Tehran and Washington can come to an agreement


Yonatan Sindel / Redux

The Israeli strike on the Iranian diplomatic mission in Damascus on April 1 brings the situation in the Middle East to a new stage. In this sense, it can be compared with the events of October 7 last year (Hamas attack on Israel), as well as with Israel’s launching of the war in Gaza. At each of these stages, the question arose: what next? And each was followed by escalation. What can we expect now?

The answer is that Iran will strike a blow, a very sensitive one, and necessarily on Israeli territory, followed by a new wave of escalation, namely, the entry of the United States into the conflict on the side of its ally, Israel. According to the most widespread opinion, this is what Tel Aviv was counting on — the direct involvement of America in the war against Iran.

Indeed, this scenario seems logical: no matter how critical the Biden administration is of Netanyahu’s government and policies, the White House cannot afford to deny direct military support to the Jewish state when it faces an existential threat from their common enemy, Iran. A refusal would be tantamount to losing face and reputation as a reliable ally; America would then lose its credibility in the region.

Why would Israel want this?

First, it would force Washington to reaffirm the strength of the U.S.-Israeli alliance, which has recently begun to fracture. Second, it will allow Israel to get out of the swamp of strategic loneliness in which it has fallen: if the Americans take Tel Aviv’s side, others, particularly the Europeans, will follow them. Third, new prospects will open up for normalizing relations with Arab countries, especially with Saudi Arabia, which will be forced to make a choice in favor of Israel in the conditions of war with Iran. Fourth, such a «big war» will overshadow Gaza and will allow to unite the Israeli society, bring down the wave of resentment against Netanyahu’s government, take it out from under the threat of losing power and, as they say, freedom.

All this, we repeat, looks logical. However, the realization of such a scenario depends on conditions that Tel Aviv is unable to influence.

First of all, it concerns the quality of relations between Washington and Tehran. The Israeli provocation can only succeed if there is no U.S.-Iranian dialog. But such a dialog does exist, and both sides have repeatedly hinted at its regularity and effectiveness. Outside observers have also had many occasions to be convinced of this, if only because so far not a single incident — and there have been many: from missile attacks on U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq, to attacks on U.S. warships by the Houthis, to the arrest of a tanker carrying U.S. oil — has led to a direct clash.

And now the same thing is happening: after the Israeli strike on Damascus, there was not a spontaneous, provoked reaction from Washington and Tehran, but an exchange of messages between them designed to prevent an unnecessary escalation.

Thus, the White House was quick to state that the American side had nothing to do with the incident. Moreover, Tel Aviv did not warn Washington in advance of the impending strike, but informed it just minutes before the attack, without saying anything about its purpose. At the same time, the Americans openly admitted that they had asked Iran not to strike U.S. bases. But no requests for forbearance against Israel were voiced.

For its part, Tehran, declaring imminent retaliation, asked the Americans to «step back» so as not to «get hit». In other words, the Iranians made it clear that they do not blame America for what happened and will not retaliate against it. It can be assumed that at the same time assurances were given that the nature and scale of the Iranian strikes would be such as to allow the United States to evade its obligations to defend Israel.

All this suggests that Iran and the United States have not only built a very effective system of interaction that allows them to avoid direct confrontation, but more than that: it seems that in the face of an Israeli provocation, they are demonstrating a readiness for concerted action aimed at «educating» Tel Aviv. If they manage to keep the situation under control and prevent the Israeli scenario from materializing, this could be the end of Netanyahu and his hawkish course. After that, we can expect not just a change of government, but a rethinking of the entire Israeli strategy. And one of its future pillars could be constructive cooperation with Iran.

Israelis will have to accept the fact that the Iranian genie can no longer be put back in the bottle. The current attempt to do so may be the last. Iran has entered Israel’s borders and will remain here. Gaza has shown how war with it will turn out; the Jewish state will not survive a second such war. The only way out is to negotiate with Tehran.

One of the bases of such an agreement could be the same view of the Palestinian problem: neither Israel nor Iran recognizes the concept of «two states for two peoples». Together with the same de facto status of nuclear missile powers, this would be enough to create a solid basis for peaceful coexistence.

And what will be the place and role of the United States in this case?

It seems that the Americans intend to become sponsors, promoters, and guarantors of this process (similar to their actions under the Abraham Accords). This is likely to reduce the burden of direct responsibility for regional stability, shifting it onto the shoulders of regional players (curiously, just last week the GCC countries adopted the first joint concept in the history of the organization in this area). In addition, the U.S. apparently intends to create conditions for effective competition with China in this part of the world. Finally, we should not forget that a full-fledged partnership with a nuclear Iran (the road to which is opened by Iranian-Israeli normalization) will create a completely new and very unpleasant situation for Russia on its southern borders.