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Says Israel ready on all fronts amid tensions from jailbreak

Gantz reveals Iranian drone base, says it is used to train terror groups

In speech at counterterrorism conference, defense minister calls for immediate ‘snapback’ sanctions on Tehran over uranium enrichment

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

A satellite photograph of an alleged Iranian base that Defense Minister Benny Gantz says is used to train Iranian proxies to operate advanced drones on September 12, 2021. (Defense Ministry)
A satellite photograph of an alleged Iranian base that Defense Minister Benny Gantz says is used to train Iranian proxies to operate advanced drones on September 12, 2021. (Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Sunday revealed the location of an Iranian air base that he said is being used to train Tehran’s regional proxies to operate advanced drones.

“Iran has created ‘proxy terrorism,’ under which it formed organized terror armies that help it achieve its economic, diplomatic and military goals,” Gantz said. “One of the significant tools that Iran has developed to assist its proxies is an array of unmanned aerial vehicles that can travel thousands of kilometers, and thousands of them are spread throughout Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

“Iran is trying to transfer knowhow to the Gaza Strip that will allow Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to produce UAVs,” he added, speaking at a counterterrorism conference at the newly renamed Reichman University — formerly the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Such Iranian made drones have been used by Tehran directly and by its proxies in the region extensively in recent years, most recently in an attack on US troops in Iraq’s Erbil airport on Saturday night. Last month, Gantz told foreign diplomats that Iran launched so-called kamikaze drones at the Israeli-owned Mercer Street cargo ship in July, killing two crewmembers. The Iran-backed Houthi militia has also used drones extensively in attacks on neighboring Saudi Arabia.

According to Gantz, the UAV base is located north of the city of Isfahan in central Iran and serves as “a linchpin of the Iranian effort to export aerial terror to the region.”

Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Gantz noted that the proliferation of advanced, explosive drones have made such operations far easier for terror groups, without the need to physically hijack a plane. “You can have the same effect of a direct strike on relevant assets in different and no less deadly ways,” he said.

The defense minister said the nature of terrorism has changed in the past 20 years, from small organizations to “terror armies” taking advantage of countries with limited governance, like Lebanon and Afghanistan.

“In the near future, weak and deteriorating nations will continue to serve as locations for the presence and operation of terror armies. Therefore, the anchors for counterterrorism will continue to be the development of intelligence superiority and offensive capabilities, targeted killings of key figures, and developing and strengthening systems that combine air defenses with territorial defenses,” he said.

‘Snapback’ sanctions on Iran

The defense minister also called for immediate “snapback” sanctions on Iran following an International Atomic Energy Agency report last week, which found that Tehran has quadrupled its stock of 60 percent enriched uranium since May.

“Iran does not respect the agreements it has signed, and there’s no reason to believe it will respect any agreements it will sign in the future. The time has come for action,” he said, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal, which barred Tehran from enriching uranium beyond 3.5%.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at a counterterrorism conference at Reichman University in Herzliya on September 12, 2021. (Ronen Topelberg)

A year after the United States abrogated the agreement in 2018, putting in place heavy economic sanctions, Iran began violating its terms repeatedly in an apparent effort to raise pressure on the other signatories of the deal.

Since US President Joe Biden entered office earlier this year, the Americans and Iranians have been engaged in indirect negotiations in Vienna toward a mutual return to the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Those talks have stalled in recent months, leading US officials to warn that the agreement may soon be abandoned entirely in favor of a more aggressive effort to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“I call on all of the countries that are still party to the nuclear agreement to put in place the permanent sanctions that are in the deal. This is the time for a ‘snapback,'” Gantz said, referring to economic penalties that the other signatories to the deal — China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom — are allowed to put in place in cases of clear violations of the agreement.

Referring to Beijing and Moscow’s opposition to such measures, Gantz added: “It is time that all world powers, including Russia and China, join the fight to preserve global stability.”

The defense minister has repeatedly warned that if Iran were to obtain an atomic weapon, it would spark a regional and potentially an international nuclear arms race.

“It will have a negative effect on the region, a negative effect on the world. We cannot allow it to happen,” Gantz said.

The manhunt continues

In his speech, the defense minister also discussed the ongoing effort to locate two of the six Palestinian fugitives who escaped Gilboa Prison last week in one of the worst jailbreaks in the country’s history. The other four were captured over the weekend in northern Israel.

“I want to use this stage to praise the forces in the field that are taking part in the manhunt, that are working around the clock and bringing results. We will continue to search for the two remaining terrorists using all of our tools and all of our forces, and I believe they will be caught,” he said.

At least one of the fugitives is believed to have crossed into the northern West Bank, while the second “could be on either side of the Green Line,” Public Security Minister Omer Barlev told Channel 12 on Saturday, referring to the unofficial border between Israel and the West Bank.

The escape has raised tensions in the West Bank, where Palestinians have demonstrated, sometimes violently, in solidarity with the fugitives, and in the Gaza Strip, which has also seen a breakdown of the ceasefire agreements between Israel and the ruling Hamas terror group in recent days.

“We are prepared on all fronts. Israel has no intention of harming Palestinian residents of Judea and Samaria or of the Gaza Strip, and we are making advances toward developing stability and the economy,” Gantz said, using the Israeli term for the West Bank.

“But if terrorist organizations try to take advantage of this situation, and to operate at the expense of the Palestinian majority that wants a trend of economic development and stability, they will be the first to pay the price,” he said.

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