Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israel v. Iran: Escalation (March 21, 2022)


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.

Q: Last month, six Israeli attack drones allegedly destroyed an arsenal of hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) based at Kermanshah in northwest Iran. Iran retaliated last week against a target near Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan that it said was an Israeli base. Is this the escalation you are referring to?

A: The destruction of Iranian UAVs (attributed to Israel by Al-Mayadeen TV, which is linked to Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah) and Iran’s openly acknowledged counter-attack are the most spectacular dimension of the current escalation, but not the only one. Iran’s official Press TV referred to the Erbil strike as a “wake-up call” for countries that allow Israel to use their territory as an operational platform.

Prior to the Erbil attack, on March 7 an alleged Israeli ‘campaign-between-wars’ (Hebrew acronym: mabam) strike against Iran-related targets deployed near Damascus killed two officers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Going further back, Israel just revealed that last year it shot down two Iranian drones that were delivering weaponry to Gaza-based Hamas, another Iranian proxy.

Last week, Iranian hackers revealed the contents of a phone belonging to the wife of Mossad Head David Barnea. This was part of a broader Iranian cyber offensive against Israeli institutions.

Then too, last week witnessed escalation along a different dimension when Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid jointly condemned an alleged intention on the part of the Biden administration to cancel the IRGC’s designation as a terrorist entity. The IRGC delisting by the US State Department is billed as a gesture that will accompany success in the Vienna negotiations to renew the Iran-nuclear deal, the JCPOA.


Q: So, escalation on multiple fronts. Let’s start with the Kurdistan-Iran tit-for-tat. Assuming Israel was indeed involved, where could this lead?

A: If indeed Israelis are operating against Iran out of an attack base in Iraqi Kurdistan (Iraqi and Kurdish officials deny the Iranian allegation), this constitutes a major development in the Israel-Iran military and sabotage confrontation. Until recently, the confrontation had been limited to the Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah arena (themabam) and to alleged Mossad sabotage operations against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure.

Israel’s clandestine security relationship with the Iraqi Kurds goes all the way back to the 1960s, when the Kurds appealed for help in combating a series of Baghdad regimes that persecuted them brutally. Today, the Kurds are more politically integrated in Iraq’s quasi-democracy. But they could still be excused for hedging their bets by maintaining semi-formal ties with Israel. An Israeli threat to Iran’s military arsenal from neighboring Iraq, like alleged Israeli intelligence listening posts in Azerbaijan to Iran’s north, are a way of signaling Tehran that its drive to threaten Israel from nearby Syrian and Lebanese territory can be reciprocated.


Q: And the Bennett-Lapid condemnation regarding the potential terrorist delisting of the IRGC? Escalation between Israel and the US?

A: The JCPOA has not yet been renewed. But last week witnessed progress when the US, Russia and Iran worked through Russia’s demand that Ukraine war-related US sanctions be relaxed where Russian-Iran JCPOA-related activities are concerned. Bennett and Lapid’s loud protest last week was an exception to Bennett’s policy of airing objections to the Vienna negotiations quietly, behind the scenes, with Washington.

Notably, Defense Minister Benny Gantz did not join the open condemnation of the IRGC terrorist delisting, preferring to adhere to the policy of quiet protests. Instead, he sent a high-level Israeli security delegation to Washington, presumably to voice the same objections behind closed doors without disrupting US-Israel security coordination.

Earlier, Bennett had scored what his aides termed an “Israeli achievement” when he apparently persuaded the International Atomic Energy Agency not to close four cases of Iranian nuclear infractions as Iran had demanded, again in return for renewing the JCPOA.

Here it is important to note that, from Israel’s standpoint, the IRGC terrorist-designation issue is largely symbolic and cosmetic. With or without the terrorism label, the IRGC will continue to spearhead Iran’s (non-nuclear) expansionist military activities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, many of which indeed target civilians--thereby qualifying the IRGC with the terrorist label. When then-President Donald Trump applied the terrorist label to the Iranian organization back in 2019, it made little difference to its functioning, which was and will remain subject to a separate set of American sanctions.

When Bennett and Lapid detected that some congressional Democrats, in addition to Republicans, opposed delisting Iran, they apparently reasoned that the issue was fair game for a public protest. After all, the delisting grants a concession to Iran at the regional strategic level, which is where the IRGC operates--a concession that has no direct connection with Iran’s military nuclear project. A concession that is important enough to Iran for Tehran to have made the delisting request in the first place.

“There is determination [in the US] to sign the nuclear deal with Iran at almost any price,” Bennett declared provocatively on Sunday.


Q: But the Bennett government is not actively and publicly trying to undermine the Iran-nuclear deal itself the way Bennett’s predecessor Netanyahu did . . .

A: A number of senior officials in Israel’s security community have allowed in recent months that the original 2015 JCPOA was on balance beneficial to Israel and that its renewal in the near future will also be beneficial. In other words, President Trump’s cancellation of the JCPOA was, these security chiefs acknowledge, a counterproductive failure.

Thanks to the Trump cancellation, JCPOA renewal will now be significantly less beneficial than in 2015. This is due both to the passage of time reducing the saliency of the deal’s sunset clauses and to technical gains registered by Iran’s nuclear program during the interim, when JCPOA-based restrictions on Iran were dropped.

Bennett, who opposed the 2015 deal, then cheered on Trump and Netanyahu when they brought about the 2019 JCPOA cancellation, now opposes its renewal despite the views of his security chiefs. But he appears to understand that it is a done deal, and will make the best of it, including reaping the benefits of a still significant delay in Iran’s military nuclear program.

Bennett’s de facto acknowledgement of JCPOA renewal is implicit in his protests on the margins of the deal--concerning the IRGC terrorist delisting and IAEA concessions. Iran for its part has in recent weeks signaled its own potential acceptance of the nuclear deal by releasing western hostages and neutralizing a portion of its highly enriched uranium stockpile.


Q: But why the commotion? Why is Israel so concerned about Iran in the first place?

A: Iran is the only country in the Middle East--indeed, in the world--that threatens to destroy Israel. Its most senior politicians and military leaders make this threat publicly, on a near-weekly basis. That the foundations for this threat are Islamist and not a function of the Palestinian issue (which today threatens Israel’s existence from within far more than externally; see below) is corroborated by two phenomena.

First, the only other regional threats to Israel’s existence are made, also constantly, by Islamist non-state actors: Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both Iranian proxies, and less frequently by the Houthis in northern Yemen--another Islamist Iranian proxy. And second, for all the concern about the Palestinians evinced by Arab states, there are no longer any Arab countries that threaten Israel militarily at all. None.

General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), just told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that Iran has an arsenal of 3,000 ballistic missiles, some of which can reach Tel Aviv. Of course, they can reach Abu Dhabi as well, which is why according to Blumberg News, both Israel and the United Arab Emirates are requesting US security guarantees in the event a new Iran-nuclear deal is signed soon in Vienna. McKenzie, who is retiring, noted that Iran constitutes the biggest threat to American security interests in the Middle East.

But this is an America that is understood to be reducing its security imprint in the region. It is understood by both Israelis and Arabs to be anxious to reach nuclear agreement with Iran in order to clear the US strategic agenda for more ominous confrontations with China and, thanks to Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine adventure, with Russia as well.

From Israel’s standpoint, all these factors explain the escalation with Iran. We must assume escalation will continue, regardless of the fate of the JCPOA.

Further, as the external and existential Iranian threat against both Israel and Arab states escalates, and as the United States and Europe remain preoccupied with Russia and China, Israel and the Palestinians will continue their descent down a slippery slope toward a violent, conflicted binational reality.

The rest of the world will be too busy elsewhere to care.