With today’s news that apparent Iranian bombmakers accidentally exploded their laboratory in a rented Thai home, and yesterday’s news of simultaneous attacks on Israeli targets in Georgia and India, Iran is bringing its confrontation with Israel into a dangerous new phase. Until now, only Israel dared to strike Iran in the midst of a covert war against its nuclear program and military assets. It used the Iranian dissident terror group, MEK, as a cover proxy to do so.
Iran could be expected to work with its own proxy in the form of Hezbollah. However, it appears that the bombmakers who exploded themselves today were Iranian and not Lebanese. Which means that Iran is taking off the gloves and not even hiding behind a proxy, as Israel has done. This denotes urgency on Iran’s part to get its own covert war against Israeli targets into high gear. When a nation is urgent or desperate mistakes and misjudgments can happen. Mistakes certainly happened today as far as the Iranians are concerned. But even worse misjudgments could’ve been made had these bombmakers succeeded.
The Iranians must understand that they are walking a very thin line. Israel has one of the world’s superpowers in its corner. This allows it much more leeway in pursuing its interests including engaging in serial terror strikes against Iranian targets. Iran is essentially alone (though it has tacit alliances with Russia and China on matters of mutual convenience). So Iran’s options are relatively more limited. If it, for example, were to launch the sort of attack Israel did in destroying an IRG missile base and assassinating its lead general running its rocket program, both Israel (and possibly the U.S. as well) would almost be forced to retaliate in some muscular and meaningful military fashion. That, in turn, would take us ever closer to that tipping point beyond which lies overt war.
Being pragmatic, the Iranians understand that they cannot win such a war. Therefore they have to gauge how close they can go in retaliating against Israel without reaching the tipping point. The other problem is that if they do not engage in an attack that inflicts real pain on the Israeli government, then neither Israel nor the rest of the world will take much notice. So far, in this game it appears that Israel has most of the best cards. But that does not mean Iran’s hand is empty.
There is always the danger when two nations get into this terror game that one will miscalculate. What happens for example if Iran were to blow up an Israeli embassy as intelligence sources claim they tried to do in Azerbaijan? Then, it seems to me that Israel would launch the sort of assault from which it’s held back till now.
I would maintain that an Israeli assault in any form against Iran will fail. Not only will Israel not do substantial damage to Iran’s nuclear capabilities (if it has any), it will not deter Iran’s will to resist Israel’s and the west’s demands that it renounce its program. Nor will Israel substantially damage Iran’s ability to inflict harm on Israel through its arming of Hezbollah and its reported support for Hamas.
This is turn will cause Israel to lose face as it did after its failed attacks against Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2009-10). It’s a lose-lose for Israel though its hawks certainly don’t see it that way. As far as Iran is concerned, it may have to endure serious pain with such an attack, but anytime Israel loses it gains. This is a set of bizarre calculations that most states usually don’t engage in. But these are not usual times and these two countries are certainly not behaving as “normal” countries usually do. That makes the stakes high and the chances of a blow-up equally high.
The State Department issued a typically hypocritical statement decrying Iran’s alleged terror plot while ignoring the fact that its own officials have conceded that Israel is engaged in a far more lethal campaign against Iran.
This article appeared at Tikun Olam