“The cyber attacks and Hezbollah drone both represent an escalation from the Iranian camp,” says Ariel Ratner, a former Obama administration political appointees at the State Department and now fellow for the Truman National Security Foundation. “But a lot of what is going on here is a matter of signaling to each other.”
That might also in part explain a suspected Israeli airstrike on the outskirts of the Sudanese capital Khartoum on October 23 that caused a major fire at Sudan’s Yarmouk arms factory.
“Israel is flexing its muscles militarily and also sending a message to Tehran and Washington that it will not hesitate to use force to defend itself,” says Bilal Saab, director of the Institute for near East and Gulf Military Analysis based in the United Arab Emirates and Washington DC. “It was a show of force meant to send political messages and achieve precise and immediate military objectives, those being the prevention of Iranian shipment of sensitive hardware to its proxies.”
Israel refused to comment after Sudanese officials said four of its aircraft conducted the attack. U.S. officials would not comment on what they believed happened, but spy agencies have long suspected Iran of smuggling weaponry into Eritrea and Sudan and across Egypt to Hamas militants in Gaza.
Last week’s four-day visit to Sudan by two Iranian warships -- coming mere days after the arms factory attack -- appeared an unusually public show of solidarity between two nations. Some suspect Israel is also raising its support for South Sudan, which gained its independence last year and has since teetered on the brink of conflict with Khartoum.
The much more significant proxy confrontations, however, remain in the region itself. Israel is taking something of a back foot in the conflict in Syria -- its officials saying any support they might give for anti-Assad rebels would be counter-productive -- but Iran’s Arab rivals are not.
For Washington, rolling back Tehran’s influence in Syria is seen as a distinctly secondary goal to stopping -- or at least limiting -- the bloodshed.
For Saudi Arabia and Qatar, however, arming the rebels, the prospect of replacing the Shi’ite Alawite rule of Bashar al-Assad with a Sunni majority government with no Iranian links is seen as a key motivation.