeans, as I said, are quite concerned about this.
Who might be the beneficiary of this is, of course, the Chinese and the Russian businesses, that tend to have workarounds around these forms of sanctions. So it would be very interesting to see whether—A, whether the Trump administration will really take its trade war rhetoric further and implement these sanctions against European countries, not just Iranians, but European countries and businesses, and, B, whether there would be other non-Atlantic states, like Russia and China, that would benefit from this reinstitution of sanctions, should they happen to the extent that many fear.
AMY GOODMAN: We have break, but we’re going to come back to this discussion. Let me ask you one last question before we do.
LALEH KHALILI: Of course.
AMY GOODMAN: And that is, do you think there is going to be a war between Israel and Iran in Syria?
LALEH KHALILI: I really, really hope not. For one thing, if the arena of warfare is Syria, the Syrians have suffered enough, from the repression of this Assad regime, from the bombings from all sides, from an opposition that has been divided and quite brutal, and from all external powers that have been using it as a kind of a proxy for their warfare. And I certainly hope that there won’t be any kind of warfare between Israel and Iran, because, ultimately, the victims will end up being the people who have had nothing to do with the decision-making processes that are being made right now.
I tend to be slightly less pessimistic. And part of the reason that I’m less pessimistic is because I think that both Iran and Israel recognize the extent to which such war could actually damage them internally. There might be some fantasists who think that such a war could actually bolster the power of the hard liners on both sides, but I really do hope that cooler heads will prevail, at least in Iran, if not in Israel. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Laleh Khalili, we’re going to break, but we’re going to come back to our discussion.
LALEH KHALILI: Yes. Thank you. Of course.
AMY GOODMAN: And we want to particularly also talk about what’s happened in Gaza.
LALEH KHALILI: OK, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Forty-seven people have been killed by Israeli forces, thousands shot. Laleh Khalili is a professor at SOAS University of London. We’ll be back with her in a minute.