Iran is concentrating all its resources today on trying to save the formidable benefits it gained in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). In the eyes of the Islamic regime in Tehran, the deal is worth keeping even after the United States’ withdrawal, because it allows Iran to move safely towards attaining a large arsenal of nuclear weapons in 11 years.
In addition, the deal legitimized Iran’s efforts to develop long-range missiles and its intervention in Middle Eastern countries and entities struggling with internal instability and civil wars, e.g. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, the Palestinian Authority. It did nothing, however, to check Iran’s anti-Semitic commitment to annihilate Israel. If anything, it provided Iran with the financial resources necessary to pursue these policies.
The threat to the JCPOA—Iran’s “dream come true” deal—grew significantly in May when the United States adopted harsher sanctions that severely diminished Iran’s export revenues.
Iran realized that the sanctions made it very difficult to stick to its policy of waiting until the 2020 U.S. presidential elections in the hope that a Democrat would win and bring the U.S. back to the JCPOA.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reacted to the American “maximum pressure” campaign by turning to brinkmanship. He allowed hardliners, led by Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, to take actions clearly demonstrating to the United States that pressuring Iran is costly and could trigger unwanted escalation. He also hopes to convince the Europeans to save the deal and compensate Iran for the losses caused by America’s withdrawal.
At the same time, Iran wishes to avoid direct attacks against American soldiers or damaging American interests enough to trigger a harsh American reaction, as well as breaches of the JCPOA substantial enough to force the Europeans, too, to withdraw from the agreement.
Iran has moved slowly and carefully away from some of its JCPOA commitments regarding its nuclear program. It showed off its ability to harm Persian Gulf oil exports. It carried out military activities in the gulf against the U.S. military presence. Most of all, it increased pressure on U.S. allies in the region, with an emphasis on Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Fighting for the upper hand
Economic sanctions are extremely dangerous for the Iranian regime and put the conflict in an American comfort zone. Under the new set of sanctions, Iran’s policy of “waiting out” the U.S. until the next election is no longer viable. Therefore, Iran believes it must either force Europe to save the deal or force a calculated and controlled escalation that moves the conflict into an Iranian comfort zone.
There, all the assets it has developed in the past 40 years, such as asymmetric military capabilities, a wide array of proxy terrorist groups in the Middle East and dormant terrorist cells around the globe, will come into play in hopes of forcing the United States to succumb to Iranian pressure and ease the sanctions to avoid further escalation.
Should negotiations start, Iran would enter them from a position of strength.
Israel, on the other hand, always considered the JCPOA as a dangerous and indeed disastrous deal. It wants to make sure that the United States preserves its position of strength if and when negotiations with Iran start on a new agreement.
If negotiations fail, the Iranian regime might then face threats to its stability that may lead to its fall.
When U.S. President Donald Trump called off a strike against Iranian targets in June that would have been in retaliation for Iran’s shooting down of an American drone, it was clear that the Iranian policy faces difficulties. Iran decided to move forward with its gradual breaching of the JCPOA to strengthen the pressure on Europe.
The latest ultimatum by Iran—that it would begin operating improved centrifuges and raise the enrichment level to 20% unless Europe compensates it with billions of dollars, as French President Emmanuel Macron proposed, and buy its oil, seems to show that Iran sees Europe’s offer as insufficient.
At the same time, a greater emphasis on harming Israel became a key part of the Iranian plan.
Iran tried for several years to take advantage of its critical assistance to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to build a terror base near the Israel-Syria border and deploy forces capable of harming Israel throughout Syrian territory. That build-up came in addition to Iran’s Lebanese arms build-up, supplying Hezbollah with precision rockets, missiles and drones to enhance its ability to cause Israel severe damage.
Israel took decisive measures to thwart these three initiatives. In this context, in what Israeli strategists call “the campaign between wars,” Israel carried out hundreds of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. Iran stepped up its efforts, and on Aug. 24 tried to carry out multi-drone attacks against Israel from southern Syria. The Israel Air Force executed a preemptive strike that generated high media exposure. At the same time, two drones exploded in Beirut in an operation that was widely attributed to Israel.
Israel reportedly tried to hit Hezbollah targets in Beirut connected to the Iranian long-range rocket build-up. Israel did not claim responsibility for the attack in Beirut, but did not deny it, either. Israel did release unusually detailed satellite photos of Bekaa Valley rocket manufacturing sites to highlight Iran’s use of Lebanese territory to build a war arsenal.
Due to its difficulties in Syria, Iran turned to Iraq, where it enjoys complete freedom of action, to supplement its efforts to build its infrastructure for targeting Israel. Iran may have stored weapons in camps controlled by Shi’ite militias, including medium-range rockets that cannot reach Israel from Iran but can from Iraq. Some targets in Iraq related to this effort were hit recently. Israel has not taken responsibility, but hinted that it might carry out such attacks.
Meanwhile, Iran also has upgraded its activities in the Palestinian arena. Its proxy in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, perpetrated consecutive terrorist attacks against Israel. Hamas leaders who recently visited Iran were promised increased financial and military assistance, likely in exchange for Hamas carrying out more terror attacks against Israel.
Israel has managed to thwart most of the attacks so far, and remains committed to promoting through third parties a set of understandings with Hamas regarding Gaza while at the same time showing its capability to hit the terror infrastructure in the coastal territory to reinforce its deterrence there.
New conditions lead to new rules
Iran’s multinational arms buildup forced Israel to alter its defensive strategies, triggering new and aggressive actions in Lebanon, Syria and, allegedly, Iraq, or anywhere Iran invests militarily. In strategic terms, Israel may now carry out attacks against any physical threat or buildup from Iran or its proxies, even if it shies away from claiming responsibility. This is definitely the way the situation is now perceived in the region, while it is understood that Israel was forced to behave this way by Iran.
Hezbollah tried to retaliate, launching several anti-tank missiles at an Israeli military vehicle close to the border with Lebanon. No casualties were reported. Hezbollah insists it did cause damage (it definitely meant to kill Israeli soldiers) and presented the attack as an achievement in its effort to protect Lebanon and deter Israel.
Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened that future responses will target Israeli cities throughout the entire country. Nasrallah clarified that whereas Israel had attempted to create new rules, Hezbollah’s response would do the same, and that while the response for hitting Hezbollah operatives in Syria had until now been an attack against Israeli targets in areas he claims to be part of Lebanon (namely the Shebaa farms in the Israeli Golan), from now on the response would take place in areas Nasrallah claims are Palestinian lands (in other words, areas that are more densely populated).
For now, however, this short round of escalation may be over.
Hezbollah’s response was well calculated—it targeted Israeli soldiers near the border and not civilians deep inside Israel. Even this type of limited attack, however, can lead to uncontrolled escalation if there are Israeli casualties. Hezbollah’s limited (at least for now) retaliation reflected Iran’s desire to show its ability to harm Israel but avoid an escalation.
It also reflected Hezbollah’s limitations. The organization, which has a Lebanese identity on top of its Shi’ite, jihadist, Iranian and Arab identities, has to be cautious not to put Lebanon in harm’s way, as it needs to preserve its popular support. It also has to consider the large number of casualties it suffered in the Syrian civil war, diminishing Iranian financial aid, the damage caused by the growing American sanctions against it and the loss of its extensive tunnel network.
That said, Iran and Hezbollah remain committed to building an infrastructure with which to attack Israel. Tensions will remain high since Israel is certain to try to prevent this from happening, and escalation is difficult to predict. Hezbollah’s huge missile arsenal can hit anywhere in Israel, and includes a small number of precision-guided long-range missiles. It has also reportedly trained a special unit to infiltrate into Israel and seize border villages. Its forces are battle-hardened and better equipped after fighting in Syria.
If Iran orders more aggressive attacks against Israel, Hezbollah has little choice but to comply. This is especially true if Iran faces an American or Israeli military action. Israel would then be threatened not only by Hezbollah, but also by Iran’s other proxies, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and some Iraqi militias. In addition, Iran’s military has hundreds of missiles that can reach Israel.
Israel would obviously like to avoid this scenario, though it has improved its anti-missile defenses along with its long-range offensive capabilities. Nevertheless, it cannot afford to let Iran fulfill its ambitions in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. So even without a direct provocation, Israel will have to keep acting against relevant Iranian and Hezbollah targets.
Israel still enjoys freedom to act, but eventually its strikes against Iranian infrastructure, especially in Lebanon and Iraq, may trigger wider escalation, with Israel suffering some—and maybe considerable—damage as a result. The Israeli public seems to be aware of this possibility, to understand the risks and be ready for a short period of harsher conflict, if necessary. Yet it expects a strong Israeli response or preemptive action to deter Israel’s enemies.
So far, all the Iranian efforts have failed miserably. It failed to hurt Israel. It failed to deliver a message forcing America to rethink its policy. Moreover, Iran paid a heavy price. It lost military assets, its proxies were weakened and most importantly, it lost face and political status in the region. The only hope for a way out of this dangerous situation for the mullahs’ regime is for a frightened and appeasing Europe to find a way to bypass the American sanctions and extend a safety net to Iran.
At the same time, Israel proved yet again that it enjoys profound intelligence dominance (manifested by the Mossad seizing nuclear archives from Tehran) and air superiority over Iran and its proxies. Israel has shown not only that it can protect itself, but has also proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is a strategic asset for the United States, for the pragmatic Arab states and for the liberal democracies (even while it maintains good relations with Russia).
If Iran is eventually forced to suspend its efforts to harm Israel, the consequences of the current confrontation may be positive for the Jewish state. Its decisive response may encourage Tehran’s realists to attempt to convince Khamenei that the hard-liners’ policy led nowhere, and that to save the Islamist regime he has to accept a new nuclear agreement that will really deny Iran the ability to obtain nuclear weapons.
The recent developments may also pave the road to enhanced normalization between Israel and the pragmatic Arab states. And they could help Israel and the United States create the conditions for a breakthrough in the Palestinian arena as well, where the current initiative of the U.S. administration seems premature.
For the Israeli policy to succeed, the United States must show full commitment to Israel’s defense and security.
Brig General (ret.) Yossi Kuperwasser is a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Formerly he was the head of the research division in the IDF military intelligence branch and the general director of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs.
This article first appeared on the Investigative Project on Terrorism website.
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