While most of our attention was focused on the airstrikes carried out by US and allied forces on targets associated with Syrian chemical weapons production last Friday night, tensions between Israel and Iran are escalating. Unlike our airstrikes, the Israel-Iran conflict could result in a rather nasty little war.

For the most part, Israel had limited its military targets in Lebanon to those manned by Hezbollah. Even though it is well-known that Hezbollah is nothing more or less than an Iranian proxy, the fiction was maintained that Hezbollah was acting alone. In February, Israel shot down an Iranian drone over Israeli territory. Instead of being a reconnaissance vehicle, this one was armed with explosives. An attack was carried out against the Iranian drone facility at an airbase near Homs, Syria. No one claimed immediate responsibility, but they have now:

Initial reports were that the Iranian drone was purely on a reconnaissance mission. But the official Israeli Army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said Friday that the drone’s flight path and Israel’s “intelligence and operational analysis of the parts of the Iranian unmanned vehicle” indicated that “the aircraft was carrying explosives” and that its mission was “an act of sabotage in Israeli territory.”

“This is the first time we saw Iran do something against Israel — not by proxy,” a senior Israeli military source told me. “This opened a new period.”

(Save this link. This may be the first Tom Friedman column in years that has contained news and hasn’t involved praising dictators, or their high-speed rail systems, or involved a colloquy with a foreign cab driver.)

Iran has vowed to retaliate:

Iran has threatened to punish Israel for its airstrikes in Syria, after reports emerged that an unnamed Israeli military official had confirmed his country was behind an attack on an Iranian drone base in Homs province.

Bahram Ghassemi, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, has now warned “Tel Aviv will be punished for its aggressive action. The occupying Zionist regime will, sooner or later, receive an appropriate response to its actions,” Haaretz reported.

Earlier this month, at least seven Iranian military personnel were killed in the missile strike on the T4 airfield, including Colonel Mehdi Dehghan, who led the drone unit. Syria, Iran and Russia all blamed Israeli forces.

Israel has said if that happens, it will return the favor:

And Israel has released aerial images of Iranian facilities along with pictures of their commanders just to underscore the vulnerability of the Iranian command structure and facilities:

Iran can’t afford to not retaliate and it may be at the point where it has to retaliate itself and not use a proxy actor. If that happens it is difficult to see how Netanyahu doesn’t carry through on his pledge.

From Israel’s standpoint, if the US is looking at trying to disengage in Syria, then provoking an open fight with Iran in Syria and Lebanon has a lot to recommend it. They could extract a heavy price from Iran and Hezbollah and they could do it while the US still has a military presence in the region.

Tags: Iran Israel Syria