A strike on Israel by an emboldened Iran looms, but may not be imminent
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Analysis

A strike on Israel by an emboldened Iran looms, but may not be imminent

IDF seems to have scaled back its operations against Tehran in Syria and Iraq during the Jewish High Holidays, but with their end, the threat of Iranian retaliation returns

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The Saudi military displays what they say are an Iranian cruise missile and drones used in recent attack on its oil industry at Saudi Aramco's facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, during a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2019. (Amr Nabil/AP)
The Saudi military displays what they say are an Iranian cruise missile and drones used in recent attack on its oil industry at Saudi Aramco's facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, during a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2019. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Iran is feeling emboldened, and this has the Israeli military, which regularly bombs Iranian assets in the region, concerned that Tehran will one day respond to these strikes with a cruise missile or drone attack.

In light of these concerns, the Israel Defense Forces appears to have scaled down its operations against Iranian and Iranian-allied forces in the region in recent weeks. (Israel acknowledges conducting strikes against Iranian targets in the region in general, but as a rule does not take responsibility for specific attacks.)

This hiatus appears to have been a bid to cool tensions following a one-day battle between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group on September 1 and an effort by the IDF to ensure that the sensitive period of the Jewish High Holidays — from September 30 to October 21 — passed without conflict.

Indeed there have been no reported airstrikes against pro-Iranian militias in Syria or Iraq since September 28.

The situation is tense and precarious and poised to deteriorate into a conflict

With the end of the Jewish festivals, the military may soon return to its campaign against Iranian entrenchment in the Middle East and with it the threat of Iranian attack.

Such a retaliatory strike by Iran does not appear to be imminent, but does appear to be firmly on the horizon, according to an Israeli Military Intelligence assessment, based on the ongoing operations of Iranian forces and Iranian proxies in Syria and elsewhere in the region, and a general understanding of the modus operandi of Iran and its powerful Quds Force, the branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps led by Qassem Soleimani that operates abroad.

An Iran with self-esteem

Since this summer, Iran has successfully attacked an American drone, international oil tankers and a major Saudi petroleum facility — and faced no serious consequences for these actions.

In addition, the United States has begun actively withdrawing from Syria — both in terms of troops and interest — and from the Middle East in general, a move that would also bolster Iran’s belief that it can act with impunity in the region as its primary enemy is effectively abandoning the main arena of the fight.

This heightened Iranian self-esteem and the threat that it poses to the Jewish state does not bode well for the Israel Defense Forces, which routinely carries out airstrikes against Iranian and Iranian-allied forces throughout the Levant.

IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi holds a meeting around a camp fire with senior Air Force officers on October 23, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

These concerns prompted an unusual warning from IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Thursday that war may be in the offing, as well as a security cabinet meeting suddenly scheduled for next week.

“In the northern and southern arenas the situation is tense and precarious and poised to deteriorate into a conflict despite the fact that our enemies are not interested in war. In light of this, the IDF has been in an accelerated process of preparation,” Kohavi told reporters in a briefing.

The military does not believe that Iran or one of the proxies under the control of Quds Force commander Soleimani will necessarily retaliate to any and every Israeli airstrike, but will likely respond to them eventually as its tolerance for sustaining losses of men and munitions runs out.

A map provided by the IDF showing the approximate locations of a Hezbollah cell’s activities along the Syrian border with Israel, released on March 13, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

This is forcing the IDF to weigh even more seriously the potential cost of an airstrike against an Iranian target compared to the benefit to Israeli national security gained from destroying it.

In the beginning of last year, Israel also faced an emboldened and enraged Iran in Syria. In February 2018, the Islamic Republic launched an armed drone toward northern Israel, which an Israeli Air Force helicopter shot down. In response, the IDF struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria, including the control center from which the drone was piloted.

In the months that followed, the Iranian regime vowed revenge, and the IDF launched a campaign known as Operation Chess to counter the Islamic Republic’s efforts to retaliate with preemptive airstrikes against Iranian assets in Syria.

This culminated on May 10, 2018, when Iran came through on its threats with a rocket attack against Israeli military posts along the Golan Heights. The rockets failed to hit their targets, according to the IDF. The military retaliated with another round of extensive airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

The IDF believes that its campaign of strikes on Iranian targets in Syria foiled the Islamic Republic’s plans to establish a major base of operations in the country, but nevertheless left Tehran determined to use Syria as part of its war against Israel.

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