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In veiled threat to Tehran, defense minister visits IDF’s long-range attack HQ

Following army chief’s announcement of fresh plans to strike Iran, Gantz meets with Depths Corps, which is responsible for operations far from Israel’s borders

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

(L-R) Defense Minister Benny Gantz,  Commander of the United States Central Command General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
(L-R) Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Commander of the United States Central Command General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited the Israel Defense Forces unit tasked with conducting operations far beyond the country’s borders on Sunday, reviewing operational plans, his office said, in an apparent threat to Iran.

Gantz, who created the Depths Corps in 2012 when he was chief of IDF staff, met with the unit’s commander, Maj. Gen. Itai Veruv, and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi.

“During the visit, the defense minister was shown changes that were made to the corps since he decided to create it as chief of staff, the corps’ operational plans, and the readiness of the different units that would carry them out,” Gantz’s office said.

The IDF Depth Corps is a shadowy multidisciplinary unit responsible for military operations beyond Israel’s borders, and its activities are almost always classified. Were the IDF to conduct a strike against Iran, the Depths Corps would likely play the central role in preparing and executing it.

Maj. Gen. Itai Veruv, center, receives his general’s rank from IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, left, and his family on March 10, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The visit came days after Kohavi said in a speech that he had ordered the military to draw up fresh plans for conducting a strike against Iran in order to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The army chief also criticized US President Joe Biden’s intention of returning to the Iran nuclear deal if Tehran resumes compliance with the agreement, saying such a move would be “bad” and “not the right thing to do.”

Gantz initially appeared to rebuke the army chief for his frank remarks, saying that discussions about Israel’s Iran policies should remain behind closed doors, but later walked back the criticism, saying that Kohavi was an excellent chief of staff.

“Gantz thanked the soldiers and commanders of the corps and the units that operate under it for their activities and their preparedness to give a response to a variety of new and challenging operational scenarios that face the State of Israel and the IDF,” his office said Sunday.

In his speech last Tuesday, Kohavi said that due to its improved centrifuges and a growing stockpile of enriched uranium, Iran could be “months, maybe even weeks” from a bomb were it to decide to rush ahead and create a nuclear weapon.

“Iran can decide that it wants to advance to a bomb, either covertly or in a provocative way. In light of this basic analysis, I have ordered the IDF to prepare a number of operational plans, in addition to the existing ones. We are studying these plans and we will develop them over the coming year,” Kohavi said.

He added: “The government will of course be the one to decide if they should be used. But these plans must be on the table, in existence and trained for.”

Israel has twice conducted military strikes against the nuclear programs of its enemies — Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 — under what’s become known as the Begin Doctrine, which maintains that Jerusalem will not allow an enemy country to obtain an atomic weapon.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank’s annual conference on January 26, 2021. (Screen capture: INSS)

In his rare public comment on American foreign policy, Kohavi warned that Biden should not rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement, as the American leader has indicated he plans to do provided Tehran returns to compliance with the deal.

“With the changing of the administration in the United States, the Iranians have said they want to return to the previous agreement. I want to state my position, the position that I express to all my colleagues when I meet them around the world: Returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement or even to an agreement that is similar but with a few improvements is a bad thing and it is not the right thing to do,” Kohavi said.

Earlier this month, Tehran announced it was beginning to enrich uranium up to 20 percent — far beyond the 3.5 percent permitted under the JCPOA and just a small technical step away from the 90 percent needed for a nuclear weapon. Iran also said it was beginning research into uranium metal, a material that technically has civilian uses but is overwhelmingly seen as a step toward a nuclear bomb.

Iran said Tuesday it would also move to restrict short-notice inspections of suspect nuclear facilities from late February.

Biden administration officials have indicated that Israel will be involved in its decision-making process regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

According to a Channel 12 report, the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, is expected to travel to the United States shortly to meet with Biden and lay out Israel’s demands for a future Iran deal, which would relate not only to Tehran’s nuclear program, but also to its missile program and support for proxies throughout the Middle East.

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