Israel and Iran are in a state of Cold War, and both countries have conducted a shadow war across various regions over the past several decades. Initially, allies when Iran’s monarchy ruled the nation, both states could potentially cause the largest war in the Middle East’s modern history.
Avoiding a large-scale war for now, both Tehran and Tel Aviv have resorted to a shadow conflict with Iran using various proxies and Israel fermenting relations with Arab countries that are hostile to the Islamic Republic.
The Israeli-Iranian shadow war has consequences for the Middle East. It has also reached the South Caucasus and Mediterranean, drawing in significant powers such as the United States and Russia.
Lebanon historically attempted to remain neutral but pro-western since achieving independence from France. Originally Maronite-dominated, the country suffered various ethnic and religious conflicts with the other religious groups in the country who were anti-western and more pro-Arab. The conflict would culminate in the Lebanese Civil War, a gift for the Islamic Republic.
The Mullahs, who overthrew the Pahlavi Dynasty, dispatched their army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to Lebanon. The Mullahs saw the marginalized Lebanese Shiites ripe for radicalization and sent several hundred IRGC to form a front in Lebanon. This front would become Hezbollah, which has waged various campaigns against Israel since the mid-80s.
Hezbollah has acted as an extended armed wing of the IRGC and answers to the Mullahs more so than the Lebanese government. The 2006 War between Israel and Hezbollah destroyed much of Lebanon’s infrastructure, and a future war could kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in both nations if the situation escalates out of control.
Armenia became caught in the crossfire between Israel and Iran in 2020. Azerbaijan, which also has a conflict with Iran, launched a war to retake the Karabakh region, which Armenia held after the first war in the early 90s.
Despite turning into a theocracy, Iran always had good relations with Armenia, and with Azerbaijan bordering the former, Israel saw an opportunity. Mirroring Iran’s encroachment on their borders with various militias, Israel supplied intelligence and drones in return for using Azerbaijani airspace as a future contingency against Iran.
Azerbaijan would decisively win the 2020 war and 2023 clashes against Armenia, thanks to support from Turkey and Israel, but the victory came at a significant cost. Iran considers Iran’s plans to cut off the Armenian border as a ‘red line’ for potential military action. Israel and Turkey could be drawn into a future war if tensions continue to rise in the South Caucasus.
Bashar al-Assad, the autocrat of Syria, whose family has ruled for over four decades, is a close ally of the Islamic Republic and openly hostile to Israel and vice versa. Hezbollah and Iranian militias are significant in Syria, propping up Assad when his longtime rule was threatened during the civil war.
Israel considers the presence of IRGC-affiliated militias on their border a red line and has frequently targeted weapons depots owned by the Islamic Republic. Assad has transferred weapons to Hezbollah, and the group has a foothold in Southern Syria, near the Israeli border.
Wanting to avoid more significant conflict, the tit-for-tat rocket fire and airstrikes between Israel, Hezbollah, and Iran have been relegated mainly to Syria over the past decade.
The IRGC has increased its presence in the West Bank and Gaza, arming and financing Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel, which has increasingly become authoritative under Netanyahu, has had security gaps that the IRGC took advantage of while various governments in Tel Aviv were infighting.
Heightened tensions in the West Bank, particularly in Jenin, which saw the fiercest fighting between Israeli forces and armed Palestinian groups. Tehran has admitted they’re attempting to open a front and gain a foothold through disenfranchised Palestinians, something the Palestinians Authority has seen as incredibly problematic. With no peace deal between Israel and Palestine, Iran will continue to exacerbate tensions and expand a theocratic system in the West Bank and Gaza.
Cyprus and Israel have increasingly grown bilateral ties over the past several years. With threats of Turkish aggression, such as the occupation of Northern Cyprus and sheltering of Hamas commanders, Nicosia and Tel Aviv have shared various intelligence on looming threats.
Israeli tourists frequently visit the Eastern Mediterranean country, which has become a prime target for terrorist plots by the IRGC. With help from Mossad and Shin Bet, Cypriot intelligence foiled a terror plot by the IRGC. With Hezbollah’s vast rocket and anti-ship arsenal, their weapons remain a threat to the partnership between Cyprus and Israel in maritime trade and the potential shared energy grid both nations look to implement.
The Involvement of America and Russia
The United States has remained Israel’s most significant military backer and is also in a Cold War with Iran. Due to Iran’s security threats, such as missile and drone attacks against Central Command (CENTCOM) in the region, the Fifth and Sixth Fleets have heightened readiness in lieu of the IRGC threat.
Nevertheless, relations between Washington and Tel Aviv have been shaky since Netanyahu came back into power, and disputes between the two current administrations created a geopolitical shift in the region. Israel is determined to storm Iran’s nuclear program if they cross their red-line enrichment threshold, even if the US doesn’t militarily back them.
Russia has quietly backed Iran as the IRGC has sent Shahed drones to Russian forces in their ongoing war against Ukraine. Sharing military technology, Moscow has promised equipment such as the SU-35s, but none have arrived.
Israel has used the opportunity of a weakened Russia to strike key Iranian targets in Syria. Still, it has walked the line of neutrality in Ukraine in fears of Moscow sending weapons systems to IRGC-affiliated groups. Russia, which has helped deter strikes against Iranian territory by the US and Israel, is now thoroughly weakened and can do little to stop a war between the two Middle Eastern powers if they want to.
Overall, the shadow war between Israel and Iran has far-reaching consequences for the Middle East and other regions. Now intertwined with the global powers, the shadow war can very much become an open war with hundreds of thousands of casualties in the future.