While the virus has struck both countries, killing thousands of people, they continue to target each other on foreign battlegrounds.
Despite the coronavirus ravaging the world, regional rivals Iran and Israel continue to sharpen their blades against each other for another day’s fighting in the troubled Middle East, making no amends to their longstanding enmity.
“Every day Israel sends its planes in Syria and as far as Iraqi border, bombing Iranian forces (and Iran-backed Shiite militias) and their weapon warehouses, killing their people,” said Mehmet Bulovali, an Iraqi-Kurdish expert who served as an advisor to Iraq’s former vice president Tariq al Hashimi.
While Israeli officials rarely claim responsibility, they also tacitly accept that the country’s air force might have carried out thousands of attacks in Syria against Iran-backed forces since the beginning of the brutal civil war in 2011.
Iran, a Shiite-majority country, has supported the Assad regime, which has been an ally of Tehran since the country’s revolution in 1979, against a once-powerful opposition, using the civil war conditions as a pretext to deepen its presence in Syria, a neighbour to Israel.
Most recently, on Monday, Israelis attacked a military airfield outside Damascus, the Syrian capital, killing four pro-Iranian fighters and three civilians.
This time around ahead of the attack, Israeli officials were straightforward in saying that an attack was coming against Iranian interests, the third attack over just 10 days.
“Keep your ears open. We’ve gone from a policy of blocking [Iran] to pushing it out,” said Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, in an interview with one of the local radios one day before the attack, referring to Israeli strategy to force Iran-backed forces out of their sight in Syria and other close locations to the Zionist state.
While Israel wants to push Iran and its allies out of the region, Tehran also follows a counter-strategy to drive the US, Israel’s powerful ally, out of the region, particularly from Iraq, another war-torn country like Syria, in order to corner Tel Aviv.
Despite losing one of its most valuable assets, Qassem Soleimani, the former chief of the Iranian Quds Force, in an unexpected American air attack in early January, Tehran still appears to follow its regional plan to eject Washington from the Middle East, recently increasing its attacks against US forces in Iraq.
“The US assassination of Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, was intended to not only take Iran’s most capable military figure off the battlefield but also to ‘reestablish deterrence’ — that is, to raise the stakes so that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq would think twice about attacking US forces in the country going forward,” wrote Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center and Ariane Tabatabai, the Middle East Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund.
But both experts think that the US attack might just produce the opposite effect, opening a Pandora’s box.
“However, a series of recent attacks shows that far from being cowed, these militias appear to have been emboldened. In all likelihood, Iran is only in the nascent stages of responding to the death of Soleimani,” the writers viewed.
Iran’s recent bold attacks against US interests in Iraq eventually elicited a threat from President Donald Trump, who warned that a “sneak attack” on American forces will make Tehran “pay a very heavy price”.
The effects of sanctions and the pandemic
Some experts believe that sanctions and the deadly pandemic could force Iran, whose economy has badly contracted due to the virus, to decrease its presence in certain areas in the Middle East.
Bulovali likens Iran’s regional ambitions to “grown nails” and thinks that under the pressure of Israeli-US axis, “its grown nails could be cut”. But he still believes that Iran and its ideological agenda will be in place.
“Because Iran is based on an ideological system, the lives of citizens do not matter much. What matters for Iran is to keep the system sustainable,” he says.
In economic terms, the rules of Iran’s enigmatic financial system would not change much even under the pandemic, according to Bulovali, who has lived in the country in the past.
“It’s a closed box. Iranians rarely see dollars in their financial actions. While they have various difficulties, the system still provides essential survival for much of the citizenry,” analyses Bulovali.
Iran and Israel: the two ideological states
In the wake of the badly-managed pandemic, which killed thousands of Iranians, Tehran might also try to bring its political focus back on the US and Israel to distract people from its botched response to the virus. For Iran’s powerful clerical class, the US is the Great Satan and Israel, the Little Satan.
“Iran has used two main political instruments to control its own masses since the 1979 Revolution: mourning for Hussein and enmity toward Israel,” Bulovali told TRT World.
Hussein is the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed, who was killed by forces of the Umayyad Caliphate in 680 over his refusal to accept their legitimacy to power. The murder of Hussein deepened an already existing friction among Muslims, leading to the centuries-old rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites.
“Through many events, which have been held every day in Iran, they want to keep the mourning process of Hussein alive in order to bring people around their political motives,” Bulovali said.
Targeting Israel and the US has been the second means for Iran’s revolutionary state to keep masses around its power since 1979, according to Bulovali.
“They have made the cause of Quds [Jerusalem] and its liberation from Israel their central political theme,” Bulovali recounted, remembering road signs, which show not only distance to a particular Iranian city but also mileage to Jerusalem.
On the other hand, for decades, Israel, which is based on the ideology of Zionism, aiming to expel Palestinians from their homeland, has also used anti-Iranian sentiment and fears to control its Jewish population, using it to justify its illegal occupation in Palestine.
Israel’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been indicted over several corruption charges, loves to talk about Iran to distract dissent from his conduct.
In January, he accused Iran with an aim to “strangle and destroy” Israel.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views and editorial stance of the SOHR.