Under the regime of Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, nobody in the region seriously considered going to war against the country. With the bonanza created by the first oil windfall, the shah's government had an unexpected and most welcome national revenue that allowed the regime to purchase very sophisticated armaments. The U.S. was supportive of the shah's regime, so there was no political problem or obstacle in purchasing very sophisticated weapons.
In the 1970s, Iran was the playmaker in the region, especially under the Pahlavi's undisputed authority. Pahlavi overtly supported Mustafa Barzani's Kurdish insurgency in northern Iraq, but as he said openly in a BBC interview that he was "giving just enough support to the Kurds not to be beaten, but not to be victorious either." He obliged Iraq to accept a very unfair division of the Persian Gulf coast, which prevented Iraq from having enough berth facilities in its port for oil exportation. This incidentally created the conditions for the Iran-Iraq War after 1980.
Under the shah's regime, Israel and Iran were the two staunchest allies of the U.S. in the region. Their relations were excellent. In comparison, the Turkish Armed Forces looked sorry as far as the Air Force and armored forces were concerned. Despite being in the same alliance system with Iran, Turkey never had very good or deep relations with the country under the shah. After he was gone and with the Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Republic has always seen secular Turkey as a perfect nemesis.
Regime change in Iran occurred during the Cold War, at a period when countries had to choose between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime was probably the first in history to distance itself equally from the U.S. and the Soviet Union. By assuming a direction diametrically opposed to that of the deposed shah, Iran became an archrival for Israel almost instantly. It is worth remembering that in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, Yasser Arafat paid one of the first official visits to the new Islamic regime, when he declared that Iran was then a second motherland for him and for all Palestinians. Khomeini was not a very delicate or diplomatic leader, and his views regarding the total destruction of Israel created immense anxiety in Israel. It has since become a real fixation for all Israeli governments to see that Iran is contained by all means necessary.
The challenge for Iran was twofold. It wanted to have a nuclear dissuasion force in order to balance Israel's nuclear arsenal mostly in submarines. It also wanted to not engage in a conventional war after the terrible losses during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. It was able to stage proxy wars in Afghanistan, in Iraq partly, Lebanon and in Yemen. It almost succeeded in enriching enough uranium to be used for nuclear arms, but the international community bluntly stopped that endeavor. Nobody wanted to see the Iranian regime get hold of nuclear weapons. Israel least of all.
With the Syrian tragedy, Iran, for the first time since 1988, has sent militia forces and soldiers to fight. This has been done in disguise, but it is now an open secret. The Israeli air force has struck Iranian targets in Syria more than once. So here we have two countries without any common border fighting sporadically in an alien territory.
Amos Harel, writing for Haaretz in Israel, clearly declared: "Moscow has invested too much effort and resources in saving Bashar Assad's regime in recent years to allow Israel to foil its strategic project." Russia is also concerned about the proximity of the Israeli bombings to sites where its soldiers and advisers are.
For the first time, Israel cannot have very clear backing from the U.S., because of the very hesitant and sometimes criminally unintelligible U.S. policy on Syria. The U.S. administration collects blunder after blunder in Syria and has practically lost Turkey as a staunch ally in the region. It is more than probable that Israel will not allow Iran to have a military presence in Syria, which is precluding a new and deep divide between the U.S. and Israel, its most important ally in the region.
Can Israel envisage attacking the Russian military presence in Syria? Nothing is less predictable. However, if there is a real perception of an Iranian threat that would come from Syria, Israel will not hesitate to preempt any such attack.
There are too many unknowns in the Syrian quagmire. Ankara made a mistake by thinking that Assad's regime could be reformed. All the help Turkey offered to Assad, all the free-trade zone projects designed to bring peace and prosperity to the region between 2005 and 2011, have gone up in smoke. Israel has made a mistake thinking that Assad's regime and the modus vivendi established since the cease-fire of 1974 could still be sustainable. The U.S., by its totally nonexistent political strategy, has further poisoned the situation. Unfortunately, more armed conflicts are in sight in Syria.
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