In today’s Middle East, when parties look for a greater power to pressure regional actors not to escalate, they don’t turn to Washington. They turn to Moscow. With leverage over Israel, Iran, and Syria, Russia is in a unique position to stop the wider conflict that threatens to erupt — and particularly after a single day saw an Iranian drone reportedly penetrate deep into Israel, the downing of an Israeli F-16, and Israel’s massive bombardment of targets inside Syria. And although the military situation could yet spin our of control, there are reasons to believe that the fight may turn political instead.
At the root of the tensions is the shifting regional balance of power. Over the past fifteen years, Israel has steadily seen its own maneuverability in the region recede, while Iran’s has been bolstered by Washington’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, the subsequent loss of U.S. influence and credibility, and even Bashir al-Assad’s survival in Syria. On top of that, the nuclear deal prevented Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but also recognized Iran as a de facto regional power and ended a decades-long U.S. policy of seeking the country’s complete isolation. Similarly, major powers in Europe, Russia, and China began treating Iran as a legitimate regional actor whose involvement and buy-in was necessary for stability.
According to the Iranian foreign ministry and Tehran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, the events of Feb. 10 signify that the “era of Israeli strikes on Syria is over” — and mark a further reduction in Israel’s maneuverability, who for years have freely bombed targets in Syria without significant repercussions.
But despite the tough rhetoric, few see much appetite in Israel or in Iran for a direct military engagement. Instead, Israel is more likely to shift the conflict to a different theater — the UN — where it will seek to reimpose Iran’s pariah status, return Tehran to diplomatic and economic isolation, and reverse 15 years of change in the regional balance.
Such a shift would fit well with efforts prepared by Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration, who for weeks have prepared the ground to reimpose new UN sanctions on Iran. Some of their efforts have already born fruit.
Earlier last month, a little-noticed leaked UN Panel report accused Iran of violating a UN-imposed arms embargo on Yemen. The report doesn’t claim that Iran has provided weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, but rather that Tehran has failed to keep the rebels from obtaining Iranian weapons. As a result, the panel concludes that Iran is in non-compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2216.
The somewhat far-fetched Saudi plan has been to use the report to impose on Iran a new resolution under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which allows the UN Security Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and to take action to “restore international peace and security.”
Such a resolution would once again put Iran in the penalty box, with its economy sanctioned and its political pathways for influence in the region blocked — i.e., an all-out containment of Iran. In Riyadh’s calculation, this will thwart Tehran’s rise and shift the regional balance in favor of Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The value of such a resolution to Israel and Saudi Arabia — and its threat to Iran — go far beyond the rather limited economic impact of the sanctions it may impose. A Chapter VII Security Council resolution “securitizes” a country, in the words of Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Anything pertaining to Iran — whether regular trade or even participation in political bodies — will be seen through a security lens, Zarif told me in an interview for my book Losing an Enemy - Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.
In Iran’s case, it meant that it was viewed as having a menacing nuclear program before it was viewed as a country or a nation. The country and its activities were now officially defined as a threat to international peace and stability. Though the UN sanctions imposed on Iran were not biting per se, they were nevertheless a critical component of the securitization of Iran. “Sanctions were both an outcome of this securitization environment and also perpetuated by it,” Zarif argued. “It showed that this country [Iran] is a security threat because of the sanctions.”
Israel and Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the nuclear deal was partly rooted in their desire to keep Iran permanently isolated. By striking the nuclear deal and neutralizing that threat, Barack Obama deprived Israel and Saudi Arabia of their main tool for pursuing Iran’s containment.
Now, whether through the UN Panel report on Yemen or allegations of Iranian drones violating Israeli airspace, the Israeli-Saudi alliance hope they have a path towards a new UN Security Council resolution that once again puts Iran in the penalty box and paves the way for an all-out American containment of Iran.
Thus, despite high rhetoric and tough statements, the real showdown may soon move from the Israeli-Syrian border to New York. Not only is the cost less for Israel, but the impact will arguably also be greater. While a strong military assault against alleged Iranian positions in Syria may win Israel and Saudi Arabia a few weeks, a Chapter VII resolution at the UN can win them a decade.
But just as Putin blocked Israel’s bombing campaign in Syria, he holds a similar trump card in New York: a Security Council veto. Israel and Saudi Arabia may have Donald Trump and Nikki Haley where they want them, but without Russia, their campaign to shift the regional balance of power against Iran remains an uphill climb.