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: At war? Are you referring to Israel’s ‘campaign between wars’ (Hebrew acronym: mabam) to interdict Iran’s arms buildup in Syria and arms deliveries to Lebanese Hezbollah? Or something broader?
A: Something much broader. Some of the dimensions have emerged in recent weeks. Others have been evident for some time. It is now clear that, when you put all the dimensions together, this is war, plain and simple. It should be acknowledged as such.
In Israel’s eyes, Iran is the only Middle East country—indeed, the only sovereign country at all—that is actively pledged to its destruction. This war is about Iran’s diverse attempts to attain this objective, and Israel’s attempts to thwart it.
True, Israel has not called up reserves. Neither side has openly and formally declared war. Still, it is important, if we are to have a clear picture of the hostile strategic relationship between Israel and Iran, that we recognize the situation for what it is, de facto if not de jure: war. That recognition can have important consequences for Israel’s regional and international relations, as well as for its internal political debate.
This war may not be comprehensive, yet it comprises all components of warfare except major armored and artillery battles on the ground of the sort we see these days between Russia and Ukraine. Israel’s air force and navy are involved. Both sides are deploying attack drones. The two countries are launching cyber attacks at one another. They appear to be actively recruiting intelligence sources on one another’s territory.
Israel is reportedly launching intelligence, assassination and sabotage operations from secret bases on Iranian soil. Both use third countries for launching operations: Iran in Syria, Lebanon and occasionally Iraq; Israel reportedly operated from Iraqi Kurdistan and Azerbaijan.
Note that this is not just or even primarily about Iran’s nuclear project. True, some Israeli operations reportedly target that project, its strategic installations and key personnel in an effort to sabotage and delay Iran’s military nuclear progress. And Israeli strategic diplomacy is preoccupied with the possible renewal of the JCPOA nuclear deal. But other operations target Iran’s far more immediate conventional schemes to attack Israel and Israelis—on the ground, at sea and from the air.
Q: Can you offer examples?
A: Israel’s General Security Service (Shin Bet) recently rounded up a ring of Israelis of Iranian origin who were recruited, often innocently, by Iranian Intelligence to spy on Israel. Iranian drones headed for Israel have recently been intercepted, in one case by American forces in Iraq. Iran is actively arming and on occasion training Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israelis have recently been warned not to travel to Turkey because they are liable to be targets of Iranian assassination plots, some of which have been thwarted by Israeli and Turkish intelligence.
Israel, for its part, has reportedly used attack drones launched inside Iran to attack a secret Iranian aeronautics laboratory in Parchin. Two gunmen recently assassinated, on a Tehran street, an IRGC (Revolutionary Guards) Quds Force Unit 840 colonel involved in coordinating anti-Israel operations from Syria. Another Unit 840 colonel mysteriously fell to his death from his Tehran balcony.
Earlier, attack drones destroyed an Iranian drone plant and arsenal in Kermanshah in northwest Iran. Whether the attack drones were launched inside Iran or in nearby Iraqi Kurdistan is not clear, but Iran retaliated against Iraqi Kurdish targets. And, of course, we recall earlier assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and the Mossad’s dramatic heist a few years back of Iran’s nuclear archive.
Throughout, cyber attacks bounce back and forth. Israeli aircraft allegedly attack in Syria. Israel Navy vessels intercept Iranian arms shipments at sea, and Iran retaliates against Israel-flagged vessels in or near the Persian Gulf. The Israel Defense Forces have added an Iran Command to its traditional north, south and central commands.
Q: The Syrian arena appears to be central to the war. Is it expanding? Changing?
A: Both. Russia is withdrawing forces from southern Syria and sending them to fight in Ukraine. That gives Iran a freer hand on or near Syria’s borders with Jordan and Israel. The IDF has already responded with attacks on Iranian and Iranian-proxy targets, including forces from Lebanese Hezbollah, not far from Israel’s Golan Heights. This raises the prospect of the fighting moving closer to Israel itself. Jordan may want or need closer strategic coordination with Israel regarding the Iranian threat from Syria.
Israel is also keeping a close watch on Lebanon, where Iran and Hezbollah exploit political anarchy and economic crisis to pursue development of a precision missile option. Israel has by and large carefully avoided directly attacking the Iran-Hezbollah missile guidance project on Lebanese soil in order not to exacerbate Lebanon’s national crisis. Could this calculation change? A massive month-long IDF exercise, held partly in Cyprus, has been simulating an Israeli war with Iran and Hezbollah.
Q: Israel appears to be developing new warfighting capabilities on the ground inside Iran . . .
A: Based on reliable media reports and official Israeli hints, Israel appears to have developed a dynamic intelligence and operational presence on the ground in Iran. Israeli agents recently interrogated an IRGC officer in his home in Iran regarding his missions to assassinate Israelis, Americans and others in Turkey and Europe. As noted regarding Kermanshah and Parchin, Israel or its proxies or agents clearly have the capacity to import, launch and operate drones inside Iran. A recent operation attributed to Israel involved importing to Iran a remote-controlled machine gun, mounting it on a vehicle, and firing it to assassinate a very senior Iranian nuclear scientist.
All these operations reflect Israel’s development of extraordinary intelligence and operational capabilities on the ground in Iran. Here there is no symmetry: Iran has thus far proven unable to reciprocate in Israel, though not for lack of trying.
Q: So far, we’ve discussed tactical issues. What are the strategic considerations?
A: Here we have mainly questions rather than answers.
First and foremost, regarding Iran’s strategic objectives: There is no need to elaborate on the overall Iranian goal of destroying Israel. Too many senior Iranian security and political leaders reiterate this objective too often to warrant doubt. It is anchored in the radical Shi’ite ideology developed by Ayatollah Khomeini that brought the Islamic revolutionary regime to power in 1979.
Yet Iran knows that eliminating Israel is not an option, either currently or in the foreseeable future. So what does Iran hope to achieve by arming Hezbollah and the Houthis and deploying forces to threaten Israel (and Jordan)? Deterrence? Attrition? Consolidation of a Shia Islamic ‘international’? Regional hegemony?
Apropos the regional aspect, Iran has in the course of more than a year launched direct or proxy drone attacks on Saudi and UAE energy installations. Whether the drones were launched from Yemen, Iran or southern Iraq is not entirely clear. The Houthis in Yemen are already boasting openly of Iranian-supplied rockets that can reach Eilat in southern Israel. Iran deploys Lebanese Hezbollah operatives in Syria and Yemen.
Given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are weaker military powers than Iran, what does Tehran hope to achieve by attacking them, particularly in recent years when they have sought dialogue with Iran? A softening of their bargaining positions on Gulf and energy issues? Reinforced Iranian regional influence? Deterring them from collaborating strategically with Israel?
Q: Is there a Palestinian dimension?
A: Iranian spokespersons have stated in the past that Iran would be satisfied with a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is acceptable to the Palestinians. But the Palestinians they are referring to are fellow-Islamists Hamas, which seeks Israel’s elimination as the homeland of the Jewish people.
Still, progress toward a two-state solution would presumably strengthen the hand of Iranian moderates who continue to have a say in Iranian politics. It would also hopefully generate pressure on Iran from Russia, China, India and other countries with access to Iranian halls of power. Iran expends considerable economic resources on its adventures in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. There are Iranians who openly criticize this. Movement on the Palestinian issue could, accordingly, soften Iran’s aggressive stance.
Q: And what does Israel seek in its war with Iran?
A: Actually defeating Iran or toppling its regime are totally unrealistic goals, as most Israelis in responsible positions recognize. On the other hand, deterrence and attrition of Iranian forces and proxies in Syria and Lebanon are realistic objectives, though they lack a long-term outlook.
Clearly, on nuclear issues, Israel wants to prevent an Iranian breakthrough toward developing a genuine military option. Whether this can be accomplished by means of a renewed JCPOA, pinpoint attacks on nuclear facilities and scientists inside Iran, preparations for a large-scale military attack on Iran—or all of the above—is a matter of intense debate both in Israel and in the United States.
Apropos the US, we can only ask: How closely are the most recent Israel-attributed attacks on Iranian soil coordinated with the Biden administration? Can they be considered part and parcel of a pressure campaign on Iran regarding the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal that is still being negotiated in Vienna? Would a renewed JCPOA lead Washington to pressure Israel to back off?
On a different note, how solid, if at all, are Israel’s nascent military relations with Arab states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia that share its security concerns regarding Iran? Does Israel have any sort of genuine allies in the region that it can call upon to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with it against Iran when the chips are down?
For example, might the UAE or Bahrain agree to host Israeli early-warning installations that could offer quick alert of Iranian attack? Could the forthcoming Biden visit to Israel and the Gulf strengthen this possibility? Washington reportedly hopes to advance an 11-country regional alliance against Iran. Prime Minister Bennett’s recent one-day visit to Abu Dhabi was apparently devoted to this.
Or, at the end of the day, is Israel essentially alone in its war with Iran?