Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israel is at War with Iran (April 12, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Israel is at War with Iran


Q. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel on Sunday, April 11. What is special about this visit?

A. First, this is the first visit to Israel by a senior official in the Biden administration. Second, and more significantly, it comes in the midst of massive international interaction with Iran. In Vienna, the Biden administration has begun negotiating indirectly with Iran over the possible renewal of the JCPOA, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration withdrew from. In parallel, in the Red Sea, in Syria and in Iran itself a regional actor--presumably Israel--is attacking Iranian nuclear and military interests.


Q. Are Israel and the US openly in confrontation over the Vienna talks?

A. Prime Minister Netanyahu is stating on every occasion--even, inappropriately, last week at a Holocaust memorial service--that Israel will not be bound by a JCPOA renewal agreement reached in Vienna. But Netanyahu’s behavior is heavily influenced by his seemingly futile attempt to form a new government. His colleague and rival within the current transition government, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, was more accommodating in his interchange with Austin.

Gantz told Austin upon his arrival that Israel would “work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel.” Austin, in response, reconfirmed the American commitment to Israel’s security, including its “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East.


Q. Still, the dissonance between Israel’s alleged military activities against Iran and the American effort in Vienna is pronounced. Last weekend the Iranians’ nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz was the target of what appears to have been a successful Israeli cyber attack or sabotage by explosives.

A. In the last few days alone, Israel has apparently attacked (for the third time) Natanz, as well as an Iranian Revolutionary Guards “mothership” in the Red Sea not far from Yemen and Iranian weapons and personnel in Syria. True, Israel has been targeting both Iran’s nuclear project and its attempts to hegemonically project power in Syria for several years now. But the Iran-Israel conflict is expanding. The Natanz attack reputedly shuts down Iran’s enrichment project for as long as nine months. And the Red Sea attack on an Iranian naval vessel, “Saviz”, reflects concern that Iranian support for the Houthis’ missile project in Yemen could soon eventuate in missile attacks from Yemen on southern Israel.

Is Israel deliberately sabotaging the JCPOA-renewal talks in Vienna? That’s debatable. Gantz’s rhetoric, at least, does not point in that direction. Besides, Iranian negotiators in Vienna are driving a hard bargain for a number of reasons that don’t touch on Israel. For one, Iran faces presidential elections in the months ahead--politically not a time to be seen making concessions. Then too, Iran has not been deterred by Trump-era sanctions; its economy is growing despite everything, and a recent strategic deal with China appears to guarantee Tehran long-term energy market security. Iran registered nuclear progress in recent years too, thereby belying the Trump and Netanyahu boast that cancelling the JCPOA would hurt Iran strategically.

Finally, the latest act of “nuclear terror” (the term used by Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi) against Iran does not necessarily put a damper on the Vienna negotiations. It all depends whether the Biden JCPOA team spins the Natanz attack--and earlier acts like the assassination last November of nuclear science chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh--as a warning to Iran to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal for its own good.

One way or another, in the spirit of Austin’s and Gantz’s friendly declarations in Tel Aviv on Sunday, Israel is sending a high-level security team to Washington in the coming month to launch a US-Israel security dialogue. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, IDF Intelligence Head Tamir Hayman and Mossad Head Yossi Cohen will be representing not only Israeli interests regarding Iran but those of Israel’s Middle East allies as well: the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, probably Saudi Arabia, and even Jordan despite the bad blood between Netanyahu and King Abdullah II. All wish at a minimum to see the Biden administration reach a more inclusive, more long-range and tougher US nuclear deal with Iran. And they want the US to pressure Iran to get out of Syria and Yemen.


Q. Conceivably, the Austin visit and the coming inauguration of an Israeli security dialogue with the US are less concerned with the Vienna talks and more with the prospect of serious escalation of the military confrontation between Israel and Iran . . .

A. That would be a justified concern. Iranian officials called the Natanz attack a “crime against humanity” even though no casualties were reported, and vowed retaliation against Israel. While Israel has reportedly been attacking and disabling (again, without casualties) ships transporting Iranian oil and munitions to Syria for a year or two, the Saviz attack was clearly an escalatory act. Iran vowed retaliation for it, too. The fact that all these attacks have been publicized recently, apparently by Israeli-engineered leaks, is also escalatory.

Netanyahu may be behind at least some of the leaks. He is anxious to take indirect credit for leading the fight against Iran in order to boost his political profile by talking about “what we've done here in Israel, moving from total helplessness . . . to a global power”. (When was Israel totally helpless? Before Netanyahu came on the scene, of course.) But the net outcome is a sense among more and more Israeli security experts that the ‘campaign between wars’ (Hebrew acronym: mabam) against Iran of recent years is liable to become a full-fledged war. Iran may now have no alternative but to retaliate openly against Israel, if only so Iran’s leaders can save face.

Iran has already begun targeting Israeli shipping, a particularly vulnerable objective insofar as fully 95 percent of Israeli imports are by sea. It has launched cyber attacks against Israel. If Iran now escalates, say, from Syrian soil and/or by directing Hezbollah to attack northern Israel, one big danger for Israel in calculating its response is that in its present state of governmental disfunction nearly all strategic decision-making is concentrated in Netanyahu’s hands alone. 

Defense Minister Gantz can host Lloyd Austin and make resounding statements about Israel’s intent to coordinate Iran nuclear issues with Washington. But Gantz and Netanyahu apparently do not consult one another regarding these issues. To what extent Netanyahu’s actual decisions are affected by his coalition political dilemma and his ongoing corruption trial is anyone’s guess.


Q. Still, there must be more on the US-Israel strategic agenda than Iran. What other issues is it likely that Austin addressed in Israel?

A. The US needs urgently to consult with Israel concerning a host of regional and international security files inherited by Austin from his Trump-era predecessors.

One is Syria, where with a mere 2,000 troops the US, in partnership with Kurds and anti-Assad forces, controls the northeast oil-rich area of the country, some 25 percent of Syrian territory overall. This gives Washington a low-cost, low-risk strategic stake in Syria. Yet the Syrian state remains in near-total economic and infrastructure collapse. Russia and Iran, the Assad regime’s military backers, lack the resources to help in a serious way. Washington could help, as could Ankara, which controls portions of northern Syria. Israel has an overriding interest in a stable Syria free of an Iranian presence. Yet the Biden administration, like its predecessors, is looking for ways to reduce rather than enhance the US profile in the Middle East, including in Syria.

Biden also inherited a US attempt to facilitate negotiations between Lebanon and Israel over delineation of their neighboring Mediterranean exclusive economic zones. The goal is to enable Lebanon, which is broke and beset by corruption, to expand its exploration for lucrative gas deposits. Resolving this issue is important for all concerned, if only to strengthen the Lebanese polity and keep Iranian-proxy Hezbollah from taking over.

There is a parallel American and Israeli interest in maintaining US influence in Iraq as a counter to Iranian inroads there too. Israel’s campaign between wars has targeted Iranian proxy weaponry and personnel along the Syria-Iraq border. Here too Austin will want to engage his Israeli interlocutors.

Austin’s agenda almost certainly also includes Israel’s ties with China. The American security community is concerned lest the PRC’s growing investment in Israeli high-tech and infrastructure enable Beijing to siphon off sensitive Israeli knowhow and spy indirectly on US interests. Does Chinese management of two Israeli ports compromise US Sixth Fleet visits? Does Chinese participation in digging Tel Aviv’s metro bring Chinese technicians too close to shared US-Israeli assets at IDF General Staff Headquarters? These issues could become increasingly sensitive if China and the US continue on their collision course over Taiwan and other issues.


Q. Bottom line?

A. Austin’s visit is well timed. A host of shared strategic issues, but particularly Iran, threaten to interfere with near-term Israel-US strategic relations.

Israelis and their friends and neighbors need to adopt a new mindset and recognize that Israel is in fact at war with Iran--a war that could take a turn toward Iranian aggression directly against Israel and its population. This increasingly likely military escalation would directly affect US interests.

Finally, in the Biden era Netanyahu’s incitement against the JCPOA and his decision-making isolation are a liability for US-Israel relations.