11.03.2023 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Iran-Israel “shadow war”


Only two months have passed since the beginning of the new year 2023, and it has already turned out to be eventful in the ongoing latent conflict between Israel and Iran, ready to break out at any minute through the fault of Tel Aviv, which is incessantly preparing to attack Iranian territory without concealing it.

An Israeli airstrike has just killed five people and damaged several buildings in the Syrian capital Damascus. Two Western intelligence agents, cited by the Reuters news agency, said that the target of the attack had been a logistics center run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of Iran.

The strike in the center of the Syrian capital followed two “remarkable” incidents in January. On January 28, at night, a drone struck a military facility in the central Iranian city of Isfahan. This was quickly followed by another air attack the next night against a convoy of Iranian trucks that had entered Syria from Iraq. Experts believe that Israel most likely stood behind all these covert operations.

Over the past decade, Israel has regularly conducted an air campaign to prevent the IRGC from transferring modern weapons to its regional militias, in particular to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. It also tried to deprive the IRGC of a military foothold in Syria. In fact, the Al-Qaim border crossing between Iraq and Syria, the site of the January 29 attack, is an area frequently hit by such strikes. Israel is also believed to be behind a series of covert strikes and acts of sabotage against drone and missile production facilities in Iran and the country’s nuclear program. In addition, it is the main suspect in the murder of high-ranking Iranian nuclear scientists, primarily Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was killed in November 2020 in a road ambush near Tehran. A flurry of strikes in 2023 may signal that Israel is accelerating and intensifying these parallel campaigns at a time of changing geopolitical priorities.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which aimed to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief, is virtually dead, despite Tehran’s best efforts. According to Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, after the United States defiantly withdrew from this deal Tehran not only did not limit its nuclear program, but it even increased uranium enrichment to such an extent that, if desired, it could create “several” pieces of nuclear weapons. Mr. Grossi also noted that the level of enrichment “has long passed” the level that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had warned about back in 2012. Back then, Netanyahu famously artistically displayed a poster depicting a cartoon bomb at the UN to illustrate how much highly enriched uranium Iran needs before it can build a bomb. He threatened the UN members that Iran would create nuclear weapons and destroy Israel tomorrow if not today. Eleven years have passed since then, but Iran, faithful to the fatwa of its Supreme Leader, has not created a nuclear weapon. And if anyone is provoking a war in the Middle East, it is, first of all, Israel, which almost daily bombs Syrian territory, inflicts unprovoked secret strikes on Iranian territory, literally destroys the Arab people of Palestine every day.

Given this context and Netanyahu’s return to power at the head of a shaky new coalition that has the far-right electorate, further Israeli strikes across Iran and the wider region are likely in the coming weeks and months. “To me, both attacks are the continuation of Israel’s long-range interdiction campaign to prevent Iran from (fully) weaponizing Syria and Hezbollah and achieving a nuclear weapons capability,” Farzin Nadimi, a defense and security analyst and associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Saudi media Arab News in an interview. “The timing may have been selected by accident. This was the policy of previous Israeli administrations and will continue to be the priority of current and future Israeli governments.”

Nadimi predicts that these attacks will likely increase “in size and numbers” since “the Iranian regime is expected to accelerate all its offensive deterrent programs in the future.” Despite an “ever-existing risk of escalation at any moment,” he is unsure whether there could be an all-out war between Israel and Iran in 2023.

Nicholas Heras, senior director of strategy and innovation at the Washington, D. C.-based New Lines Institute, believes a military confrontation is inevitable if Iran moves to produce a nuclear weapon: “We are approaching midnight before a region-wide war between Iran and Israel and the US breaks out.” Israel, with the support of the United States, many political analysts say, sends a clear signal to Iran that there is a military option on the negotiating table to start a war on Iranian soil if Iran decides to create nuclear weapons. “With ongoing uncertainty in the West Bank, and Netanyahu’s coalition partners pushing for the annexation of Palestinian land, Netanyahu is trying to refocus his political allies in Israel on Iran,” Heras said. He also noted that Netanyahu views Iran and Iran’s weapons programs, especially artificial intelligence and modern missiles, as a strategic threat to Israel. In other words, Tel Aviv seeks to limit even scientific developments and slow down scientific progress in Iran.

In this context, it can be said that it is Israel, not the UN, that now determines who can and cannot have nuclear weapons. However, the Israelis are somehow forgetting that it was they who secretly, with the help of the West and without the permission of the UN, created nuclear weapons and are now swinging a nuclear baton in the region.

Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, views the latest strikes as part of the “new normal” of low-level warfare between Israel and Iran and an extension of the Syria air campaign. “The Israeli operation in Isfahan looks to have been mostly symbolic, a statement from Israel’s new government, primarily to its domestic audience,” he told Arab News.  Orton also questions whether the Israeli campaign has inflicted any serious or lasting damage on Iran and its proxies, pointing out that Israel has struck many of the same targets in Syria multiple times to negligible effect. “The focus on physical infrastructure with the Israeli strikes, and only occasionally on IRGC officials and scientific staff in the nuclear program, means Iran’s regime can easily regenerate what is lost,” he said. Meanwhile Israel has extensively infiltrated the Iranian intelligence apparatus, to the extent that it has neutralized the foreign operations of the IRGC and established a broad reach inside Iran. Orton says that it nevertheless continues to lose ground “at a strategic level.”

Strengthening Iran’s position in Syria is not the only area in which it challenges Israel. On February 10, a supposedly Iranian drone attacked an Israeli-linked tanker for commercial shipping in the Arabian Sea. The attack on the Liberian-flagged oil tanker linked to Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer, which caused minor damage, was viewed by observers of the “shadow war” as a salvo from the Iranian side. Iran, according to many political analysts, also continues to dominate in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen, with threatening and growing outposts of the Islamic Revolution in Bahrain, Afghanistan and West Africa.

In Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, the IRGC is also increasing the quantity and quality of weapons systems that it supplies to its proxies. For example, as part of its precision munitions program, the IRGC is upgrading a large arsenal of Hezbollah missiles in Lebanon so that the group can accurately hit specific Israeli targets. As a result, according to Orton, these groups could potentially “inflict catastrophic damage” on Israel in retaliation for airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear program. “At some point, this might well be a sufficient deterrent to prevent Israel even contemplating such an attack,” he said.

Admittedly, the moment when Israel could militarily prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb has probably already passed. It is more for political reasons than for technical ones that the Iranians did not formally cross the nuclear threshold, that is, they did not conduct a test explosion.

Viktor Mikhin, Corresponding Member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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