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A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the P5+1 and Iran during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, 14 July 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Report 173 / Middle East & North Africa

Implementing the Iran Nuclear Deal: A Status Report

The one-year-old Iran nuclear deal has succeeded in its goal of blocking nuclear proliferation and opening the door to Iranian economic recovery. But it remains in jeopardy unless both Washington and Tehran defend and extend the spirit as well as the letter of the accord.

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Executive Summary

One year since its “implementation day”, 16 January 2016, the July 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – is both a success and in jeopardy. It has delivered so far on its narrow objective: effectively and verifiably blocking all potential pathways for Iran to race toward nuclear weapons, while opening the door to the country’s international rehabilitation and economic recovery. But in its transactional nature lies the accord’s vulnerability: it has not begun to transform the enmity between Iran and the U.S., leaving it exposed to an unstable political environment. If Iran still deems the deal in its national interest, it should not only adhere to its letter and spirit, but also move away from regional zero-sum pursuits. The Trump administration will face a starker choice. It could scuttle the deal, deliberately or by neglect; it should seek to make it stronger for all by a better-for-better bargain.

Over the past year, internal polarisation in Tehran and Washington about the accord’s merits often overshadowed what really matters: that it is working and delivering concrete results. It has put Iran’s nuclear program under the most stringent inspection mechanism ever implemented, while lengthening the breakout time to produce weapons-grade uranium from a few weeks to more than a year. Since January 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified six times that Iran has fulfilled its JCPOA obligations. The relaxation of U.S., European Union (EU) and UN nuclear-related sanctions has allowed Iran to regain oil market share, recover billions in frozen assets and attract foreign direct investment, turning its once shrinking economy into the region’s fastest growing.

Yet, implementation, as with any complex technical agreement, has not been flawless. Iran committed several technical violations, none, alone or together, material. Paradoxically, they proved the accord’s efficacy: the IAEA quickly detected each and Iran remedied it. There have been more serious problems with sanctions relief. Iran still lacks normal international banking ties, as major financial institutions remain circumspect, hampering its reintegration into the global economy and dashing inflated public expectations of rapid economic recovery.

The most consequential political wildcard remains the U.S. Congress, where hostility toward Iran runs deep, and new sanctions are being considered.

This is because of concerns over Iran’s regional resurgence and ballistic-missile tests, but the accord could not have been negotiated successfully if those issues had been on the table. Today they constitute the primary threat to its successful implementation. This, in turn, is because the JCPOA’s transformational potential has not yet materialised in the face of powerful stakeholders who moved to ensure it was a ceiling on, not a foundation for, détente between Iran, its neighbours and the U.S. The conundrum is that without addressing the broader political antagonism that pits Iran against its neighbours and the West, the JCPOA at best will remain fragile and its implementation halting, but without full implementation, resolving the underlying political antagonism may prove impossible. 

The most troubling uncertainty is the new U.S. administration’s approach. During the campaign, Donald Trump condemned the JCPOA as “the worst deal ever negotiated”. As president, he can repudiate it or refrain from the steps necessary to sustain it. But killing the accord or allowing it to die when Iran is in compliance would lead the other signatories – representing a near international consensus – to blame Washington squarely and likely destroy the broad coalition critical for sanctions enforcement that provided leverage for negotiating the accord in the first place.

Alternatively, Trump could rigorously police implementation while pushing back firmly against Iran’s regional policies, which have helped further inflame Middle Eastern conflicts, frightened U.S. allies and angered the U.S. political establishment. But scrupulous enforcement cuts both ways: lacklustre U.S. implementation would adversely affect Iran’s ability to reap the benefits the U.S. has committed to deliver under the deal. The risk of an overly militarised response to Iran’s regional manoeuvres is that the JCPOA could become collateral damage in a destructive tit-for-tat.

Trump could also try renegotiation to strengthen some of the deal’s nuclear provisions or add non-nuclear ones. But this, as viewed by many in his entourage, would require new non-nuclear sanctions to augment coercive pressure and/or a military threat to induce Iran to return to the table. Iran would almost certainly demand more relief for more concessions, not accept less for more.

Iran has options for responding to attempts to undermine the deal. It could play victim, blame Washington and hope to erode sanctions by trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its partners. But this would require restraint in the face of U.S. JCPOA violations or provocations. Or it could ramp up its nuclear program and reduce IAEA access or target U.S. assets in theatres across Iraq and Syria, any of which risks a U.S. (or Israeli) military response. Even a softer, calibrated response would reignite the nuclear standoff and complicate future negotiations.

Trump is the first U.S. president in more than two decades who enters office not needing to worry about Iran crossing the threshold to nuclear weaponisation undetected.

All these scenarios are troubling. Yet, there is another way: a good-faith, consensual, mutually beneficial effort to renegotiate aspects of the accord might achieve a better-for-better arrangement and a more stable outcome. A Republican president backed by a Republican-controlled Congress would have more credibility in offering incentives to Iran than President Barack Obama ever did.

Improving the JCPOA while enforcing it would require a quiet dialogue in which both sides recognised one another’s security concerns and core interests and communicated their nuclear and regional red lines. One outcome might be an addendum strengthening some JCPOA nuclear provisions or adding non-nuclear ones in return for rolling back the U.S. primary embargo. If that is not attainable, the U.S. might focus on non-Iran-specific arrangements, including regionalising or even universalising some of the JCPOA’s restrictions or transparency measures.

On a practical level, Washington should keep communication channels with Tehran open and give its treasury department more resources to unwind sanctions. Iran should strictly adhere to the JCPOA and stop using nuclear or regional brinksmanship as leverage. Other P5+1 members should discourage it from overreacting to a possible change in U.S. tone and approach but also clearly tell Washington that if it unjustifiably walks away from the accord, it will do so alone.

Trump is the first U.S. president in more than two decades who enters office not needing to worry about Iran crossing the threshold to nuclear weaponisation undetected. If he tries to adjust the JCPOA unilaterally through coercion, the accord may not survive, reigniting the nuclear crisis and compounding regional instability. But he also has a chance to succeed on all fronts: a functioning and more stable accord, a framework for managing differences with Iran and perhaps even less bloodshed in the Middle East.

Washington/Brussels, 16 January 2017

I. Introduction

The prolonged process that led to the 14 July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was tortuous. It took more than a decade of diplomatic fits and starts and a perilous sanctions-vs-centrifuges race for Iran and the P5+1/E3+3 (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany) to agree to a core compromise that Crisis Group had advocated from the outset and contributed to: acceptance of a limited and tightly monitored uranium enrichment program on Iran’s soil in return for reintegration into the global economy.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Reports N°s 18, Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Program, 27 October 2003; 51, Iran: Is There a Way Out of the Nuclear Impasse?, 23 February 2006; 116, In Heavy Waters: Iran’s Nuclear Program, the Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey, 23 February 2012; 152, Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube, 9 May 2014; and Briefings N°s 34, The P5+1, Iran and the Perils of Nuclear Brinkmanship, 15 June 2012; 40, Iran and the P5+1: Getting to “Yes”, 27 August 2014; and 43, Iran Nuclear Talks: The Fog Recedes, 10 December 2014.Hide Footnote

More than two years of gruelling multilateral diplomacy culminated in a meticulously parsed 159-page accord that received unanimous Security Council endorsement on 20 July 2015.[fn]UN Security Council Resolution 2231, 20 July 2015.Hide Footnote The agreement then went through a trial by fire in the U.S. Congress and the Iranian parliament. Once it emerged unscathed, it entered into force on 18 October 2015 – designated as Adoption Day per the JCPOA’s calendar. This triggered the start of Iran’s rollback of its nuclear program and cooperation in resolving the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) longstanding questions about its past nuclear activities.

Implementation Day occurred on 16 January 2016, after the IAEA certified that Iran had fulfilled its key commitments under the agreement, prompting sanctions relief. The quick progress surprised most observers and dismayed accord critics. Its Iranian detractors were concerned that President Hassan Rouhani’s eagerness for sanctions relief had led him to hasten rolling back the nuclear infrastructure, irreversibly damaging it and depriving Tehran of leverage to ensure that the West delivered its end of the bargain.[fn]The just under three-month time span between Adoption and Implementation Days was significantly less than the P5+1’s six-to-nine month estimates. Crisis Group interviews, U.S. and European officials, New York, September 2015. A letter to Rouhani by parliamentarians charging that the pace of centrifuge deactivation exceeded the supreme leader’s directive (which conditioned implementation on the IAEA settling allegations on Iran’s past nuclear activities) caused the government to temporarily stop the process. “Iran stops dismantling nuclear centrifuges under pressure from hardliners”, Reuters, 10 November 2015. The government justified the rush, implicitly confirming the accusation, by reiterating the $100 million daily cost of sanctions’ continuation for Iran. “ضرر تاخیر اجرای برجام” [“Damage of the JCPOA’s delayed implementation”],, 21 September 2015. The February 2016 parliamentary election was also part of the calculus. Crisis Group Middle East Report N°166, Iran After the Nuclear Deal, 15 December 2015.Hide Footnote U.S. opponents were deeply dissatisfied with how the IAEA closed the file on allegations of the program’s past military dimensions, saying the JCPOA Joint Commission (the seven negotiating parties, coordinated by the EU) had made exemptions allowing Iran to skirt some obligations.[fn]See “Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program”, IAEA, GOV/2015/68, 2 December 2015, and the related Board of Governors resolution, GOV/2015/72, 15 December 2015. Leaks about the Joint Commission’s confidential decisions gave credence to these suspicions. David Albright and Andrea Stricker, “JCPOA Exemptions Revealed”, Institute for Science and International Security, 1 September 2016. The decisions exempted liquid, solid and sludge wastes, particularly those in pipes of Isfahan’s Enriched UO2 Powder Plant (EUPP), and irradiated uranium enriched to below 3.67 per cent, from the 300kg threshold the JCPOA set; near-20 per cent enriched uranium in unrecoverable “lab contaminant”; and nineteen “hot cells” (radiation containment chambers for handling radioactive material) that are larger than the deal permitted. “Decision of the Joint Commission”, EU External Action Service, 6 and 16 January, and 18 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The criticism missed the bigger picture. Speeding implementation accelerated the core trade-off that motivated the deal: unshackling Iran’s economy from sanctions while closing all potential pathways for weaponising its nuclear know-how. The decisions to grant exemptions, known as memorialisations, are standard for implementing a technically complex agreement; none impinged on the constraints that render nuclear weaponisation virtually impossible.[fn]For instance, plutonium produced in hot cells is neither sufficient nor usable for nuclear weapons without a reprocessing facility Iran lacks and is banned from constructing. The same applies to weaponising waste contaminated with low-enriched uranium needing further processing to highly-enriched uranium prohibited under the JCPOA. Julian Borger, “Obama administration denies secret loopholes in Iran nuclear agreement”, The Guardian, 1 September 2016.Hide Footnote Their confidential nature – likewise hardly exceptional in the non-proliferation field – was the result of the procedural requirement that all eight Joint Commission members approve publication of internal documents. Several refused: some out of concern for a political backlash over details of what critics on both sides viewed as additional concessions, and others not wishing to politicise the IAEA’s work.[fn]A senior U.S. official said, “the U.S. and the EU are for more transparency, but our hands are tied as Iran, Russia and China oppose publication of memorialisations”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, 13 September 2016. The documents are at Tim Mak, “Trump team wants you to see the Iran nuke documents Obama’s kept from view”, The Daily Beast, 5 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Events have shown it was naïve to believe the JCPOA was secure and could be sustained routinely from that point. It remained as fragile as forces against it were formidable; implementing its technical requirements was taxing, especially where its language left room for diverging interpretations and disagreement; and restructuring a multi-dimensional sanctions regime that reached deep into global commerce proved a herculean challenge. This report analyses the one-year record of implementation, draws lessons and offers suggestions for improving and sustaining an accord that remains a net positive for non-proliferation.

II. So Far, so Good?

Controversy and concerns over issues outside the nuclear accord, mainly Iran’s growing regional posture and ballistic-missile tests, have often overshadowed that the JCPOA’s two key components – restricting and rigorously monitoring Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions relief – are working and delivering concrete results. The accord could not have been reached if those issues had been on the table, but today they are the primary threat to its successful implementation.

A. Nuclear Commitments

Since January 2016, the IAEA has verified on six separate occasions that Iran is fulfilling its JCPOA obligations.[fn]See “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015)”, GOV/INF/2016/1, 16 January 2016; GOV/2016/8, 26 February 2016; GOV/2016/23, 27 May 2016; GOV/2016/46, 8 September 2016; GOV/2016/55, 9 November 2016; and GOV/2017/1, 16 January 2017.Hide Footnote The agency has had no problem reaching sites to which Iran had previously blocked access; is using live, online enrichment monitoring systems; and is surveilling the nuclear fuel chain in real time. Noting that Iran’s is the most monitored nuclear program in the world, an IAEA inspector said, “one thing is indisputable; post-JCPOA we have more rigorous inspection of a program that has become much smaller”.[fn]According to IAEA officials, every month between six and sixteen UN nuclear inspectors are on the ground in Iran. Crisis Group interviews, Vienna, November 2016. The IAEA’s human resources dedicated to Iran increased by 120 per cent, while days on the ground grew by 100 per cent and surveillance images received per day increased by 90 per cent. IAEA fact sheet available at Footnote That said, implementation has not been without imperfections, but these are attributable largely to the predictable difficulties such a technically complex effort faces in a highly charged political environment.

There have been numerous objections to the IAEA’s positive reports, but none amounts to proof of a violation of the deal.[fn]A former U.S. nuclear negotiator referred to these objections as “technical quibbles”. Crisis Group interview, New York, 27 September 2016.Hide Footnote One has to do not with what they contain but what they omit: details on Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpiles and advanced-centrifuge research. The IAEA, however, has no mandate for publicly reporting on these issues. (The P5+1, however, receive a detailed, confidential report that covers these issues.) An agency official explained: “Before the JCPOA, six UN Security Council resolutions required the agency to provide that much detail, but these have been overridden by a new resolution that has no such requirement, and there is no basis for breaching confidentiality”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, IAEA official, Vienna, November 2016. Critics contend that lack of data made it impossible to determine Iran’s compliance independently. David Albright, Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, and Andrea Stricker, “IAEA’s First Post-Implementation Day Report: Key Information Missing”, Institute for Science and International Security, 26 February 2016. Iranians see the generalised format as a stepping stone towards normalising their nuclear program. Crisis Group interview, Iranian official, Vienna, November 2016.Hide Footnote

There were also several technical infringements. Iran’s heavy-water production exceeded the JCPOA’s 130-metric-ton cap twice – by 0.9 and 0.1 tons in February and November 2016 respectively. Iranian officials, trumpeting their country’s change of stature from pariah to nuclear materials supplier, contend that overproduction resulted from improved efficiency and did not violate the JCPOA, since it neither sets a rigid threshold – it estimates Iran’s needs at around 130 tons – nor a timetable for exporting the excess for sale.[fn]An Iranian official boasted of the high quality of Iran’s heavy water and its ability to take over 70 per cent of the international market. Crisis Group interview, Vienna, November 2016. The JCPOA’s language is quite vague; paragraph 14, Annex I, “estimates” Iran’s heavy-water needs to be 130 metric tons and requires all excess material to “be made available for export to the international market … and delivered to the international buyer for 15 years”Hide Footnote U.S. officials, however, say they saw it as a signal by Iran that it could retaliate against what it perceived as U.S. Treasury foot dragging on sanctions relief. Europeans agreed, but blamed Washington for encouraging the behaviour by being first to purchase Iran’s excess heavy water. In Jerusalem, this and other infringements were seen as attempts to test the deal’s boundaries.[fn]A European official said, “the U.S. committed the original sin by buying 32 tons of Iran’s heavy water at the price of $8.6 million, whetting their appetite”. Crisis Group interview, Brussels, November 2016. A senior U.S. official said, “we sought to destigmatise the issue so that others would buy as well”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, 13 September 2016. Iran also sold heavy water to Russia. “Iran sold 70 tons of heavy water to Russia, US”, Tass, 27 September 2016. An Israeli diplomat said, “the Iranians are testing the boundaries and will continue to do so. It’s a decision to defy”. Crisis Group interview, 4 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Paradoxically, these infringements are a testament to the agreement’s efficacy: in each case, excess heavy water was shipped to Oman within days, despite not posing a proliferation threat since Iran no longer has a functional heavy-water reactor. One should expect further episodes of this nature – not necessarily because of nefarious intent in Tehran or spurious accusations from Washington, but because the JCPOA’s language is not always clear. There are also ambiguities, for instance, around the definition of recoverable low-enriched uranium and procurement of material for manufacturing rotors used in advanced centrifuges. In the past year, these caused tension and lengthy negotiations among the parties.[fn]The issue of what should or not be counted toward Iran’s 300-kg low-enriched uranium has been contentious because, as an IAEA official put it, “unlike ‘inventory’ that includes everything, the word ‘stockpile’ used in the JCPOA needs definition of what is and is not counted”. Crisis Group interview, Vienna, November 2016. Iran’s demand to procure a large amount of carbon fibre used to manufacture centrifuges was equally contentious. The P5+1 indicated it preferred Iran do so in smaller instalments. Crisis Group interview, European officials, London, December 2016. “EU demands Iran disclose details of nuclear parts making”, Associated Press, 16 September 2016. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei forbade Iranian negotiators from yielding on either issue., 15 June 2016.Hide Footnote

Likewise, other aspects of the agreement, for instance foreign cooperation to advance Iran’s nuclear technology, have been more drawn out than Tehran had hoped. Yet here, too, there is no violation. Transformation of the bunkered Fordow enrichment plant into an international physics centre with Russian help, where 358 centrifuges will produce stable medical isotopes, has been slow; so has modernisation of the heavy-water reactor in Arak, a project China and the U.S. co-chair.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian and European officials, New York, September 2016.Hide Footnote While Iranian scientists have regained access to the IAEA’s nuclear safety and security workshops, nuclear cooperation with other countries has lagged, except for nuclear fusion with France, particle accelerators with Spain and Italy and nuclear safety with the EU.[fn]Nuclear cooperation, as outlined in JCPOA Annex III, is a key component of the accord. Richard Stone, “Iranian Sun”, Science, vol. 353, no. 6304 (2016), pp. 1083-1087. Iran has reached agreements with other countries, but they have yet to bear fruit. “Iran, Switzerland sign agreement on nuclear safety”, Press TV, 28 September 2016; “Iran, Czech Republic sign nuclear cooperation document”, Tehran Times, 14 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The JCPOA’s procurement channel for Iran to access dual-use material and equipment was activated in January 2016. The channel is unprecedented, complementing existing export control arrangements while largely delegating the UN Security Council’s authority to the Joint Commission’s procurement working group. In its first six months, it received only one application, but in the second half of 2016, after Iran established its internal procedural framework for end-use certification, it received and processed nearly a dozen.[fn]Barbara Slavin, “Channel to monitor Iranian procurement awaits real test”, Al-Monitor, 14 July 2016. States seeking to export dual-use items to Iran submit proposals to the Security Council, which forwards them to the Joint Commission’s procurement working group (all seven negotiating parties, coordinated by the EU) for review; the latter provides recommendations to the Security Council within twenty working days (up to 45 in case of disagreements), which has five days to reject the Commission’s verdict or it is deemed approved. An Iranian official noted: “After years of encouraging murkiness to skirt sanctions, it took time to put procedures in place for transparency”. Crisis Group interview, Vienna, November 2016. A German intelligence report on Tehran’s procurement gave ammunition to critics, though the activities occurred in 2015 and pre-dated JCPOA implementation. “Germany says Iran kept trying to get nuclear equipment after deal”, The Wall Street Journal, 8 July 2016. U.S. and European officials said they had no information on continued procurement efforts outside permitted channels in 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Washington, Berlin, London, August-December 2016.Hide Footnote

The biggest threat to smooth implementation and to the procurement channel in particular is the continuation of Iran’s ballistic missile program – a particularly sensitive issue that the JCPOA does not address. Iran deems missile research and development a sovereign right and legitimate form of defence, but the P5+1’s Western members do not. Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, “calls upon” Iran not to undertake until 2023 any activity related to ballistic missiles “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons”. However, the language is non-binding, and lack of an internationally-agreed definition of nuclear-capable missiles invites diverging views on the Iranian program.[fn]See paragraph 3 of Security Council Resolution 2231‘s Annex B. Louis Charbonneau, “U.S. vows to push for U.N. action on Iran despite Russian opposition”, Reuters, 14 March 2016. “Iran statement following UNSC Resolution 2231 endorsing JCPOA”, foreign ministry, 20 July 2015. According to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), missiles able to carry a 500kg payload at least 300km could carry weapons of mass destruction.Hide Footnote

B. Sanctions Relief Commitments

A vast array of U.S., EU and UN nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were relaxed on Implementation Day. In the ensuing months, the impact on Iran’s economic performance become increasingly tangible: oil production and exports returned to pre-sanction levels of 3.85 million barrels per day, of which around two million are exported; the country absorbed more than $11 billion of foreign direct investment – the highest annual level in nearly two decades; trade with the EU increased by 42 per cent; Iran regained access to $55 billion of previously frozen assets; inflation dropped from a peak of 45 per cent in 2013 to less than 8 per cent in December 2016; Iranian companies signed contracts worth $150 billion with major European, Asian and even U.S. firms. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts that the economy will grow 4.5 per cent during the 2016-2017 fiscal period, up from 0.5 per cent the previous year.[fn]Annex II, JCPOA; U.S. Executive Order 13716, 16 January 2016; Council Decision (CFSP) 2015/1863, 18 October 2015; Council Regulation (EU) 2015/1861, 18 October 2015; and UNSC Resolution 2231. “Iran oil exports hit pre-sanctions high on run-up in condensate shipments”, Reuters, 3 October 2016; “میزان سرمایه‌گذاری خارجی اعلام شد” [“Amount of foreign investment was announced”],, 3 December 2016; “Inflation rate drops to 7.2% in Iran”, Tehran Times, 23 December 2016; Crisis Group interviews, Iranian entrepreneurs, Frankfurt, 16 November 2017. Regional Economic Outlook: Middle East and Central Asia”, IMF, October 2016.

Still, sanctions relief has yet to reach its potential. Perhaps most important, Iran still lacks normal international banking relations. While some second and third-tier international banks have resumed providing financial services, first-tier banks have not.[fn]Crisis Group interview, New York, September 2016. “Iran’s Supreme Leader says U.S. lifted sanctions only on paper”, Reuters, 27 April 2016; “Iran’s President Rouhani slams US ‘lack of compliance’ with nuclear deal”, CNN, 22 September 2016.Hide Footnote This has hampered reintegration into the global economy, which, along with low oil prices, has dashed highly-inflated public expectations of a rapid recovery. Each side has blamed the other. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif complained:

[The U.S. Treasury] goes out and tells people that “it’s OK to do business with Iran, but”… and then there are five pages of ifs and buts. So at the end of the day, the banks say, “we’ll take the safe road” … As far as the U.S. government is concerned … it took [it] seven months to issue licenses for seventeen out of the 118 planes Airbus plans to sell [to Iran].[fn]“A Conversation with Javad Zarif”, event at Council on Foreign Relations, New York, 23 September 2016. A senior U.S. official explained that preparing the licenses – given the technology’s complexity and legal requirements of ensuring they do not violate lingering UN restrictions on Iran – took a long time, as did Iran’s negotiations with Boeing and Airbus. Crisis Group interview, Washington, September 2016.Hide Footnote

This, as another senior Iranian official put it, is not a material breach of the deal, but “at best procrastination, at worst deliberate harassment” and has deepened mistrust. He added: “The JCPOA is moderately healthy, but Iranian confidence in dealing with the U.S. has been bruised and is ailing and failing”.[fn]“A Conversation with Javad Zarif”, event at Council on Foreign Relations, New York, 23 September 2016. A senior U.S. official explained that preparing the licenses – given the technology’s complexity and legal requirements of ensuring they do not violate lingering UN restrictions on Iran – took a long time, as did Iran’s negotiations with Boeing and Airbus. Crisis Group interview, Washington, September 2016.Hide Footnote

U.S. officials point to the unprecedented complexity of untangling the sanctions and to their extensive efforts, from publishing hundreds of pages of guidelines, to dozens of multi-agency trips to explain sanctions relief to Iran’s trading partners, to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts, including personally encouraging European banks to engage Iran.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials, Washington, September-December 2016. “Kerry: Businesses using US sanctions as excuse to avoid Iran”, Associated Press, 10 May 2016. For a critical take on Kerry’s initiative, see Stuart Levy, “Kerry’s peculiar message about Iran for European banks”, The Wall Street Journal, 12 May 2016. A senior Iranian official said, “the reality is that a junior officer at the U.S. Treasury Department could erect more obstacles for legitimate business with Iran than Kerry can remove”. Crisis Group interview, New York, 24 September 2016.Hide Footnote A senior U.S. official said:

Never before has the U.S. had to repeal its sanctions and demonstrate results in a short period of time. And, of course, unanticipated complexities abounded. Who would have thought converting billions of Iran’s unfrozen oil revenue from an uncommon currency like the Omani rial to euros would be so complicated without disrupting their economy and access to the U.S. dollar?[fn]Crisis Group interview, Washington, September 2016.Hide Footnote

The Europeans blame both sides. An EU official said:

U.S. Treasury officials are often as uncompromising as Iranians are unrealistic. The JCPOA isn’t a trade and investment agreement. Our commitment was to repeal sanctions and provide clarity, not to make commercial decisions for private-sector actors.[fn]Crisis Group interview, EU officials, Brussels, 15 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Finger-pointing notwithstanding, both sides have tried to resolve the remaining obstacles by frequent communication and consultation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian, European, U.S. officials, New York, September 2016. The Joint Commission has met once at the ministerial level and six times at the deputy level.Hide Footnote Yet, reality is more nuanced than either likes to admit; the causes of sluggish relief are manifold.

The primary U.S. embargo, which since the 1980s has broadly prohibited U.S. persons from engaging in transactions with Iran, is still in force with a few exceptions, such as for civilian aviation, food and humanitarian goods, Iranian caviar, pistachios and carpets; so are secondary U.S. sanctions related to Iran’s regional policies, ballistic missiles program and human rights record.[fn]For more background, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°138, Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions, 25 February 2013. One of the most arduous elements of U.S. primary sanctions has proven to be their requirement that multinational companies wall off their U.S. staff and board members from business with Iran. Crisis Group interviews, European entrepreneurs, Zürich, Frankfurt, London, September-November 2016. “BP ring-fences CEO Dudley from Iran decision-making”, Reuters, 21 November 2016.Hide Footnote Moreover, 32 U.S. states and the District of Columbia maintain their own sanctions against Iran that target contracting, public trust and insurance divestment and banking.[fn]These have not been affected by the JCPOA, since as an executive agreement – unlike a ratified treaty – it is not binding for U.S states. Eli Lake, “Obama administration urges states to lift sanctions on Iran”, Bloomberg, 18 April 2016.Hide Footnote There are also sanctions of individuals and entities: of the 600 sanctioned pre-JCPOA, more than 200, including ones with links to the economically omnipresent Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, remain blacklisted by the treasury department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

Navigating this complex web of residual sanctions within Iran’s opaque economy is difficult. Due diligence is costly and cumbersome, and its standard is ill-defined, adversely affecting businesses’ risk-reward calculus of trying to comply while operating within the Iranian economy’s opaque ownership structure. The costs are not theoretical: since 2004, the U.S. has levied more than $15 billion in fines for violations.[fn]Businesses often find OFAC guidelines legalistic and vague. In October 2016, it issued one noting that business dealing with an entity not blacklisted but “minority owned, or controlled in whole or in part” by a blacklisted Iranian “is not necessarily sanctionable for a non-U.S. person”. See M.10 in “Frequently asked questions relating to the lifting of certain U.S. sanctions under the JCPOA”, U.S. treasury department, 12 October 2016. John Smith, OFAC’s acting director, said, “we will not be playing ‘gotcha’ for companies that conducted the appropriate due diligence, collected the documentation, but unwittingly found themselves dealing with a Revolutionary Guards front company”. Atlantic Council, Washington, 16 June 2016.Hide Footnote  

One of the most challenging sanctions bans access to the U.S. financial system. There have been various work-around attempts: OFAC clarifications (as abstruse as the restriction is severe); Iran’s efforts to circumvent by denominating its trade in other currencies; symbolically significant deals like Boeing’s sale of 80 civilian aircrafts – the largest Iran-U.S. contract in 37 years that both sides hoped would have a snowball effect. None did much to resolve the problem.[fn]A senior U.S. official said, “no one wants to be the first to take a leap of faith, but many are keen to be the second or third big bank to return to Iran”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, September 2016. Both Boeing and Airbus agreements, however, are financed by a consortium of large financial institutions and denominated in euros. Crisis Group interviews, European officials, Berlin, London, November 2016. “Boeing-Iran deal for $16.6 Billion of jets is first since 1979”, Bloomberg, 11 December 2016. “Total to finance Iran project with euros to avoid U.S. sanctions”, The Wall Street Journal, 8 November 2016. Republican opposition prevented the Obama administration from easing this restriction during and after the negotiations. “Rubio, Kirk introduce bill to block Iran’s access to US money”, The Hill, 6 April 2016. In October, OFAC explained that non-U.S. financial institutions may process dollar transactions provided they “do not involve, directly or indirectly, the U.S. financial system”. This implies banks can only use dollars at hand, ruling out financing for large development and infrastructure projects.Hide Footnote

No less chilling for investment – particularly since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election — is the threat of reimposition of sanctions suspended under the JCPOA. Unilateral U.S. sanctions can be resumed by executive order; a snapback mechanism embedded in the accord can reinstate UN sanctions if one party contends that Iran has reneged on its commitments. These would not be reapplied retroactively, but the eventuality increases the risk and potential reputational costs of doing business with Iran.[fn]Per JCPOA paragraphs 36-37, any agreement participant can complain to the Joint Commission, which has fifteen days to resolve the issue; an unresolved issue is referred to the foreign ministers, who have another fifteen days. The Joint Commission then has another five days to resolve the issue. If, after this 35-day process, the complaining party is still unsatisfied, it can refer the issue as significant non-performance to the Security Council, which within 30 days must vote on a resolution to continue suspension of sanctions – a resolution the complaining party can veto (except Germany, not a permanent Council member), thus snapping back the sanctions. European officials complained OFAC remains inflexible on extending the standard 180-day grace period for foreign firms to wind down business in Iran in case of snapback. A U.S. official said, “whoever needs more time has to explain it to OFAC, and it will consider it”. Crisis Group interviews, Berlin, Washington, November-December 2016.Hide Footnote

The Iranian government, for its part, failed to pave the institutional ground adequately for the economic opening, while raising unrealistic expectations about the deal’s potential payoff in order to build support for it. With rampant corruption, lack of transparency, poor infrastructure and a cumbersome legal and regulatory environment, Iran remains a difficult place to do business.[fn]Iran is 130th of 168 countries in Transparency International‘s corruption perceptions index, 120th of 190 in the World Bank‘s 2016 ease of doing business index, and 76th of 138 in the World Economic Forum‘s Global Competitiveness Report 2016–17. In its first quarterly report to parliament on JCPOA implementation, Iran’s foreign ministry admitted to these problems impeding trade. “گزارش وزارت امور خارجه به مجلس درباره اجرای برجام” [“Foreign Ministry’s report to the Parliament”],, Fars News, 17 April 2016. A European oil executive said, “many developing countries are plagued with similar problems, but in the case of Iran perception is worse than reality”. Crisis Group interview, London, August 2016.Hide Footnote The banking sector, saddled with many non-performing loans, is considered high-risk by the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which sets anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing standards for financial institutions worldwide.[fn]FATF has suspended countermeasures against Iran until June 2017 to allow time to update financial regulations, comply with modern banking standards and address strategic deficiencies. FATF Public Statement, 24 June 2016. An Iranian Central Bank official complained that “the West isolated Iranian banks for a decade and now asks why we aren’t up to date. If they can’t take our hand, they should at least unchain our feet”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, October 2016. Cooperation with FATF became highly politicised inside Iran, as JCPOA opponents saw it as yet another concession to the West. Saheb Sadeghi, “Financial watchdog worries Iranian hard-liners”, Al-Monitor, 28 September 2016.Hide Footnote

Volatile politics in Washington and Tehran add to business unease. The election of Trump, a vocal JCPOA critic, and doubts, given the sluggish economic recovery and death of his mentor, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, about Rouhani’s ability to obtain a second mandate in Iran’s May 2017 presidential poll deepen uncertainties. Infighting in Tehran over economic priorities and vested interests has complicated and slowed economic reform.[fn]The quarrel over a new contract for oil-sector investments, the Iran Petroleum Contract (IPC), is a case in point. It was delayed more than two years, until the first was awarded to state-affiliated entrenched interests. Yeganeh Torbati, “Iran signs key oil contract with Khamenei-linked firm”, Reuters, 4 October 2016; “Shell signs provisional oil and gas deal with Iran”, Financial Times, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote The most consequential political wildcard remains the U.S. Congress, which continues to try to impose new sanctions.[fn]In 2016, Congress considered more than two dozen bills that could potentially undermine the accord. Among the first bills introduced in the 115th Congress, sworn in on 3 January 2017, were two on Iran: to authorise the president to use military force against it; and to levy sanctions against its missile program. Per JCPOA paragraph 26, “the U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from re-introducing or re-imposing the sanctions specified in Annex II that it has ceased applying under this JCPOA, without prejudice to the dispute resolution process provided for under this JCPOA … and will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions”.Hide Footnote Tehran’s response has been what a senior Iranian official called a “zero-tolerance policy” toward any new measures.

Tensions reached their height with the ten-year renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), the bedrock of U.S. sanctions architecture, in November. Iran deemed it a “gross violation” of the JCPOA; the Obama administration viewed it as unnecessary, since re-imposing sanctions in case of violations does not require the ISA to be in force, but Congress acted with an overwhelming majority. President Obama allowed the legislation to take effect without his signature on 15 December, though his rare procedural protest did not win him points in Tehran.[fn]The administration blocked efforts to add poison pills. The renewal passed 99-0 in the Senate and 419-1 in the House of Representatives. This was the first time in 27 years that a bill was enacted without the president’s signature. Carole Morello, “Iran sanctions extended, but without Obama’s signature”, The Washington Post, 15 December 2015. As during the 2014-2015 negotiations, when the parties could not agree on the ISA extension, they agreed to mitigate the issue once it arose. Crisis Group interviews, Iranian and U.S. officials, Vienna, June 2015.Hide Footnote Rouhani in response ordered planning for design and construction of a nuclear propeller for marine transportation. That was carefully calibrated to satisfy domestic politics and signal discontent to Washington, while remaining within the bounds of the accord, which permits such research if it remains on the drawing board.[fn]“Blasting U.S. nuke-deal ‘violations’, Iran vows new nuclear project”, Associated Press, 13 December 2016. An official from Iran’s atomic energy organisation said that developing nuclear propellers would take years and is uneconomic. Quoted in “برگزاری کمیسون برجام 21 دی” [“Joint Commission will meet on 10 January”],, 20 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Posturing aside, the ISA extension leaves the status quo unaltered as long as the president continues to waive the provisions the JCPOA suspended. Still, a series of tit-for-tats could lead to mutual escalation that spirals out of control.[fn]Addressing Zarif’s complaint about the ISA’s extension, the Joint Commission concluded that it does not affect Iran’s ability to benefit from sanctions relief as long as the suspension of relevant provisions continues. “Press release on behalf of the Joint Commission of the JCPOA”, EU External Action Service, 10 January 2017.Hide Footnote

C. Transactional, not Transformational

JCPOA ambiguities and technical implementation hitches in both the nuclear and sanctions realms become outsized political storms because the deal has done little to alleviate Iran-U.S. animosity. To ensure success, the parties negotiated it as a narrow arms-control accord not to usher in broader détente or collaboration in areas of shared concern, though some had hoped (or feared) that it would.

In both Tehran and Washington, powerful stakeholders moved to ensure the nuclear deal was a ceiling on, not a foundation for, rapprochement. Iranian provocations have included ballistic-missile tests, harassment of U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, alleged arms shipments to Huthi rebels in Yemen, arrest of dual Iranian-American nationals and hostile rhetoric toward the U.S. and its allies.[fn]A conservative Iranian parliamentarian explained: “If you were in the shoes of Ayatollah Khamenei and listened to U.S. officials boasting about how sanctions brought Iran to the table, would you move to make more compromises? No. You first demonstrate that you did not compromise from a position of weakness”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, May 2016. “Reports: Iran fires missile marked with ‘Israel should be wiped’”, USA Today, 8 March 2016; “Iran’s Khamenei says U.S., ‘evil’ Britain can’t be trusted”, Reuters, 3 June 2016; “Americans sentenced to 10 years in Iranian prison”, CNN, 18 October 2016; “U.S. Navy says it seized weapons from Iran likely bound for Houthis in Yemen”, Reuters, 4 April 2016. Paragraph 5, Annex B, Security Council Resolution 2231, extended the conventional-arms embargo on Iran until 2020. The U.S. Navy contends it had 35 dangerous encounters with Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrol boats in 2016, compared to 23 in 2015. Whether the naval tangles in the Gulf were in Iranian or international waters is disputed. Dan Lamothe, “Navy destroyer opens fire after ‘harassing’ behaviour by Iranian patrol boats”, The Washington Post, 9 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Congress has evinced its own hostility and seems determined to derail any détente, as well as the JCPOA itself, through its own provocations. It lifted the U.S. visa exemption for citizens of 38 countries who had visited Iran (or Syria, Iraq and Sudan) since 2011, a move Iran deemed contrary to the JCPOA’s spirit, as it affected its tourism and business ties with Europe. Congress also manoeuvred the administration into sanctioning eleven Iranians and entities involved in ballistic-missile launches just a day after Implementation Day.[fn]“Iran warns Obama over visa waiver restrictions”, The Hill, 21 December 2015. The provision was attached to the $1.1 trillion federal spending bill at the last minute, making veto impossible. Crisis Group interview, U.S. official, Washington December 2015. “Treasury sanctions those involved in ballistic missile procurement for Iran”, Treasury Department, 17 January 2016.Hide Footnote A Supreme Court decision to compensate U.S. victims of overseas attacks with $2 billion of the Iranian central bank’s impounded assets further enraged the Iranian leadership.[fn]Rick Gladstone, “Iran threatens lawsuit in Hague court Over U.S. ruling on $2 billion”, The New York Times, 25 April 2106.Hide Footnote

This highlights a significant conundrum: not addressing broader disagreements makes the JCPOA fragile and implementation problematic, but without full implementation, resolving underlying antagonism is impossible. The dilemma is nowhere felt as strongly as in the linkage between nuclear and non-nuclear issues, which already complicates sanctions relief; the accord’s U.S. opponents are bound to play on this distinction, penalising Iran’s regional and domestic policies, which the JCPOA does not bar, to undermine the JCPOA itself.[fn]Indira Lakshmanan, “Inside the plan to undo the Iran nuclear deal”, Politico, 15 July 2016.Hide Footnote

Without improvements in Iran’s relations with the U.S. and its neighbours, the accord could eventually collapse even if it endures in the short term. A danger point could come when in 2023-2024, per the JCPOA calendar, Iran starts expanding its nuclear capacity in parallel to the U.S. permanently winding down its nuclear-related sanctions.[fn]In October 2023, per paragraphs 21.1-21.3 of JCPOA Annex V, the U.S. administration will seek appropriate legislative action to terminate statutory nuclear-related sanctions (eg, ISA). Six months later, per paragraph 63, Annex I, and Iran’s research and development plan, Iran will be permitted to test up to 30 IR-6s and 30 IR-8s (five to fifteen times more powerful than its existing IR-1 centrifuges) and produce up to 200 machines per year of each type for the next six and a half years. George Jahn, “Iran nuclear constraints to ease in about a decade, secret document reveals”, Associated Press, 18 July 2016. While caps on the uranium stockpile and enrichment level will continue until 2030, the ramping up of nuclear capability is bound to unsettle sceptics.Hide Footnote The immediate challenge, however, is the Trump presidency.

III. If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it

The most troubling uncertainty about the JCPOA’s future is the new U.S. administration’s approach. During the campaign, Trump condemned the accord as fundamentally flawed, calling it “horrible”. But it is not clear how he will act. His appointees have voiced conflicting views. Though they share antipathy toward Iran and the JCPOA, his national security adviser designate, Lt. General (ret.) Michael Flynn, has said he believes “regime change in Tehran is the best way to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program”; his CIA director designate, Mike Pompeo, looks forward to “rolling back this disastrous deal”; while his candidate for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has promised a “full review”, and his defence secretary designate, former four-star General James Mattis, said that “there is no going back” on the accord.[fn]“Michael Flynn’s Testimony on Iran”, Joint House Foreign Affairs and Arms Services Subcommittees, U.S. Congress, 10 June 2015; “Mike Pompeo’s Iran file”, The Wall Street Journal, 21 November 2016; Rex Tillerson confirmation hearing, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 11 January 2017; Ilan Goldenberg, “How James Mattis could stop Trump from ripping up the Iran Nuclear Deal”, Fortune, 17 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Washington’s P5+1 partners, who are highly satisfied with the agreement’s implementation so far, have weighed in forcefully in its support. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini suggested a unilateral U.S. effort to scuttle the deal could put it on the opposite side of the EU, as well as Russia, which has warned that the accord’s demise would be “unforgivable”. China has said the deal should not be affected by “changes in the domestic situations” of countries involved.[fn]Mogherini said, “case by case, you will find issues where I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Europeans and the Russians on the same side — Iran deal, Middle East peace process, possibly the role of the U.N”, quoted in Laurence Norman and Julian E. Barnes, “Top EU diplomat, says bloc is Ppepared for Trump”, The Wall Street Journal, 14 December 2016; “Council conclusions on Iran”, European Council, 14 November 2016; “Russia says loss of Iran nuclear deal would be unforgivable”, Interfax, 15 December 2016. “China warns Trump: Iran nuclear deal must stand”, Agence France-Presse, 5 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Even some regional critics appear loath to see it scrapped. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former senior official, warned that doing so “willy-nilly, as it were, will have ramifications”.[fn]“Senior Saudi prince says Trump shouldn’t scrap Iran deal”, Reuters, 11 November 2016. The Saudis sent a delegation to advise the Trump team shortly after his election to keep and strictly enforce the JCPOA. Crisis Group interview, European diplomat, Abu Dhabi, December 2016.Hide Footnote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, perhaps the deal’s most vocal opponent, still appears keen on scuttling it, but Israel’s military and security establishment favour its preservation. An Israeli intelligence official said that even in the Trump era, “various parts of the Israeli government deem the JCPOA as a done deal and want to focus on its rigorous implementation”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Jerusalem, November 2016. “Netanyahu aims to discuss ‘various ways’ to undo Iran deal with Trump”, The Guardian, 12 December 2016; Graham Allison, “Is Iran still Israel’s top threat?”, Atlantic, 8 March 2016; “Israel’s Policies After the Iran Deal”, The Iran Primer, U.S. Institute of Peace, 19 September 2016. An Israeli diplomat in Europe said its official position is the deal should be kept but rigorously enforced. Crisis Group interview, 5 January 2017.Hide Footnote

While it is too soon to judge the next U.S. administration, its opposition to the JCPOA appears to stem less from the implementation record than its narrow focus: it is a non-proliferation deal that temporarily restricts an adversary’s nuclear program but has legitimised it and empowered the country to pursue what many view as a push for regional domination. Trump has several options:

  • Repudiate the deal or refrain from taking the affirmative steps necessary to sustain it, eg, renewing the waivers every 120 or 180 days that suspend nuclear-related U.S. sanctions.[fn]The Obama administration aimed to issue final waivers on or slightly before inauguration day (20 January 2017), so the incoming Trump administration would have at least around four months for a considered decision. Crisis Group interview, U.S. official, Washington, 9 December 2016. This also postpones the matter until after Iran’s 19 May presidential election.Hide Footnote He could snap back the unilateral U.S. sanctions with a stroke of the pen or even unilaterally reimpose UN sanctions, notwithstanding the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism, likely opposition in the P5+1 and absence of a legitimate basis for redesignating Iran a threat to international peace after closure of the dossier on its nuclear program’s past military dimensions.

But abrogating the accord when Iran complies with it, even some Republican critics have warned, would lead the international community to squarely blame the U.S., thus eroding, if not completely unravelling, the broad coalition critical for enforcing sanctions that provided leverage for negotiating the accord in the first place.[fn]Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a prominent critic of the deal, said, “we gave up ... all of our leverage on the front end when we gave away the moneys that were stashed in various countries around the world, and so now the leverage is with them. I think the beginning point is for us to cause them to strictly adhere [to the deal] … we have to keep the Europeans and others with us in this process”. Quoted in Nahal Toosi, “Iran deal critics to Trump: Please don’t rip it up”, Politico, 16 November 2016.Hide Footnote This would likely put the U.S. in a weaker position to renegotiate the deal or reshape Iran’s regional and domestic policies. Brazen unilateralism also could weaken both the centrality of the U.S. financial system to the global economy, if other states organise to work around it, and the effectiveness of sanctions as a tool of its statecraft, if U.S. adversaries conclude Washington habitually shifts the goalposts for their lifting.

  • Rigorously police the deal and in parallel push back firmly against Iran’s regional policies. This could take two forms. Trump could seek to maintain the deal so long as Iranian compliance remains scrupulous in letter and spirit. If he pursues this path, he would need in parallel to ensure U.S. compliance; the deal’s upkeep requires Washington’s constant good-faith, pro-active management: granting licenses in a timely fashion to allow legitimate business with Iran, issuing guidelines to clarify sanctions relief ambiguities, providing assistance in modernising Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor and shielding the accord from external pressures, particularly attempts by Congress to obstruct implementation.[fn]Congress tried repeatedly, for example, to block the sale of civilian aircraft to Iran contrary to Paragraph 5.1.1 of the JCPOA’s Annex II. “U.S. House votes to stop sales of Boeing jetliners to Iran”, Bloomberg, 17 November 2016.Hide Footnote Alternatively, the administration could carefully police Iran’s compliance while neglecting its own commitments, eg, by giving Congress a free hand to impose more sanctions or delay granting OFAC licenses, in the hope of provoking Iran to abrogate the deal, thereby avoiding some global blame and loss of leverage.

Regardless of whether the U.S. implements the pact in good faith or not, the risk of an overly militarised, unilateral approach toward Iran’s regional manoeuvres and/or provocations is that the JCPOA could become collateral damage in a tit-for-tat spiral. If the new administration hopes to kill the deal by a thousand cuts, it would need to be sustained long enough for those cuts to be inflicted. However, tactical decisions – such as interdicting illegal arms shipments or targeting Revolutionary Guards commanders and Iranian proxies in Iraq or Syria – could invite Iranian retaliation with rapid consequences. A U.S. official fretted: “Do you think the deal could survive a confrontation between Iranian and U.S. navies or the detention of U.S. sailors in the Persian Gulf? I’m not so sure”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Washington, 14 December 2016.Hide Footnote

  • Renegotiate the deal to strengthen some of the nuclear-related provisions or add non-nuclear ones. Most sceptics seem to prefer this option, which in their view requires new non-nuclear sanctions to incrementally augment coercive pressure and/or a credible military threat to induce Iran to return to the negotiating table.[fn]Trump wrote: “A Trump presidency will force the Iranians back to the bargaining table to make a much better deal”. Donald Trump, “Amateur hour with the Iran nuclear deal”, USA Today, 8 September 2015. Joseph Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, “How Trump should renegotiate the Iran deal”, The Washington Post, 6 December 2016; Dennis Ross and David Petraeus, “How to put some teeth into the nuclear deal with Iran”, The Washington Post, 25 August 2015; Michael Makovsky, “Five ways for Trump to put Tehran on notice”, The Wall Street Journal, 3 January 2017.Hide Footnote The challenge of devising new sanctions that are consistent with U.S. commitments under the JCPOA notwithstanding, this approach could harm Iran’s economy, as a prominent sanctions advocate put it, if simply “by increasing uncertainty in the marketplace”, prompting Tehran to take retaliatory measures of its own.[fn]“Trump team looks at new non-nuclear sanctions on Iran”, Financial Times, 2 December 2016. Identifying non-nuclear sanctions will not be easy, as nuclear-related sanctions targeted all the economy’s key sectors, and reimposition under a new guise would violate the JCPOA. The U.S. should, per JCPOA paragraph 29, “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran”, and according to Paragraph 33, “agree on steps to ensure Iran’s access in areas of trade, technology, finance and energy”. In his directive approving the JCPOA, Ayatollah Khamenei wrote: “Throughout the [accord’s] eight-year term, imposition of any sanctions at any level, under any pretext will be violation of the JCPOA”., 21 October 2015.Hide Footnote

A senior Iranian official said Ayatollah Khamenei may have opened the door to this by criticising his negotiators for overlooking important details related to sanctions relief by negotiating in haste.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Berlin, November 2016. “دیدار فرماندهان نیروی دریایی ارتش با رهبر انقلاب” [“Supreme Leader meeting army, navy commanders”],, 27 November 2016.Hide Footnote But this criticism does not augur well for securing additional Iranian concessions: even if Iran were to agree to renegotiate, it would almost certainly demand more relief in exchange for more concessions, not accept less for more, especially given its discontent with sanctions relief under the JCPOA. The prospect of an Iranian leader acceding, even under duress, to terms significantly more favourable to the U.S. strains credulity and ignores the lessons of the decade-long nuclear standoff and the realities of Iranian politics.

Iran, whose leaders appear highly invested in the JCPOA for now, has several options to respond to an attempt to undermine the agreement:

  • Play the victim and shift blame to Washington in the hope of driving a wedge between the U.S. and its partners and eroding, if not neutralising, sanctions.[fn]Hamid Aboutalebi, Rouhani’s chief foreign policy adviser, tweeted: “If the JCPOA is a multilateral commitment, its breach by one party cannot be retaliated by another party’s breach. Any violation is an act against all signatories … who should move in unison to isolate the violator”. Tweet by Hamid Aboutalebi, @DrAboutalebi, chief foreign policy adviser, 7:11am, 2 December 2016.Hide Footnote A U.S. official pointed out: “The Iranians are good at this. They even played victim when the highly controversial [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was president, and Iran was a nuclear pariah”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Washington, 14 December 2016. The same is true regarding Iranian reactions to ramped-up regional pressure: if Tehran reacts aggressively to U.S. provocations and precipitates the deal’s collapse, it likely will sacrifice the victim card.Hide Footnote Isolating Washington would require restraint in reacting to real or perceived U.S. violations of the JCPOA.[fn]An EU official said, “If Iran revives its nuclear activities or even tinkers around the JCPOA’s edges, we will be between a rock and a hard place”. Crisis Group interview, Brussels, 14 November 2016.Hide Footnote If abiding by the deal and playing victim seem to reinforce Iran’s position globally, those who advocate doing so might be strengthened internally.
  • Resuscitate the nuclear program. The Iranian parliament has mandated the government to ratchet up uranium enrichment and reduce cooperation with UN inspectors should the U.S. renege on the accord.[fn]The law instructs the government to halt voluntary cooperation with the IAEA and rapidly expand the nuclear program so that “within two years the country’s uranium enrichment capacity increases to 190,000 SWU [Separation Work Units, amounting to ten times Iran’s pre-JCPOA capacity]”. “Law on the Proportional and Reciprocal Measures of … Iran in Implementing the JCPOA”, Library of Congress, 15 October 2015. Decisions on Iran’s appropriate response, however, are in practice taken not by parliament but by the Committee for Supervision of the JCPOA’s implementation, headed by Rouhani and including Foreign Minister Zarif, Ali Larijani, speaker of the parliament and former nuclear negotiator, Hossein Dehghan, defence minister, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the supreme national security council, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s atomic energy organisation, Saeed Jalili, former nuclear negotiator, and Ali Akbar Velayati, the supreme leader’s chief foreign policy adviser.Hide Footnote The leadership has also put itself in a rhetorical corner by pledging to revive the nuclear program should the other side renege.[fn]Ayatollah Khamenei said, “the Islamic Republic won’t be the first to violate the nuclear deal … But if the threat from the American presidential candidates to tear up the deal becomes operational, then the Islamic Republic will set it on fire”,, 14 June 2016.Hide Footnote If it does so with more advanced centrifuges, it could restore its uranium enrichment capacity rapidly, which might prompt a nuclear-arms race in the region and/or in the extreme provide the rationale some regime-change advocates have been looking for to justify a U.S. or Israeli military strike.[fn]An IAEA official said that Iran could reach a “highly problematic” enrichment capacity within six months. Crisis Group interview, Vienna, November 2016.Hide Footnote To prevent this, Tehran might escalate gradually, creeping past some limits. This would conform to its previous strategy; but even a softer, calibrated response would reignite the nuclear standoff and complicate future talks.
  • Retaliate regionally. Proximity of U.S. to Iranian forces in several theatres across Iraq and Syria could provide another option for retaliation: increasing force protection costs for the U.S.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials, Washington, December 2016.Hide Footnote Rising tensions could also push Iran to double down on means of deterrence it considers essential to its national security: its ballistic missile program and what it calls its “forward defence policy” of empowering regional partners in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. This would undoubtedly provide ammunition for those in Washington who seek to bring more pressure to bear against Tehran, triggering escalation.

The above scenarios – individually or in combination – are troubling, especially as the JCPOA is delivering results. Any attempt by the Trump administration to undercut the deal in the hope of “fixing” it is likely to backfire. A senior Obama official said, “the paradox is that if he tries to strengthen the deal to 120 per cent of what it is, he might end up eroding it to 60 per cent”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Washington, 14 December 2016.Hide Footnote Moreover, by destabilising the JCPOA, the new administration could usher in what it says it seeks to prevent: greater Iranian assertiveness, more regional instability and lower odds of resolving the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – places where Iran is part of the problem and thus ought to be part of the solution.

IV. Sustaining and Improving the JCPOA

Like any negotiated outcome, the JCPOA is imperfect. Its implementation, too, has not been immaculate. Yet, the biggest threat to it is not procedural but political: the first major transfer of power in one of the countries that negotiated it has introduced a destabilising level of uncertainty. If the Trump administration decides to preserve the JCPOA while strictly enforcing and rigorously monitoring its implementation, it should do all that is necessary for its upkeep: from abiding by the letter and spirit of U.S. obligations – including ensuring that Iran is able to reap the economic dividends the deal entitles it to – to fencing it off, to the extent possible, from other disagreements with Tehran.[fn]Per JCPOA paragraph 26, the U.S. “will make best efforts in good faith to sustain this JCPOA and to prevent interference with the realisation of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting specified in Annex II”.Hide Footnote

Preserving the status quo does not exclude good-faith attempts to improve it. Renegotiating aspects, assuming the effort is consensual and mutually beneficial, might achieve a better and more stable outcome. A Republican president backed by a Republican-controlled Congress would have more credibility in offering incentives to Iran than Obama ever did. But if the U.S. seeks Iran’s capitulation through either economic pressure – which is unlikely to reach the intensity, scope and breadth of the sanctions that contributed to the existing outcome – or, even more dangerously, threat or use of military force, the result could be an explosive downward spiral.

Improving the JCPOA, even as implementation continues, would require a quiet Tehran-Washington dialogue in which both sides recognise one another’s security concerns and core interests, and communicate their red lines concerning both the nuclear and regional files. A possible outcome to such bilateral discussions could be an addendum to the JCPOA either strengthening some nuclear provisions (eg, longer timeframes for restrictions or more intrusive inspections) or adding non-nuclear ones (eg, curtailment of Iran’s ballistic missiles program or support for Levant militant groups) in return for rolling back the U.S. primary embargo.

If a better-for-better agreement is not attainable, the Trump administration could focus on non-Iran-specific arrangements, including creating a regional consortium for uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing or an international nuclear fuel bank that would remove need for a domestic enrichment program in Iran once the JCPOA sunsets. Alternatively, it could lead efforts to turn some JCPOA restrictions or transparency measures (eg, the ban on enrichment beyond 3.5 per cent and plutonium reprocessing, and continuous live-stream surveillance of key elements of the nuclear fuel chain) into common practice either at regional – as a first step toward a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East – or global level.[fn]If the U.S. excludes Israel from such voluntary constraints, it would be a non-starter. Israel has reportedly relied on plutonium for its nuclear weapons capability but might also have a small uranium enrichment program. For more on such creative initiatives, see Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian, Hossein Mousavian, and Frank von Hippel, “Building on the Iran Deal: Steps Toward a Middle Eastern Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone”, Arms Control Today, December 2015; Lord Hannay of Chiswick and Thomas Pickering, “Trumping Proliferation: From a one-off deal to a global standard”, European Leadership Network, 6 December 2016.Hide Footnote Curbing Iran’s missile program could also be achieved through international export control arrangements or requiring adherence of all states in the region to restrictions on range and payload.

On a more practical level, to avoid misunderstandings, the Trump administration should preserve the communication channels at the State Department, especially at the level of the office of lead coordinator for JCPOA implementation (currently Ambassador Stephen Mull), and also at the Energy Department, which have played an integral role in resolving technical issues in cooperation with the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran. There is also need to create a new channel between OFAC and Iran’s Central Bank and Finance Ministry.[fn]OFAC has met several times with Iranian economic officials bilaterally and trilaterally (when a third country faced problems transferring Iranian unfrozen funds), but these meetings have been infrequent. There is also contact between the two sides through the Joint Commission, but at the diplomatic level, not that of experts who grapple daily with the technical and legal problems of normalising Iran’s banking relations.Hide Footnote While the Joint Commission’s 10 January meeting has clarified most JCPOA ambiguities that had been troubling implementation, especially in areas where the accord’s language lacks sufficient specificity, new technical hitches and interpretation differences will surely arise.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, European officials, 10 January 2017.Hide Footnote Resolving them will require effective communication and familiarity with the accord’s complex challenges. The IAEA is bound by its mandate from the Security Council and confidentiality agreements with its member states, but the Joint Commission should be more transparent, especially where its decisions have a significant impact on the accord’s implementation.

Iran should strictly adhere to its JCPOA commitments and move away from using brinksmanship as leverage.[fn]In addition to delaying the transfer of centrifuge infrastructure in Fordow to storage in the Natanz facility until shortly before the 16 January 2017 deadline, Iran kept its heavy-water stockpile close to the 130-ton threshold, and its low-enriched uranium stockpile just under the 300kg cap. Crisis Group interviews, U.S. and European officials, Brussels, London and Vienna, November 2016. Asked about the calculus behind this, an Iranian official retorted: “Because 299kg is under 300kg. We committed to remain under 300kg, not to keep a large distance from it”. Crisis Group interview, November 2016. Yet, as an EU official said, “implementing a long-duration agreement is difficult when you are always on the brink of surpassing the threshold, even if inadvertently”. Crisis Group interview, Brussels, 15 November 2016.Hide Footnote Exceeding the limits the accord sets, as an ex-U.S. nuclear negotiator put it, could be “technically insignificant in terms of advancing Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but … create a narrative that JCPOA opponents are all too eager to pounce upon”.[fn]Richard Nephew, “The Mirage of Renegotiating the Iran Deal”, Center for Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote Tehran should also avoid deliberately provocative actions, eg, skirmishes with U.S. naval ships in the Gulf, and take other constructive steps, such as signing the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC).[fn]By signing the HCOC, Iran would join the treaty’s 138 parties. HCOC provisions include commitments to provide pre-launch notifications for ballistic missiles and launch vehicles for satellites, as well as submission of an annual declaration of related policies.Hide Footnote It would be better served by focussing on structural and regulatory economic reforms needed for full realisation of sanction relief’s potential. These include continued progress on recapitalising and rendering its banking system more transparent and implementing the action plan to address its anti-money laundering and anti-terror financing deficiencies.

In return for meaningful advances on these issues, the U.S. Treasury should rescind Iran’s designation under the USA Patriot Act as a zone of primary money-laundering concern, continue a forward-leaning position to instil confidence in Iran’s market and issue licences for facilitating legitimate business. The administration should give OFAC more resources, as its staff has been stretched by a much increased workload.[fn]According to a report by the U.S. treasury department, the average time for processing licenses in 2015 increased from 71 to 88 business days, a statistic that significantly understates the problems, since half of the submissions remained unprocessed. See, “2nd, 3rd and 4th Quarter FY2015 Reports for Licensing Activities Undertaken Pursuant to the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000”, Treasury Department, 15 September 2016.Hide Footnote An OFAC commitment to monthly progress reports and a target for reduced processing times as staff grows could aid efficiency.

But the problem is also institutional inertia: traditionally a source of pressure on the private and public sectors to curb business with target countries, today OFAC is charged with opening the taps.[fn]A senior U.S. official said, “we definitely implemented the letter of the JCPOA, but OFAC is not in the spirit business”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, December 2016.Hide Footnote Creating a sub-division or separate entity to unwind sanctions might be more effective and signal other countries, such as North Korea with whom similar negotiations might soon be necessary, that the dividends of relief in return for policy shifts are real.

Ultimately, the nuclear agreement – even if ostensibly firewalled from surrounding conflicts – will be sustainable only if accompanied by détente in U.S.-Iran ties and progress on de-escalating and resolving the region’s conflicts. If either side opts for escalation in the region, the other inevitably would sooner or later do the same, eventually imperilling the JCPOA. By contrast, mutual efforts to ease regional tensions, such as helping to preserve the Syria ceasefire and using influence to help bring the Yemen war under control, would be a constructive approach that could help strengthen the nuclear deal.

Other P5+1 members should go beyond expressing strong support for the JCPOA and discourage Iran from overreacting to a possible change in U.S. tone and approach.[fn]See Crisis Group Statement, “President Trump and the Art of the Iran Deal”, 23 November 2016; “EU warns Trump not to destroy Iran nuclear deal”, Financial Times, 21 December 2016.Hide Footnote The EU could revive its “Blocking Statute” forbidding compliance with U.S. extraterritorial sanctions that lack Joint Commission consent.[fn]Such legislation would provide political reassurance to European companies interested in re-entering the Iranian market by extending non-recognition of U.S. judgments and administrative determinations that give effect to U.S. sanctions, and by establishing a “clawback” clause for recovery of damages incurred for alleged sanctions violations. Council Regulation (EC), no. 2271/96, “Protecting against the effects of the extra-territorial application of legislation adopted by a third country …”, 22 November 1996. The legislation was designed to resist U.S. extraterritorial sanctions against Iran and Cuba. It effectively deterred Washington from enforcing those sanctions for more than a decade.Hide Footnote Establishing this pre-emptive measure without prejudice to the Trump administration’s commitment to the JCPOA would send a strong signal that if Washington walks away from the deal, it will do so alone, while demonstrating to Iran that the 28 EU member states will defend the agreement. The EU also could do more to help reduce tensions in the region, serving as an interlocutor between the U.S. and Iran and sounding out ideas with all sides in the various regional conflicts in which Iran is involved.

China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK should formally announce that new unilateral U.S. sanctions deemed unjustified by the majority of the Joint Commission and that interfere with Iran’s full realisation of the benefits of sanctions relief under the JCPOA would be cause to initiate disputes against the U.S. at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other international courts and institutions.[fn]In the late 1990s, the EU successfully challenged U.S. sanctions with a similar approach. Quentin Genard, “European Union responses to extraterritorial claims by the United States”, EU Non-Proliferation Consortium, Non-proliferation Paper no. 36, January 2014.Hide Footnote Simultaneously, they should continue to support Iran’s WTO candidacy.

More countries could provide export credit lines to reassure companies interested in trade with Iran.[fn]“Italy extends $5bn credit line and export guarantees to Iran”, Financial Times, 12 April 2016; “Norway offers €1bn in credit to Iran”, Press TV, 17 August 2016.Hide Footnote Eventually, and if banking problems continue, there might be need for a public body to do due diligence, akin to the role of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in Eastern Europe after dissolution of the Soviet Union and elsewhere today. More nuclear cooperation is also necessary to strengthen the connective tissue between Iran’s nuclear program and those of other countries, providing an insurance policy that it will remain solely civilian.

V. Conclusion

A year in, the JCPOA is working but fragile, mostly because the political environment that created the nuclear standoff has not changed. Segregating nuclear negotiations from other regional disagreements was logical – as complex as the nuclear issue was, regional politics are even more so, and there are many more stakeholders than the P5+1 – given Iran’s imminent achievement of breakout capacity. Still, the accord’s fate depends on making progress on other fronts, which in itself is contingent on preventing the JCPOA’s demise under a new, highly sceptical U.S. administration.

The same calculus that brought Iran and the P5+1 to compromise after thirteen years of standoff and two years of negotiations still holds: the alternatives to this accord – a sanctions-vs.-centrifuges race that could culminate in Iran obtaining the bomb or being bombed – would be much worse. Its unravelling now would have unfathomable consequences for the region, non-proliferation and multilateral diplomacy. To imagine a stronger pact can be built on its ruins is a chimera, as destroying it – even if gradually – would also destroy the hint of trust that led the parties to compromise, but if preserved, it is possible to build on it.

Trump is the first U.S. president in more than two decades who does not need to worry, on his first day in office, about Iran crossing the nuclear threshold to weaponisation without detection. If he tries to adjust the JCPOA by coercive pressure, he could, deliberately or inadvertently, deeply erode it, which could reignite the nuclear crisis and compound regional instability. But if, drawing on his business acumen, he opts to offer Iran a better-for-better deal, he has a unique chance to strengthen the accord for all, while helping reduce U.S.-Iran tensions. The consequences of a wrong choice could come to dominate his presidency.

Washington/Brussels, 16 January 2017

Appendix A: Map of Iran

Map of Iran United Nations. Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Cartographic Section.
Israeli forces are seen near a boundary fence between the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan Heights and Syria, 4 November 2017 REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Report 182 / Middle East & North Africa

Israel, Hizbollah and Iran: Preventing Another War in Syria

Facts on the ground in Syria are defining the contours of the country’s political future and also the geography of a looming clash between Israel, Hizbollah and other Iran-allied militias. Russia should broker understandings to prevent a new front from opening.

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What’s new? A new phase in Syria’s war augurs escalation with Israel. As the Assad regime gains the upper hand, Hizbollah probes the south west and Iran seeks to augment its partners’ military capacities, Israel has grown fearful that Syria is becoming an Iranian base.

Why does it matter? “Rules of the game” that contained Israeli-Hizbollah clashes for over a decade have eroded. New rules can be established in Syria by mutual agreement or by a deadly cycle of attack and response in which everyone will lose. A broader war could be one miscalculation away.

What should be done? Russia should broker understandings that bolster the de-escalation agreement distancing Iran-backed forces from Syria’s armistice line with Israel; halt Iran’s construction of precision missile facilities and its military infrastructure in Syria; and convince Israel to acquiesce in foreign forces remaining in the rest of Syria pending a deal on the country’s future.

Executive Summary

The Syrian war has entered a new stage with the regime of Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand. Israel, no longer content to remain a bystander as Damascus’s position improves, is now jockeying to reverse the deterioration of its strategic posture. In this endeavour it has formidable obstacles to overcome: the regime is more dependent than ever on Iran, which Israel regards as its most implacable state foe; other enemies, particularly Hizbollah and Iran-backed Shiite militias, are entrenched in Syria with Russia’s blessing; and the U.S., notwithstanding the Trump administration’s strident rhetoric, has done little to reverse Iran’s gains. Yet Israel’s hand is not so weak. Russia has given it room to act against Iran-linked military interests and appears to be more interested in balancing contending fighting coalitions than returning every last piece of territory to the Assad regime’s control. But if Russia wishes to eventually withdraw or draw down its forces, it will need to broker rules of the game. Russia has indicated scant interest in doing so, but if it does not, hostilities between Israel and Iran may threaten its accomplishments, particularly regime stability.

Israel’s initial concern was Syria’s south west, where it is determined to prevent Hizbollah or Shiite militias from approaching the 1974 armistice line and setting up offensive infrastructure in its vicinity. Their doing so, as Israel sees it, could mean a new front against it and put Hizbollah in a position to launch attacks from an area in which its Lebanese civilian constituencies would not have to suffer Israeli counter-attacks. The Israeli army, its planners fear, would be left to exact costs in Lebanon, Damascus or Tehran, with the risk of provoking a regional war.

An increasingly assertive U.S.-Saudi strategy, with help from Israel, is taking shape to pressure Iran militarily, economically and diplomatically.

For the moment, a “de-escalation zone” sponsored by Jordan, Russia and the U.S. is keeping Hizbollah and other militias at a distance from the armistice line. But there are signs this arrangement might not hold. Regime forces in January 2018 seized territory from a jihadist group in the zone, enabling allied militias to creep closer to the Israeli-occupied Golan. Isolated Hizbollah forces already are present in the zone and probing its edges. This deterioration could be slowed by bolstering the de-escalation agreement for Syria's southwest, agreed by Russia, the U.S. and Jordan in May 2017. But the moment of truth will arrive when the war winds down in other theatres: will the regime make good on its vow to retake the whole country, including the south west? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to assume that if the regime pursues this goal in earnest, inevitably the assistance of foreign forces will follow.

More broadly, Israel wants to prevent its rivals from consolidating a permanent military presence anywhere in Syria, which, it fears, would strengthen their hand in future wars as well as their influence today in Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian arena. Iran is of particular concern: Israel’s red lines seek to block it from establishing an airport, naval port, military base, permanent presence of militias or precision weapon production facilities for Hizbollah. Israel has already demonstrated its resolve to disrupt the construction of this sort of major military infrastructure. Russia by and large seems content to let this pattern continue and neither Iran nor Syria can stop it.

Yet Israel’s strikes against militiamen will prove riskier to pursue and easier to thwart, for instance by integrating the fighters into the Syrian army or simply having them don its uniforms. Israeli officials are also concerned at the prospect of a territorial corridor controlled by Iran-linked forces stretching via Iraq into Syria and Lebanon, which arguably could facilitate the movement of fighters and materiel. This development, too, will be harder for Israel to stop, particularly in Syria’s east, since its intelligence and military capacities decrease with distance from the Golan.

Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the de-escalation agreement. Unless it does, the rules of the Syrian game are likely to be worked out through attack and response, with risk of escalation. Attacks by Iran-backed groups over the armistice line dropped over the last couple of years, but Assad’s January 2018 seizure of adjacent territory may augur an increase. Israel too may attack, in the form of limited strikes to prevent Hizbollah from acquiring precision weapons facilities in Lebanon, which it has accused Iran of pursuing. Israel’s military establishment assesses it could do so without provoking an all-out confrontation. Perhaps, but Hizbollah has signalled that the consequences of such a strike are unpredictable. A broader war could be only a miscalculation away.

Regional changes make that miscalculation more likely. An increasingly assertive U.S.-Saudi strategy, with help from Israel, is taking shape to pressure Iran militarily, economically and diplomatically. These powers have adopted an activist posture to establish the deterrence vis-à-vis Iran that they feel was lost during the Barack Obama administration. Hizbollah and Iran of course have ways to reply. Neither Hizbollah nor Israel is a pawn of its allies and both have reasons, particularly the threat to civilian populations, to avoid a major escalation. But hostilities are unlikely to remain local.

In Syria’s south west, Russia appears to be the sole actor capable of mediating understandings to prevent an Iran-Israel escalation across the country.

In Syria’s south west, Russia appears to be the sole actor capable of mediating understandings to prevent an Iran-Israel escalation across the country. The best currently anticipated outcome would be a deal whereby Iran and its partners forego building major military infrastructure, including but not only in Syria’s south west, but retain significant influence in the country through other means. It is difficult to imagine a reversion to the pre-2011 situation, when the Syrian state, while allied with Iran, was not an arena for an open Iranian presence and military operations. For the foreseeable future, Iran will continue to be a pillar of the regime’s security. But it risks undermining its investment should it overplay its hand.

Everyone stands to lose from an intensification of the Syrian war, first and foremost the Syrian people. So too do Israel and Lebanon, since an altercation between them involving Hizbollah could ignite another war across their borders and beyond. As for Damascus and its backers, a massive campaign by Israel will do enormous damage to their achievements, perhaps even destabilising the regime itself, which would sow discord between Russia and Israel. Gradually stabilising Syria would be a wiser course, and the only viable one toward an eventual settlement.

Jerusalem/Beirut/Amman/Brussels, 8 February 2018

Israel, Hizbollah and Iran: Preventing Another War in Syria

Crisis Group's Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa Joost Hiltermann talks about a new phase in Syria’s war that augurs escalation with Israel, as “rules of the game” that contained Israeli-Hizbollah clashes for over a decade have eroded. CRISISGROUP

I. Introduction

Israel long has had a complex relationship with Syria. Under President Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian regime was a Soviet client that fought wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973, and clashed with its neighbour on numerous other occasions over the Golan Heights, the territory that divides the two countries and which Israel occupied in 1967 before relinquishing a portion after the next war.[fn]This report refers to the portion of the Golan Heights under Israeli control as the “Israeli-occupied Golan” and the portion of the Golan Heights that was under Syrian government control until 2011 as the “Syrian Golan”.Hide Footnote In the 1980s, as a result of the Iran-Iraq War and Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Syria grew closer to Iran, an even more suspect partner than the Soviets from Israel’s perspective. Damascus, which had been a strategic ally of Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, facilitated the development and arming of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that has killed more Israelis since its 1982 establishment than any of Israel’s other foes.

Yet, ever since the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement formalised the end of the previous year’s October War, Syria has secured the resulting armistice line. The agreement created a UN buffer zone that ran from Mount Hermon/Jabal al-Sheikh in the north to the Yarmouk River in the south and included the town of Quneitra. Monitored by the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), an observer mission created for the purpose, the buffer lies on the Golan Heights between the Israeli-occupied part and the rest of Syria.[fn]The buffer zone is a tadpole-shaped strip of land, about 75km long and 10km wide in the centre, and 200 meters wide at its southern edge. The agreement provides for two belts of reduced military presence on each side of the buffer zone, each roughly 10km wide. For full details see Yinon Shlomo, “The Israeli-Syrian Disengagement Negotiations of 1973-1974”, Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 51, no. 4 (2015), pp. 636-648. See map of the Area of Separation in Appendix A.Hide Footnote For decades this de facto border was Israel’s quietest – including the boundaries with Jordan and Egypt, with which Israel has peace agreements.

The outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 posed an unprecedented dilemma for Israeli policymakers and security officials. Repelled by all parties to the conflict, Israel chose not to choose between the Iran-backed regime (which its officials derided as “plague”) and the fragmented and, as the war escalated, increasingly radicalised opposition (scorned as “cholera”). Israel instead kept its distance from the vortex, waiting to see who would emerge victorious. In the interim it focused on how to maintain security and stability, especially in the north of the country, with violence raging across the armistice line.

This report analyses how Israel has dealt with the conundrum presented by the war in the context of the region’s changing geopolitics. It is based on field research mainly in Israel, but also in Syria, Lebanon, Russia and Iran. After explaining the evolution of Israeli policy, the report offers policy ideas for disentangling, as much as possible, the Israel-Syria from the Israel-Hizbollah conflict, for the benefit of Israelis, Syrians and Lebanese alike.

II. Israeli Policy toward Syria

A. Israel’s Red Lines

As the war in Syria unfolded in 2011 and 2012, Israel found itself confronting two dangers: that the Assad regime would win and that it would lose. A win, especially with Iran’s backing, would fix the regime even more firmly in Tehran’s orbit. A loss would deal a painful blow to what Iran refers to as the “axis of resistance” – but Israel’s victory might be pyrrhic, if radical Islamist groups, including jihadists, seized control of Syria. This threat seemed especially big at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood was ruling Egypt and the “Arab spring” was still known as such, a challenge to the rulers of other states such as Jordan, Israel’s neighbour and partner.

With no single good strategic option, the Israeli military’s northern command shaped the country’s initial response, seeking to prevent, to the extent possible, the erosion of its position.[fn]A member of Israel’s National Security Council at the time explained: “Against the backdrop of our non-interventionist policy, the de facto policymaking burden fell on the shoulders of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which had to deal with the reality across the border on a daily basis”. Crisis Group interview, Jerusalem, June 2015.Hide Footnote Israel announced a series of red lines designed to secure its home front and bolster adjacent states’ stability.[fn]A foreign ministry official involved in the design of the red line policy said it was formulated as part of a broader strategy to safeguard Israel’s paramount interests: keeping control of the occupied Golan Heights and ensuring the stability of both Jordan and Lebanon. Crisis Group interview, Jerusalem, October 2016.Hide Footnote Though its red lines sometimes overlapped with another stakeholder’s interests, Israel considered its posture neutral; outside actors, however, saw Israel as taking sides.

At first there were three red lines, with a fourth added shortly thereafter. The first two pertained to Hizbollah. Israel made clear it would prevent the Shiite militia from bringing into Lebanon “game-changing” weaponry, the definition of which has shifted over time, and from building or seizing control of offensive infrastructure across the armistice line in Syria’s south west, including Syrian army bunkers and bases presently under opposition control. This red line extends to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisers, other Iran-backed Shiite militias or anyone else.

Israel announced a series of red lines designed to secure its home front and bolster adjacent states’ stability.

After the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war,[fn]Over 1,000 Lebanese and 165 Israeli were killed, roughly a million Lebanese and 400,000 Israelis were displaced, and civilian infrastructure in much of southern Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs was severely damaged. For background, see Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°57, Israel/Palestine/Lebanon: Climbing Out of the Abyss, 25 July 2006; and Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°59, Israel/Hizbollah/Lebanon: Avoiding Renewed Conflict, 1 November 2006.Hide Footnote Israel and Hizbollah readied themselves for the next round, reaching a relatively stable equilibrium based on mutual deterrence. Hizbollah brought Iranian arms into Lebanon through Syria; Israel interdicted the transfers only intermittently for fear of provoking an escalation. Israel tended to hesitate before striking even when the weapons were deemed significant (long-range and high-precision missiles) and the conditions ideal.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°97, Drums of War: Israel and the Axis of Resistance, 2 August 2010, p. 6. When Israel intervened militarily, international reactions were muted, in part because the weapons transfers violated UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the fighting in 2006. Crisis Group interviews, U.S., Russian and European diplomats, 2016.Hide Footnote When Hizbollah entered the war in Syria, however, Israel began to strike more aggressively to prevent the Shiite militia from using the fog of war to screen the acquisition of “game-changing” weaponry.[fn]Israeli officials also expressed concern about long-range surface-to-surface missiles like the Scud-D, anti-aircraft missiles such as the SA-17 and Yakhont anti-ship missiles. Crisis Group interview, defence official, Tel Aviv, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Second, Israel also declared its intention to block the establishment of offensive infrastructure east of the occupied Golan, whether by Hizbollah fighters and Iranian proxies or by forces linked to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS).[fn]Hizbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah speaks openly about using Syrian territory as a launching pad for attacks against Israel. For example, in reference to southern Syria in a recent interview, he boasted that Israel “is right to be concerned”, highlighted the “resistance” potential of Syrian militia forces [al-quwat al-radifa], noted that resistance in the south could be defensive or to liberate Golan, and said there are both Syrian and non-Syrian resistance forces there. “لعبة الأمم | حوار خاص مع الأمين العام لحزب الله السيد حسن نصرالله”, Al-Mayadeen, YouTube video, 3 January 2018, Footnote Israel feared that Iran and its partner forces would entrench themselves adjacent to the armistice line, enabling the opening of a new front – one where Lebanese civilians (especially Hizbollah’s constituents) would be out of the line of fire; Israel would have insufficient justification, its officials fear, to readily reply in Lebanon.[fn]Crisis Group interview, defence official, Tel Aviv, October 2016. Commenting on Israel’s concerns, a senior Iranian diplomat said, “Israel’s complaints about Iran’s intentions in the Golan Heights are the definition of chutzpah: they have occupied that land illegally and yet have the audacity to cry wolf about Iran”. Crisis Group interview, Berlin, December 2017.Hide Footnote An Israeli official described the strikes in January 2015 (killing a prominent Hizbollah figure, Jihad Mughniyeh, along with several other members of the organisation and an Iranian officer) and December 2015 (killing Samir Quntar, who had been released in a 2008 prisoner exchange with Hizbollah and subsequently became a senior figure in the organisation) as the most salient instances of enforcing this red line. These strikes are just two of more than twenty Israeli responses to alleged attacks in the three years after Hizbollah’s deployment to Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interview, defence official, Tel Aviv, October 2016. He added that these incidents came in response to “more than twenty attempts by Iranian proxies, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Druze cells”, to attack Israel. Israeli officials assess that the decrease in the activities of Iran and Hizbollah in southern Lebanon since late 2016 is a function of its priorities and capacity, not a lessening of motivation. Crisis Group interview, defence official, Tel Aviv, October 2017.Hide Footnote From the onset of the fighting until Russia’s September 2015 military intervention, Israeli officials sought a buffer zone – free of any hostile forces, including Assad’s army, which they saw as an extension of Tehran’s – of about 20km; after Russia deployed, and when Iran and its allies later gained the upper hand in the war, Israeli officials began to demand a 60-km buffer, though they grudgingly came to terms with a Syrian military presence within that area.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, defence officials, Tel Aviv, June 2015, October 2016, October 2017.Hide Footnote (See map in Appendix A.)

Israel’s third red line was enemy fire into territory it controlled: Israel threatened to reply in every instance, regardless of the perpetrator or intent. Until September 2016, Israel’s policy was to retaliate against the regime in reaction to any and all stray fire based on the fact that it was the sovereign power. But when rebels, under pressure, began to fire into the Israeli-occupied Golan to provoke a response against the regime, Israel started firing back at them as well.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Israeli diplomat, Brussels, February 2017. See also Ben Caspit, “How will Israel respond to Assad’s warning?”, Al-Monitor, 19 September 2016.Hide Footnote

The fourth red line was never announced as such. In mid-2015, when a coalition of Syrian rebels moved toward Sweida and Jabal Druze on the south west border with Jordan, and Jabhat al-Nusra, then the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, moved northward from Quneitra, Israel cautioned Syrian rebels against attacking the Druze population of the area, particularly in the village of Hader, near the armistice line. The prime minister announced he had instructed the military “to take all the necessary actions” to protect the village’s residents.[fn]“Israel cautioned the rebels in Syria against attacking the village Khader”, Haaretz, 17 June 2015.Hide Footnote This de facto red line never attained the same prominence as the others because the risk of carnage in the village quickly faded, re-emerging only in November 2017. Israel’s leadership felt forced to commit to this course of action because it faces strong pressures from its own Druze population, who serve in the Israeli army and therefore are linked with Israel’s Jewish population in what they call a “blood pact”, which many Israeli Druze claim extends to defending their relatives in Syria.[fn]Hader, the Druze enclave nearest to Israel, presents a particularly complex challenge. Under Iranian and Hizbollah leadership, Druze cells from the village participated in attacks on Israel in 2015, according to Israeli defence officials; yet the population has kin among Israel’s Druze population – both the roughly 100,000 who are citizens of Israel and the 25,000 residents of the occupied Golan who refused citizenship – compelling Israel to be cautious in its response. Crisis Group interview, defence official, Tel Aviv, November 2016. In early November 2017, against the backdrop of rebel attempts to break the siege on Beit Jinn by taking over Hader, the IDF announced it “will prevent harm to the village and its takeover out of a commitment to the Druze population”, Haaretz, 3 June 2017.Hide Footnote

Israel also used soft power to protect its boundary. Since 2013 it has provided aid – food, clothes, blankets, baby formula and medical assistance – to the residents of a narrow band of territory within Syria east of the Israeli-occupied Golan. Control of Syrian land abutting the armistice line is split between three groups and alliances:[fn]Israel considered extending its policy to southern Syria in toto. According to a former national security council official: “This option was rejected. Before you know it, we’d be bogged down in Daraa and Jabal Druze. We opted instead for the ‘Syria Border Zone’ with the aim of providing aid to win friends in villages immediately near the border line”. Crisis Group interview, Tel Aviv, October 2016.Hide Footnote Jaysh Khalid bin al-Walid (formerly Katibat Shuhada al-Yarmouk, the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade), an ISIS affiliate, in the southern part of Quneitra governorate; Jabhat al-Nusra (now part of Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham and formerly al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) and other opposition forces, along the central stretch of the armistice line (including the town of Quneitra);[fn]Some of these opposition forces were supported by the U.S., Jordan and other powers via an operations room in Amman. See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°163, New Approach in Southern Syria, 2 September 2015.Hide Footnote and the regime, Hizbollah and Druze allies in the governorate’s north, predominantly in Hader.

Israel has focused aid provision in the vicinity of Quneitra to minimise the benefit to Jaysh Khalid and Hizbollah-friendly Druze. Some native residents remain in this central area, in addition to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDP), especially from Daraa and Damascus, who arrived in particularly large numbers in 2014 (and more recently in late June 2017) when fighting escalated in Daraa.[fn]The population of the Quneitra governorate in 2010 was 87,000, according to Syria’s Central Bureau of Statistics. The organisation Reach reported that there were 48,720 internally displaced persons and 100,561 people in the area in October 2017. See Footnote Thousands of the IDPs moved to tent camps adjacent to the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line, mostly within the buffer zone, thinking the UN and proximity to Israel would offer a modicum of protection.[fn]Their calculation was partially right. UNDOF withdrew its forces in September 2014 after 45 of its peacekeepers were kidnapped by Jabhat al-Nusra (they were later released) and redeployed some of them two years later in November 2016, in a smaller area over which Damascus had resumed control. That said, this zone generally has been safer, since Assad’s forces have been unable to use certain kinds of weapons against rebels stationed near the armistice line. Whenever a stray shot lands across the boundary, Israel takes out Syrian army targets.Hide Footnote

Israel has sent some humanitarian aid to the camps, including through the operation of a field hospital on its side of the armistice line. Some aid (eg, flour for bakeries and school supplies) goes to support communities in which combatants live in order to dissuade them from firing on Israel for fear of losing the assistance, as well as to improve public opinion vis-à-vis Israel.[fn]A foreign ministry official expressed satisfaction that the policy was achieving its goals. Crisis Group interview, Jerusalem, October 2016.Hide Footnote Israeli officials vehemently deny Israel is providing military aid to jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.[fn]In a meeting with Druze leaders IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said: “Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham – I look you in the eyes and I tell you we have no contact with them”. He confirmed Israel does occasionally maintain relations with other local militias in order to preserve quiet at the border and noted Israel had warned rebel groups not to enter the Druze enclave around Hader. Amos Harel, “Israel is not aiding extremist rebels in Syria, Israeli army chief says”, Haaretz, 16 September 2016. It is probable that the relations of which Eisenkot spoke includes some military aid, particularly to Fursan al-Joulan, based primarily in Jabata al-Khashab, south of Hader, to help them contain a southward expansion of elements of Hizbollah and of the National Defence Forces, a pro-Assad militia. It also is probable that military aid, including to rebel groups fighting Jaysh Khalid bin al-Walid, has increased since late 2017 when the rebels lost other kinds of external support.Hide Footnote

B. Enter Hizbollah

Israel adopted a more assertive stance in late 2012 when Hizbollah deployed in Syria, and particularly in May 2013 after the Shiite group won a key battle at al-Qusayr, a village near the Lebanese border that is strategically located near the highway connecting Damascus to Homs and the Syrian coastline. Hizbollah’s entry into the war extended Israel’s decades-old battle with the group to Syrian territory and entailed the interlocking of three hitherto separate conflicts: between Israel and Syria, between Israel and Hizbollah, and among the various parties to the Syrian civil war.[fn]For background see Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°175, Hizbollah’s Syria Conundrum, 14 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Since a foray on 30 January 2013, Israel claims to have launched nearly 100 aerial strikes.

In Syria, fighting for the regime’s existence, Hizbollah has easier access to arms, including missiles of greater range, power and precision. As a result, it has improved its arsenal to the point that Israel’s concept of what constitutes “game-changing” weaponry – the sort that Israel has attempted to block – has changed. Israel largely has given up on interdicting long-range missiles, of which Hizbollah now has many, and shifted to preventing the group’s acquisition of precision weaponry that would enable it to target Israel’s most sensitive locations, such as downtown Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport, and gas extraction and production facilities.[fn]According to the Israeli defence establishment, Hizbollah had some 15,000 missiles and rockets on the eve of the war in 2006 and has some 130,000 today. Crisis Group interview, defence official, Tel Aviv, October 2017.Hide Footnote Israeli officials are convinced that the next war with Hizbollah will exact a heavy toll on the home front,[fn]A defence official provided a typical characterisation of a war scenario: “Our Iron Dome [anti-missile defence system] cannot handle over 100,000 missiles fired at Israel. Hizbollah can send more than a 1,000 per day for 100 days in a row, some with high precision. Residential towers in Tel Aviv will be toppled with many casualties. I doubt Israeli society today knows how to handle that”. Crisis Group interview, Jerusalem, March 2017. Other officials speak of the possibility that Hizbollah could capture an Israeli kibbutz near the border with Lebanon.Hide Footnote and as such Israel has defended its new red line with vigour. Since a foray on 30 January 2013, the first time in over five years that the Israeli air force carried out an attack inside Syria, Israel claims to have launched nearly 100 aerial strikes.[fn]Isabel Kershner and Michael R. Gordon, “Israeli airstrike in Syria targets arms convoy, U.S. says”, The New York Times, 30 January 2013. In mid-2017 Israel’s air force chief claimed Israel had carried out nearly 100 strikes in Syria in five years. “Israel struck Syrian and Hezbollah arms convoys nearly 100 times in five years, top general says”, Haaretz, 17 August 2017.Hide Footnote (See chart of Israeli airstrikes in Appendix B.)

Hizbollah’s deployment in Syria also created the possibility that at some point its forces would move south. When these forces did just that in coordination with the regime in February-March 2015, six months before Russia’s military intervention, Israeli officialdom decided to prevent Hizbollah and other pro-Iranian militias from seizing territory in the vicinity of the Israel-Syria armistice line, lest they dig bunkers or erect missile batteries there. Israel’s professed plan, in the event the regime’s campaign seemed likely to succeed, was to create either a no-fly zone or an IDF-controlled buffer zone 20km inside Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, foreign affairs, defence and intelligence officials, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, March 2015. Israel rejected reported Syrian opposition entreaties to do the same on its behalf. Elhanan Miller, “Israel is our last hope, indicates Syrian dissident”, Times of Israel, 30 April 2014.Hide Footnote An Israeli official explained that failure to do so would badly erode his country’s strategic position and lead it into a war he said it did not want:

Hizbollah will win an exchange of blows. They will fire at our civilians, scoring points for “resisting Israel” while we will be limited to pummelling fighters who can easily be replaced. It is unclear how long we’d be able to absorb this before we’d have to respond on a bigger scale. And if they strike the proverbial kindergarten,[fn]In Israeli parlance, “attacking a kindergarten” is a metaphor for an attack that generates such public pressure that the leadership feels it must launch a vigorous military response, regardless of whether it considers that course strategically appropriate.Hide Footnote all bets are off. Before we know it, we will be looking at exacting costs directly from Beirut, Damascus or Tehran – a conflagration we’d rather avoid.[fn]Crisis Group interview, foreign ministry official, Jerusalem, October 2016.Hide Footnote

But when the rebels counter-attacked and pushed northward in April-June 2015, the plans Israel had been considering became unnecessary.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former national security official, Tel Aviv, October 2016. An adviser to the prime minister’s office said Netanyahu rejected the request to establish a buffer zone, fearing many more Syrians would seek shelter there. Crisis Group interview, Tel Aviv, April 2017.Hide Footnote

III. The Russians Are Coming!

A. Russia to Assad’s Rescue

Syrian rebels captured nearly all of Idlib governorate in the first half of 2015 and threatened to advance on Lattakia as well as southward through the Ghab plain to link up with rebel-held areas in the Hama and Homs countryside. Judging the situation critical, the Syrian regime and its Iranian ally sought and received military support from Moscow in July. To facilitate its deployment, Russia constructed an air base at Hmeimim, south-east of Lattakia on the Mediterranean. Russian forces included T-90 tanks, artillery, warships, military advisers and special forces. The next month, Russia started moving forces toward Lattakia and set up a joint operations room with Iran, Iraq and Syria, soon to be joined by Hizbollah, with the ostensible aim of fighting ISIS. On 30 September, the upper house of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, authorised military operations in Syria; the first airstrikes occurred within hours of the vote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow on 21 September, days before the Russian intervention, to establish Israeli-Russian coordination and, subsequently, a de-confliction mechanism to prevent accidents. This mechanism comprises a hotline between IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv and Russia’s Hmeimim air base, direct communication between the Russian and Israeli deputy chiefs of staff, and regular consultations at multiple levels of the respective defence establishments. The hotline demonstrated its value almost immediately, in late November 2015, when Israel refrained from firing on a Russian airplane flying above the Golan. For its part, Moscow has yet to activate its defence systems in response to Israeli strikes.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Israeli defence officials, Tel Aviv, October 2016-November 2017. A Russian diplomat said: “The mechanism has proved very effective in our view. High-level military consultations take place whenever possible to alleviate each other’s concerns. It raises trust between us, especially between the militaries who have tendencies to be distrustful”. Crisis Group interviews, Russian diplomats, Tel Aviv, September 2016, April 2017, November 2017.Hide Footnote

Russia’s intervention soon shifted the war in Assad’s favour, stopping the momentum of the rebels and then, in Aleppo in late 2016, decisively turning the tide. It became increasingly clear that the regime would not be defeated – and that, to the contrary, it likely would continue its attempt to regain control over the whole country. The success of Russia’s intervention put paid to Israeli officials’ hopes (already faint, during the Obama administration’s tenure) that the U.S. would back the rebels more strongly and counterbalance Russian support for the regime.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, defence and intelligence officials, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, June 2016-December 2016.Hide Footnote

Beyond changing the course of the war, the Russian intervention introduced four strategic dilemmas for Israel and constrained its options for dealing with them:

  • It enabled Hizbollah and Iran, Israel’s most potent enemies, to expand their areas of operations and advance toward or even up to the armistice line. As Israel sees it, were Moscow to back Assad’s recapture of the south, the result would be the same: Hizbollah and Iranian forces would reach the Golan Heights and ultimately build offensive infrastructure there.
  • It constrains Israel’s freedom of military manoeuvre. After Turkey, in November 2015, shot down a Russian military aircraft that it accused of violating its airspace, Russia deployed S-300 and S-400 air defence systems in Syria. Israel can counter the former; the latter, operated only by Russian personnel, pose a much greater challenge. “A fly can’t buzz above Syria without Russian consent nowadays”, observed an Israeli defence official.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Jerusalem, April 2016. He said the same applies to maritime manoeuvring space near Syria’s shores.Hide Footnote Moscow has built up its capacities more broadly in the country, suggesting plans for an extended presence that would make it part of the regional military landscape for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding its occasional professions of imminent withdrawal.[fn]In December 2o17, Russia and Damascus signed an agreement formalising Moscow’s lease of the Tartous naval base for 49 years, with an optional extension for another 25 years, and allowing Russia to base eleven vessels, including nuclear-powered warships, there at a time.
    [1] In a televised speech, Nasrallah said: “The Israeli enemy must know that if an Israeli war is launched against Syria or Lebanon, it is not known that the fighting will remain Lebanese-Israeli, or Syrian-Israeli …. This could open the way for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of fighters from all over the Arab and Islamic world to participate – from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan”. “Hezbollah says future Israel war could draw fighters from Iran, Iraq, elsewhere”, Reuters, 23 June 2017.Hide Footnote

  • It raised the possibility that the regime’s campaign to recapture the east, also backed by Russia, would open a land bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean. Though not all military analysts agree, Israel sees the strategic stakes as enormous: such a corridor could facilitate the transfer of both weapons and Iran-backed Shiite militias across state borders and enable Iran to establish a presence across a wide area with potential to threaten Israel.[fn]In a televised speech, Nasrallah said: “The Israeli enemy must know that if an Israeli war is launched against Syria or Lebanon, it is not known that the fighting will remain Lebanese-Israeli, or Syrian-Israeli …. This could open the way for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of fighters from all over the Arab and Islamic world to participate – from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan”. “Hezbollah says future Israel war could draw fighters from Iran, Iraq, elsewhere”, Reuters, 23 June 2017.Hide Footnote Seen from Israel, such a corridor would provide Tehran an affordable alternative to costly shipment by air. Were the corridor also to thicken Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian economic cooperation, the density of commercial traffic could make it harder for Israel to detect and intercept arms convoys. Russia does not seem particularly concerned by this prospect and has offered Israel no help in forestalling it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian diplomat, Tel Aviv, April 2017.Hide Footnote

With chances growing that the regime and its allies would retake the south, Israel sought to bolster anti-regime militias as well as extend its sway over the population beyond the armistice line. As a prominent Israeli analyst said, Israel wished “to ensure public support among residents of south Syria for rebel non-aggression toward Israel and to increasingly legitimise the role of Syria’s rebels as Israel’s border guards”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Elizabeth Tsurkov, Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, Tel Aviv, 24 April 2017. She added that oftentimes aid is channelled through rebel groups. There are persistent, credible allegations that Israel provides military support to certain rebel groups. Crisis Group has been unable to confirm these charges, however.Hide Footnote In May 2016, Israel formally upgraded its efforts and the army established a Syria Liaison Unit to improve delivery of humanitarian aid under its Good Neighbour policy.[fn]Alex Fishman, “The Syria liaison unit”, Yediot Ahronot, 29 May 2016. Israel asked the U.S. to facilitate delivery of non-military aid to rebels over the Golan in order to make clear its source; the U.S. demurred, insisting instead on the Jordanian border. Crisis Group interview, U.S. diplomat, Jerusalem, July 2016. Israeli officials then approached UNDOF when it redeployed in November 2016, but it too refused. A UN official said: “The Syrian government will not agree and the attempt to renegotiate our mandate [to include the delivery of aid] will politicise UNDOF. Even the impression in Damascus that UNDOF is delivering aid to rebels will lead to its total collapse. They have so many ways to limit our operations in Syria, including simply kicking us out”. Crisis Group interview, UN official, Jerusalem, December 2016.Hide Footnote In 2017, the army built a new clinic, east of the fence yet west of the UN buffer zone, making it possible for thousands to receive regular medical treatment each week without crossing the Israeli barrier on the western edge of the demilitarised zone.[fn]Neri Zilber, “Why Israel is giving Syrians free spaghetti (and health care)”, Politico, 28 October 2017. The actual number of Syrians who received medical treatment in Israeli hospitals is likely higher than the reported 3,000. A well-informed Israeli expert liaising between Syrians and the Israeli army said that over 5,000 had been treated in Israeli hospitals. Crisis Group interview, Tel Aviv, October 2017. These numbers do not include people receiving first aid at the fence or treatment at the adjacent field hospital.Hide Footnote

These investments notwithstanding, soft power could not compensate for the weakening of Israel’s strategic position. Israel’s greatest foes are better armed and trained than before, and in theory could enjoy the protection of Russian warplanes. Iran is operating in closer proximity to Israel. An Israeli foreign ministry official worried, “Syria is on its way to becoming a Russian-Iranian protectorate”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Jerusalem, April 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Israel’s Updated Red Lines

These developments have forced Israel to update its red line policy. It has continued to block the transfer of advanced weapons to Hizbollah, so far with Russia’s tacit consent.[fn]For nearly a year after Russia’s 2015 deployment, there were virtually no Israeli airstrikes in Syria; in July 2016, they resumed. Another pause occurred between late March and early September 2017. It is unclear whether these hiatuses stemmed from a drop in the number of weapons convoys, as Israeli officials argue, a decrease in Israel’s freedom of operation, as some Israel analysts claim, or a combination of the two. Crisis Group interviews, foreign ministry officials, defence officials, intelligence officials, independent analysts, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, January 2016-November 2017. See the chart of Israeli airstrikes in Appendix B.Hide Footnote Israeli officials believe that in the main they have frustrated Hizbollah’s efforts to smuggle precision weapons into Lebanon, which may explain why the movement tried to establish an arms production capacity in its home country. According to Israeli officials, Hizbollah for a time froze those efforts in light of Israeli threats,[fn]Crisis Group interview, defence official, Tel Aviv, December 2017. Hizbollah efforts to establish protected production facilities 50 meters underground in Lebanon seem to be “on pause due to Israeli threats”. Crisis Group interview, foreign ministry official, Jerusalem, November 2017.Hide Footnote though they argue that since late 2017, Iran-backed efforts to build such workshops shifted to Syria, where Israel is reported to have struck two, and since then, in January 2018, back to Lebanon again.[fn]“Syria war: Israeli jets ‘strike factory near Homs’”, BBC News, 2 November 2017. Anna Ahronheim, “Syrian media: Israel struck near Damascus for second time in days”, Jerusalem Post, 5 December 2017; “Iran resumes building missile plants in Lebanon, Israeli army warns in rare article in Arab media”, Haaretz, 30 January 2018. Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted that Israel “will not agree to … [this] development … and will act according to need”. Footnote Israel also is unwilling to countenance the basing of Hizbollah’s advanced, long-range rockets in underground Syrian military facilities in the Qalamoun mountains, some 50km north of Damascus.[fn]Crisis Group interview, defence official, Tel Aviv, June 2017.Hide Footnote Rockets in those mountains, Israel worries, would allow Hizbollah to threaten much of Israel with less concern for direct Israeli retaliation that would cause mass casualties among Lebanese civilians and damage civilian infrastructure. That war-fighting strategy might be more difficult for Israel to justify internationally if the initial strike came from a neighbouring country,[fn]“What we will do to Lebanon [in the event of another war] has not been seen since World War Two. We will crush it and grind it to the ground”. Crisis Group interview, defence official, Jerusalem, October 2016.Hide Footnote and would risk drawing in the Syrian army.

Israel has expressed disappointment at Russia’s stance toward Iran’s presence in Syria. After the regime’s victory in east Aleppo made clear that Assad would stay in power, the Astana negotiations in May 2017 produced an Iranian-Russian-Turkish memorandum on de-escalation zones, including in the south west.[fn]“Memorandum on the Creation of De-escalation Areas in the Syrian Arab Republic”, 6 May 2017. Israel had input into the U.S.-Russia-Jordan negotiations on the south west. Crisis Group interview, defence official, Jerusalem, April 2017. A U.S. official called Israel a “silent partner” in the talks. Crisis Group interview, Washington, December 2017.Hide Footnote From Netanyahu’s perspective the agreement had severe shortcomings, particularly that it legitimised Iran’s and Turkey’s military involvement in Syria (by formally making them guarantors and monitors of de-escalation and, potentially, giving them a role in defeating jihadist groups) and stayed silent about Hizbollah and Iran-linked forces, effectively enabling them to maintain some presence in the south west.[fn]Crisis Group interview, defence official, Tel Aviv, April 2017.Hide Footnote

Israel therefore updated its red lines – signalling it would take matters into its own hands if necessary to keep Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria. These red lines concerning Iran, which have not changed but have become more detailed over time, include:

  • No Iranian seaport – Israeli shorthand for no Iranian base for maritime activities in the Mediterranean, which would enable Iranian submarines to threaten the Israeli coast as well as gas rigs, which Israel considers of strategic importance.[fn]A senior Israeli military officer claimed that Israel persuaded Moscow to block Tehran’s bid to build a seaport in Lattakia. Crisis Group interview, Tel Aviv, December 2017.Hide Footnote Israel, in addition to depending on gas for domestic electricity generation, is becoming a significant exporter, including to Jordan, which has helped line up Amman behind this Israeli demand.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, defence official, Tel Aviv, June 2017; former Jordanian minister, Amman, October 2017.Hide Footnote
  • No permanent Iranian military bases and no permanent presence of Shiite militias trained and commanded by Iran. Looking beyond the present phase of the fighting, Israel does not want Syria to become an Iranian military staging ground, a node of Iran’s “forward defence” strategy. Thousands of non-Syrian Shiite militiamen stationed permanently in Syria under IRGC command could emerge as a potent fighting force akin to Hizbollah.[fn]Israeli officials also express concern about efforts of Hizbollah, at Iran’s behest, to recruit Syrians into a “Syrian Hizbollah” movement. Crisis Group interview, defence official, Tel Aviv, November 2017. Initially comprising Shiites only, most of these militias now include numerous other recruits. See Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Al-Ghalibun: Inside story of a Syrian Hezbollah group”, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi’s Blog, 16 April 2017.Hide Footnote While Israeli officials acknowledge that insisting on their evacuation sets a high bar, fighters remaining under Iranian control and protection could complicate Israel’s operations in the event of combat.[fn]The IDF chief of staff explained in a policy speech that the Israeli interest is “to push the Iranians back to Iran” and noted that, to do so, Israel will have to somehow compel or otherwise engineer the evacuation of over 2,000 Iranian experts, nearly 10,000 Shiite militia fighters (mostly Afghans and Iraqis), and nearly 8,000 Hizbollah fighters. David Israel, “IDF chief: Israel’s top mission in Syria is pushing the Iranians back to Iran”, Jewish Press, 3 January 2018. Before the UN Security Council, Danny Danon, the Israeli permanent representative to the UN, claimed based on intelligence sources that Iran had mobilised 60,000 Syrian fighters under its command. “Israel’s UN envoy: ‘Classified info’ shows Iran has 3,000 troops in Syria”, Times of Israel, 25 January 2018. A Syria analyst with access to the Assad regime asserted that these numbers are greatly exaggerated and signal a misconception about the role of Iran-backed militias: “The [foreign] militias are akin to U.S. Special Forces, necessary because the regime’s army is so weak. Once an area is pacified, the militias leave because they aren’t needed and because local communities are not welcoming toward them. Look at Aleppo: their presence was heavy, now they are gone. However weak the military, there is still a state”. Crisis Group interview, January 2017.Hide Footnote Israel is reported to have carried out at least two airstrikes in Syria upon a purported Iranian military base under construction to demonstrate its resolve. Asked about them, an Israeli defence official said: “So far, so good on the setting of new red lines, with the emphasis on ‘so far’”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, defence officials, Jerusalem, November and December 2017. In early November, Israel released photos of a base it claimed housed Iranian militia fighters in Kisweh, south west of Damascus, in what its officials saw as a self-evident warning to stop construction. On 1 December, its warning apparently unheeded, it struck the facility. Days later, Israel reportedly attacked another military base, in Jamraya, north west of Damascus. “Iran building permanent military base in Syria – claim”, BBC News, 10 November 2017; “Reports: Israel attacks Iranian base near Damascus”, Ynet News, 2 December 2017; “Israeli missiles target Syrian military facility near Damascus: Syrian state media”, 4 December 2017.Hide Footnote
  • No Iranian airport, to ensure the monitoring of aerial supplies of weapons, militias and troops to Syria. Iran already lands commercial airplanes in the Mezzeh air base near Damascus but Israel’s intelligence regarding the facility has enabled it to repeatedly strike missile shipments there. Israel wants to avoid the establishment of an Iranian airport, or in fact any airport at which Iran has free rein, particularly in more distant areas of Syria, where it would be harder to gather intelligence and longer bombing runs would be required.[fn]Crisis Group interview, active reserve officer in IDF intelligence, Tel Aviv, November 2017.Hide Footnote
  • No high-precision missile factories. This stricture applies to both Lebanon and Syria. Israel believes that after Hizbollah froze its attempt to establish such capability in Lebanon, Iran has continued to pursue this capacity in Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interview, defence official, Tel Aviv, 29 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Moscow believes these red lines extend beyond Israel’s legitimate security needs, and reportedly has rebuffed requests that it confront Iran on these issues.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian diplomat, Tel Aviv, September 2017.Hide Footnote Moscow tends to see Hizbollah in a positive light, generally views Iranian political and economic interests in Syria as legitimate, and respects Syria’s sovereign decision-making, at least on certain issues. A Russian diplomat said:

Israeli officials repeatedly tell us that Iran is fighting in Syria primarily because of its ultimate agenda of destroying Israel, that Iran is motivated by theology rather than state interest, and that we should create an Iran-free Syria. We want to take Israel’s interests into account, but it is impossible to take such arguments seriously.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian diplomat, Tel Aviv, November 2016. Another Russian diplomat expressed understanding for Israel’s concerns about what happens on its borders, but also expressed appreciation for Hizbollah’s role in “fighting extremists” and queried why Russia should grant priority to Israel’s concerns over Syria’s. “Sometimes Israel thinks that all it has to do is make demands and everyone else will comply. It doesn’t work like that”. Crisis Group interview, September 2017.Hide Footnote

Even were Moscow more inclined toward Israel’s positions, it may lack the capacity and leverage to compel Iranian compliance with all of Israel’s demands. Even in cases where their interests diverge, securing even small concessions from Damascus and Tehran appears tough for Moscow. It is unlikely to put its credibility on the line in an uncertain attempt to achieve all of them. In particular, Russia might see benefit in the presence of at least some Iran-backed militias; their precipitous withdrawal, given the weakened state of Syria’s forces, could leave the regime exposed, thus ultimately adding to Russia’s own burdens.[fn]A Russian diplomat said Moscow’s preference is for a strong Syrian national army without non-state Shiite militias but that, at present, Assad needs those militias for self-preservation. Crisis Group interview, Tel Aviv, September 2017.Hide Footnote

Syria’s south west presents a unique challenge, given the proximity of the territory to the Israeli-occupied Golan. In July 2017, the U.S., Russia and Jordan negotiated a ceasefire in south west Syria between the Syrian army and mainstream opposition forces providing for the three states to jointly operate a monitoring centre in Amman.[fn]The text of the July agreement was never published. Russia views the de-escalation zone as integral to the Astana memorandum of May 2017. Crisis Group interview, Russian diplomat, Tel Aviv, September 2017. The U.S. sees it as “a fifth separate region”, outside of the scope of Astana. U.S. State Department, press briefing, 11 July 2017.Hide Footnote In November 2017, Russia, the U.S. and Jordan, after lengthy negotiations, agreed to precisely delineate the territories in question, defining an opposition-controlled de-escalation zone surrounded by a 5km-wide strip, controlled by the Syrian army and with access monitored by Russian military police, into which entry by “foreign forces or foreign fighters” was forbidden.[fn]Joint Statement by the President of the United States and the President of the Russian Federation, 11 November 2017. An Israeli official validated to Crisis Group the accuracy of a map of the de-escalation zone published by Israeli journalist Dana Weiss, Because the 5km buffer begins at the front line between Syrian and rebel forces, and not at the Israeli fence on the western side of the demilitarised zone, in places the distance to Israeli-controlled territory is substantially further.Hide Footnote The tripartite agreement permitted continued fighting in the areas it delineated as ISIS-controlled. (See map in Appendix A.)

Even were Moscow more inclined toward Israel’s positions, it may lack the capacity and leverage to compel Iranian compliance with all of Israel’s demands.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu lambasted the agreement in public, primarily for providing too narrow of a south-western buffer and for ignoring Iran’s efforts to establish permanent military presence in Syria in general,[fn]“PM opposes Syria ceasefire, says it will strengthen Iran”, Times of Israel, 16 July 2017. “Netanyahu says he told Putin Israel not bound by Syria ceasefire”, Times of Israel, 14 November 2017.Hide Footnote U.S. and Russian officials tell a different story: that Israel’s positions were taken into account, its security establishment welcomed the deal, and that its opposition was for public consumption, possibly with the intention of setting the stage to later demand an even better deal and maintaining freedom of action against an Iran-backed presence in the south west beyond the ceasefire zone.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. and Russian officials, Washington and Moscow, July and December 2017.Hide Footnote

It is not always clear precisely to what the agreement’s phrasing refers, because the text generally mentions “foreign” forces rather than specifying Iran, Hizbollah or Shiite militias. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the agreement refers to all foreign militias, therefore including Hizbollah, but not to Iran, which Russia considers a state operating in Syria at the legitimate government’s invitation. He also accused the U.S. of backing the most dangerous foreign forces – an allusion to jihadists fighting on the side of U.S.-backed Syrian rebels – and suggested the departure of non-Syrian forces on both sides happen in tandem.[fn]Foreign Minister Lavrov said: “We’ve just stated the fact that there is Russian and Iranian legitimate presence on the invitation of the legitimate government [on the Syrian territory] and we have also stated the fact of the illegitimate presence of the coalition created by the United States, which is carrying out military actions, including unilateral ones …. To seek withdrawal from the line of contact of non-Syrian groups, which are currently present in this very complicated Syrian region – yes, this was agreed upon. But this is a two-way street and if one looks at who is the most dangerous – they are those who are under the care of the United States”. “Russia: Moscow never promised withdrawal of Iranian troops from Syria”, Jerusalem Post, 24 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Nor is it clear what will happen in the Yarmouk valley and Beit Jinn enclaves. The November 2017 agreement delineated the two as controlled by jihadist rebels (respectively, by the ISIS-affiliate Jaysh Khalid Bin al-Walid and by Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham, alongside local insurgents), and therefore excluded from the ceasefire, subject to recapture by either Damascus or the opposition.[fn]In January 2018, Israel and Jordan jointly began building a border fence at the intersection of their countries’ borders with Syria, across from areas held by Jaysh Khalid Bin al-Walid. Kaan News, “Fearing Daesh: Israel erects an additional fence on its border with Jordan”, Footnote In early January 2018, after months of intense fighting, the opposition in the Beit Jinn enclave surrendered to the regime, which now controls a triangular patch at the intersection of the Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli boundaries. This development means that foreign (including Iran-backed) fighters, per the terms of the July agreement, can now be stationed 5km from Israel’s fence. Israeli officials fear Hizbollah will capitalise on this shift to establish offensive infrastructure in the Golan Heights.[fn]An Israeli officer said: “This reopens a Hizbollah smuggling route below Mount Hermon, from Mount Dov to Khader, linking Syria and Lebanon into a so-called resistance front. In the past they used donkeys to carry commodities in these mountainous trails. Easier access of weapons, logistical support and troops is not good news – it could enable Iran-backed offensive infrastructure below Mount Hermon, across from our fence”. Crisis Group interview, reserve officer, IDF Northern Command, Jerusalem, 31 December 2017.Hide Footnote Further to the south, according to some accounts, the U.S. and Jordan agreed to push rebels to attack the jihadists in the Yarmouk valley in return for Russia’s agreement to exclude Hizbollah from the area; it is unclear that the U.S. can do so if it is also terminating its support to the rebels.[fn]Crisis Group interview, defence official, Jerusalem, November 2017. On the jihadist presence, see Ibrahim Hamidi, “Tripartite agreement includes ‘buffer zone’ free of Iran”, Asharq al-Awsat, 17 November 2017. The U.S. allegedly stopped paying the salaries of the rebels and wound down the Military Operations Command (MOC) in December. Crisis Group interview, Syrian opposition leader, Amman, December 2017.Hide Footnote

As with Israel’s other red lines, the operative question is less what Israel thinks of the deal and more whether Russia has the will and capacity to implement it. Given its ambiguities and the winding down of hostilities elsewhere in the country, freeing the regime and its allies to refocus their attention sooner or later on the south west, Israel and at least some Russian officials view the agreement as likely to erode before an intra-Syrian agreement over the country’s future is reached.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, defence official, Jerusalem, November 2017; Russian diplomat, November 2017.Hide Footnote Unless the de-escalation zone is bolstered, they are probably correct.

IV. U.S. Rollback or Russian Balancing?

Israel’s political echelons are pleased with what they hear about Iran from the administration of President Donald Trump. The administration’s harsh rhetoric suggests the U.S. plans to roll back what it sees as Iran’s aggressive regional expansion. Israel, which long has been clamouring for a harder line from Washington toward both Tehran and its friends in the Middle East, applauds the tough talk. It cheers the U.S. bombing of an airfield in Syria after the Assad regime’s chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017; the U.S. strike on regime forces near al-Tanf on 18 May 2017; the refusal to certify the Iran nuclear deal because of alleged disproportionate sanctions relief in return for Tehran’s nuclear concessions; the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist entity; new sanctions against Hizbollah; denunciations of the Huthi rebels in Yemen; and determination, in coordination with Saudi Arabia, to restore deterrence vis-à-vis Iran. Since Trump’s May 2017 visit to Riyadh, the prospect of a U.S.-backed Israeli alliance with Arab states against Iran has come to seem more realistic.[fn]An Israeli minister from the Likud party said: “The Gulf states are moving toward us every day. Unlike many, I think they will normalise relations with us without a resolution of our conflict with the Palestinians. They need us against Iran and, unlike Obama, Trump is willing to officiate at the wedding”. Crisis Group interview, Jerusalem, April 2017.Hide Footnote

Israel, however, quickly tempered its great expectations of the White House when it came to Syria. When Trump proclaimed, in his Iran policy announcement,[fn]Remarks by President Trump on Iran Strategy, 13 October 2017.Hide Footnote that his administration “will work with our allies to counter the [Iranian] regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region”, Israel hoped Syria would be among the first places where Trump would act forcefully.[fn]Crisis Group interview, intelligence official, Jerusalem, October 2017.Hide Footnote It was not. During the administration’s first year, it waited-and-saw whether Moscow’s sense of its own self-interest might lead it to restrain Iran in Syria.[fn]“Russia, we hope, will support the regime in regaining control of Syria’s borders, in order to keep Iran and Hizbollah out. We are testing the proposition that Putin will ultimately see a confluence of interest about preventing Iran from taking Syria in a direction that we believe he does not want it to go”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, October 2017. The official saw this hope as a thin one.Hide Footnote Washington showed little inclination to directly challenge Iran-aligned forces west of the Euphrates, much to Israel’s disappointment. Instead of prioritising the fight against Tehran and its allies and issuing a credible threat of force in Syria; providing rebels (notably southern ones from al-Tanf) with the resources to block the purported Iranian land bridge in the south; and strongly backing Iraqi Kurds in the wake of their independence referendum to enable them to foil a northern land bridge and otherwise keep Iran occupied, Trump, in the words of an Israeli intelligence official, opted to “pacify Russia”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, intelligence official, Jerusalem, October 2017; defence officials, Tel Aviv, March-December 2017.Hide Footnote

Since Trump’s May 2017 visit to Riyadh, the prospect of a U.S.-backed Israeli alliance with Arab states against Iran has come to seem more realistic.

Today there are some indications that this approach could change, with the administration articulating determination to combat Iran’s influence in Syria and terminate Assad’s rule.[fn]In a 17 January speech, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson specified “five key end states” for Syria, including that “the underlying conflict between the Syrian people and the Assad regime is resolved through a UN-led political process prescribed in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and a stable, unified, independent Syria, under post-Assad leadership, is functioning as a state” and that “Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, their dreams of a northern arch are denied, and Syria’s neighbors are secure from all threats emanating from Syria”. “Remarks on the Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria”, Footnote Still, Israel remains in a bind because Moscow, which seems set to stay in Syria for some time, has been a faithful if sometimes tentative partner for the regime, Hizbollah and Tehran. It has sought to balance their concerns with Israel’s and find a modus vivendi between the two sides. True, Russia has turned a blind eye to virtually all of the nearly 100 Israeli strikes over the past five years. A Russian diplomat offered a resigned assessment: “These strikes don’t contribute to stability. We say that to Israel. But nobody is an easy partner”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian diplomat, September 2017.Hide Footnote But benign disregard is not enough for Israel, which has little hope it can push Russia to go much further vis-à-vis Iran.

Would Israel try to contain Hizbollah on its own, including by launching a pre-emptive attack to prevent the Shiite group from establishing the capacity to produce precision weapons? Israeli defence officials say the early December 2017 strike in Syria on such a workshop demonstrates their military could carry out a more comprehensive strike on comparable sites, with Russia’s tacit acquiescence and without provoking an all-out war. Even if faced with an attack on facilities in Lebanon, they believe, Hizbollah would be deterred from replying and escalating beyond a limited threshold, since the group realises that in a wider conflict its forces would be decimated. More likely, according to Israeli officialdom, is an abbreviated exchange, falling well short of war, that would leave Hizbollah without the capacity to produce precision weapons.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, foreign ministry and defence officials, Jerusalem, October 2017.Hide Footnote

Israel’s calculation relies on the correct calibration of its targets, its enemies’ being deterred, and on accurately reading Hizbollah and its backers. That could turn out to be risky: the movement has been signalling for months that since the Syrian conflict has become so complex, any fighting might escalate rapidly, denying Israel a limited war.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Hizbollah figure, Beirut, October 2017. He continued: “[Nasrallah] has been sending the message that Israel cannot predict the consequences of gradually increasing the pace of its attacks [as it has over the past half year] …. Both sides are willing to walk to the brink, but because of the balance of terror I doubt either wants war”.Hide Footnote

Further complicating these calculations are rapid regional and global developments, which have upended the conventional rules of the game that have more or less kept the peace since 2006. Particularly significant here is differentiation between strikes in Syria and Lebanon, on one hand, and Israel’s policy of ambiguity (that is, not taking responsibility) regarding such strikes, on the other. Both principles loosened up in 2015 and 2016 as Hizbollah’s involvement in Syria deepened and Russia’s deployment gave a decisive advantage to the regime.

Until January 2015, all parties largely adopted a principle of “what happens in Syria, stays in Syria”. Israel confined its aerial strikes on Hizbollah weapons convoys to Syrian territory, cognisant that the same sort of attack on Lebanese territory could lead to full war. The “keep it in Syria” rule also injected urgency into Israel’s efforts to prevent Hizbollah from entrenching itself on the Golan, since abiding by it would enable the group to fight a war of attrition against Israel from Syria with less risk of catastrophic damage to Lebanon. Similarly, regarding Syria, Israel did not take credit for strikes against Hizbollah convoys in Syria to avoid embarrassing the Assad regime and provoke a reply. The Assad regime, for its part, long refrained from firing at Israeli aircraft carrying out strikes in Syria against such convoys.

Israel echoes Hizbollah’s rhetoric: in the next war, [it] will treat Lebanon and Syria as a single front.

Hizbollah largely has continued to live by this rule, enduring occasional strikes without reply as the cost of being able to operate in Syria. Movement leader Hassan Nasrallah’s declaration that Lebanon and Syria henceforth would constitute a single theatre has materialised on only two occasions.[fn]After Israeli strikes killed Mughniyeh and Quntar on the Syrian Golan, Nasrallah announced in a speech that Hizbollah “no longer cares about the rules of engagement anymore” and will retaliate “whenever, however and wherever”. “Nasrallah: The rules of engagement with Israel are over”, Al Akhbar, 30 January 2015. After the attack on Mughniyeh in Syria, Hizbollah fired five missiles at an Israeli convoy patrolling the Israeli-Lebanese border. Two Israeli soldiers were killed and five were wounded. Israel’s retaliatory fire killed a UN peacekeeper. Jeffrey Heller and Sylvia Westall, “Two Israeli soldiers, U.N. peacekeeper killed in Israel-Hezbollah violence”, Reuters, 28 January 2015. In reaction to the killing of Quntar in Syria, Hizbollah detonated an explosive device against an IDF patrol near the disputed Shebaa Farms area, along the Israeli-Lebanese border, which did not cause Israeli casualties. John Davidson and Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Hezbollah targets Israeli forces with bomb, Israel shells south Lebanon”, Reuters, 4 January 2016. Hizbollah did not reply to the many other Israeli strikes against its forces in Syria, some of which came in reply to Hizbollah attacks.Hide Footnote A leading figure in the movement explained: “We are not acting alone. We have to keep in mind and respect what the Syrian government wants”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Hizbollah figure, Beirut, October 2017.Hide Footnote By contrast Hizbollah considers Lebanon its home turf: any Israeli attack there, whether pre-emptive or reactive, would all but certainly occasion some form of reply.[fn]A Lebanon analyst offered this interpretation of Hizbollah’s different position regarding Lebanon and Syria: “In Lebanon, it is about defending the status quo through deterrence, while in Syria it is about stretching and transforming the status quo in their favour through incremental gains. The latter may make it preferable to calibrate responses and absorb losses silently, the former may mean less flexibility so as not to allow deterrence to be eroded”. Crisis Group interview, Beirut, December 2017.Hide Footnote Iran seems to have adopted the same approach: after Israel struck two targets near Damascus, widely reported as Iranian, in November and December 2017, Tehran denied the strikes had occurred and, at least so far, has not responded militarily.[fn]“Parliament speaker dismisses Israeli claim about striking Iran’s positions in Syria”, Fars News, 4 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Since March 2017, as the tide turned sharply in the direction of the regime and its allies, the erosion of the “keep it in Syria” principle quickened. Israel could not hide the first open violation of its policy of ambiguity, when its Arrow missile defence system shot down a Syrian anti-aircraft missile fired against Israeli planes attacking in Syria.[fn]Anna Ahronheim, “Benjamin Netanyahu: Syria strikes were to block transfer of weapons to Hizbollah”, Jerusalem Post, 17 March 2017.Hide Footnote Later, on several occasions, its leadership took responsibility for strikes against Hizbollah, Syrian and even Iranian sites, whether to reinforce its deterrence message or, as Netanyahu’s detractors allege, out of electoral considerations.[fn]“Israeli intel minister to Saudi media: Israel can strike Iranian missile plants in Lebanon, ‘as is happening in Syria’”, Haaretz, 14 December 2017. Crisis Group interview, Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee member, Jerusalem, October 2017.Hide Footnote Today Israel echoes Hizbollah’s rhetoric: in the next war, Israel will treat Lebanon and Syria as a single front.[fn]Defence Minister Lieberman assessed that “[i]n anything that transpires, it will be one theater, Syria and Lebanon together, Hezbollah, the Assad regime and all of the Assad regime’s collaborators”. Dan Williams, “Israel says Hezbollah runs Lebanese army, signaling both are foes”, Reuters, 10 October 2017.Hide Footnote In an indication that the Syrian regime is moving in the same direction, it fired on Israeli aircraft several times this year, and in a particularly telling case, launched anti-aircraft missiles at an Israeli aircraft gathering intelligence over Lebanon[fn]Since the 1970s, Israel has reserved the right to patrol Lebanese airspace unopposed, with the understanding that the Lebanese would mount only symbolic resistance (mainly in the form of anti-aircraft guns that have little chance of hitting an Israeli target), and the Syrians none at all, even while Syrian army was in Lebanon (except for during the 1982 war).Hide Footnote in what, in Israel at least, was widely regarded as an attempt to limit Israeli freedom of action.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, defence and foreign ministry officials, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, January-November 2017. A senior officer said, “Israeli abandonment of the ambiguity policy is making it harder for Assad not to react. He will react once he reacquires self-confidence, which is already happening. We could find ourselves facing more than a single anti-aircraft missile. This could curb our freedom to operate aerially in Syria”. Crisis Group interview, Tel Aviv, December 2017.Hide Footnote

V. Preventing the Next War

With the Assad regime having gained the upper hand, the jockeying for the next stage has begun. Israeli strikes against Iranian sites in early December 2017 appear to have been opening tactical salvos. Israel reportedly launched a diplomatic salvo as well. First, Israel purportedly passed a message via a third party to Bashar al-Assad threatening him personally as well as with military intervention in the war if he aids Iran in its regional agenda. In the second message, allegedly conveyed to President Putin in late November or early December, Netanyahu is said to have claimed that to maintain Israeli red lines with respect to Iran’s military presence, Israel would be prepared to incur a cost in terms of its relations with Moscow.[fn]An Israeli defence official noted that the first message was made public in late November 2017, about a month after the message was actually sent. Ehud Yaari, “The Israeli warning to Syria’s president”, Mako (Israel TV Channel 12), 26 November 2017. A second official expounded: “We informed Putin that if Bashar facilitates Iran’s plans to use Syria as a springboard for regional expansion, we will decapitate their guy”. Crisis Group interview, defence official, Jerusalem, November 2017. The second message was not made public. Crisis Group interview, defence official, December 2017.Hide Footnote

Neither of these threats sound particularly credible, especially if understood in maximalist terms. Israel would be taking a serious risk if it were to militarily threaten the Assad regime’s stability, say by aerially striking Assad’s palace, and it can ill afford a direct confrontation with a global superpower on its very doorstep. It is also far from certain that even if Netanyahu is willing to take risks, Israel could engineer a reality in Syria better aligned with Israel’s interests. To prevent Syria from becoming a theatre for Hizbollah-Israel and Iran-Israel wars, there are two key realms to contend with.

A. Across the Armistice Line: South-west Syria

The south west is now largely quiet because of the ceasefire and the focus on other parts of the country. With the Astana deal and the subsequent U.S.-Russian-Jordanian agreement, most regime and allied forces are focused elsewhere, primarily the east, north west and Damascus outskirts. Optimally this situation would endure until there is a diplomatic settlement to the entire Syrian war. Yet a diplomatic solution is still a long way off and there are reasons to suppose the de-escalation agreement might not endure that long. The Assad regime repeatedly has stated its intention to retake all of Syria.[fn]See, for example, President Assad’s 7 June 2016 speech before the Syrian parliament and his 16 February 2017 interview with French media.Hide Footnote Since it is unlikely that the Syrian army would be able to take the territory by itself, it would require Hizbollah and/or militia assistance.[fn]An opposition organiser noted that the pro-regime camp has already shifted significant forces toward Quneitra, including army and militias composed primarily of Syrians (including Syrian Hizbollah and Druze forces). He said that Iranian and (Lebanese) Hizbollah advisers appear to be involved on the ground but are not yet located near the ceasefire’s exclusion line. Crisis Group interview, Amman, December 2017.Hide Footnote

The Assad regime repeatedly has stated its intention to retake all of Syria.

Should this coordinated campaign come to pass, Israel has indicated it will strike to prevent hostile forces from approaching the armistice line, aerially if it can and if not with artillery.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, defence officials, Tel Aviv, January 2017-January 2018. That said, both Hizbollah figures and Israel defence officials affirmed there is already a Hizbollah presence within the exclusion zone. Crisis Group interviews, Beirut and Tel Aviv, October and December 2017. In November, Israeli Chief of Staff Eisenkot hinted that the mere presence of isolated Hizbollah cadres would not occasion an Israeli response when he specified that Israel would act against a “concentration” of fighters. “Israeli military chief gives unprecedented interview to Saudi media: ‘Ready to share intel on Iran’”, Haaretz, 17 November 2017. Israeli officials explained that, their red line notwithstanding, the government needs a “legitimising narrative” before striking, since what appears to be a pre-emptive strike may be seen domestically as war-mongering and internationally as intervention in an intra-Syrian conflict. The officials have few doubts the “legitimation” will come, be it in months or years. Crisis Group interviews, foreign ministry official, Jerusalem, June 2017; defence officials, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, July, September 2017.Hide Footnote Should fighting start, regardless of who fires the first shot, it is unlikely to end quickly. Israeli planners have limited options for putting a decisive end to tit-for-tat hostilities, especially of the sort meant to cause attrition. Hizbollah would have many good targets, while Israel would have few unless it expanded the exchange into Lebanon, which would risk a major war on what many Israeli officials fear could be considered weak grounds. The costs to Hizbollah would be relatively low, since it does not have any natural constituency in this area, while Israeli strikes would antagonise the local population, which could benefit Hizbollah. A major war would be only a miscalculation away. Should pressure build in Israel for a more robust response, the government would choose among a series of bad options: target Hizbollah in Lebanon; strike Syrian targets in an effort to force Damascus or Moscow to rein in Hizbollah; or, should strain mount to levels it deems unbearable, launch an incursion into Syria to push Hizbollah back. All have the potential to trigger a wider war that drags in a variety of actors, including the Syrian government.

The current lull offers a chance to preclude this scenario by reinforcing the November agreement. True, Israel already has a territorial buffer in the form of the occupied Golan Heights, the need for which has been one of Israel’s main arguments for retaining control over these lands; in essence, Israel today is demanding a new buffer denuded of foreign forces to protect its original buffer. This new buffer would extend 40km into Syrian territory roughly along the Deraa-Damascus road, even further than the exclusion zone to which the U.S., Russia and Jordan agreed (see map in Appendix A). With no practical way to eject the fighters already there, a zone of this depth is unlikely to materialise. The regime, for its part, considers any buffer on its territory unjustifiable. Yet the perpetuation of the de-escalation arrangement is the best way to stabilise Syria’s south west, which is why the regime adheres to it and should help to bolster it, its exclusion provisions notwithstanding.

To do so, Moscow at the very least should not provide air cover for a regime campaign that includes Hizbollah or militias to retake these areas, and it should use its control of Syria’s airspace to prevent the Syrian army from using in the south west its remaining air assets. That in and of itself is unlikely to dissuade the regime if it is determined to move into the area, especially should the capacities or discipline of local rebel forces diminish as a result of the termination of U.S. covert assistance.[fn]The MOC is winding down operations following the Trump administration’s decision to end covert backing, which means an end to state weapons support and current salaries to most southern rebels. (Those backed by the Pentagon to fight ISIS in the south east are not directly affected, as they operate under an overt Pentagon program). The abrupt decision to cut support arguably complicates efforts to sustain the ceasefire because it diminishes the rebels’ incentives to coordinate as a coherent bloc and weakens some of the infrastructure through which that coordination had occurred. This development in turn could make it somewhat more difficult to mobilise rebels to act in ways, such as adhering to the ceasefire and avoiding criminality and coordination with jihadists, that, while arguably in their collective interest, are not necessarily in the individual interests of a given faction or commander. Currently, efforts are underway to limit these consequences by replacing the funding under a different rubric. Crisis Group interviews, U.S. State Department officials and opposition leader, Washington and Amman, November and December 2017.Hide Footnote Russia, as the only power with leverage on all sides, will need to broker a strengthened deal.

One formula to lessen the regime’s incentive to break the deal would be for rebels to hang on to their weapons for self-defence and policing and, in return, accept the state’s legitimacy (though not explicitly the regime’s) and the return of its administrative organs (staffed, to the extent possible, with local personnel). Rebels would maintain autonomy over their own security, which would require ensuring that they have sufficient weaponry and continuing to pay their salaries, perhaps with a Gulf country stepping in for the U.S. The regime and Russia could plausibly claim that the state had restored its sovereignty. Israel would have to settle for a smaller exclusion zone than it has demanded, but this formula would offer a realistic way to keep its foes away and thus reduce the odds of a regional conflagration. Stability in the area also could facilitate a fuller return of UNDOF, an element of the 1974 Israeli-Syrian separation of forces agreement, which both Israel and Syria claim to want to restore.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Israeli defence official, Tel Aviv, December 2017; Syria analyst with access to Assad regime, December 2017. As noted in footnote 18, only a part of the UNDOF has redeployed to a portion of the buffer zone since it was evacuated in 2014.Hide Footnote

Stability in the area could facilitate a fuller return of United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, an element of the 1974 Israeli-Syrian separation of forces agreement, which both Israel and Syria claim to want to restore.

The formula to bolster the de-escalation resembles earlier “reconciliation” agreements, including in southern Syria,[fn]This model currently exists in Sanamain, Daraa. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Reconciliations: The case of al-Sanamayn in North Deraa”, Syria Comment, 27 April 2017. The regime applies the label “reconciliation” to ceasefire and surrender deals it achieves on favourable terms.Hide Footnote responding to efforts by Damascus and Moscow to reinforce the territorial integrity of the Syrian state, but would differ in two key respects. First, the rebels would remain in place, keep their weapons and retain sole responsibility for local security, backed by the implicit threat of Israeli force. Russian forces, possibly in cooperation with Jordan, could provide substantive monitoring. Second, the rebels have already implemented a ceasefire and most regime and allied forces are fighting far from the south-west front. This fact means that, as opposed to earlier agreements, bolstering the ceasefire would not provide a military advantage to the regime by allowing it to transfer forces elsewhere.

Perhaps the most significant challenge to this arrangement would be Russia’s ability and willingness to deliver the regime and Iran should they demur and prefer to advance their military campaign. It is particularly unlikely that the two would accede to this arrangement for the southwest so long as Israel continues to strike their assets in other parts of the country – which is why any local ceasefire is unlikely to endure without a broader modus vivendi.

B. Israel’s Near Abroad: Brokering a Modus Vivendi in Syria

Barring the unexpected, Bashar al-Assad will remain at the helm for the foreseeable future and the country, or at least the considerable amount of it that the regime controls, will remain under the influence of Iran and its allies. The regime will continue to depend on Iran for security and control of its own territory. Tehran has already set down roots in the Syrian economy, with stakes in the oil, gas, mining, agricultural, power and communications sectors, among others.[fn]Syria and Iran have signed five letters of understanding in January 2017 agreeing to cooperate on agriculture, communications, mining and the building of gas and oil terminals. See Meysam Behroush, “Iran takes first steps in Syria”, IranWire, 8 November 2017.Hide Footnote Iran’s ground presence and belief that maintaining a friendly Syria is an existential concern means it is all but inconceivable that the Iranian military could be pushed from the country as part of an eventual settlement of Syria’s war, as Israel demands.[fn]An adviser to the Jordanian foreign minister said: “It’s meaningless to say that Iran shouldn’t be in Syria. Iran is in Syria and will stay in Syria”. Crisis Group interview, Amman, September 2017.Hide Footnote

That said, it is not clear whether or how Iran plans to use this military presence. A leading Hizbollah figure suggested that Iran may in fact be seeking to protect its substantial investment in Syria by consolidating its position there, which may work as a disincentive for escalation and instead encourage a modus vivendi:

Iran’s long-term objective is a stable Syria friendly to Iranian interests. The partner for that is Bashar al-Assad. It would be completely against Iran’s interest to burn this asset.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Beirut, October 2017. Iranian officials conveyed a similar perspective. Crisis Group interviews, Iranian national security officials and diplomats, Tehran, March-September 2017.Hide Footnote

An adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, made a similar point about his country’s aims in Syria, alleging:

Neither Iran nor Hizbollah want to stay in Syria. We’re not as foolish as the superpowers. We don’t want permanent bases in Syria. We’re trying to help Syria strengthen itself, just like we’re doing in Iraq through the Popular Mobilisation Units.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Intentions notwithstanding, the question is how to persuade Iran, and Israel, to pursue stability and prevent a new conflagration in Syria. As with south-west Syria, Russia remains best placed to broker a deal, clarifying red lines and refereeing disagreements, which it will probably need to do to achieve the basic stability necessary for protecting the regime while drawing down its presence in the country. Basic rules of the military game might include:

  • Theatre of operations. What happens in Syria, stays in Syria and what happens outside of Syria, stays out of Syria. In particular, Iran, Israel and Hizbollah should prevent local clashes in Syria from spreading to other theatres, and from allowing clashes that may erupt elsewhere (for example Lebanon) from spreading to Syria.
  • Military infrastructure. Most of Israel’s sensitivities concern major military infrastructure – a naval port, an airport, an IRGC base and precision missile production facilities for Hizbollah – which are relatively easy to target and whose destruction by Israeli strikes Russia has demonstrated willingness to tolerate. Indeed, it seems easier for Moscow to let Israel constrain Iran’s presence in Syria than to do the constraining itself. Moscow should be clear with Tehran that it is not going to change course but that it will help Tehran better protect many of its interests in Syria so long as it does not pursue these major military infrastructure projects.
  • Personnel. Israel’s red lines regarding fighting forces will be much more difficult to maintain. Were Iran-backed militia forces to integrate further within Syria’s military and security structures, as some Syrian militia already reportedly have and as Tehran has called on others to do, or to simply don their uniforms, they will be harder for Israel to discern and, even if Israel has intelligence, risky to strike.[fn]IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari stated such intentions. “Iran calls on Syria to ‘legalize’ National Defence Forces (NDF)”, South Front, 24 November 2017.Hide Footnote Israeli officials fear that this reality could mean that integral parts of the Syrian army in effect would answer directly to Tehran.[fn]Crisis Group interview, defence official, Jerusalem, December 2017.Hide Footnote As the war subsides, the Syrian state probably will gradually exert more control, though Tehran, as it has elsewhere, likely will continue to find proxies. Russia and Iran seem to differ on this matter, with the former prioritising a centralised Syrian army and the latter seemingly keen on maintaining loyal forces.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian diplomat, Tel Aviv, April 2017.Hide Footnote Disrupting Tehran’s network in Syria is likely to prove as difficult as elsewhere – in Lebanon and Iraq, and to a lesser degree in Yemen – and for Israel to make that a premise of a settlement is tantamount to saying there will not be one. Moscow should offer Israel its assistance to prevent the construction of the military infrastructure in Syria that it finds most threatening, the price for which is that Israel will not be able to extirpate Iran’s military presence, including those irregular forces that remain.

To some in Israel, this arrangement will smack of the balancing they are trying to escape. A deep sense of mistrust toward Moscow prevails in Israeli officialdom.[fn]An Israeli foreign ministry said: “It’s hard to trust them. They tell us they are not selling weapons to Hizbollah, but we know for a fact that they do. Their policies are cynical. They are not an enticing mediator”. Crisis Group interview, November 2017. An Israeli defence official said: “To counter their denials that Russian weapons we deem problematic are reaching Hizbollah, we shared with Moscow intelligence about such incidents. Their response was that they would look into it. Then they used our information to eliminate the source of our intelligence and continued passing weapons to Hizbollah”. Crisis Group interview, Tel Aviv, 2016.Hide Footnote But Russia is not only a constraint on Israel; it also could be a resource, the only power that, as an Israeli defence official who supports engaging Russia on this question put it, “has some leverage over them” (meaning Iran and its partners), and might be able to help Israel avoid an all-out war that it does not want to fight.[fn]Crisis Group interview, defence official, Jerusalem, 12 June 2017. Of his colleagues who would challenge a Russian-brokered arrangement for the sake of rolling back Iran’s gains, the official said: “The problem is that, on the Israeli side, we don’t all realise who’s the boss. We are not a superpower. They are”.Hide Footnote

VI. Conclusion

The Syrian civil war is still potent and there may be major battles ahead, but assuming present trends continue, the broad contours of its outcome are becoming clearer. Whether or not these contours come to define the parameters of an eventual intra-Syrian settlement, they are already defining the geography of the next Israeli-Hizbollah-Iranian war. Indeed, the uptick in Israeli strikes over the past months, especially against Iran-related targets, and more aggressive Syrian reactions, indicate that an incremental escalation already is occurring. There is still time for Russia to try to broker a set of understandings to prevent a confrontation, protecting both its investment in the regime and Syrian, Israeli and Lebanese lives.

Jerusalem/Beirut/Amman/Brussels, 8 February 2018

Appendix A: Map of the Area of Separation

Map of the Area of Separation CRISISGROUP/Mike Shand

Appendix B: Reported Israeli Aerial Strikes in Syria

The first Israeli aerial strike of the war, which began in 2011, came in January 2013. Pre-January 2017 data: Data from 2017/2018 tracked by Crisis Group