An Iranian drone and Israel’s disproportionate response

Teheran will likely get the message and back down — but in case of a clash, Israel now has the upper hand

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves part of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018, during a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (Screen capture)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves part of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018, during a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (Screen capture)

Last month, Israeli helicopters shot down an Iranian drone after it entered Israeli airspace from Syria. The drone was allegedly launched from Tiyas Military Airbase, approximately 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of the Syrian-Israeli border. The Israeli Air Force had apparently tracked the drone from its launch and waited to shoot it down over Israeli airspace.

Soon after the drone was intercepted, Israeli F-16s targeted the site from which it was launched. Upon their return, the planes were subject to heavy anti-aircraft fire from Syrian forces, and one crew was forced to eject from their plane, which subsequently crashed in Northern Israel. The two crewmembers were injured, one seriously, but have both recovered. Following this incident, the Israeli Air Force began a broad attack on various targets in Syria, and allegedly took out eight Syrian air defense positions and four Iranian military sites in Syria. According to some reports, Israel considered carrying out further retaliatory attacks on positions in Syria, but backed down after a telephone call took place between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Following the incident, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi issued a statement denying the drone flight and the country’s role in targeting Israeli planes as “baseless” and “too ridiculous to be taken seriously.”

Analyzed through any lens, Israel’s response to the initial drone launch was quite disproportionate to the underlying Iranian-Syrian aggression. In fact, Israel has rarely, if ever, responded with such aggression after intercepting a foreign drone in its airspace. This military response was also followed by a strong rhetorical response from Israel. During his speech at the Munich Security Conference the following week, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel would “act without hesitation to defend ourselves” from Iran, and while dramatically holding up a piece of the downed drone warned Iran “not [to] test Israel’s resolve.”

We believe that Israel’s disproportionate military and rhetorical response was intended to send two messages. First, Israel made it clear that Syria and Iran must refrain from engaging in future military actions against Israel, and any such actions will come at a heavy price to both countries. Second, Israel showed that it is increasingly determined to stop Iran’s regional aggressions as well as its continuing nuclear development, involvement in the internal affairs of other states, and expansion of its ballistic missile program. Israel’s escalated response also demonstrated that it will continue to counter Iranian actions, even if doing so could lead to an all out confrontation.

While Russia may publicly condemn Israel for confronting Iran, in practice, it may see the weakening of Iranian power to be in its own national interest.

Iran’s regional aggressions are not new, but rather part of its post-Revolution desire to become a regional, if not worldwide, military and political power. In pursuit of this goal, Iran has sought to bring other states (chiefly Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen) under its tacit control and to its view of Islam’s role in society. Perhaps more significantly though, Iran knows that it must acquire nuclear weapons to truly become a regional power. This is especially true given that Iran is surrounded by other nuclear states in the region, chiefly India, Pakistan, Russia, Israel (according to foreign reports), and Turkey (which is guarded by NATO’s nuclear umbrella). Iran’s unrelenting pursuit of these objectives brings the country into direct conflict with Israel, which rightly believes that a nuclear Iran with proxy countries at Israel’s border presents a major threat to its survival. Furthermore, Israel knows that Iran will continue its unrelenting pursuit of these objectives, as the country has not backed down even in spite of severe international sanctions and isolation.

As Iran continues to pursue its ambitions, and Israel counters these efforts, it is possible that a larger conflict could develop between the two countries. Alternatively, further back-and-forth military responses in Syria could also lead to a broader conflict. That being said, the relative calm between Israel and Iran since the drone incident suggests that neither country currently wants a direct military confrontation. If such a conflict were to evolve though, either through gradual escalation or because of disproportionate aggression by one country, we believe that current political conditions would be favorable to Israel for the following reasons:

1. Hezbollah’s Reluctance to Engage with Israel

Israel currently has the strongest military in the Middle East, and allegedly possesses nuclear and other strategic capabilities that can cause unbearable damage to any country in the region. Despite its inherent military disadvantage, Iran would still be able to inflict significant damage and casualties on Israel through direct airstrikes and with its proxy Hezbollah – the Shia militant group based in Southern Lebanon and supported by Iran. However, Hezbollah may hesitate to engage in a direct confrontation with Israel for two reasons. First, Israel is equipped with the most sophisticated anti-missile capabilities in the region (“Iron Dome” for short range missiles, “David’s Sling” for mid-range missiles, and the “Arrow” system for long range missiles), and Israel’s past confrontations with Hamas in Gaza have shown its ability to neutralize a significant percentage of its enemy’s missile launchers. Second, Israel has warned that in any future conflict with Hezbollah, it will target both Hezbollah and Lebanese institutions (such as infrastructure systems and transportation routes). As such, Hezbollah would need to consider the significant toll a military conflict with Israel would take on Lebanese citizens, and how a conflict could foster local opposition to Hezbollah.

2. Trump Administration Support

Unlike prior American administrations, it is widely believed that the Trump Administration would unequivocally support Israel in any military conflict with Iran. Such support would be even stronger should the Trump Administration’s timeline for revising the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal lapse without any substantive changes. Also, the pending replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with current CIA Director Mike Pompeo will place another strong opponent of the Iran Nuclear Deal in a key decision making role, and likely increase cooperation between Israel and the United States. During his recent trip to Washington D.C., Prime Minister Netanyahu demonstrated that he is keenly aware of this strong American support. As part of his recent address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (“AIPAC”), he stated that “President Trump has made it clear that his administration will not accept Iran’s aggression in the region . . . [and] if the fatal flaws of the nuclear deal are not fixed he will walk away from the deal and restore sanctions. Israel will be right there by American sides and, let me tell you, so will other countries in the region.” However, Prime Minister Netanyahu also knows that this support is contingent on the political survival of the Trump Administration, which is facing significant legal turmoil. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is actively investigating the Trump campaign for possibly colluding with Russian state actors in the 2016 election, and is also investigating whether the Trump Administration obstructed justice in this investigation. Therefore, while Israel currently has a strong ally in the White House, it doesn’t know for how long President Trump will remain in power, and the extent of a future administration’s support.

3. Fraying Russian Alliance with Iran

The western world has long regarded Russia as an Iranian ally in the region. This belief is premised on the countries’ partnership in fighting the Islamic State and their joint efforts to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Recently though, the politics of the region have changed as Islamic State has almost been completely defeated, and the Assad regime has made significant strides against rebel forces and its survival is no longer significantly threatened. Under these circumstances, Iranian deployment in Syria may no longer serve Russia’s interests, and Iran could soon become a Russian rival. Therefore, while Russia may publicly condemn Israel for confronting Iran, in practice, it may see the weakening of Iranian power to be in its own national interest.

4. Minimal Gulf State Opposition

In past years, much has been reported about a thawing of Israeli relations with the Gulf States, most notably with Saudi Arabia. For example, there have been reports about possible intelligence and economic cooperation, offers of normalizing relations, and even public, and possibly secret, meetings. However, the main unifying force between Israel and the Gulf States is a shared fear of a nuclear Iran and the country’s rising influence in the region. Interestingly, a 2015 survey by the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya found that 53 percent of Saudis believe Iran is their main adversary, and only 18 percent felt that Israel was the country’s chief rival. The thawing of relations, evolving public support, and common fear of Iran, could become the basis for the Gulf States to quietly support Israel in a possible confrontation with Iran.

5. Growing Consensus to Act by Israeli Leadership

In the years prior to the Iran Nuclear Deal, Israeli leadership could hardly reach a consensus on how to counter Iranian aggression. Following the Iran Nuclear Deal, and even more so in recent months, rhetoric from Israeli political and military leadership has evolved and created the impression that the country’s leadership is working in greater harmony and consensus regarding Iran. However, similar to the uncertainty surrounding the Trump Administration, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current government may also be short-lived after Israel Police recommended that he be indicted for bribery and breach of trust.

In short, Israel’s elevated response to the Iranian drone incursion may have been a signal of its renewed effort to curb Iranian influence in the region, and if this leads to a broader conflict in the near future, we believe that Israel currently holds significant political advantages over Iran.

Professor Zaki Shalom is a member of the research staff at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Ben-Gurion Research Institute at Ben-Gurion University.

Jonathan Mintzer, an attorney, is a research intern at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv where he primarily researches Israel-United States relations.

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