Iran is testing all boundaries
By Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser
The radical Islamic regime in Iran is carefully pushing an escalation with Israel to deter the new government from continuing to carry out attacks on Iranian targets in Syria. At the same time, Iran is pursuing a similar policy with the United States to persuade the U.S. administration to be more flexible in its positions on the nuclear deal.
There are three factors behind Iran’s aggressiveness. First, Iran’s growing sense of distress which comes from several sources: continued U.S. sanctions; the American refusal to accept the Iranian outline for the United States’ return to the nuclear deal; the unrelenting attacks attributed to Israel that undermine Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and its strategic efforts to entrench in Syria and use its territory to strengthen Hizbullah; and the persistent unrest within Iran and in countries it seeks to control or influence (Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq).
Second, Iran assumes – with good reason – that the responses to its escalation will be limited. Iran’s rivals have no interest in escalation and are even afraid and repulsed by it. Proof of this is amassing in Tehran all the time. The suspension of international oversight of nuclear facilities, while Iran continues to develop components needed to produce nuclear weapons and accumulates high-enriched uranium, has elicited no response. Nor did the attempt to kidnap an opposition activist from New York, the attacks on Iranian domestic protesters, or the rocket fire from Lebanon into Israeli territory. The response to the ongoing attacks on American targets in Iraq actually led to a U.S. decision to reduce military activity in Iraq while withdrawing international forces from Afghanistan.
All of these occurrences, coupled with the Biden administration’s adamant refusal to say in the Iranian nuclear context that all options (including military options) are on the table and that the United States will not allow Iran to achieve the capability to produce nuclear weapons (and not only prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons) are seen in Iran as an expression of American weakness, limiting the boundaries of Israeli activity. The weak international response to hardliner Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration as president, especially on the part of Europeans, who sent a representative to attend Raisi’s inauguration ceremony, and Russia’s mobilization of forces to defend Iran, including its willingness to intercept missiles that Israel launches at Iranian targets in Syria, all reinforce this sentiment.
Finally, Iran is confident in its high state readiness for low-intensity, asymmetric warfare against the United States and Israel. For many years, the Iranians have been building up their military might for this type of warfare. They recognize their difficulty in dealing with such conventional powers on the same level, so they do not attempt to develop and secure expensive weapons like planes and battle tanks. Instead, they invest in missiles and rockets, including ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, and in drones of the type used to attack Saudi oil facilities in Al Abqaiq and the Mercer Street ship.
Iran is also investing in high-speed explosive sea drones and the development of advanced cyber capabilities. They market these means to the compliant militia organizations throughout the region who use them to advance their common goals, while Iran preserves the ability to deny their direct responsibility for the actions taken by these organizations.
A recent war game in Washington concluded that there is a significant kernel of truth in the Iranian assumptions, forcing Americans to recalculate their path.
Israel’s commitment not to act against Iran without coordination with the United States, especially under the risk-averse Biden administration, could further strengthen Iranian security.
It is likely, in light of all this, that if nothing changes, Iranian audacity will intensify and perhaps even lead Iran very close to securing the capability to produce its first nuclear weapon, by accumulating a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium. At the same time, this is not the desired path for Iran, which prefers the nuclear deal that guarantees it a safe and carefree path to achieving the ability to produce a large arsenal of nuclear weapons within ten years. However, walking on the brink, on the basis of readiness for a low-intensity confrontation, is Iran’s preferred option as long as the United States does not accept the Iranian outline for a return to the nuclear deal. Iran hopes that eventually, Washington will fold.
So, What Should Be Done?
First, do not blink. Israel must continue to act resolutely to thwart the Iranian nuclear project and to undermine the Iranian effort to establish itself in Syria and provide Hizbullah with advanced weapons. The United States, for its part, must at least stand by its claims against Iran.
Second, and more importantly, it should be made clear to Iran that the policy of measured escalation involves a high and unexpected cost. This is what the previous administration in the United States did when it hit Qasem Soleimani, and now, after the Iranians killed a British citizen and a Romanian citizen, there must be a sharp reaction. Israel can contribute to this with its intelligence assets, which already played a role in proving Iranian responsibility for the tanker attack – proof that can motivate a disproportionate joint American-British operation, which can include, in addition to additional sanctions, kinetic activity in naval or land theaters or cyber action. The United States must make it clear to the rulers of Iran, especially with Raisi’s entry into office, that the United States will not act according to Iranian logic.
Beyond this response, Israel needs to convince the Americans that the latest incident reveals Iran’s true face. The Iranian attack created the opportunity for the United States to renew pressure on Iran on the nuclear issue – to declare that all options are on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and to demand a long-term nuclear deal from Iran that will guarantee robust inspections over its nuclear program. Returning to the nuclear deal during the Iranian escalation is very dangerous for Israel and the entire world. Israel must act in this matter in full cooperation with the Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, readiness and vigilance must be increased to thwart further Iranian efforts on all fronts. The impressive ability to detect the launch of the Iranian UAV that attacked the ship is not enough; a joint mechanism must be activated with the Americans that will allow the Fifth Fleet to intercept Iranian UAVs in flight. In Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza, Israel thwarted eight attack drones, thanks to a quick examination and operational reaction to the situation. It is essential to develop such a capability with the United States. Cooperation with the United States is especially essential because the Iranians have chosen to act in arenas in which they have a relative advantage. Such cooperation with the United States is demanded to protect targets related to it or its citizens.
Finally, it is vital to preserve Israel’s ability to act against Iran independently. This is an essential element in both deterrence and the ability to prevent Iran from achieving the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross recently suggested that the United States, on its own initiative, build an independent Israeli capability to damage Iranian nuclear infrastructure by selling it the MOAB – a bomb designed to damage the underground nuclear infrastructure – and leasing it heavy B-2 attack aircraft, which is required to carry the bomb. This is a tempting offer at first glance, but it is worth thinking twice before adopting it for fear that it will be construed as a waiver by the United States of an independent American attack option. The Iranian nuclear program is a strategic problem that could become existential for Israel, but it is among the highest strategic threats to the United States and the international system. Israel must continue to develop its own independent plan to undermine the Iranian nuclear program.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is Director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He was formerly Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence.