Iran is concentrating all its resources today trying to save the formidable benefits it gained in the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA). In the eyes of the Islamic regime in Tehran, the deal is worth keeping even after the United States' withdrawal, because it allows Iran to move safely towards attaining a large arsenal of nuclear weapons in 11 years. It could not make it to the first bomb before the deal, because Iran could not safely cross the threshold between accumulating enough enriched uranium to produce a bomb and actually making one.
In addition, the deal legitimized Iranian efforts to develop long range missiles and its wide intervention in Middle Eastern countries and entities which struggle with internal instability and civil wars, e.g. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, the Palestinian Authority. It did nothing to check Iran's anti-Semitic commitment to annihilate Israel. If anything, it provided Iran with the financial resources necessary to pursue these policies.
The threat to the JCPOA – Iran's "dream come true" – grew significantly in May when the United States adopted harsher sanctions that severely diminished Iran's export revenues.
Iran realized that the sanctions made it very difficult to stick to its policy of waiting until the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, hoping a Democrat will win and rejoin the JCPOA, while also making the preparations for a worst case scenario of a Trump re-election.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reacted to the American maximum pressure by turning to brinkmanship. He allowed hardliners, led by Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, to take action that will clearly demonstrate to the United States that pressuring Iran is costly and could trigger unwanted escalation. He also hopes to convince the Europeans to save the deal and compensate Iran for its losses caused by America's withdrawal, while avoiding direct attacks against American soldiers or damaging American interests enough to harsh American reaction or substantially breaching the JCPOA that may force the Europeans too to leave the JCPOA.
Iran has moved slowly and carefully away from some of the JCPOA's commitments in its nuclear program. It showed off its ability to harm Persian Gulf oil exports. It carried out military activities in the gulf against the U.S. military presence. Most of all, it increased pressure on U.S. allies in the region, with emphasis on Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Fighting for the Upper Hand
Economic sanctions are extremely dangerous for the Iranian regime and put the conflict in an American comfort zone. Under the new set of sanctions, the policy of "waiting out" until the next election is no longer viable. Therefore, Iran believes it must either force Europe to save the deal or force a calculated and controlled escalation that would move the conflict into an Iranian comfort zone. There, all the assets it developed in the last 40 years, such as military asymmetric capabilities, a wide array of proxy terror groups in the Middle East and dormant terror cells around the globe, will come into play in hopes of forcing the United States to succumb to Iranian pressure and ease the sanctions to avoid escalation.
Should negotiations start, Iran would enter them from a position of strength.
Israel, on the other hand, always considered the JCPOA as a dangerous and disastrous deal. It wants to make sure that the United States preserves its position of strength if and when negotiations with Iran start on a new agreement.
If negotiations fail, the Iranian regime might then face threats to its stability that may lead to its fall.
When President Trump called off a strike against Iranian targets in June that would have been in retaliation for Iran's shooting down an American drone, it was clear that the Iranian policy faces difficulties. Iran had to move forward with its gradual breaching of the JCPOA to strengthen the pressure on Europe. The latest ultimatum by Iran – that it would begin operating improved centrifuges and raise the enrichment level to 20 percent unless Europe compensates Iran with billions of dollars, as France President Emmanuel Macron proposed, and buy its oil, seems to show that Iran sees Europe's offer as insufficient. On the other hand, Iran's greater emphasis on harming Israel became a key part of the Iranian plan.
Iran tried for several years to take advantage of its critical assistance to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to build a terror base near Israel's border on the Golan Heights and deploy forces capable of harming Israel throughout Syrian territory. That build-up came in addition to Iran's Lebanese arms build-up, supplying Hizballah with precision rockets, missiles and drones to enhance its ability to cause Israel severe damage.
Israel took decisive measures to thwart these three initiatives. In this context, in what Israeli strategists call the campaign in between wars, Israel carried out hundreds of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. Iran stepped up its efforts, and on Aug. 24, tried to wage multi-drone attacks against Israel from south Syria. The Israeli Air Force executed a preemptive strike that generated high media exposure. At the same time, two drones exploded in Beirut in an operation that was widely attributed to the IDF.
Israel reportedly tried to hit Hizballah targets in Beirut that were connected to the Iranian long-range rocket build-up. Israel did not claim responsibility for the attacks in Beirut, but did not deny it, either. Israel did release unusually-detailed satellite photos of Beqaa Valley rocket manufacturing sites to highlight Iran's use of Lebanese territory to build a war arsenal.
Due to its difficulties in Syria, Iran turned to Iraq, where it enjoys complete freedom of action, to supplement its efforts to build its infrastructure for targeting Israel. Iran may have stored weapons in the Al Hashd Al Shaabi camps controlled by Shiite militias, including medium range rockets that cannot reach Israel from Iran but can make it from Iraq. Some targets in Iraq that are related to this effort were hit recently. Israel has not taken responsibility, but hinted that it might carry out such attacks.
Meanwhile, Iran also has upgraded its activities in the Palestinian arena. Its proxy, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, perpetrated consecutive terror attacks from Gaza. Hamas leaders who recently visited Iran were promised increased financial and military assistance, likely in exchange for Hamas carrying out more terror attacks against Israel. Israel has managed to thwart most of the attacks so far, and remains committed to promoting through third parties a set of understandings with Hamas regarding Gaza while at the same time showing its capability to hit the terror infrastructure in the strip to reinforce its deterrence there.
New Conditions Lead to New Rules
Iran's multi-national arms build-up forced Israel to alter its defensive strategies, triggering new and aggressive actions in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, or anywhere Iran invests militarily. In strategic terms, this means that Israel may now carry out attacks against any physical threats or buildup from Iran or its proxies even if it shies away from claiming responsibility. This is definitely the way the last series of military events are now perceived in the region, while it is understood that Israel was forced to behave this way by Iran.
Hizballah tried to retaliate, launching several anti-tank Kornet missiles at Israeli military targets near Avivim, close to the border with Lebanon. No casualties were reported, and Israel claimed Hizballah hit a decoy. Hizballah insists it did cause damage (it definitely meant to kill Israeli soldiers) and presented the attack as an achievement in its effort to protect Lebanon and deter Israel. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened that future responses will target Israeli cities throughout the entire country. Nasrallah clarified that whereas the Israeli activity attempted to create new rules, the response attempts to do the same, and while the response for hitting Hezbollah's operatives in Syria until now was an attack against Israeli targets in areas he claims to be part of Lebanon (namely the Shabaa farms in the Israeli Golan), from now on the response will be in areas he claims are Palestinian lands (in other words, areas that are more densely populated and attacks in them may have higher probability to cause escalation). For now, this short round of escalation may be over. Hizballah's response was well measured – it targeted Israeli soldiers near the border and not civilians deep inside Israel. This limited the kind of damage that can lead to uncontrolled escalation although if Israeli casualties ensued; however, it now seems likely that a war could have broken out as Israel was airborne ready to bomb Hizballah missile launch and production sites but were called back due to the absence of casualties. Hizballah's limited (at least for now) retaliation reflected the Iranian guidance to show its ability to harm Israel but avoid large escalation.
It also reflected Hizballah's limitations. The organization, which has a Lebanese identity on top of its Shiite, jihadi, Iranian and Arab identities, has to be cautious not to put Lebanon in harm's way to preserve popular support. It also has to consider the large number of casualties it suffered in the Syrian civil war, diminishing Iranian financial aid, the damage caused by the growing American sanctions against it and the loss of the extensive tunnel network that Hizballah had built under its border with Israel.
That said, Iran and Hizballah remain committed to building an infrastructure to attack Israel. Tensions will remain high since Israel is certain to try to prevent this from happening again and escalation is difficult to predict. Hizballah's huge rocket and missile arsenal can hit anywhere in Israel, and includes a small number of precision-guided long-range missiles. It also trained a special unit to infiltrate and seize villages along the Israeli border, and its forces are battle-hardened and better equipped after fighting in Syria. If Iran orders more aggressive attacks against Israel, Hizballah has little choice but to comply.
This is especially true if Iran faces an American or Israeli military action. Israel would be threatened not only by Hizballah, but from Iran's other proxies, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and some Iraqi militias. In addition, Iran's military has hundreds of missiles that can reach Israel.
Israel would obviously like to avoid this scenario, though it has improved its anti-missile and rocket defenses along with its long-range offensive capabilities. Nevertheless, it cannot afford to let Iran fulfill its ambitions in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. So even without a direct provocation, Israel will have to keep acting against relevant Iranian and Hizballah targets. As long as Iran sticks to its current policy, Israel still enjoys freedom to act. But eventually, its strikes against Iranian infrastructure, especially in Lebanon and Iraq, may trigger wider escalation with Israel suffering some – and maybe considerable – damage. The Israeli public seems aware of this possibility, understands the risks and is ready to go through a short period of harsher conflict, if necessary. Yet it expects a strong Israeli response or preemptive action to deter Israel's enemies.
So far, all the Iranian efforts have failed miserably. It failed to hurt Israel. It failed to deliver a message forcing America to rethink its policy. Moreover, Iran paid a heavy price. It lost military assets, it lost activists of its proxies, and most importantly, it lost face and political status in the region. The only hope for a way out of this dangerous situation for the mullahs' regime is that a frightened and appeasing Europe will find a way to bypass the American sanctions and extend to Iran a safety net.
At the same time, Israel proved again that it enjoys a profound intelligence dominance (manifested by the Mossad seizing the nuclear archives from Tehran) and air superiority over Iran and its proxies. Israel has shown that it can protect itself and foil attempts to hurt it, but also proved beyond a shadow of a doubt to be a strategic asset for the United States, for the pragmatic Arab states and for the liberal democracies (even while it maintains good relations with Russia).
If Iran eventually is forced to suspend its efforts to hit Israel, the consequences of the current confrontation may be positive for Israel. Its decisive response may encourage Tehran's realists to attempt to convince Khamenei that the hard-liners' policy led nowhere, and that to save the Islamist regime he has to accept a new nuclear agreement that will really deny Iran the ability to have nuclear weapons.
The recent developments may pave the road to enhanced normalization between Israel and the pragmatic Arab states. And they could help Israel and the United States create the conditions for a breakthrough in the Palestinian arena as well, where the current initiative of the U.S. administration seems premature.
For the Israeli policy to succeed, the United States must show full commitment to Israel's defense and security.
Brig General (ret.) Yossi Kuperwasser is a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Formerly he was the head of the research division in the IDF military intelligence branch and the general director of Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs.