Iranian Retaliation: Not If, but When
JNS.org – The Iranian sphere is experiencing one of its most tumultuous periods in recent years. From mysterious explosions on military bases and nuclear facilities to strikes on its assets in Syria, everyone naturally rushes to attribute every event to Israel’s desire to prevent the Islamic Republic from increasing its grip on the Middle East and obtaining nuclear weapons. A careful study of the details, however, shows that Israel — were it to admit anything — could take only part of the credit.
While it is not far-fetched to see how Israel could have been behind the explosion in the advanced centrifuge plant in Natanz, which Iran admitted caused “significant damage” to the facility, considered key to its nuclear program, its seems others may have been involved in the other “mishaps” across the country.
Israel has always made it a point not to systematically target civilian infrastructure and has only ever done so in retaliation to similar attacks against its own.
Israel is also immediately named as being behind any incident in Syria, but while Jerusalem has made no secret of the fact that it has — and will — target Iranian assets there, the real target bank is considerably smaller than foreign and social media reports would have you believe.
The most recent strike attributed to Israel — Monday’s bombing of a weapons depot south of Damascus — teaches us that Iran is once again trying to deliver advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon via direct flights to Syria.
It also shows that, despite its own dire economic crisis and being crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, Tehran is determined to continue with its plan to entrench itself militarily in the Middle East.
Many have assumed that the Israeli strikes against Iranian assets in Syria would cause the Islamic Republic to change course. They were wrong.
Another thing Monday’s incident teaches us is that Israel has considerable leeway with respect to operating in Syrian skies; the other actors in the region care little about any Israeli action as long as it doesn’t threaten them.
The Syrians are busy with the economic crisis, Russia is preoccupied with the coronavirus — and neither Damascus nor Moscow care that Israel and Iran are locking horns, as long as any such clash is kept in check. Israel would, however, be wise to remain vigilant with respect to the tensions simmering beneath the surface in the northern sector. Given Iran’s control over Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Syrian regime, Tehran has the power to ignite the sector at a moment’s notice.
In terms of how much Israel can “get away with” before the ayatollahs’ regime feels obliged to retaliate, defense officials hedged recently that given how things stand, an Iranian response has to be in the works, meaning it is not a question of if — but of when, where, and how.
In that regard, Tehran is somewhat spoiled for choice: It can target Israeli or Jewish assets overseas; try to use its bases in Iraq to launch drone or missile attacks against Israel; set Hezbollah on northern Israeli communities; or use its operatives in Syria to launch an attack on Israel, be it by drone, missile, or a physical attack on Israeli troops protecting the border, which seems to be the most likely scenario.
Israel cannot afford to let its guard down, especially in the northern sector.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom. A version of this article first appeared in Israel Hayom.