The political calculations of three individuals – Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump and Ali Khamenei – will determine whether the Middle East sees war or relative peace in 2021. The prospects thus far do not look good.
Benjamin Netanyahu faces the political fight of his life this year as Israelis head to the polls in March for their country’s fourth election in two years. This is also the year when a raft of corruption allegations against Netanyahu will come to a head. Despite Israel’s ostensibly independent institutions, there is a lot that Netanyahu can do to influence the outcome of the proceedings against him if he remains prime minister. In the upcoming elections, Netanyahu faces a potent threat from the right of the political spectrum, with one of his former party colleagues having formed his own right-wing political party. To counter this, Netanyahu will rely on a “rally around the flag” effect by upping tensions with Iran. And in this endeavor, Netanyahu has an eager ally in the White House, at least till January 20.
Indeed, Netanyahu and Donald Trump appear to be working either tacitly or in concert to pursue a “scorched earth” strategy against Iran. This has entailed raising tensions with Iran to such a level that a miscalculation by either side could lead to attacks crossing a certain threshold that leads to war. This could make it virtually impossible either for Joe Biden to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran or for Tehran to even countenance a broader detente with the US.
Aside from the menacing rhetoric emanating from Tel Aviv and Washington, there have been attacks against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies in the region or attacks within Iran itself. As is now widely suspected, Israel was behind the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, regarded as the father of Iran’s nuclear program. Israel has also increased its attacks on Iranian weapons convoys to the Hezbollah militia and IRGC assets in Syria. In early December, Israel launched missile strikes against Iran-backed fighters in Syria and a Syrian government research center, where Iranian experts are alleged to have worked. In an unprecedented move, an Israeli submarine has embarked for the Gulf as part of an above-water, visible deployment.
In America, Trump may indeed share Netanyahu’s animosity towards Iran. However, Trump is also operating out of additional political calculations. In addition to handing over a major foreign policy problem to the incoming Biden administration, Trump may order attacks against Iran to please his political base. Indeed, right after his election loss, Trump is reported to have consulted with his senior military advisors on the feasibility of launching military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. For the first time in eight years, the US moved a submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles into the Gulf in December. On December 30, the US flew two strategic B-52 bombers over the Gulf as a show of force against Iran.
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei faces his own political compulsions, particularly as this month marks a year since Qassem Soleimani’s assassination by the US. Even before Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, the regime had vowed in September to exact revenge for Soleimani’s killing. Iran could respond with its tried-and-tested strategy of getting its regional proxies to launch attacks against American and Israeli assets in the region.
On December 20, the US embassy in Baghdad was hit by a barrage of rockets, the largest such attack in a decade. Even as Iraqi authorities blamed an “outlaw group” for the rocket attack, this does not give Tehran plausible deniability. In a tweet after the attack, Trump put Iran on notice.
More recently, US defense officials have warned of the high possibility of a complex attack being launched against American personnel and assets in Iraq, with reports of greater coordination between Iraqi militias and Iran’s Quds force and of conventional weapons being moved from Iran into Iraq.
Yet Khamenei’s compulsions to respond to America in kind stem not just from seeking revenge, but also two other political objectives. One is the 81-year-old Khamenei’s desire to cement his political legacy as he enters the twilight of his political life. The second is to ensure the victory of an ally, potentially affiliated to the IRGC, in Iran’s upcoming presidential elections in June. It is no coincidence that Hossein Dehghan, a former IRGC air commander and current military aide to Khamenei, recently announced his candidacy. Soon after that, Dehghan threatened missile attacks against American military bases in the region. Over the next six months, Iran’s will witness competitive outflanking in terms of ratcheting up tensions with the US and Israel.
In this environment, where raising tensions yields domestic political dividends, the risks of miscalculation are high. Unlike the Cold War, the belligerents do not have treaties that establish red lines or hotlines that can be used to calm tensions. With 2021 being an important year in each country’s political calendars, and with the politicians sitting at the top of each country’s decision-making structure all facing an incentive to ratchet up rather than dial down tension, the prospects for a calmer Middle East in 2021 look very dim.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.