By Riad Kahwaji*
Iran has been experiencing a series of incidents that involved strategic sites which raised a great deal of speculations about its causes and who could be behind it. The targets have varied and included a nuclear installation and bases associated with Iran’s ballistic missiles program. Iranian authorities have not said much, and often found themselves compelled to report these incidents because of the images that were circulated on the social media by local witnesses. Many analysts and reporters quoting unnamed intelligence sources have blamed Israel for some of the attacks, especially the one against the Natanz nuclear installation where a facility that develops advanced centrifuge systems was blown up, an action that is believed to have set Iran’s nuclear program two years back. A close examination and study of the Israeli military doctrine provides a strong support to this analogy and also reveals that the world could be witnessing the start of an escalation that would test the viability of Israel’s long standing preventive war strategy and whether it can continue under current geopolitical conditions or lead to war.
Israel has since its independence adopted a clear military doctrine based on two principles: Preemptive strikes and preventative wars. Its small size and lack of geographical depth prompted its leaders to resort to an offensive strategy to bolster the country’s defense. This strategy sought to quickly transfer the battle to enemy territory and to end it swiftly in order to reduce risks to the home front. Bolstering early warning capabilities have been essential for Israel’s military doctrine. The open-ended military support and generous funding from the United States and other European powers have enabled Israel in a relatively short period of time to establish a qualitative edge vis-à-vis its Arab and non-Arab neighbors in the volatile Middle East region. Israel has been able after all these years to maintain a qualitative military superiority, which was also made possible through its own domestic defense industries. Israel produces and exports many defense and security systems, especially in the field of cyber warfare.
While a preemptive strike is a military operation to deal with an imminent threat, a preventative war is a series of military and political actions to tackle a future threat, usually to delay it. Throughout its history Israel has carried out preemptive strikes and preventative wars on more than one occasion. But the most noteworthy were the ones that dealt with programs to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by Israel’s adversaries. On such occasions Israel resorted to covert operations before it launched its overt military operations. Best example on this was the Iraqi Osiraq nuclear reactor. Before eight Israeli warplanes launched a successful preemptive strike on June 7, 1981, destroying the reactor, Israeli agents succeeded in sabotaging the plutonium reactor core when it was still in France. This only delayed the program and Israeli political pressure could not sway France from delivering the reactor to Iraq, and hence was the air raid.
The Osiraq raid marked the start of what several Israeli researchers and military strategists refer to as “the Begin Doctrine” – named after late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Former Israeli deputy national security advisor retired General Shlomo Brom wrote that after the Osiraq attack the Israeli government went on to adopt a general preventive doctrine: “Under no circumstances would we allow the enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our nation; we will defend Israel’s citizens, in time, with all the means at our disposal.” (http://www.npolicy.org/books/Nuclear_Armed_Iran/Ch6_Brom.pdf) This preventive doctrine was implemented again in 2007 against a clandestine nuclear facility in Syria. The Israeli forces carried out Operation Orchard against the Syrian Al-Kibar nuclear reactor and plutonium refinement facility. The Syrian regime opted to keep quiet about the Israeli attack to avoid exposing its covert nuclear collaboration with Iran and North Korea.
The Israeli way of dealing with Iran’s nuclear program has not been any different. Israel appears determined to apply the preventive doctrine, but so far has resorted to covert operations, which many believe have started a decade ago. The Israeli first strike was in the form of a cyberattack. A cyber weapon known by analysts as Stuxnet – a malware designed to infiltrate and damage systems run by computers – hit the Iranian nuclear program in 2010 causing great deal of damage and setting it back by few years (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/stuxnet-was-work-of-us-and-israeli-experts-officials-say/2012/06/01/gJQAlnEy6U_story.html). Stuxnet is widely believed to have been developed jointly by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies. Between 2010 and 2012, four leading Iranian nuclear scientists were targeted in separate attacks in Tehran with only one surviving ssassination (https://edition.cnn.com/2012/01/11/world/meast/iran-who-kills-scientists/index.html). Right at the same period a big explosion rocked the Shahid Modarres missile base in Iran on November 12, 2011, killing 17 people including the key architect of the Iranian ballistic missiles program Major General Hassan Moqaddam (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/nov/14/iran-missile-death-mossad-mission). Many defense and security analysts associate Iran’s nuclear program with its ballistic missiles program. Therefore, covert attacks in a 2-year span proved sufficient to delay the Iranian nuclear program, thus meeting the objective of the Israeli preventive war.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) treaty reached between Tehran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany over Iran’s controversial nuclear program in 2015 slowed down the uranium enrichment activities and put a cap on how much low enriched uranium Iran can possess. But after President Donald Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018, Iran started in late 2019 a series of retaliatory steps in the form of increasing level of enrichment and removing the cap on quantity of enriched uranium. This raised concern that Iran, could with advanced centrifuge systems and renewed enrichment activities acquire enough material to build a bomb within a year. This is possibly what prompted a new wave of covert operations in line with Israel’s preventive war against Iran’s nuclear program. It is not yet clear whether the operation against Natanz was a cyberattack or a bomb-attack or maybe both. However, it is clear from initial reports it achieved the objective of delaying the program (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/05/world/middleeast/iran-Natanz-nuclear-damage.html).
Nevertheless, the number of incidents at various sensitive Iranian facilities along with frequent Israeli strikes against bases affiliated with Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and their allied militias in Syria indicate that a much bigger objective is sought from a preventative war that appears to be underway. It is not yet known how the possible Israeli sabotage operations are being carried out inside Iran, whether by commandos units or via local opposition groups such as Mujahiden-e-Khalq (MEK). The MEK regained momentum under the Trump Administration and was removed from terrorists’ groups list and has become highly active on the international scene. The continued attacks are undermining the Iranian regime image as a strong and impenetrable force. This comes at a time Iran is facing acute socio-economic difficulties caused by strong U.S. sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit Iran very hard. Iran has been witnessing sporadic riots in numerous parts of the country by people protesting rising cost of living and high unemployment. Hitting infrastructure, causing blackouts and fuel shortages and tarnishing the regime’s image and posture could wreak havoc onto the Iranian economy and increase instability. If such incidents (attacks) continue much longer, they could lead to major internal unrest with Iran possibly imploding from within and the regime seriously undermined.
Iran’s assets abroad are also under attack, especially in Syria. Israel has been using its air force and cruise missiles to strike IRGC units and Iranian-backed militias such as Hezbollah in Syria. The Israeli attacks appear aimed at degrading the military capability of Iran and its allied militiamen by destroying arms depots and advanced weapons, especially air defense systems and highly accurate ballistic missiles. This is yet another classic example of a preventive war aimed at denying the adversary the ability to attack effectively. The most recent Israel Defense Forces Strategy Document released in 2015 by Chief of Staff General Gadi Eizenkot did not use the terms of preemptive strikes or preventive war (https://www.belfercenter.org/israel-defense-forces-strategy-document#!chapter-iii). Instead it referred to what it called “Routine” deployment of force, or the campaign between wars (CBW). The CBW is a military operation “aimed at reducing the enemy’s freedom of action and increasing Israel’s freedom of action.” In other words the CBW is meant to exert a big toll on the adversary and erode its deterrence posture. However, the big question here is whether the Israeli CBW approach against Iran in Syria is working? Also, how is it affecting Hezbollah status in Lebanon? Iran and Hezbollah seem to see the Lebanese theater as an extension to the Syrian theater of operations in any future showdown with Israel.
Iran seems to have chosen to ignore the strikes in Syria to avoid a confrontation while it is not fully prepared. It is instead focusing on building qualitative capabilities in air defense and precision strike force. Iran’s strategy is to play for time and to take advantage of the vacuum on the Syrian theater to assert itself and grow its capabilities. Tehran and the Syrian regime recently signed a new defense cooperation pact, granting Iranian military involvement in Syria a political cover. In addition to its unabated efforts to sneak in advanced weapon systems, Iran has been massing more fighters from its allied Iraqi and Afghani militiamen in Syria in addition to few thousand highly-trained fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran appears to be buying time awaiting results of the US elections before it decides its next move. Building forces in Syria and Lebanon will only enhance its deterrence and offensive capability vis-à-vis Israel. At one point Iran hopes to be able to have strong air defenses in Syria to challenge Israeli air dominance and to have precision long range missiles to accurately hit any target in Israel, including sensitive sites like the Dimona nuclear facility.
Therefore, both Israel and Iran are seeking to gain time but for different goals: Israel is hoping that the economic and political pressure campaign led by U.S. maximum pressure policy coupled with CBW strategy in Syria would with time weaken the Iranian regime and compel it to either make concessions or collapse. Iran in turn is hoping that with time some positive political changes could be brought about through U.S. elections and that its forces would have grown stronger on Israel’s northern borders and its nuclear and missile programs made more progress. While Israel appears to have now the upper hand in carrying out offensive operations, it is Iran’s capabilities that appear to be growing stronger: More Iranian weapons continue to make their way into Syria (and possibly Lebanon) despite continued Israeli attacks, and more enriched uranium is accumulated despite U.S. maximum pressure policy and sabotage operations. So the question that presents itself is whether Israel’s preventive war against Iran is meeting its long-term objectives? Based on how much stronger has Iran grown militarily over the past decade the answer would be: Unlikely.
Israel is facing a serious dilemma in dealing with Iran. Its geographical size is way too small compared to Iran. While Israel needs to have its jetfighters travel more than 1000 kilometers over unfriendly territories to strike Iran, the IRGC and their proxies are now right on Israel’s northern borders and can hit it with simple Katyusha rockets, and maybe in few months would have more advanced precision firepower. It is worth noting that some Palestinian Islamic parties like Hamas and Islamic Jihad based in Gaza Strip (south of Israel) are also strong allies of Iran and could be seen joining an all-out Iranian offensive on Israel. Hence, Iran can withstand a military showdown with Israel with conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, while Israel would face large-scale destruction and losses that could amount to existential threat.
Thus Israel could soon be facing the inevitable decision of moving from CBW status to a war to uproot Iran and its proxies from its northern borders. But if Iran decides to step in and engage Israel directly using its large arsenal of ballistic missiles in addition to its proxy forces in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, then Israel would need the United States and other players to join in. If Iran was to succeed in building its capabilities on Israel’s northern borders with effective air defenses and accurate long range missiles, then Israel would be in serious trouble because Tehran would be able to inflict heavy damages onto Israel without having to fire any missiles from its territories.
A war to remove the IRGC and their proxies from Syria and Lebanon would require an Israeli land invasion of territories in both countries, extensive air campaign and heavy caliber diplomatic moves on many fronts to improve chances of success. Israel will likely suffer heavy losses on battlefield and the home front and the collateral damage in targeted areas in Syria and Lebanon would be huge, which means the decision to wage such a war would have to be very well thought of and calculated. Perhaps all political and diplomatic efforts must be exhausted to the extreme and new ideas must be considered to settle the differences with Iran before seeking the war option. Therefore, when it comes to Iran the era of successful Israeli preemptive strikes and preventive wars seem to be losing effect or coming to an end with the changing political landscape and evolving military technology.
*Riad Kahwaji, is the founder and director of INEGMA with a 30 years of experience as a journalist and a Middle East security analyst.